Bolgar is a town on a dramatic plain above the left bank of the River Volga. Now in the republic of Tatarstan, it was the capital of the 8th century civilisation of the Volga Bolgars [or Bulgars] and is a place that captures the Tatar imagination like no other. Its rolling hills are studded with minarets and domed mausoleums. One ancient minaret is said to have partly collapsed in the 19th century as the result of an overzealous local searching for treasure in its foundations, and Tatars believe that circling the ruins brings good fortune.
It is, therefore, fitting that the treasure has finally come to Bolgar in the form of a massive government-sponsored restoration of the archaeological site and its environs. In the 18th century Peter the Great was so impressed at the extent of the ruined city that he issued an ukase (an executive order) to ensure their continuing maintenance. From the time of Peter the Great right down to the First President of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiev, power has always been drawn to Bolgar; its emotional and historical significance for the Tatar nation means that its restoration cannot be divorced from political realities.
The approach from the main road along the Kama River reveals a pair of slender marble minarets crowning a row of trees to the north. This is an atypically Tatar style of architecture to greet the visitor at the archetypical Tatar event, the June pilgrimage to Bolgar.
There are sixteen of us, fourteen Tatars, a slightly bemused Russian bus driver and a Brit, in a bus organised via the Sheriq Club, a Tatar cultural organisation based in Kazan. Copious homemade chak-chak [Tatar sweet of doughballs fried and drenched with honey] fuels the four-hour journey. There have been a few brief windows of opportunity between the hymn-singing to ascertain exactly what the pilgrimage means, yet I am still not entirely certain.
'From the time of Peter the Great right down to the First President of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiev, power has always been drawn to Bolgar; its emotional and historical significance for the Tatar nation means that its restoration cannot be divorced from political realities.'
My fellow travellers see little room for debate. ‘This could be seen as more of a Tatar than a Muslim festival in what it commemorates,’ considers Nuria, a 52 year old Tatar from Kazan on her first trip to Bolgar, ‘but I don’t see why it’s necessary to choose between the two.’
Bolgar is, one could say, the Tatar ‘half’ of former President of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiev’s restoration project for two of the Republic’s oldest historical sites: the ancient city of Bolgar and the island of Sviyazhsk with its Russian Orthodox monastery. The road is choked with buses from across Tatarstan, the vast majority of their occupants ethnic Tatars. This is an auspicious day for the opening of the new Bolgar: only weeks before, the anniversary of the Volga Bolgars’ acceptance of Islam had been celebrated with pomp and ceremony, and some days later saw the beginning of Sabantuy, the most popular of Tatar festivals.
Over a sea of tübeteikas [green Tatar skull caps] the outlines of the first president of Tatarstan, Shaimiev, and the current incumbent, Minnikhanov, are visible beneath the white marble portico, flanked by two forty-six metre minarets and a more impressive number of muftis. The scene is broadcast live to the polka-dot circles of Tatar babushki [Rn. grannies] sitting on the grass lawns outside.
It is 10 June, an auspicious day for Tatar Muslims who flock here to the ancient city of Bolgar (or what remains of it) to commemorate an eclectic mix of Tatar (national) and Muslim identities. The presence of Tatars from other regions of Russia - Astrakhan, Chelyabinsk and Penza - highlight this as an event of Tatar, rather than simply Tatarstani, significance. A paean of praise for the great new construction is read out, and the officials lead a procession which moves out through the faux-medieval stockade and across the windswept plain towards old Bolgar.
Pilgrims who visit Bolgar, the Tatar ancient capital, are not only from Tatarstan. Increasingly the pilgrims are Tatars from other Russian regions: Astrakhan, Chelyabinsk and Penza. Bulgar and Sviyazhsk are currently being considered as UNESCO world heritage sites.
Entering the mosque, the Sheriq club’s organiser Gamil Nur admits sheepishly that ‘at the moment, unfortunately, there is not much decoration.’ The interior is a pleasant surprise, a far cry from the gilded opulence of Kazan’s grand Kul Sharif mosque. The cool marble interior of pure white is restrained. For now. The glaring exception in the summer sun is a gold plaque in English and Tatar thanking regional oil giant TatNeft and the Uzbek and Ukrainian oligarchs Alisher Usmanov and Rinat Akhmetov for their financial support.
'The presence of Tatars from other regions of Russia - Astrakhan, Chelyabinsk and Penza - highlight this as an event of Tatar, rather than simply Tatarstani, significance.'
