When Tatar parents want to show their children the exquisite wash basins that were excavated at the ancient town of Bolgar, they have to pack up and head to Moscow’s State Historical Museum.
Due to the legacy of Soviet and Russian laws on artifacts, the lion's share of Tatarstan’s archaeological treasures wind up in large national museums far from the republic.
"Always the best, shiniest gold and silver discoveries were sent to the State Historical Museum or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg," says Fayaz Khuzin, a professor of history at the History Institute of the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences and a leading expert on the Bolgar civilization.
As a result, major archaeological sites like the one at Bolgar -- the epicenter of the Volga-Bolgar state that flourished from the seventh century until the Mongol period -- have languished, unable to attract any but the most serious visitors.
But that may all be about to change.
Safe At Home
Last month, a new research center was opened in Bolgar, approximately 140 kilometers south of Kazan, and hopes are high that it will mark a revival of local archaeological research in Tatarstan.
Tatar archaeologist Ayrat Sitdikov, who will head the center, stresses that new discoveries will remain in Tatarstan.
Tatar President Rustam Minnikhanov (center right) and former President Mintimer Shaimiyev tour the museum of Bolgar civilization in Bolgar.
"Under Russian law, a museum cannot share its original pieces with other museums. It can only share copies," Sitdikov says. "So I can definitely say that all discoveries will be safe here at the Bolgar Archaeology Research Center."
Sitdikov is referring to a 2012 amendment to the law on antiquities that prevents the transfer of artifacts of cultural significance away from the region where they were discovered.
Some 20 local researchers will be studying at the center, which will also host foreign academics.
The Bolgar center is part of an initiative spearheaded by former Tatar President Mintimer Shamiyev. After Shamiyev left the presidency in 2010 he founded a charitable foundation called Yanarish (Renaissance) that works to develop the Bolgar site.
'Reveal The Whole Picture'
Yanarish also works to develop the ancient town of Sviyazhsk (Zoye in Tatar), which was a fortress used by the troops of Tsar Ivan the Terrible when they conquered Kazan in 1552.
Just as Bolgar is of vast cultural significance for ethnic Tatars, Sviyazhsk is important for ethnic Russians and Russian Orthodox Christians. It is home to three monasteries and half a dozen Orthodox churches.
An artifact on display at the museum of Bolgar civilization
Historian Khuzin says the new center will help shift the focus of research from finding buried treasures to developing a more complete picture of the Bolgar civilization.
"The work of archaeologists is not just about discovering objects. They have a more important role to play," Khuzin says. "They can help reveal the whole picture of how the city was founded and developed, how its territory developed from the 10th to the 14th centuries."
In the Soviet period, Tatarstan had a rich academic tradition of archaeological scholarship and research.
For many years, renowned historian Alfred Khalikov headed the Archaeology and Ethnography Department of the Kazan branch of the Academy of Sciences. He was the internationally respected author of a six-volume "archaeological map of Tatarstan" and conducted pioneering research on the Volga-Bolgar state.
But that tradition fell into decline during the perestroika years and was all but destroyed during the 1990s, when funding for noncommercial science dried up. Khalikov died in 1994.
Although the policy of shipping off major artifacts to collections in Moscow and St. Petersburg (until 1991, Leningrad) hampered the development of research in Tatarstan, Khuzin argues that it was not entirely a bad policy since it exposed more people to the discoveries that Khalikov and his colleagues unearthed.
"[The old policy] is not all that bad," Khuzin says. "The most important thing is that in the future we’ll have the right to keep all our discoveries for ourselves. We can’t get [the old artifacts] back and we don’t really need to. People in Moscow and St. Petersburg should also know about the Bolgar civilization. There are more visitors there and foreign tourists, too. It is not bad."
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report