I first came to Kazan, Russia in the summer of 2011 to begin photographing daily life in a city heralded for religious tolerance among its half-Muslim Tatar, half-Orthodox Christian Russian population. In the beginning, I went searching for concrete moments when people of different faiths literally came together to create this tolerant city. What I realized, though, was that there was no magic moment, and that the truth of the situation was much more subtle and profound.
Kazan is the capital city of the Republic of Tatarstan, one of 21 semi-autonomous ethnic republics in the Russian Federation. Like many cities across Russia, Kazan went through a religious revival in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Churches and mosques were rebuilt, the Tatar language became an officially recognized language of Tatarstan alongside Russian, and ancient traditions kept alive in small villages fully integrated back into city life. What makes Kazan so extraordinary is that this process of religious revival has unfolded not only with a marked lack of tension, but often with a spirit of mutual respect.
There are, of course, several political, economic and historical factors that have contributed to the general tranquility in Tatarstan. Oil has brought financial stability to the region and people here enjoy a slightly higher standard of life than other republics. The Tatarstan government attempts to be balanced in its representation of both the Russian and the Tatar traditions and religions. Muslim Tatars practice the Sunni Hanafi school of Islam, one of the more moderate branches of the religion. Likewise, the Kazan Seminary is widely known in Russia to be more open and tolerant. Mosques and churches can sometimes be found directly across the street from one another, and religious leaders from the various faiths do occasionally gather to work on specific issues in the community.
What I found to be most important and influential, however, was that regardless of governments and religious institutions, it is the people of Kazan who everyday choose cooperation over conflict. A very deep sense of humanity runs through Russian society in general, but here there is also a fundamental belief that every person is entitled to the same things you want for yourself and your family. One needs to look no further than Russia’s own boundaries to understand the significance of this, but the majority of people in Kazan don’t give too much thought to their unique situation. When I asked, the response was almost always the same- it’s just the way it’s always been.
Kazan is far from perfect. Nationalistic sentiments can sometimes be heard from both sides, and in the summer of 2012 two prominent Muslim leaders were attacked, leaving one dead and one critically injured. In the end, however, this event did little to shake Kazan's solid foundation and served to reinforce the importance of what Tatars and Russians have worked for generations to create. Stories such as this are so lacking in our media, and therefore in our collective consciousness, and I strongly believe that there needs to be a fundamental shift in our perspective if we have any chance of bridging the chasm between various groups of people. With countless examples of violence and intolerance in the world, it is vital that we turn our attention to places that offer a different story.