Minarets and Onion Domes: The Book

I’m delighted to announce that my book Minarets and Onion Domes: The Tatars and Russians of Kazan is now available for sale! Inside you’ll find 76 pages with 53 full-color images printed and bound on premium luster paper.

I first came to Kazan in the summer of 2011 to begin photographing life in the city heralded for religious tolerance amongst its half Muslim, half Orthodox Christian population. In the beginning, I went searching for fleeting moments when representatives of different faiths came together to physically create this “tolerant city.” I realized, however, there is no magic moment and that the truth of the situation is much more subtle and profound. Regardless of governments and religious institutions, it is the people who everyday choose cooperation over conflict. One needs to look no further than Russia’s own boundaries to understand the significance of this endeavor, but the majority of people in Kazan don’t give too much thought to their unique situation. When asked, the response is almost always the same- it’s just the way it’s always been.

Minarets and Onion Domes offers not only an alternative view of Muslims and Christians, but also an alternative view of life in modern-day Russia.

Help me spread the word!

Tales from the City

For the past couple of weeks, I decided to take a step back and spend my time looking at the bigger picture of life in the city. If Russia, by its sheer size and geographical location, is said to bridge East and West (although I have heard this noble title used to describe various places around the world), then there would be no greater place to see this bridging than in Kazan. It seems to me however, that Russia won’t give up that easily to either the East or the West, but will remain, at least for now, somewhere defiantly in between.

European-style cafes are starting to slowly sprout up around the city, although despite there being a large pedestrian walkway through the heart of the city center, the culture of lounging in cafes, sipping coffee on the patio has yet to really take hold. It goes without saying that there are numerous McDonald’s around town but many are surprised to hear that there is an IKEA, two H&Ms and…dare I even mention it..even a Coyote Ugly (if you’re not familiar with this establishment, feel free to Google, but I assure you it won’t be pretty). There is a yearning among the youth to bring modern art and international rock concerts to Kazan, and when they do occur the events are met with great passion and excitement. In the warmer months, concerts of local rock groups are held in the Kremlin, sometimes setting up stage on the steps of the Museum of Islam, with the minarets of the Qul Sharif Mosque towering overhead.

As reluctant allies to the West, the government, particularly the Tatarstan government is looking more to the East, especially when it comes to financial matters. Kazan recently hosted a financial summit, inviting guests from Kuwait, UAE and other parts of the Muslim world. There is even talk about setting up Kazan as a center for Muslim banking, a separate banking system with its own laws and regulations. Tatar art often draws inspiration form the East and the various murals that decorate subway stations, Tatar cafes and other sights around town reflect this influence.

Kazan in every way attempts to be balanced in its representation of both the Russian and the Tatar traditions. If a mosque is being built in town, you can bet that a church will follow shortly after. There are numerous theaters in the city where you can see both Russian and Tatar plays, operas, ballets and classical music concerts. All street signs are written in both Tatar and Russian and the streets themselves are named after both Russian and Tatar national heroes. For example, I live on Pushkin Street which runs through Tukai Square, a Tatar national poet; Pushkin Street also runs past Lenin’s Garden, Karl Marx Street and ends at Freedom Square…remnants of the Soviet Era are also alive and well.

Everyday it seems I step out my door and something has changed, physically, in Kazan. Construction sites are everywhere and the traffic rivals mid-town New York at 5pm on a rainy day. All over the city, but particularly in the city’s historical center, old buildings are (sic: regrettably) being torn down and replaced by new ones. Somewhat incongruously, the Tatarstan government is pushing to make Kazan the sports capital of Russia, hosting the 2013 Universiade and the 2017 World Cup, for which a new stadium is being built.

Tales from Tatarstan

I took a trip last week to the Tatar village Aktanish. It’s located about 400 kilometers from Kazan, any further east and you’d be in the neighboring republic of Bashkortostan. Aktanish the village, you could liken it to a small midwestern town, is the ‘capital’ of the Aktanish region which consists of small clusters of villages spread over the countryside.