Chief Mufti of Russia Talgat Tazhuddin has not joined the procession and flits across the courtyard towards one of the mosque’s new administrative offices. He is remarkably agile for his 64 years, especially when he is avoiding amateur journalists. I put it to him that the Mosque is a significant part of Shaimiev’s plans for Bolgar as a tourist centre for Tatarstan. He is derisive. ‘This is not simply some pearl to amuse tourists. This is for the next generation, so they don’t forget their heritage’.
From a foreigner’s perspective, Bolgar’s ambitious restoration seems one of the Republic’s most promising tourist projects. ‘In 2008, the number of guests to Bolgar grew from 36 to 83,000, but this year we estimate around 120,000,’ predicted Tatarstan Tourism Minister Rafis Burganov. A wily, pragmatic understanding of the Republic’s economic potential has led Tatarstan’s leadership to adopt a ‘no holds barred’ policy in capitalising on Tatarstan’s historical wealth for financial gain. Kazan’s millennium captivated the city in 2005, oddly enough just some 28 years after it celebrated its 800th anniversary in 1977. The crane has joined the minaret and onion dome on the Kazan skyline as the city benefits from the renewed attention is its due as host of the 2013 Summer Universiade, an event which appears to have the gravitas of something between the Great Rapture and the End of Days, albeit with a smart new metro and sports stadiums.
Tatarstan is one of only a few Russian regions to contribute more to the federal budget than it receives, so it can manage its coffers very nicely indeed. Shaimiev sees very clearly that for tourists Bolgar could be the jewel in Tatarstan’s crown. For this reason the redevelopment may prove to be real treasure, tacitly associating Tatarstan’s historic wealth with manifestations of Tatar national identity.
Islam and Tatar national feeling
Shaimiev’s position appears ambiguous: in one interview he decried attempts to ‘politicise the issue,’ before asserting that Tatarstan’s Islam could be used as a new face for Russian Islam to replace unfortunate associations with Chechnya. ‘For many years we lived under the ethnic slur of Tatar-Mongols, but 90Ru years ago this faded out of fashion and our people’s credibility increased in the eyes of Russian and world public opinion,’ explained the former President. ‘That we can rise above historical grievances shows the maturity and quality of our people. Don’t be Ivan the Terrible [Russian tsar, conqueror of Kazan in 1552], be different.’
The majority of the population of Tatarstan are Sunni Muslims. Maintaining peace in the republic and avoiding the growth of radical Islam, which could lead to an armed insurgency similar to the one in North Caucasus, is a top government priority.
It is statements of this kind (on his website in Russian) which prompt some of the Republic’s newspapers to ask the question ‘Why is Shaimiev restoring Bolgar?’ For many, his answer ‘I’m doing it for my soul’ may simply not do. Another timely question is ‘why now?’ After all, Tatarstan has already had over twenty years of prosperity based on oil and gas revenues. Could Shaimiev, loudest defender of generous autonomy for Tatarstan, be sending a message to those who desire to unravel what remains of it?
'From a foreigner’s perspective, Bolgar’s ambitious restoration seems one of the Republic’s most promising tourist projects.'
The vast golden dome, housing the world’s largest printed Qu’ran, is now Bolgar’s most visible landmark for those approaching its equally ostentatious new river port. The dome also holds the holy word of how Tatarstan has successfully employed compromise to steer a course through the murky waters of ethnic division, though the significance of the large new Tatarstan Bread Museum is somewhat more elusive. Its basement serves as a small museum displaying exhibits and art relating to the Volga Bolgars and the town of Bolgar. There are several modern paintings dedicated to Tatar-Russian understanding, reassuring the visitor of the Russian role in their shared history. The paint runs with treacle, yet the last exhibit is the immense Qu’ran. Nearby stands Bolgar’s most peculiar sight, and perhaps a microcosm of Tatarstan today: its 1732 Russian Church (now a museum of Bolgar’s history) flanked by a Tatar minaret. Peculiar compromises for a unique place.
Nevertheless, for some, the new Bolgar is truly vulgar, a textbook example of the other ostentatious displays of the Republic’s wealth shown through the prism of Tatar Islamic identity. Criticism of Shaimiev’s plans for Bolgar is partly centred on a controversial statue representing the Ak Bars (Snow Leopard- a Tatar national symbol) by Buryat artist Dashi Namdakov. Known as the Guardian, its announcement caused outrage in Tatar political and cultural circles, prompting an open letter with some 824 signatures urging Shaimiev not to ‘desecrate’ Bolgar. Namdakov’s statue did not feature on the pilgrimage. ‘It could be,’ supposes Gamil, ‘because of the Southern Tatars who have come here from the Caspian and the Caucasus. They have a more… heated temperament, so would probably not react well to it.’
