In considering the most important cities in Russia, it is inevitable that Moscow and St. Petersburg top nearly everyone’s list. These are the political, economic, and cultural centers of the country, replete with Russia’s most famous landmarks, like the Kremlin, Red Square, and the Winter Palace. Together, they form the core of Russia, at once the centers of power and those historically targeted by Russia’s enemies, from Napoleon to the Nazis.
Yet in contemplating the future of Russia, a third city could someday join the ranks of these two juggernauts: Kazan, the capital of the region of Tatarstan. Located almost 450 miles to the east of Moscow, Kazan may seem an unlikely occupant of such a role. But Kazan offers perhaps the clearest illustration of Russia’s identity as a transcontinental, multiethnic country straddling both Europe and Asia. And as Russia’s demographics shift in the coming decades away from a predominantly Slavic, Orthodox Christian population to one that is increasingly Muslim and non-Slavic, the country’s very national identity is likely to evolve. In this way, Kazan could serve as both an important symbol and harbinger for things to come in Russia, one that foreshadows both challenges and opportunities for the country.
Kazan holds no small place in Russia’s long and storied history. It was in this city in 1552 that Ivan the Terrible vanquished the Tatars of the Kazan Khanate, one of the successor states to the Mongol horde that ravaged and ruled over Russia for centuries. Ivan’s victory served as Russia’s final stand against the Tatars, and the Siege of Kazan, as it came to be known, set the stage for Russia’s colonial expansion eastward into Siberia and Central Asia and westward into Europe. This, in turn, served as the catalyst for what would eventually turn the proto-state of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy under Ivan the Terrible into the Russian Empire centuries later.
Yet, as Russia continued to expand and joined the table of the premier colonial powers of Europe, it never fully fit in amongst the Continent. This was because, unlike the distant, overseas empires of countries like England or France, Russia’s empire was contiguous, spanning the plains, steppes, and mountains of the vast Eurasian landmass. Thus, Russia’s imperial expansion brought in not only multitudes of non-European, Asian peoples — from Tatars and Bashkirs to Chechens and Ingush — but also incorporated their cultures and political traditions to a greater extent than did the colonial powers of Western Europe. This included the religious influence of Islam, as well as a political tradition of a highly centralized state revolving around a strong, almost mythical leader — whether in the form of khan, czar, or president.
This fostered a unique identity within Russia — at once European and Asian, but not entirely part of the West or the East. This was reflected both geographically, with Russia stretching across both continents, and in the country’s cultural and political makeup. This is a phenomenon that has persisted to this day, with Kazan serving to epitomize the blend of East and West that serves as a crucial part of Russia’s identity in the modern era. Indeed, Kazan is one of the most diverse cities in Russia, with its population of over 1.2 million people evenly split between ethnic Russians (48.6%) and ethnic Tatars (47.6%). The Tatar and Russian languages can be heard in roughly equal measure walking the city’s streets, and Kazan’s architecture mixes eastern and western styles throughout the city.
Nowhere is this diversity clearer than on the grounds of the Kazan Kremlin (there are, in fact, multiple kremlins in Russia; the term simply refers to a “fortified central complex,” dozens of which can be found in cities across the country). Alongside the Kremlin’s administration buildings and the Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral stands the Qolşärif Mosque, with its facade of white tiles, turquoise dome, and four piercing minarets. Inaugurated in 2005 with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Qolşärif is the largest mosque in Europe outside Istanbul. It is a testament to the long roots of Islam’s influence in Russia and its coexistence with Orthodoxy, having been rebuilt four centuries after the original mosque was burned down in Ivan’s conquest.
Outside of the Kremlin grounds, there are many other examples of Kazan as a melting pot of Western and Eastern influences. There is the Temple of All Religions, a complex that houses not only an Orthodox church and a mosque but also a synagogue and pagoda, among others. There are the many tea shops and halal restaurants to be found throughout the city, where one can find waitresses wearing headscarves and groups of Tatar and Chechen men sitting and chatting over tea.
Despite these diverse cultural influences, Kazan is unmistakably a contemporary Russian city. Indeed, Kazan is currently one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the country, and is among the top 10 cities in Russia, according to gross metropolitan product. The region of Tatarstan is the site of significant oil and natural gas production, and Kazan is also a large industrial hub, with petrochemical plants, food processing centers, and factories producing military equipment. More recently, Kazan has emerged as a tech hub, housing one of the largest IT parks in Russia. Not coincidentally, the city has been branded as “The Third Capital of Russia.”
Like other major cities in Russia, Kazan also faces its fair share of challenges. The city’s politicians have been accused of corruption, and Tatarstan has periodically been the target of Islamist activity. In 2020, for example, Russian security services reportedly captured Islamic State cells there that were allegedly planning to conduct a series of attacks in Russia before joining other Islamic State fighters in Syria. Yet Kazan and the Tatarstan region — on account of its more developed economy and mainstream form of Islam — has avoided the large-scale militant activity and terrorist attacks that have plagued more turbulent Russian republics like Chechnya and Dagestan.
Of course, like many other multiethnic, multi-religious countries, the blending of Russia’s European and Asian identities is not always fluid. The country has its fair share of right-wing and ultranationalist activity, and migrants and ethnic minorities can often be the targets of harassment or violent attacks. In this way, Kazan is no exception. One of the city’s residents I spoke with, a Tatar man in his mid-40s, told me that he felt that any problems in Russia are always blamed on one of three groups: Tatars, Jews, or Chechens. Russia is still an imperial country, he said, it just comes in different and more subtle forms nowadays.
