Kazan is a melting pot of culture, religion and history. Over 1000 years old, Kazan has survived sieges and occupations over the ages, notably by Genghis Khan and Ivan the Terrible. Today it is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan.
Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, only two areas of the newly formed Russian Federation refused to sign up to the constitution: Chechnya and Tatarstan. Both regions declared independence after referendums in 1992. Whilst Chechnya’s trials led down the road to war, Tatarstan’s leaders pursued a more conciliatory tone with Moscow and was subsequently granted considerable autonomy for the region within the Russian federal structure.
The Tatar Republic gained its own legal and fiscal system, and Tatar became an official language of the region alongside Russian. The oil-rich region also managed to maintain control over its budget. Seeing Tatarstan’s success, other regions followed suit but were quickly brought to heel by Vladimir Putin’s centralising instincts.
By 2017, Tatarstan was the last remaining region with a vestige of autonomy. That was until last July, when Moscow revoked its unique status, allowing the power-sharing agreement between the Tatar government and the Russian Federal Government to expire.
The powerless Tatars could only look on in mutinous resentment – their republic is now just another Russian region. Despite the Tartar ethnic group being the majority, and growing, population (53% at the last census), Russian language has quickly begun to reassert its dominance in schools.
The regional economy has also been substantially weakened by the collapse of Tatfondbank following a corruption scandal that implicates a large swathe of the political class. All may appear well on the surface in Kazan, but a certain amount of tension is bubbling just beneath.
Onto the nice things…
The fortified Kremlin overlooks the River Volga, and houses the blue minarets and domes of the Kul Sharif Mosque and the Orthodox Cathedral. They stand side by side in a visual symbol of religious harmony. Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Tatars and Slavs all call Kazan their home.
In the shadow of the fortress, a wide promenade, the Kremlyovskaya embankment, runs along the the banks of the river. Restaurants, cafes, street stalls and outdoor gyms make this a place of constant activity and will attract large numbers of visiting supporters during the World Cup.
It is a similar story in the centre of town, a short walk from the river, where the pedestrianised Ulitsa Baumana (Bauman Street) cuts through the city. Street entertainers and buskers perform alongside the bars and souvenir shops, giving this area a real party feel.
This will not be the first major international sporting event to take place in Kazan; the World University Games in 2013 saw lavish expenditure on stadiums including a Tennis Academy, Wrestling centre and a Water Sports Palace.
Most grand of all however, was the 45,000 seater Kazan Arena. The stadium stands on the other side of the Volga, a short drive from the centre of town. Already used successfully during the Confederations Cup 2017, the Kazan Arena is the home stadium of Rubin Kazan, Russian champions in 2008 and 2009.
Rubin will be known to many fans after they produced one of the greatest performances by a Russian team in the modern era to defeat reigning European Champions FC Barcelona 2-1 in Camp Nou in October 2009.
A little way down the river, visitors will notice an enormous cauldron-shaped structure, surrounded by sculptures of fire-breathing dragons. This is, in fact, the Kazan Family Centre (Kazan means Cauldron in Tatar), a wedding palace capable of hosting one hundred ceremonies simultaneously.
Atop of the Kazan Family Centre is a viewpoint which offers a panorama of the city and river. The 20,000 capacity fan zone will be situated in its shadow.
Kazan is only a short flight from Moscow, and close to several of the other cities in the central cluster. A rather irregular train whisks visitors from the airport to the city centre in just twenty minutes.
Hot in summer and with so much to see, Kazan will be a great destination for visiting supporters.
Learn some Tatar language. More than half the population of Tatarstan is made of up ethnic Tatars and, although Russian is the lingua franca and can be hard enough in itself to master, learning basic Tatar greetings can go a long way in ingratiating oneself with the locals.
Read before coming:
The poetry of Gabdulla Tukay, the founder of modern Tatar literature, might be a good place to start.