The criticisms levelled against the White Mosque and Bolgar’s other new developments are roughly similar to complaints about the two other projects of Tatar ‘big Islam’: the enormous printed Qu’ran and the as yet incomplete plans for Kazan’s enormous suburban Al Kabir Mosque. Their symbolism, point out detractors, vastly outweighs their actual practical use.
A Muslim Disneyland
Rimma Bikmukhametova, correspondent for Tatar-language newspaper Irek Maydani, is concerned that the speed of the new development has not given archaeologists a chance to uncover new finds, and also that the unique atmosphere of the area for Tatars could be changed forever. ‘The day when the mosque was opened, there was a huge police presence in Bolgar. Everything is done with the honoured guests in mind. They are the first to see these new mosques and museums, say their prayers. Only then may the ordinary people enter. That’s not as it should be. There should be a sense of unity… a simplicity and modesty appropriate for the occasion.
‘More and more, tourist guides in Bolgar are beginning to talk of its bright future as a major tourist site. Maybe that’s a good thing. Yet let’s not turn Bolgar into some kind of trough for collecting money, a private area where we have to buy tickets to sit and take in the uniqueness of the place.’
Many Tatar activists are concerned about what they see as the commercialisation of Bolgar. In an open letter they urged the former Tatarstan president Mintimir Shaimiyev 'not to desecrate' their ancient capital.
For Tabriz Yarullin, head of the Tatar Youth Congress, the White Mosque clearly contains some shades of grey. ‘It is, without a doubt, a very beautiful mosque. I haven’t seen anything else like it in Tatarstan. But the issue is that it’s near the woods, well outside the actual village of Bolgar. The students who study there will do so in isolation. What will the new Mufti do in his residence all the way over there? It all seems,’ concludes Yarullin, ‘like some kind of Muslim Disneyland.’
Food – and history
Appropriately, there is a sense of commercialism here during the pilgrimage, yet not a negative one. It seems that the thousands of Tatars descending on this small village provide a healthy injection of capital. There is a roaring trade in souvenirs and a sizzling one in shashlyk [form of shish kebab] and plov [pilaff]. There is no alcohol, and nearly every male is wearing, or has bought, a tübeteika.
'Nevertheless, for some, the new Bolgar is truly vulgar, a textbook example of the other ostentatious displays of the Republic’s wealth shown through the prism of Tatar Islamic identity.'
Members of the Tatar nationalist organisation Azatliq are out in force selling badges of the Tatar flag to pilgrims. The organisation’s leader, Nail Nabiullin, can be seen sporting a Tatar flag as a cape. Here in Bolgar such performances cause no problems and, despite the heavy police presence, they strangely do not seem out of place. Many believe that the Tatar nation was born here. Some believe that here it can also be reborn – if, that is, it ever died in the first place.
Amidst this bustle stands a small wooden izba [Rn hut] on Nazarov Street, the grass verge in front of it lined with vendors’ tents selling shashlyk and fresh kvass [non-alcoholic drink made from rye bread]. Small groups of passers-by have stopped on the road to read what is written over the house’s walls and garden fences in bright white paint.
‘Powers that be, where is your concern for the elderly? I am A.F. Savinov, 70 years old, an invalid and veteran of labour. To insult the elderly is an insult to God. Remember your own parents, and think of the insult to them. Be aware that there is a heavenly court, and your evil will not go unnoticed. In God’s name. God is one, one for all.’
Like the shashlyk, this is difficult to digest. For some, it no doubt casts a shadow on what should be a jolly day.
From my cold and hungry childhood, I always learnt to utter that phrase ‘thank you, my country, my motherland’.
The pilgrims sing Tatar-language prayers until we reach Kazan’s Victory Prospect in the late evening. Tea is shared as the Tatars test each other on their nation’s grand history with penetrating questions about Bolgar and the Khans of Kazan. Somehow, the thoughts of A.F. Savinov, whoever he may be, seem the most enduring, and the most consistent. To restore an ancient capital city is to stake a claim to a distant past, one whose owner is all too clear.