It's got everything except independence

Tatarstan could be another Chechnya. But the republic has food for stomachs, not stomach for war, writes Simon Calder LOST NATIONS

T atarstan. Got that? Not Tajikistan, Turkmenistan or any other old Stan, but the Austria-sized part of Russia inhabited by descendants of Genghis Khan. Capital: Kazan, nothing to do with Kyrgystan or Kazakhstan except for the preponderance of Islamic people. Getting there is easy - go to Moscow, and get on a train heading east for 500 miles. And I arrived at the start of Ramadan.

Compared with other parts of the Muslim world, worshippers at the Nurallah mosque looked remarkably cheery despite the privations of fasting. This could be because the sunrise-to-sunset fast is a good deal shorter so far north; Kazan is on the same latitude as Aberdeen, so daylight in February lasts only a few hours. But a more likely reason than imminent food and drink is that after being closed down by Stalin in the Thirties, the mosque reopened a month ago.

The "cathedral mosque" of Kazan is decked in a confusion of scripts: Russian, the lingua franca of most of the devotees; Arabic, the language of Islam; and Roman, to assist the bewildered Western visitor. The imam greets non-believers, and shows them proudly around the ornate interior, with its painstakingly polished wood and exotic carpets on which the faithful are saying silent thanks.

Outside, your location in time and space shifts abruptly. The snow is melting and the people look depressed. As you trudge through the slush, along streets battered into architectural submission by state socialism, you can understand their gloom. Most of the Muslim part of town is as grimy and dowdy as those in the Russian segment; the city has the same balance as the whole republic, with the Tatars in a slim majority over the Russians. Across the road, golden twirls atop Orthodox churches dazzle in the pale afternoon sun. The religious and ethnic dividing line is the street called Kirov, close to Lenin and Marx streets; the names give the first indication that old Soviet habits die hard.

Yet despondency cannot conceal the grace of Kazan. Catherine the Great declared it to be the third most beautiful city in Russia, after St Petersburg and Moscow. Some people would argue the merits of Novgorod, Pskov or Suzdal to be included, while others would ridicule the inclusion of Moscow in the same sentence as "beauty". Kazan deserves far more tourists than it gets - zero seems average for this time of year.

Part of its appeal is that the old revolutionary statuary is still as triumphant as it is possible to be. A statue of a youth brandishing a stack of books strides towards Kazan State University. He looks remarkably like Che Guevara, only when you read the inscription do you realise that this spritely figure is another revolutionary: Lenin. As Vladimir Ulyanov, he studied for a while at the university. When Mick Jagger got thrown out of the LSE, he started the Rolling Stones; when Lenin was ejected from Kazan University, he created the Soviet Union.

Kazan probably had less impact on Lenin than he had on Kazan. Destruction and rebuilding is the central theme in the city, and the USSR's ugly structural amendments are merely the latest episode. The Tatars, Mongol warriors led by Genghis Khan, chose the site as they swept over the Urals and into Europe. Kazan is on the edge of a sprawl of plains by the Volga, Europe's largest river, just before it widens almost to an inland sea. Tatar power in the young state of Russia flowed and ebbed before finally being drowned out by Ivan the Terrible. He razed the city, and in an act of revenge for Tatar oppression, slaughtered every male "taller than a cartwheel".

During the Second World War, however, Stalin deported the people to Siberia, claiming they were Nazi collaborators. Somehow, Tatar culture survived. When the Soviet Union was established, Lenin forgave his former college town and Kazan was declared capital of autonomous Tataria.

The city is rich in revolutionary history. You stumble upon the tiny chapel where the Decembrists, 20th-century Russia's first revolutionaries, prayed before being deported to Siberia. Beneath the snow lies the son of Josef Stalin, exiled to the republic by Krushchev.

In Russian, the locals need no reminding, Ivan the Terrible is Ivan Grozhny. This has not escaped the people of Tatarstan, who are acutely aware of the sufferings of the Chechen people in Grozny. Like unhappy Chechnya, Tatarstan is a would-be breakaway republic. One Muslim resident counts her blessings: "Compared with Chechnya we are very lucky. There has been lots of intermarriage between Tatars and Russians."

Tatarstan has everything a self-respecting nation should have, apart from independence. The green, white and orange national flag is supplemented by the bold national emblem: a winged snow leopard against a red background. The Republic of Tatarstan calls itself a sovereign democratic state, but the 1992 constitution repudiates violence and war as a means for settling disputes. President Mentimer Shamiev is a consummate Tatar politician who treads the tightrope between political or military submission to Moscow. Bruce Allyn, of the Boston-based Conflict Management Group, sees Tatarstan as a test-case for the future of federalism. "The republic is moving towards the level of a state in the US, with the sort of local decision-making we regard as normal in the West."

Signs in English point to Freedom Square, until recently called Lenin Square. A statue of the leader as an older man presides over the vast parade ground, facing the Tatar parliament. It has the same drab Soviet look which infiltrates cityscapes from Vilnius to Vladivostok.

