“We’re going to the Republic of Tatarstan” were words that frankly meant very little to me when spoken. “Where?” was my immediate reply. I envisaged somewhere near Afghanistan but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Tatarstan is a Republic within the Russian Federation and its capital is Kazan, home of Rubin Kazan, one of Wigan Athletic’s opponents in this season’s Europa League.
Tatarstan is oil rich and Kazan is the centre of this wealth, industry and government bureaucracy, something that Russia is famed for along with vodka and its Soviet and Tsarist history. Kazan has developed significantly due to the oil beneath Tatarstan and is now officially Russia’s “third capital”, after St Petersburg and Moscow, despite the relatively small population of around 1.1 million people.
Kazan and Tatarstan have a rich history that marks the region out as different to the rest of Russia that surrounds it. The indigenous people of Tatarstan, the Tatars, make up 53 per cent of the population with the rest of the Republic being made up predominantly of ethnic Russians. This is the first important distinction, you’re in Russia in Tatarstan and you’re also not, well, you are, you’ll see what I mean. Due to the nationalism of Tatars and Russians the distinctions between the two are still felt today even though virtually all were born in the same place, people describe themselves by the path of their family tree. Ivan the Terrible sacked Kazan in the 15th century and forcibly converted many Tatars to Christianity. In the same way Stalin took against the Tatars due to their religion in Soviet times, and many were exiled to Kazakhstan so that Russia could be Russified. The place has had an interesting and traumatic history but has emerged for it all the better, with the help of oil wealth lacking in other Muslim republics like Dagestan and Chechnya.
Tatarstan is a very liberal Muslim republic, where alcohol is freely sold and a friend of mine told me when I asked if the sausages we were buying in a supermarket were pork responded “yes, we are bad Muslims” with a big grin on his face, we were going to drink beer later. It’s a melting pot of Russian orthodox and Muslim religions, where Mosques stand next to Cathedrals and where everyone enjoys a good night out. I’d compare it to Wigan in that @BoltonXVXI is comparable to a Russian incomer of many generations in Tatarstan. He’s been there so long he’s part of the furniture even though he is a BIT different; it matters little to the vast majority of people.
Kazan is a university city and has a proud history in this regard. Lenin was educated at Kazan State University and expelled from the institution due to his political activities, the institution bore his name in Soviet times and a statue of the man still stands proudly outside its main building, it’s worth seeing. There are 44 universities in Kazan, it’s a vibrant young people’s city with great night life as a result. Kazan is famed across Russia for being the home of the country’s most beautiful women; the number of universities may have something to do with this. Kazan hosted the 2013 Universiade, the international university Olympics (the UK doesn’t participate) and has become famed as a sport city due to the exploits of its ice hockey, basketball and football teams.
Kazan has many alluring sites, none more so than the UNESCO World Heritage site that is its “White Kremlin”, Kremlin essentially being “castle” in Russian. The white walls stand looking over the city, and football stadium, as the Kazanka and Volga rivers meet, it’s a strategic point and very beautiful to explore. You can visit the Kul Sharif Mosque, famous in the Islamic world, and also Annunciation Cathedral designed by the same architect behind St Basil’s in Moscow’s Red Square. There is also the leaning Syuyumbike Tower, named after a princess who declined to marry Ivan the Terrible unless he built an edifice bigger than any Mosque in the city, or so legend has it. When completed she felt her only way out was to throw herself from the top, which she duly did. Another site worth a visit is the St Peter and Paul Cathedral that has a stunning gold fronted facade that is an amazing sight.
Kazan has a Metro system that can ferry you from the centre of the city to stadium, although to be fair you can walk this distance too, there’s only one line on the Metro but it is an experience. There are many restaurants serving Tatar food, including a pie restaurant on Baumana Ulitsa (Baumann Street) the main street of the city, that should provide succour to visiting Wiganers missing their meat and potato, they aren’t quite the same mind but worth trying. There’s a host of coffee houses (those with a brown sign are a national chain) and there is no shortage of places to buy a beer, free internet is in virtually all bars, cafes and restaurants. Most bars also serve as restaurants too and many, though not all, will have an English language menu. There are kebab houses and a McDonalds, you’ll not go hungry. I am a particular fan of Pizzerria Giusseppi on Kremlyovskaya Ulitsa not far from the Kremlin. It does good pizza and salad and is an escape from Russian food (I’ll admit I’m not a big fan) when travelling the country.
The airport is some distance outside Kazan and if you’re travelling independently it is worth making sure you have a car booked from your hotel to pick you up. The alternative is trusting one of the ‘taxi’ drivers (anyone with a car who claims to be a taxi) and hoping you get to where you want, a rail link is being built from airport to city but it’s not ready as yet. When you arrive at the airport you are sometimes ushered from the baggage reclaim and then asked back into what is a room. When travelling in Russia I find it best to just go with the flow, they have some systems and bureaucratic rules seemingly designed to confuse. You’ll also need to retain your luggage receipt; many Russian airports operate spot checks to prevent theft. Language will be a barrier, Russian is spoken by all but English is not widespread. You will manage in bars and restaurants but transport can be a challenge, make sure you’re well prepared, make sure you have your hotel address with you at all times, in Russian.
I have visited Kazan on many occasions and only ever experienced a warm welcome. The people have been fantastic as I have found them to be across Russia. However it is worth being careful, this isn’t a town in the EU. The police have a reputation for corruption and you should proceed cautiously in dealings with them, take a member of hotel staff with you. Always carry your passport as identification when out and about. The same rules apply for nightlife and socialising. I’ve found this a safe city, but it’s worth rememb
ering where you are.
In terms of the football, Rubin Kazan were funded by the Tatarstan government to bring attention to the Republic , to project its image across Europe. While the team has had some notable success in the Russian league, and a famous victory in the Nou Camp, it’s very debatable that whether they have enhanced knowledge of this part of the world. Rubin stands for “ruby”, hence the ruby coloured kit the home team wears. Football is not a big sport in Kazan, lagging behind ice hockey and basketball in terms of popularity. Support is fervent among Rubin fans though although games do not tend to be sold out, insert empty seats jibe here. I watched a Champions League tie in a packed bar near the stadium a few years ago and the locals were only too keen to tell me how proud of their side they were.
I am sure all of the travelling Latics will enjoy an amazing trip to a part of the world off the radar of most. Good luck in the game and enjoy Tatarstan and Kazan.
If you’re considering making the trip to Kazan, Lupine Travel is offering packages here http://www.lupinetravel.co.uk/europa-league-rubin-kazan-wigan-athletic-november-2013.html
Lupine Football has recently been set up by @dylanharris and @cognoscentinovo. Check us out at @lupinefootball
We both have long standing experience of Russian Travel and football and will be offering packages to all upcoming Champions League and Europa League games involving British teams
We have 3 packages listed on the link below but we can also tailor the trips to your own needs, involving longer stays, different standard accommodation and also trips and tours to other cities.
For flights we recommend Easyjet as by far the cheapest option, with flights to Moscow (3-8 November) currently priced at just £75. There are then several options to Kazan, with flights starting at £150 return and trains £100 return.
For anyone travelling independently, please note you will require a visa invitation before applying for your visa. Hotels will sometimes provide these but anyone struggling to obtain them can purchase them from us for £20. We just need a scan of your passport and will have the invitation ready for you within 24 hours.
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