The first day we went to the birthday party of a woman turning 80. The festivities began at 10 in the morning and lasted well into the evening. We arrived a bit late and were quickly shuttled into the main room of the house where we were fed a bounty of dishes: carrot salad with mayonnaise, beet salad with mayonnaise, fish salad with mayonnaise, and meat and potato pie, to name a few. I learned early on that the key to surviving a Russian feast is to never take anything for yourself and eat very, very slowly. The first feast I attended, I made the mistake of piling my plate with the 14 various salads on the table, only to learn that this was the first course of four and that a plate cannot remain empty for more than about 15 seconds before someone notices that you’re not eating, plops something in front of you and utters the command “Eat. Eat.”

We finished eating and I thought perhaps that this was the end of the celebration since we had arrived an hour late, but I was greatly mistaken. The party moved outside to picnic bench near the road that leads to and from this very tiny village. In earlier times, this Tatar village had about 40 houses, a small one-room school and corner store. Now there are but 20 houses, the schoolhouse is a ruin of wood and building materials and the corner store is closed. As the elderly villagers pass away one-by-one, the village gets smaller and smaller. Russia is changing. Village life is disappearing. During Soviet times, it was in these very villages where ancestral customs, religion, and language were kept alive. Now people are free to move, free to practice their religion and speak their mother tongue. The young people move to the city and only visit when a certain occasion calls them back. I try not to label this as either “good” or “bad” but just accept it as fact. Perhaps it is from my own romantic views of Russian villages with the ornately decorated wooden houses, multicolored picket fences and miles of green pasture (I will NOT mention the babushkas!), but I feel a certain sadness about this. I guess it’s another reminder of just how fast and how extensively our world is changing.

Back to the party…where the feasting continues. Millet porridge, shashlik-vinegar marinated chicken grilled over an open flame, Tatar blini- similar to pancakes, more salads, fruit, chocolates and a welcomed gift at any Tatar feast..Chak-Chak. It’s difficult to describe chak-chak, so here you can read about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Çäkçäk. Accordion playing, singing, dancing, arm wrestling, eating and drinking, a proper feast was enjoyed by all. I would be remiss to not mention that vodka and wine are a part of every feast and toasting is not only customary, it’s obligatory. Each person stands, drink in hand and speaks at length about the person or persons for whom the feast is held. Do not let the age of the guest of honor fool you; she was able to keep up with just about everyone, even strutting her stuff to Russian techno that blasted from a car’s stereo speakers. She was probably one of the most joyful people I have ever encountered. After a number of hours, the weather turned and we moved back inside where were were treated to homemade pilmeni- meat filled dumplings in soup topped with dill and sour cream. And accordion playing, singing and dancing commenced inside. Hours later, leftover chak-chak in hand, we plopped ourselves into the car, bellies distended.

The next day was the May 1st celebration. May 1st is not only International Worker’s Day, but in Tatarstan, they also celebrate their own version of May Day, commencing the beginning of spring. There are various games and antics involving eggs, many of which are brightly colored and ornately decorated like Easter eggs. May Day is celebrated in various parts of the world and has it’s roots in pre-Christian pagan celebrations. I made several attempts to find out where the Tatar tradition of May 1st came from, but nobody seemed to know how or why.

P.S. This post was featured in the June edition of Nazar Look!

Tales of Orthodoxy

With the Easter season, I found myself photographing many Orthodox Christian services. Parishioners stand for the entire service which lasts anywhere from 1.5-4 hours depending on the occasion. At various intervals they cross themselves with a large, swooping cross from the top of the head to the navel then to each shoulder and then bow their heads. Sometimes the crossing happens once, other times in sets of three, like a solemn choreographed ballet. The priests follow their own choreography in rituals handed down to them from the Byzantine Empire. It feels as if each individual is there alone in the church with only God to bear witness. They celebrate together but each alone in their devotion. The solemnity here is in very stark contrast to most churches in the US, particularly southern baptist or evangelical. It would be almost impossible to imagine Russian Orthodox singing, clapping or sitting for that matter. That’s not at all to say that Russians, even devout Christians, don’t enjoy song, dance and revelry; they do for sure. I realized last week how this branch of Christianity suits the Russian temperament perfectly. On the whole, Russians are more stoic, more reserved people. You can argue that it’s because of the climate or a side-effect of Communism or a host of other variables, but it doesn’t so much matter why. The key is to get past that stern outer layer (often not a difficult task), and there you will find a people that are open, warm and willing to give you everything they have.

