Kazan and Bishkek: Same Peaceful Coexistence, Different Histories

This week’s readings centered around the various faults in cities, which most often occur along lines of culture between different groups of people. For me these readings hit close to home, particularly those concerning issues related to the battle of multiculturalism vs integration. As always, all that I read and study I try to relate back to my own experiences at home or abroad, and for this week Only by learning how to live together differently can we live together at all’: readability and legibility of Central Asian migrants’ presence in urban Russia by Emil Nasritdinov was particularly germane to my own travels in the former Soviet space.

A core tenet of Nasritdinov’s work is the notion that, in certain instances, pressure to get varying groups of culturally diverse peoples occupying one urban space to conform to one overarching identity or allegiance is fraught with danger and in turn can cause greater friction between the different groups rather than a more tolerant environment. Conversely, he posits that allowing these different groups to keep their cultures and traditions and live parallel to each other, acting as symbiosis more than synthesis, fosters a more peaceful environment with less culture clash.  He uses the interplay between the different peoples in St. Petersburg and Kazan as case studies to exemplify his central point.

Kazan's "Temple of All Religions", Photo Credit: http://lh3.ggpht.com/-2OYgwN7558I/VOLjJf-fDRI/AAAAAAAA_dw/nJFP_12VHQw/temple-of-all-religions-kazan-4%25255B6%25255D.jpg?imgmax=800

Kazan’s “Temple of All Religions”

In Nasritdinov’s description of the interplay between the Christian Slavs and Muslim Tatars in Kazan and their simultaneous, yet peaceful, coexistence, I was brought back to my time in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where I noticed a similar phenomenon. In my experience there, I saw an entirely heterogenous city, not divided along the lines of two main demographics like in Kazan between Slav and Turk, but rather, multiple peoples from nearly every corner of the former Soviet Union. It was just as normal to see a Russian, as a Ukrainian, as a Kyrgyz, as an Uzbek, as one of the many peoples of the North Caucasus, or any other person who may have had ancestors in the Soviet space. What is more, while all having their distinct communities and spaces that they inhabit, it was completely normal to see members of each group keep friends and relationships with those outside their ethnicity.

This interplay that I witnessed superimposes shockingly well in practice over Nasritdinov’s description of the relationship between the two main groups in Kazan, instead with numerous in Bishkek. Interestingly though, the catalysts that made Bishkek and Kazan comparatively tolerant cities seem to be quite different. Kazan has existed in some form for nearly 1000 years, extending back to the period of the Mongol invasions. Due to its position as a frontier region that existed between Slav settlers and Tatar invaders, a natural equilibrium grew between the two peoples through a shared urban area with soft cultural segregation and tolerance of the other group to essentially “mind its own business”. Conversely, Bishkek is an incredibly recent settlement, having been founded as a military outpost in the 19th century by Russian settlers. The majority of the different ethnicities present in the city beyond those of Kyrgyzstan’s native peoples and the historical Russian settlers came to be due to mass deportations and resettlements instituted during the Soviet period.

Kazan, a welcome place for both Slavic churches and Turkic mosques

Kazan, a welcome place for both Slavic churches and Turkic mosques

Sad though the circumstances may be, I would posit that a mutual lot of misfortune and the necessity of survival through cooperation had something to do with the cordial, if not wholly warm, relations between the different ethnic groups in Bishkek, at least by my own observation. From my vantage point, there was very little impetus for the different peoples to conform to some larger identity of being “Kyrgyzstani”. In fact, those that I had experience with, devoid of ethnic origins, seemed to hold higher their identity as being someone from Bishkek as a sentimental focal point than the Kyrgyz national identity. Different peoples practiced different cultural traditions and no one seemed to step on anyone else’s toes, while everyone was a proud Bishkeker. While my experience is in no way officially studied or tested and is wholly anecdotal, it affirms the notion that peoples can live differently and also live together, as Nasritdinov would put it.

Me (looking terrible) with my two teachers in Bishkek, both of whom were long time friends, one ethnically Russian and one Balkarian (from the North Caucasus).

Me (looking terrible) with my two teachers in Bishkek, both of whom were long time friends, one ethnically Russian and one Balkarian (from the North Caucasus).

This post has been anecdotal indeed, and I will add to it with one more. Every saturday I would eat at the Uyghur restaurant “Faiza” during my time in Bishkek. It wasn’t uncommon to see Slavic faces, Turkic faces, Dungan faces, North Caucasian faces, and everything between all relaxing to enjoy a good bowl of boso lagman. One time I was joined at my table by three guys, one Russian, one Kyrgyz, and one Avar from Dagestan, and all members of the Kyrgyz national soccer team. The story doesn’t go much further from here, apart from there being an enjoyable lunch with three guys all of whom were obvious friends and teammates and their acceptance of me as something foreign with my at the time poor Russian. Their ethnic identities were simultaneously at the forefront, yet didn’t really matter, and certainly didn’t impede their capacities to enjoy each other’s companies. Nasritdinov would certainly have smiled upon us. While the circumstances that created the tolerant multiethnic nature of Bishkek differed from those of Kazan, both arrived at a similar state of equilibrium of peoples. Perhaps further study is required to observe what similarities both cities have in catalysts rather than differences.

Faiza: the Uyghur restaurant in Bishkek where everyone is united in the deliciousness of lagman, in spite of ethnicity

Faiza: the Uyghur restaurant in Bishkek where everyone is united in the deliciousness of lagman, in spite of ethnicity

 

Temple of All Religions photo source: http://lh3.ggpht.com/-2OYgwN7558I/VOLjJf-fDRI/AAAAAAAA_dw/nJFP_12VHQw/temple-of-all-religions-kazan-4%25255B6%25255D.jpg?imgmax=800

Kazan skyline photo source: http://ioi2016.ru/uploads/ckeditor/pictures/45/content_poster.jpg

 

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One Response to Kazan and Bishkek: Same Peaceful Coexistence, Different Histories

  1. Kathleen Smith

    You pick up a fascinating thread–what layers of identity do we carry with us and in terms of cities what does it take to be able to have a local identity. I wonder if citizenship is a necessary prerequisite to feel as if one belongs. Can you be a “Berliner” if you can’t access German citizenship? Or maybe local identity is stronger when the state is weaker. Is Bishkek an old city in a new state?

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