Public buildings in Kazan have two flags above their entrances.
Alongside the recognisable Russian standard flies a green, white and red flag – the symbol of the Republic of Tatarstan.
It may be only a short flight from Moscow – and host to six matches during the 2018 FIFA World Cup – but Tatarstan’s capital Kazan is no ordinary part of Russia.
Street signs are marked with both Russian and Tatar, a Turkic language, while mosques are more common than the ornate Orthodox churches that feature prominently in other Russian cities.
The region has long been the meeting point of east and west in Russia; the name Kazan, “cooking pot” in Tatar, hints at this fusion.
“Kazan is the place where two rivers meet: where cultures collide, where Asia meets Europe and Christianity meets Islam,” says Aydar, a jovial ethnic Tatar.
“It might sound like an advertisement but it is true,” he continues. “We have no problems with tolerance – Muslims go to Christian parties and Christian people gladly celebrate Muslim holidays.”
The stunning blue and white Qolşärif Mosque overlooks the city.
Dating back to the 16th century, it was once considered the largest mosque in Europe.
The mosque is a defining symbol of the city, and Islam is a visible part of everyday life here – a remarkable feat in a country that has often battled against religious extremism, most recently in the North Caucasus.
But it is not all good news in Kazan.
Since the early 1990s, Tatarstan has enjoyed special autonomy from Russia.
The treaty guaranteeing that autonomy – and respect for Tatarstan’s distinct cultural identity – lapsed last year. A new deal is yet to be signed.
Some locals fear that their cultural heritage is under threat from Moscow.
Last year a law that had made classes in the Tatar language compulsory was repealed.
“The reform caused a lot of noise,” explains Aydar. “Some people say that the Tatar language is the foundation of stability here – the way we erase differences and prevent cultural segregation.
“Others ask why we should learn this ‘un-useful’ language?”
There may be political storm clouds on the horizon for this picturesque part of central Russia.
For now, though, the local population has embraced the World Cup and the Socceroos, who have based themselves at the facilities of local hockey club Ak Bars Kazan
A large number of Australian fans will arrive on Friday (local time), when the Green and Gold Army descend on Kazan.
“It is a fantastic city,” says Michael Edgley, director of the fan travel group that has brought 600 Australians to the tournament.
“Kazan is the Muslim capital of Russia. It is a vibrant region with a strong economy. And there’s an incredible FIFA live site by the river right in the middle of the city.”
Kazan’s autonomous streak was on display at the fan fest during Thursday’s World Cup opener.
The evening’s host was careful to welcome guests to the “amazing and hospitable lands of the Republic of Tatarstan”.
The region’s national dessert, chak-chak, had been baked into a giant football and was being sliced off to visitors for free.
Ahead of Saturday’s first match at the Kazan Arena – Australia’s tournament opener – final cosmetic touches are being made to the cityscape. Flowers are being planted, streets cleaned.
Despite the political uncertainty, the people of Kazan are ready to enjoy the party.
“It is still unbelievable,” says Aydar. “The World Cup is the biggest event we have ever hosted, and we are all excited.”
In Kazan? Don’t miss
- Wander through the walled Kazan Kremlin, home to the stunning Qolşärif Mosque.
- Go for a ride on the circular tram-line, which passes through most of the city’s main neighbourhoods.
- Visit the National Museum, to learn about the history of this fascinating region and some of the key figures from its rich past.
- For the intrepid, drive two hours south to Bolgar – a thousand-year old village with impressive archaeological sites.
- Eat delicious desserts at Davanika (Tatar for “grandmother”) or mingle with the South American fans over tacos at Cuba Libre.
- Drink at Fomin, a tiny craft beer bar that can fit just 15 people, or put on your dancing shoes at Sol Bar.