Just the other day I was photographing in a church, actually it was in the only church in town for baptized Tatars..most people from Kazan don’t even know that such a thing exists. Anyway, it was my first time in this church and there weren’t many parishioners that day, maybe 10-15. So as a young woman with a large camera, it was difficult to “blend.” Their expressions ranged from blank to stern to one could say downright consternating, but as soon as the prayer service ended, their faces lit up and they started pointing to things that they thought I should photograph.

The second Tuesday after Easter (9 days later), Russian Orthodox celebrate a day to honor the dead. On this day every year, they visit the graves of their ancestors and loved ones, clear off any debris that accumulated over the long winter, perhaps add a fresh coat of paint to grave markers and leave neon-colored flowers, Easter eggs and various snacks and candies. In this way, they are celebrating the bounty of Easter with those who have passed. I spent a couple of hours wandering through the maze-like cemetery in the center of the city taking in all the sights and sounds. It was very quiet, peaceful, sorrowful but also sometimes joyous celebration. Many Russian graves have a wooden benches next to the headstone where people can sit and reflect, but on this day, many bring food and drink and spend time at the grave as a way to ‘be’ with their loved ones. Off in the distance you could hear the sounds of a small band, comprised mostly of wood and wind instruments, playing tunes that wavered between lamenting and marching band. Although the cemetery was predominantly Orthodox, I did find several Jewish and Tatar graves that also looked as though they had been recently visited.

Diving In

For the title of this update, I was scouring my brian for all water-related phrases, as only these could aptly describe my experiences this past week. Russia has begun the great thaw and with temperatures in the 50s (10 C?), this thaw is occurring at an awfully fast pace. Everywhere you look there is water. It flows down streets like rivers, utterly soaking my shoes, socks and feet. Pedestrians walk the obstacle course that are the sidewalks, skillfully sidestepping the vast oceans… also known as puddles.. and occasionally having to jump out of the way before being completely drenched by a passing car. Water is also streaming down the walls of my living room and drips from multiple places in my 100-year-old ceiling. At one point my roommate donned a camouflage rain jacket, flipped the hood over his head and engaged in acts of heroism as he emptied and rearranged the buckets dispersed on the floor. Three days later, things are starting to calm down.

When I wrote last week’s update, I hadn’t yet remembered that Orthodox Christianity follows the Julian calendar, so instead of photographing Easter last Sunday, I photographed Palm Sunday (Easter will occur this Sunday). Part of the ceremony of Palm Sunday involves parishioners having their palm fronds (or in this case, pussywillows) blessed with holy water. Hoards of people crowded the altar as the priest doused them with water using an implement resembling a cat-o-nine tails. I was photographing from a position between the priest and some of the parishioners and was therefore also blessed by this water. The crowd loved every second of it and with every spray of water they became increasingly animated.

In non-water related news, I also photographed a competition of student and professional designers of Muslim clothing. It was a fantastic event and brought back memories of making a short film about the Miss Austin and Miss Austin Teen Pageant. The majority, if not all, of the models were Russian so it was really a great mix of people.

I have been receiving emails about my update from last week, with comments particularly about babushkas. This got me thinking more about babushkas (a general pastime of mine) and why there are so many of them. Yes, Russia has a shorter life expectancy than most countries in the West and you could believe the stereotype that Russia’s people, particularly her men, meet an early death due to alcohol and smoking, but really, what I am actually seeing is the lasting effects of WWII. Russia lost almost an entire generation of men in that war (here it’s known as the Great Patriotic War); a million soldiers died in the battle of Stalingrad- in just one battle! On May 9th, Russia celebrates Victory Day, the day they defeated the Germans in 1945. It’s a very big event in Russia and I’m glad to be here to photograph it.

I’m gearing up for a very big weekend. The archbishop of Tatarstan will take part in Saturday’s midnight service and Tatarstan’s president will attend Sunday’s services. Should be exciting!

