Kazan: Tartarstan and the Teenagers


Republic of Tartarstan

Russian Federation

September 24, 2011

Dear Friends,

Kazan is the capital of the region called the Republic of Tartarstan, the area once controlled by the Tartar tribes.

Naturally, I thought of steak tartare, and the French sauce for this dish of raw, minced beef – sauce tartare.

Legend has it that the French named this dish for the Tartar hordes that never stopped to eat; they ate raw meat as they rode on horseback to their next conquest.   A corollary of this legend is that the Tartars put the meat under their saddles to soften it up!  The original Tartar Confederation goes back to the Fifth Century.


In Red Square in Moscow, Saint Basil’s Cathedral (1561) was built by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate his capture of Kazan and the defeat of the Tartars.

Tartars have lived and still live in places as diverse as Poland and Lithuania, Bulgaria, Russia, the Caucuses, Central Asia including all the ‘Stans and Mongolia, Japan, Australia and China.  Today Tartars live in Israel.  And Brooklyn, where they have their own mosque.

I looked at a map and found the Strait of Tartar that separates the Russian Far East from Sakhalin Island in the North Pacific.

The most colorful references to Tartary are literary:

In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver travels to Tartary, a land somewhere in the Pacific Ocean between Japan and California.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein pursues the monster "amidst the wilds of Tartary and Russia.”

In Puccini’s last opera, Turandot, Calaf's father Timur is the deposed King of the Tartars.

And my favorite:

In Macbeth by William Shakespeare, the witches include Tartars' lips in their potion.

(In my research, I did not find any Tartars living in Scotland; the witches must have had their own private source.)

The majority of Russian Tartars live here in Kazan.  In fact, the inscriptions on all the municipal buildings are written both in Russian and Tartar script.  The Tartarstan flag flies alongside the Russian flag.  The Tartars retain their Muslim heritage and I found several mosques in the Tartar neighborhood.

Amidst government buildings and churches, the enormous blue and white Qolşärif  (Kol Sharif) Mosque (2005) dominates the Kazan Kremlin.  It is the largest mosque in Europe.

I wanted to repair one of my cameras so I strolled from one end of the pedestrian promenade to the other.  At the far end I asked around for directions.  Not much luck until I encountered two (barely) teenage girls.  They told me the repair shop was far away.  Eldora and Irina spoke good English and insisted on tagging along with me to show me the sights.

First we took a long walk to the central plaza with the ever-present statue of Vladimir Ilyich.   He is surrounded by government buildings and a theatre.  Nearby is an assortment of expensive-looking apartment buildings with clever architecture.   I am sure the occupants can afford some luxury since there’s an aviation industry here and an abundance of oil, natural gas and assorted minerals in the hills of Tartarstan. 

At that point I myself ran “out of gas” so I took the giggly girls for pizza.

After pizza, we wandered to the Kazanka River to see the new Convention Centre.  The Kazanka River flows into the Volga at the western edge of the city. 

My animated friends wanted to take me for a visit to their school.  It was a long walk and we never made it there.  We did stop at a park and then at a church where the girls were properly pious.  Then a further walk to a shopping mall.  The girls called me a cab.  We said our goodbyes. 

What a cheerful, youthful, energetic encounter!  What a delightful afternoon.  Don’t ask me how I do it.  Don’t ask me how this happens to me.  It just does. 

Another brief yet memorable encounter in Kazan: There’s no need to negotiate an outrageous taxi fee.  The taxi has a meter! The taxi driver is curious and friendly.  And when we arrived at my hotel and I offered him a tip in addition to the reasonable fare on the meter, the driver absolutely refused to accept it!  (Am I still in Russia?)

Here’s the best:  Hotel Giuseppe.  Have I landed in a palazzo in Venice?  Lots of marble and tile, elegant furnishings, built-in wooden closets, comfortable bed, large bathtub with Jacuzzi. Terry bathrobe and slippers. Oh what a relief it is!

The Hotel Giuseppe buffet breakfast?  Could easily feed a battalion of the Tartary hordes.

With sore knees and a bloated belly,

“Grandpa” Jan


PS  Before I traveled to Russia, I learned that there is a Jewish Community Center (Chabad) in every city that I planned to visit.  I thought I would make a special effort to see them all.  Lazy? Not committed?  In this project I failed, utterly and completely.  Until Kazan. 

Late one afternoon I took an alternate route back to my hotel, and just by chance out on the street I spotted a huge menorah (candelabra) with all the bulbs burning.  I went into the Hesed Moshe Synagogue and met an elderly bearded man and two friendly young Israelis. 

On the bookshelves in the spacious and bright sanctuary I found the Russian transliteration on the spines of individual volumes of the Five Books of Moses of the Hebrew Bible (TOPA):


Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy


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