You know how in almost every family, there is that one member that's a bit different (in a good way) and really stands out as unique and fascinating? Well, if Russia was a family, Kazan would be that member. It took me two years to visit it since I first started living in Russia, and now I ask myself, "What the hell was I waiting for?" There's just so much depth to the city's character that my singular five-day visit is not nearly enough. That said, here are some of the highlight from the overall trip.
Pretty much everyone has heard of the one in Moscow, but as it turns out, many Russian cities have Kremlins. The word, in Russian, simply means fortress or stronghold, so pretty much any older city in the country has one. I initially made the trek to see Kazan's after a thirteen hour night train from Moscow, no sleep, and multiple cups of coffee. I was in a bit of a loopy, disoriented state, due to my physical circumstances, until I finally reached to destination and instantly jolted by a new rush of awareness and energy.
As said, I have seen and been in Moscow's Kremlin before and didn't really think any other could come close to it. But this one absolutely did. The magnificent structure stood atop a hill, overlooking the river to one side and city to the other. The walls were a white colored stone, lined with towers and grand wooden archways. Stoic, powerful, and intimidating, it was easy to see how this was a force to be reckoned with back in the day. But then I walked in (for free!) and the whole feeling of the place suddenly changed. The strong, daunting exterior was now replaced by colorful gardens, artistic and ornate buildings, and calm, pleasant, stone walkways. Orthodox Christian churches stood side by side next to mosques and lush green trees lined every path.
Two particular structures caught my eye. The first being the giant mosque in the center (pictured above) with the white walls and blue domes. The other was a bit different. It was older, a bit more ominous looking, and had a slight lean to it. In fact, it made such an impression on me that I decided to do a little research on it and found out that it actually has a whole mythology surrounding it. If you enjoy such tales, please read the story of Söyembikä Tower involving a particularly terrible Ivan and a Tatar princess.
To read the full harrowing tale, click on the link to the side:
It is fairly common to find open-air flea markets in the center of Russian cities. I always enjoyed this, because if both gave me the chance to practice my Russian (by haggling prices with locals), and let me buy old Soviet memorabilia to use as Christmas gifts for my friends. And for nearly two years, I thought nothing would top the overall greatness of Moscow's Izmailovsky Market... until I came to Kazan.
As I first approached it, it just seemed a few babushkas had set up some stands in an alleyway to sell clothes and food, but as I walked further in, it soon opened into a huge catacomb of mini shops and stands containing everything from fresh fruit to local baked good to sunglasses, socks, and flipflops, to wooden furniture. There was even one guy selling his own personal paintings alongside handmade frames. And that was just what i saw in the first couple minutes.
Feeling a bit like a hairy, uncoordinated Indiana Jones on an adventure, I wandered through the maze of shops and stands, repeatedly going indoors and out, all the while feeling like I'd been transported back to Russia in the early 1990s (the Yeltsin years). There were little to no electronics, souvenirs or tourists.* Just local people, making a living by selling local food and everyday goods to whoever happened to need them. No one was trying to hawk the customers, there was little to no shouting (a first for such places in my experiences), and the baker who sold me bread even gave me two free apricots. As I enjoy free things, I was delighted.
Soviet Lifestyle Museum
Before I get into the story, I need to let you know that this nearly never happened. It was my last full day in Kazan before a 16 hour, scoliosis-inducing train ride to Samara and I was showing the city around to friends I had met in Moscow. We were on a fairly calm walk through the Kremlin when, for no apparent reason, Mother nature decided to be a jerk and began mercilessly throwing down sheets of rain, soaking us and flooding the streets. We needed shelter and we needed it fast. We ran down the street, with at first nothing catching our eye. But then, suddenly, we noticed this big red star on a house-like building with a sign jutting out that read Музей Социалистического Быта (Socialist Lifestyle Meseum/Soviet Lifestyle Museum). And although I'm not the biggest enthusiast about museums, this would suffice for our current situation. Who knows, I thought, maybe this could be a bit different after all.
Turns out it was different. Very different, but in the most awesome way imaginable. Right upon entering, it became clear that it was not the place to move from one exhibition to another, viewing an endless amount of large scale displays. Nor were there any curators, audio guides, or grandiose artifacts to be found anywhere. There was, instead, space that consisted of an upstairs and downstairs room that were both lined wall to wall with seemingly everything that was ever made for regular people during Soviet times. And I mean everything. There were hats, milk containers, bars of chocolate, cigarettes, movie posters, newspaper clippings, political cartoons, buttons, pins, athletic sneakers, arcade games, Lenin paraphernalia and pretty much anything else that could be involved in daily life.
Meanwhile, as I walked from a Lenin poster to a display case of 1980's Russian punk t-shirts, I began to hear some music, similar to that of 70s and 80s hair bands in the US. I looked up, and sure enough, music videos of Russian hair bands (presumably from the same time frame) played on a small TV hanging on the front wall. And even though the music was just as bad as the western bands of the same genre, I couldn't help but happily laugh and watch. It wasn't because I liked the music, but because this was this side of Soviet life that you never hear or think about. It is always presented as cold, serious and oppressive, which makes it easy to forget that they too had goofy musicians with ridiculous haircuts that enjoyed using lasers way too much.
As this was all going on, the owner of the museum just chilled by the entrance, next to his collection of signed guitars from Russian and Soviet bands (which he called 'Rock and Roll Hall of Fame'). After checking out the guitars (including several from the Russian punk-rock band Leningrad) which were all dedicated to the owner himself, it soon became clear to me that this whole display was comprised of random things that he personally owned and collected while growing up in the Soviet Union (by the looks of it, mostly from the 80s), and never bothered to throw any of out. And I couldn't be happier he didn't because with this collection of the random, everyday junk used by Soviet citizens he presented such a clearer image to the past than any museum or monument possibly could have. This was the commoner's historical exhibition to a communist country. It can't really get much more fitting than that.
One of the reasons that made this city so unbelievably picturesque was its location at the intersection of the Volga and Kazan rivers. And me, being somewhat of an odd individual, was incredibly excited about this and purpously altered my trip to see more of it, which I can honestly say, has been absolutely worth it. Approaching it for the first time, I had this fear in the back of my mind that it might either be dirty or worse, crowded with those terrible tourist cruise boats that plague other river like the Danube and even the Neva in Petersburg. Thankfully, and maybe it was just because I got lucky with the timing, but the waters were so calm tranquil and extensive, surrounded by their gentle rolling hills and lush, green valleys. It was easy to forget that a major city lay nearby, as it's presence was easily dwarfed by this natural landmark.
Plus, on a personal level, this was exactly what I needed after two years in an enormous city like Moscow, and was pretty much the best spot imaginable to test out my new camera (see 'Kazan' in photos section), and served as the backdrop to probably the most 'Russia' picture I've ever taken. I made sure to go running alongside it every morning and occasionally returned later on in the day for an additional walk or just a sit down. Definitely going to miss this, but I'll get to see in again in Samara.
Baumana Street at Night
Throughout my two years in Russia, I have heard many things, but one thing I've never been told about was the nightlife in Kazan. Therefore, when I decided to take a night walk through the city, it was surprised by something as I approached the main street. There were people. There was music. And best of all, of course, there were a lot of people playing a lot of music. There were all different genres and styles to the point where a brass group played (SONG) next to an electric guitarist playing an Imagine Dragons cover. And it was one after the other all the way until the road met the Kremlin. Also, there's one last thing I forgot to mention. This was a Wednesday. It wasn't even the weekend yet, so I can only imagine how it gets on a Friday. Oh well, I guess that means I'll be returning at some point.