Another resident I spoke with, a woman in her early 30s, discussed similar challenges. She had grown up in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, though she was born in Uzbekistan and her maternal grandparents were Korean. She said that she had felt different growing up in Russia, with people sometimes pointing and laughing at her due to her appearance, occasionally calling her “Asiatka.” But now she had a successful career, working in finance at an international company after going to a reputable university in Moscow, and she felt more comfortable in her skin. She said it felt good to be unique and that she had no intention of leaving Russia despite substantial opportunities for doing so.
Yet another Kazan resident, a native of the North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia, told me that ethnic discrimination can come in many forms, such as the expanded security checks at Russian airports from any flights that come from Ingushetia and other North Caucasus republics. He had lived in Kazan for decades, moving there to study business and then eventually starting his own pharmaceutical sales company. His grievances had more to do with the regulatory environment in Russia: You have to pay a lot of taxes if you own your own business, he said, and it could be taken by the government at any time. Nevertheless, he said that it was possible to have success in the country even if you are an ethnic minority, assuming you have the right connections. He invoked an adage and title of a popular book about life in the new Russia: “Nothing is true and everything is possible,” referring to the simultaneous and sometimes disorienting mix of opportunities and challenges facing residents in the country.
Such dynamics are likely to be accentuated further as Russia’s demographics shift in the coming decades. Currently, Muslim communities as a whole make up at least 10% of Russia’s population of 142 million people, which is already 2-3 times the size of the largest Muslim populations in many European countries. However, that number is projected to increase to as much as 30% of the population in the coming decades because birth rates among ethnic Russians (1.3 children per woman) are on average far lower than those of Muslim communities (2.3 children per woman). According to U.N. estimates, Russia’s overall population is projected to decline by nearly 7% by 2050, so Russia’s Muslim population can be expected to continue to grow in both absolute and relative terms.
This trend could accelerate even further if Russia chooses to make up for its loss of overall population by allowing for greater immigration — with the likeliest sources coming from countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Such sources of immigration resemble the cultural and religious features of Kazan much more than, say, Saratov or Novosibirsk, which are less ethnically diverse. And it is such former Soviet republics — from Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan to Tajikistan — that already share historical and cultural ties to Russia, making their citizens’ assimilation easier than outside of the region. Thus, from a demographic perspective, Russia is likely to increasingly approximate the East-West blend of Kazan in the coming years and decades, and this will undoubtedly impact the social and political trajectory of the country.
This also has significant implications for Russia’s national identity, which has undergone many iterations in recent decades, from the communist ideology of the Soviet Union, which preached socialism and ethnic harmony, to the brief flirtation with capitalism and democracy in the early years of the Russian Federation in the 1990s. The former collapsed under economic inefficiencies, military overreach, and a geopolitical struggle with the United States, while the latter spelled disaster for Russia, leading to the rise of oligarchs and two bloody separatist conflicts in Chechnya.
What followed in their wake is the modern Russian era, encompassing the last two decades under President Vladimir Putin, who has forged a new path. Putin restored stability on the domestic front by reining in the oligarchs and co-opting the Chechens, eschewing liberal democracy for strong presidential rule. Of course, this renewed stability came at a significant cost, including clampdowns on independent media, journalists, activists, the LGBT community, and all genuine political opposition. What replaced them was a power vertical and intolerance to dissent, as the ongoing saga with opposition leader Alexei Navalny shows. Russia also took on a more confrontational stance with the West while reestablishing itself as an assertive regional power in the former Soviet sphere, as seen from Georgia to Ukraine. Russia became even more active in challenging the United States globally, from intervening militarily in Syria to increasing economic and security ties with China. Putin has pushed an identity for the country that emphasizes stability and Russia’s return as a great power, which in turn has fostered growing Russian nationalism.
However, Putin has been careful to control Russia’s nationalist tendencies on the home front, knowing that he must incorporate not only ethnic Russians but also the country’s many minorities into this nationalism. Putin knows that Orthodox Slavs are not the only face of Russia and that he risks alienating the large and growing minorities in pursuing a strongly nationalist line, thus undermining the stability that he has sought to reinstate in the new Russia. The same goes for religious support, as the Kremlin must reconcile Orthodoxy with Islam. As such, the brand of nationalism that Putin has come to champion rests on promoting the greatness of Russia itself, not ethnic Russians in particular. The strength of the Russian state therefore rests as much on being able to reconcile and successfully blend its internal differences as its ability to overcome external challenges and pressures.
To be sure, this has not been done seamlessly, as shown by Russia’s crackdown against Crimean Tatars following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and periodic attacks against Russian security forces by Islamist groups in Chechnya and elsewhere in the country. And preserving stability is likely to become even more complex and challenging in the future, post-Putin era, when Russia may not have the kind of entrenched leadership that is able to balance the various political and security challenges on the home front and externally. Add to this a shifting demographic picture coupled with disruptive technologies, and the situation may prove to be combustible for Russia.
Which brings us back to Kazan. The city has shown up to now that Russia’s diverse ethnic and religious communities can coexist in a relatively stable fashion, albeit not without tensions and periodic difficulties. But the question remains as to whether Russia as a whole can mirror Kazan as the country’s demographics shift and its political system inevitably evolves, or whether it will go in a more unstable and volatile direction. At stake is nothing less than Russia’s future.