Hello Kazan…Again!

I arrived in Kazan on March 28th to the most picturesque scene straight out of a Russian fairytale. The evening sun was pushing itself through a layer of thick grey clouds, casting a stunning glow of pinks and oranges over the forests, pastures and dachas still engulfed in snow. But instead of a white horse-drawn carriage, I was met by two friends in a tiny red Lada hatchback. We crammed my bags into the trunk area and proceeded towards town. Once on the highway, I leaned back in my seat which then pressed on my bag which then pressed on the latch to the trunk which then opened. The car kept speeding on while I quickly turned around and somehow managed to grab my bag before my things emptied onto the highway. We pulled over, rearranged and carried on…until the car broke down. For half an hour we sat by the side of the road, my friends laughing and chain-smoking cigarettes, as that’s what you do when things break down. As the non-smoker, I was in charge of thinking positive thoughts that would then get the car moving again. And indeed, it did. About 40 minutes later, I arrived safely at my apartment in the city center.

Kazan already feels like a second home and everyone is welcoming me back like family. The past few days I have connecting with friends and acquaintances, finding out all that I’ve missed since I’ve been gone. Just the other day a friend asked me to name a few specific things- sights, sounds, smells- that really give me that feeling of being in Russia. I thought for a moment and came up with a small list: the sound of my neighbors quarreling in Russian, the smell of dill, the experience of riding local transport (to which my friend heartily laughed as it is a subject I wrote about on my blog last year which everyone found quite amusing), and last, but most certainly not least, babushkas. Babushka is the Russian word for grandmother but it is also an affectionate word for elderly women. Now, everywhere in the world there are elderly women, but really only in Russia are there babushkas. It is difficult to list the qualities that differentiate babushkas from all other elderly women. There are the physical aspects- the stalky body, the round face, the floral headscarf tied under the chin, but then there are the more intangible qualities, a very specific Russian-ness that any Russophile would adore. There is something solid and immovable about them, like no matter which direction this country moves in, there has always been and will always be the Russian babushka.

Alas, Easter is this weekend and I’m off to make arrangements to photograph the celebration. It seems a very suiting way to begin.

L’viv and Odessa – Л’вовь и Одесса

After receiving the final document needed for my Russian visa application, I went to the embassy in Kiev. I was so nervous that they were going to turn me down my hands shook as I handed over my papers (there’s technically a law that says that you can only apply for a Russian visa in the country where you live). The sharply dressed man looked everything over and said ok, it’ll be ready in two weeks. Wow, not a single question! I paid the fee and left. For the next two weeks I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that something was going to go wrong when I returned to retrieve my passport. Two more weeks in Ukraine. Off to L’viv I go.

In the months leading up to my interview for the Fulbright (all candidates for the Fulbright to Russia must be interviewed in Russian) I worked with a tutor, Nelia, in New York. She was from Ukraine but had been living in New York for many years. We did our lessons over Skype so although we saw each other three times a week for a few months, we never actually met in person. Coincidentally, she was visiting Ukraine at the same time. I took the train to L’viv where she picked me up and drove me to Sambir, about an hour from the city. It was really amazing to finally meet her in person, and in Ukraine of all places! She took me around Sambir and out to the village where her parents live. We went to the border with Poland and walked as far as we could- my passport was still at the Russian embassy so I couldn’t cross. One day we went into L’viv and walked around. I absolutely love this city! While Kiev feels like a “little Moscow,” L’viv feels like an old Austro-Hungarian city. The architecture is stunning. And the food…so delicious! Finally a REAL cup of coffee, too.

As I had suspected, western Ukraine differs greatly from the east. While most people understand Russian, many can’t speak it at all, or at least don’t want to. After the fall of the Soviet Union, western Ukraine went through a rapid de-Sovietization; street names were changed and monuments removed. Sure, Leningrad was changed back to St. Petersburg and Stalingrad to Volgograd, but in Russia streets are still named after Soviet heroes and every town still has its Lenin monument (Stalin passed a law that every city and town in the Soviet Union no matter the size had to have at least one statue of Lenin). In L’viv, the Soviet Union feels like a very distant memory.