Compared with most of the former USSR, Tatarstan is doing well. Half the Soviet Union's trucks were produced at Naberezhnye Chelny, the East's version of Detroit or Dagenham. The importance of the republic to the former Soviet war machine is reflected in the current edition of the magazine Military Technology: helicopters and missile systems help to make the Tatarstan GDP higher than that of the three newly independent Baltic republics. But the republic has not escaped the catastrophe of the Russian economy, and one of the new unemployed echoed the despair of many: "It was so easy to work in the Soviet Union; now, it's impossible."

Some people are making money. The produce in the market (called the "intestine of Kazan") is piled defiantly high in fresh fruit and vegetables, despite the distance to the nearest part of the world not draped in snow. Food and drink in the city is splendid. At the Dom Chai - literally Tea House - Tatar art and cuisine collide. The tea is served in surroundings more exotic than your average Russian cafeteria. Try kabot lazat, meat fritters like wienerschnitzel without the breadcrumbs. Or peremyatchi, traditional Tatar doughnuts, best washed down with kefir - thick, slightly soured milk. Some Kazan Russians prefer fermented mare's milk, but most go for something stronger.

The republic's proudest export is not tanks or guns, but beer: the best in Russia according to its admirers and my taste buds. "Long live the Mafia if they can make beer like this," insisted Yuri, my drinking companion, as we downed a couple of glasses of Jubilee, made at the Krasnaya Vostok ("Beautiful East") brewery. It is bitter, tasty and strong compared with the insipid stuff served up elsewhere in the Russian Federation. Women fare much worse; in the politically incorrect middle of Russia, they are supposed to drink a luridly pink liquor described optimistically as "peach cocktail".

The natural successor to a couple of beers is a vodka-drinking competition. "Are you Russian," bellowed Yuri after downing a shot of vodka in a single, brutal swig, "or English?" I confessed to being English, and was allowed to sip the near-pure alcohol as he gulped. Social life in Tatarstan, as in the rest of Russia, seems to have some cultural limitations. Just before he subsided into sleep, Yuri was busily proclaiming the medicinal properties of Russian vodka. "We don't drink," he slurred, "we just cure." As I sipped and sympathised, the band played on. And on. Given the spectacular cultural achievements made in music and dance by Russia, it is all the more distressing to see the state to which popular culture has deteriorated: the songs and the hairstyles went out of fashion 20 years ago, but the house bands still bash out mediocre covers of the worst of Boney M.

If you can procure a ticket for the ballet, you are in for a cultural treat which will probably not leave you unconscious. The Opera and Ballet Theatre was built by German prisoners of war, and is the finest auditorium east of Moscow. The centrepiece is the crystal chandelier weighing nearly a ton, while the hammer and sickle on the proscenium arch reminds the audience of a different kind of burden. Behind the auditorium is a geometrically perfect ballroom. Frescoes depicting impossibly beautiful dancers are reflected in the implausibly polished mahogany floor. Most performances are sell-outs.

The most magical sight in the city requires no ticket; it opens every day and is always busily studious. The library on Lenin Street melts into the snows. Antonio Gaudi would have been proud of the fin-de-sicle curves that draw you up a droopy stairway, past dazzling stained-glass scenes of industrial heroism, to the grotto. For reasons no doubt lurking in the Tatar psyche, students are encouraged to swot in a man-made cave. Soil, laced with plants, daubs the walls while scholars ponder why a foreigner should find this tableau bewildering.

An even more perplexing exercise is wondering who Lenin is talking to. At the far end of Lenin Street the USSR's founder pops up again, in the modest fir-ringed garden in front of the presidential palace. He has been carved in stone,seemingly in animated conversation with a pile of books.

The owners of the new BMWs parked nearby are no doubt hard-working biznizmen (as entrepreneurs are known), but locals murmur about other possible sources of income. As well as in beauty, Kazan is in the big league, along with Moscow and St Petersburg, for crime. Its gangs are notorious, and regularly descend on Moscow to terrorise the citizens. As you wire shut the carriage door on the Tatarstan Express, which shuttles through the bleak snowfields between Kazan and the Russian capital, you might reflect on your good fortune that you are only a tourist.

F A C T F I L E

Getting there: Simon Calder flew London-Moscow on a discounted ticket bought through Fregata Travel (0171-734 5101), which sells flights on Finnair via Helsinki for £289 including tax. The train from Moscow to Kazan costs £30 each way in "soft" class, and takes 14 hours.

Accommodation: the Youth Hotel, across the river from the main part of Kazan, costs $90 (£60) a night. The Tatarstan Hotel, on the edge of the city centre, is $60 (£40). Neither is an especially delightful place to stay, so you might as well save cash and stay at the Tatarstan.

Further information: Russian Tourist Information Service, 0891 516951 (premium-rate) 9.30am-12.30pm Monday to Friday.

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