Prague, 25 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Flower-laying ceremonies were held today at statues in Kazan dedicated to Russian and Tatar cultural figures, as the city gears up for this weekend's big millenial celebrations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chose Kazan to host a meeting of leaders from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) tomorrow (26 August). A gala concert is scheduled for tomorrow night.
Observers say the anniversary is a chance for Russian leaders to reach out to the Islamic world amid criticism of Moscow's handling of Islamic militants in Chechnya and elsewhere.
Telgat Bariev, the chairman of Tatar Public Center, an independent Tatar national organization, says the anniversary reveals the history of the Islamic presence in Europe. "[The anniversary indicates] that Muslim civilization in Europe has ancient roots," he said. "It is supported by the fact that Muslims live near the Volga River and the Urals. The predecessors of the Tatar nation [were also Muslims]. It is a very important aspect looking at current relations between civilizations. Islam has been present in Europe for at least 1,000 years."
Tatars tend to be moderate Muslims, and the region has had little of the ethnic or religious strife that has plagued other Muslim regions in Russia. Valiulla Yakupov, assistant to Tatarstan's chief mufti, was quoted by AFP as saying, "an equilibrium of civilizations and cultures exists in Kazan."
In June, Kazan's Qol Sharif Mosque, the largest in Europe, was rededicated
, 500 years after it was destroyed by Tsar Ivan the Terrible. An Islamic university was opened in the city five years ago. In July, the city remounted a Christian icon known as Our Lady of Kazan. The icon had been acquired by the Vatican and was handed back to the Russian Orthodox Church by the late Pope John Paul II.
Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiev says the Kazan anniversary will help Tatars take a closer look at their history. "For several decades, [the Russian Federation] did not look closely at Asia and the East, but now we urgently need to take a closer look," Shaimiev said. "I think the importance attached to the 1,000th anniversary of Kazan is explained by this Euro-Asian factor."
Kazan is generally believed to have been founded in 1005. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the city had become an important Islamic political, military, and cultural center. But in 1552, the city was taken after a seven-week siege by the armies of Ivan the Terrible. It became a Russian city in the second half of the 16th century, but it never lost its ties to its Islamic past.
But Bariev says history still casts a shadow over relations between Russians and Tatars and that some mistrust still exists.
"On one hand, Russia is officially participating in the celebrations for Kazan's 1,000 anniversary. On the other hand, it is very strange to see [Russia] this year celebrating the 625th anniversary of the Battle of Kulikov [in which Russian armies defeated the Tatars of the Golden Horde]," Bariev said. "The date is not a round number. I think somebody is trying to diminish the significant role the Tatars played in Russia. Somebody wants to show that they are alien and hostile to Russia. Somebody wants to say that the Tatars were defeated. So, such strange celebrations come side by side with the anniversary of Kazan."
In the 1990s, Shaimiev suggested that Tatarstan could break with Moscow, but relations between Kazan and Moscow have since improved. Putin renewed Shaimiev's mandate in office earlier this year, a move some analysts saw as motivated by Kremlin fears that Shaimiev could lead a revolt of governors discontented with the Kremlin's policies.
Fayaz Xucin, an historian and archaeologist in Kazan, plays down antagonism between Tatars and Russians. He says the republic is fully integrated into the Russian Federation. However, he admits that people hope Moscow will do more to secure the rights of Volga Tatars and says this weekend's celebrations are a good opportunity to begin the process.
Xucin notes that Kazan is not only the capital of Tatarstan but also the cultural center for Tatars and the many nationalities living here. "Until 1552, Kazan was the center of Tatar culture. Later on, it became the center of Russian culture for the very large Ural-Volga region," Xucin told RFE/RL.
The region's primary ethnic group, the Tatars, make up 54 percent of the republic's population. At least half of Kazan's 1.5 million people are Tatars. Some say more than 100 nationalities live in the city.
Kazan has 33 mosques, 48 Orthodox churches, as well as a Lutheran church, a Catholic chapel, a synagogue, and other places of worship. The town is included on UNESCO's World Heritage List.
(RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this story.)See also:
Opening Of Russia's Biggest Mosque Highlights Kazan's Millennium
What's Behind Putin's Reappointment Of Powerful Tatar Leader?