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Kazan Puts On Its Best Face As Universiade Kicks Off

Kazan Rolls Out Loaner Bikes Before Universiade
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WATCH: To help visitors for the Summer Universiade get around Kazan, one company, Velik, rolled out 100 rental bikes at eight stations in the city center. RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service asked one early customer how the initiative works.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin presides over the opening ceremony of the 27th Summer Universiade in Kazan on July 6, he may be looking at the event as a dress rehearsal for next year's Sochi Winter Olympics.

But for host city Kazan, the Universiade is an end in itself -- a spectacular finish to months of furious preparations and a chance for the historic Tatar capital to show a side of Russia the outside world rarely sees.

Since April, the city has planted 50,000 flowers, paved over old roads, and built a sparkling new airport terminal to welcome the estimated 10,500 student athletes visiting the city for one of the world's largest sporting events.

'So Romantic'

Kazan has even become the site of Russia's first bike-share system, with 100 bicycles available at eight stations throughout the center for anyone with a credit card, a cell phone to receive a special registration number, and the courage to navigate Kazan's car-choked thoroughfares.
Fans watch opening ceremonies at the Summer Universiade in Kazan on July 6.
Fans watch opening ceremonies at the Summer Universiade in Kazan on July 6.

Ruzal Akhmadiev, a young poet and actor in the Tatar capital, gave the initiative an enthusiastic endorsement before taking a few slightly shaky turns around a parking lot.

"Bikes are popular among young people in Kazan. Very few can afford to buy them," Akhmadiev said. "Just think – you can take a girl on a date and rent a bike with her. It's so romantic!"

In a vast country that occasionally acts as though it has only two cities that matter, Moscow and St. Petersburg, multicultural Kazan has proven adept at muscling its way onto the map.

The city's historic Kremlin fortress, a group of buildings dating back as far as the 10th century, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. Five years later, Kazan launched an annual international Muslim film festival and, in 2009, it secured a patent allowing it to brand itself "Russia's third capital."
A recent rehearsal for opening ceremonies of the Universiade
A recent rehearsal for opening ceremonies of the Universiade

But with the Universiade -- in which student athletes from 162 countries will compete in 27 sports, from swimming to gymnastics to wrestling -- the city hopes to capitalize on what has become perhaps its greatest attraction: state-of-the-art athletic facilities that have made it a go-to destination for a number of international competitions.

In addition to the Universiade, Kazan will host the 2015 world Aquatics Championships and will be one of the Russian cities hosting soccer's 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Big Opportunity

Tatarstan, a relatively prosperous republic with strong non-Slavic cultural traditions, has sometimes chafed at official interference from Moscow, particularly on matters of religion, education, and language.

To that end, authorities in Kazan are also looking at the Universiade as an opportunity to introduce visitors to Tatar culture.

Museums have prepared special exhibitions of traditional folkwear and crafts to coincide with the 12-day event. And a number of city theaters are planning special events, including a performance by the Kamal Tatar drama theater of the classic 1929 work "The Blue Shawl."

Theater director Ilfir Yakupov said the play would be performed in Tatar but would run with special translations in Russian, English, French, and Spanish.

"'Blue Shawl' is the gem of our culture. It's the best of Tatar dance and song traditions," Yakupov said. "We want [the audience] to be able to watch it in their native languages."

Local activists have complained that while the best of Tatar culture and traditions will be on display, little has been done to highlight the Tatar language, which has been almost entirely eclipsed by Russian and English in official signs and publications ahead of the Universiade.

Still, Fanis Musagitov, the director of the Tinchurin theater, the oldest forum for Tatar-language drama, said his troupe had planned a special selection of plays to highlight the native tongue.

"We've selected the best from our drama and comedy -- all of them are classics about Tatar history and lifestyle," Musagitov said. "They'll all run in Tatar with the Russian and English translations."

Predominantly Muslim Tatarstan is also uniquely suited to accommodate the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins on July 9, three days after the start of the student games.

Organizers last week opened a restaurant for 3,500 inside the Universiade village, with special hours for athletes who will be observing the fast.

For officials looking at the Universiade as a chance to work out the kinks before the Sochi Games, security is of particular significance.

Concerns were heightened after Islamist insurgent Doku Umarov on July 3 called for jihadists to stage attacks on a range of targets, including the Olympics and the Universiade, which Umarov referred to as "pagan events on the lands of Muslims that ignore our Islamic values and laws."

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