After five days in Sambir, I spent one night in a hostel in L’viv and then took an overnight train to Odessa. I was so excited to see the Black Sea again after so many years. When I was backpacking through Russia in 1999, I spent one magical week in Sochi, a Black Sea resort town. Someday I will visit all the countries that line this amazing body of water. Unfortunately, in my last few days in L’viv I was coming down with a cold and by the time I got to Odessa I was quite ill. I managed to see what I could in the three days, but it wasn’t much (hence, the dearth of images). Odessa is a beautiful seaside city, albeit slightly tacky due to the large number of tourists that flock to the warm sea air.

I then hoped an overnight train to Kiev, picked up my passport with my shiny new visa, slept one night at the hostel and then got on a plane back to Kazan. I was in Ukraine for almost one month. It’s not a lot of time in terms of visiting a country, but it was a long time to be away from my work in Kazan. In some respects being back in Kazan has felt like a homecoming, seeing friends and walking around the city, but it also feels a bit like I’m starting over. I’m excited to start working again, but a bit daunted as I write this. I’m certain once I start it’ll feel like I never left.

Kiev – Киев

Yes, it’s been a while. My last few weeks in Kazan were fantastic. I felt as though I finally learned how to avoid running around in circles trying to get the permissions I needed to photograph. I became more adept at speaking with the right person at the right time and all in Russian to boot. All the hard work I put in during June and July really started paying off. Then there was Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Republic Day, two baptisms, and celebration of The Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. So much to shoot!

I have thoughts and photos to share but for now I’m going to share a little of Kiev where I have been for almost two weeks (oh yeah, in the midst of all that shooting I also had to vacate my apartment and plan for my trip to Ukraine). I came to Kiev to apply for another Russian visa. Here I’ve done a mixture of work and sightseeing. I’ve drafted my newest proposal for the Fulbright, edited images from Kazan and searched for ancestral roots (both sides of my family emigrated from what was Imperial Russia but what is now Ukraine). My time in Kiev has been a welcomed break from the grind of working on my project in Kazan. I’m enjoying being a tourist! And with that comes taking touristy photos! I went to the Central Synagogue and spoke with some members of the Kiev Jewish community. I saw a very classical ballet that read like a Ukrainian folk tale. Although I largely took a break from religious institutions, I did visit St. Sophia’s Cathedral. Built in the 11th century, it is the oldest church in Ukraine and the former center of Christianity in Kievian Rus. The church has undergone major restorations and many of the frescoes and mosaics that line the walls are original. Perhaps one of my favorite spots in the city was Hydropark, where I photographed an outdoor gym with machines made from old truck parts. It was quite the sight to see as Speedo-clad, muscle-laden Kievians pumping iron near the bank of the Dnipro River.

Kreschatik is Kiev’s main street. It’s comprised of enormous Soviet buildings with European storefronts. A section of the street has been taken over by two political encampments- one with supporters of Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed former Prime Minister, and the other with supporters of the current regime. And the two camps have been locked in a competition of who can make the most noise. I was able to photograph freely in Tymoshenko’s camp but as soon as I pulled out my camera in front of the government’s camp, I was immediately questioned. Various protests break out along Kreschatik, most of which are quickly dispersed by the police.

That is one small part of Kiev; life rolls on while political forces battle it out. Kiev feels decidedly Soviet and decidedly European at the same time. Tomorrow I am off to L’viv, a city in western Ukraine. Further from Russia, western Ukraine has more firmly held on to the Ukrainian language and perhaps sentiments as well.

The Synagogue – Синагога

I visited the synagogue today. While the first 13 years of my life were filled with visits to Temple Beth Am, a reform synagogue in Framingham, Mass., I have never visited an Orthodox synagogue. I was hoping to recognize some of the prayers I knew in my youth but I couldn’t quite follow along. Although I have no idea if my Russian ancestors practiced Orthodoxy, it was fascinating to see and hear what it may have been like for them.

Summer is a sleepy time in Kazan and there was only a small gathering at the synagogue this morning. I am very much looking forward to returning in late September and seeing Kazan in a more active state. I have laid important groundwork this summer and I find myself even more dedicated to and passionate about this project.