Kazan is the capital of the Tatar Republic (known as Tatarstan) located an 11-hour train ride east of Moscow on the Transiberian express. Although often unheard of in the West, Kazan is claimed as the third capital of Russia. It has a fractured past stemming from the 1500’s when Ivan the Terrible forced Tatar Muslims to convert to Russian Orthodoxy using extreme violence in his quest to conquer Russia during his reign. Now though Tatars and Russians live peacefully together here.
The Tatar people group is the largest of the Russian minorities with roots outside the Russian federation, originating in the Gobi desert and countries like Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and Turkey. Typically Tatars have darker features than Russians and can vary in appearance, due to the vastness of the land, from Turkic to Asian.
Tatar women are determined. They are ambitious, driven, secular, educated, focused, and strong. They seem determined not to be inhibited by their Muslim background or traditional cultural values, some even see no difference between the modern Russian and Tatar woman. Other qualities however, like loyalty to family, love of cooking, home-making and family life have not been replaced by these ambitious desires but simply added to. They want everything and believe everything is possible. Some say they study so they don’t need to rely on a husband in the future but at the same time say they study to become more interesting for him.
This is the attitude of the young women I met at Kazan State University, the educational establishment of Tolstoy (and Lenin, before he was asked to leave). Perhaps it is their youth speaking and they are in for a rude awakening but whatever the future holds for them I was fascinated by their outlook. As Kazan moves into a modern era of merging traditional culture and secular Western values I began to record my observances of these inspiring young women.
I went on a short summer course at KSU learning about Tatar culture and language in 2008 and became fond of the women there so returned to get to know them more. Many of the students I met were living far from their families, happy for the opportunity to study, but living in small rooms sharing with 2 or 3 other girls. Many of them were lonely at first but the communities they forged with each other were close to a family replacement. They ate, slept, studied and socialised together. I was invited and welcomed into many rooms for tea parties and dancing and expected to stay for the whole afternoon and evening. I also received random phone calls from women I didn't know; teachers or friends of students who wanted to meet me and show me their homes and children. I was granted a treasured insight to family life, taste homemade traditional food (one memorable rice and potato pie) and see family albums from years ago. The norm is for a family of 4 to all sleep in one room. In winter at temperatures of -40 a little girl would be running around in a summer dress because the heating was permanently on.
Although the influences of career and ambition on young women are undeniable in today’s society, there are still some who like to see traditional Tatar values being preserved. Some want to marry only a Tatar man and teach their children what it means to be Tatar. Family heritage and loyalty is still very important to them and although they have high ambitions for success many of them want to remain in their homeland and give back to their country by being good mothers and career women. With such a strong heritage I imagine it will be impossible to shake off every hint of influence (not that they should) but what is interesting is the combination of the two making for a modern Tatar woman. Really they are asking the same question we all are… Is it possible for women to be great at everything without it costing our freedom? I’m interested to see how they answer it and what will become of them.