It’s frustrating, but true: when someone says they’re going to X country, you have to ask them for the specifics. Even if there’s no hope that you’ll have heard of their destination unless it’s the capital (and maybe not even then). Where Russia’s concerned, everyone’s on the same page: we all know of St. Petersburg and Moscow, and we all think that Siberia is either the northern half or the eastern half of Russia (note: neither of those things is actually true. But I digress). Other than that, general knowledge about Russia is, well, not so generally known. And that’s fine.

When Cherepovets comes up, I tell people where it is relative to St. Petersburg and Moscow, and then mention that most Russians have never heard of it. 100% of face is saved. With Kazan, it’s a little tricker. Sure, there’s absolutely no reason that we Americans (and Europeans, and…everyone who isn’t in Russia or Central Asia) would have heard of it. On the other hand, there are only two (equally bad) ways that the conversation can continue. Either I alienate them completely (“It’s the capital of Tatarstan, an autonomous republic that’s home to the Tatars, a Turkic (not Turkish) culture that was incorporated by the Golden Horde–that’s Ghengis Khan’s posse–and is now the seat of Islam in Russia”) or I give them a lame description that gives them nothing to hold onto (“It’s in the south of Russia. The middle south. On the Volga, which you’ve possibly heard of.”) Since I wish neither to insult your (probably formidable) intelligence nor to alienate you, allow me to introduce my friend Kazan.

Map of Russia with Tatarstan

Located at the confluence (that’s a word that you use a lot more when you’re dating an environmental scientist) of the Kazanka and Volga rivers, Kazan’ is a city of 1.3 million people, making it the 8th largest in Russia. By train, the trip to Moscow takes about 13 hours. meaning that Kazan is about equidistant between Moscow and the border with Kazakhstan.

Kazan Kremlin 2

Kazan night

Those beautiful views show Kazan’s most famous attraction, the white kremlin (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Fun fact: the Moscow Kremlin was also originally white and survived several attempted sieges by the (ruh-roh) Tatars before someone finally decided that maybe brick fortification was a smart idea. The domed building is the Kul-Sharif mosque (spelled Qolşärif by people who love making their own lives harder), named for–you guessed it–Kul Sharif, an imam and poet who served there until he was executed by Ivan the Terrible.

Oh yeah, Ivan the Terrible. That guy got around. Terrible though he may have been, he doesn’t appear to be particularly hated among Russians, probably for two reasons:

(1) He lived 500 years ago, so who really cares?

(2) He conquered Kazan, which had been the capital of the Kazan Khanate and had made a convenient base camp for the Tatars/Mongols to repeatedly attack Moscow and kidnap Russians to sell into slavery in Turkey. But after Ivan’s dwarf uncle and the former adviser to the queen of a different nomadic tribe used their wit to slip away from slave traders, the bourgeoisie revolted, and…oh wait, that’s Game of Thrones, not Russian history. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

This much happened in Russia for sure: In 1552, the Kazan Khanate fell to Ivan the Terrible, who went back to Moscow and had St. Basil’s Cathedral built to commemorate his victory.

That’s not Kazan’s only claim to fame in the world of my least favorite history, namely, military history. You may have seen this icon before:


The icon was found in Kazan and is said to have saved St. Petersburg from three major sieges: by the Poles (1612), the Swedes (1709), and Napoleon (1812). You’re supposed to pray to it when you have an adversary to overcome. The original (if that’s even an appropriate term to use in reference to an icon) is kept at a monastery in Kazan, but there is a copy at the Kazan cathedral in Peter, which, if you came to visit, you probably remember:

kazan cathedral

Apart from its historic and religious significance, here are some other cool things to know about Kazan:

  1. Lenin’s father graduated from the same university where I’ll be studying, Kazan Federal University on the Volga. Lenin himself studied there, but was expelled for–surprise surprise–political activities. A statue of Lenin, jacket cavalierly slung over his shoulder, faces the university today as if to say, “You’ll be sorry, suckers!”
  2. Speaking of the university and regret, it also rejected the young Maksim Gorky, who moved to Kazan specifically to study there. After failing to get in, he stayed and worked as a baker before eventually deciding to become a brilliant writer.
  3. Lev Tolstoy also studied there, but, like Lenin, he found that university life was not for him, and he dropped out, skipped the whole baker thing, and became a brilliant writer.
  4. Kazan has made a goal of hosting international sporting events. It began with the Universiades (university-level Olympics) in 2013, to which I owe the dorm I’ll be living in. This year, they hosted the world championships in swimming, and they’re one of the host cities for the World Cup in Russia in 2018.
  5. Tatarstan has an approximately equal number of Tatars and Russians, and is officially bilingual (Tatar and Russian).
  6. Tatarstan has its own president and, though subject to Russian law, runs a very different operation from what you would expect from a Russian territory. In fact, at the beginning of the Balkan wars, the then-president of Tatarstan hinted that if Russia supported Belgrade, Tatarstan would send its own troops to oppose them in Kosovo.
  7. This is the Tatar dessert chakchak, a sort of funnel cake that’s been chopped up and glued back together with honey:


    Ohhhhh yeahhhhh.

  8. Kazan’s metro, which I will have to take daily cleaarrrrrr across town to the university, makes even Atlanta look good: so far it consists of a single line.
  9. The main street is called Bowman Street.
  10. The word kazan is Tatar for “cauldron.” Whether that refers to the brutal heat in summer (37 degrees, y’all), the great mix of cultures that get along there, or something else entirely, I couldn’t say. According to Wikipedia, it may be because its position on a hill makes it look like an overturned cauldron.

Here, have some Tatar songs that are two completely different kinds of cheesy!

“Along the river”

I don’t even know