Friday, 13 July 2012

   Pulling into the station at Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, early in the morning of Sunday 22nd May, one of the first things that struck me was that signs are written not only in Russian but in the local Tatar language, with its own alphabet. After paying for the privilege of a hot shower at the station, my first priority was to find the Catholic church for Mass; a new blue and white edifice, also dedicated to the Elevation of the Cross, owing its construction in part to the goodwill generated by Pope John Paul’s gift. I had a brief but pleasant talk with the young priest afterwards, who agreed to pray for my long-held intention to teach the Russian language. Then i made my way towards Our Lady’s monastery, but was drawn to an interesting-looking church on the way, with a blue and white onion dome atop an octagonal bell-tower. It turned out to be the Petropavlovski (Peter and Paul) cathedral, essentially two churches, one above the other, both distinguished by regal iconostases and beautiful frescoes. Before leaving i bought two little icon reproductions, one of Our Lady and one depicting SS Peter and Paul.

Our Lady of Kazan
   A short climb then brought me within sight of the elegant red and white walls and blue-green dome of the Monastery of the Theotokos. The icon is housed in another ‘upstairs’ church, where i joined an orderly line of Orthodox believers, saying their prayers before the icon in turn. Once again i was impressed by the reverance of children as they did this, un-self-consciously wishing to pay their respects and make their petitions, almost as if the icon was no mere representation, but the Blessed Virgin herself, with Our Lord in her hands. After my prayers, which included a Memorare for Church unity, in the repository outside i bought a little modern illustrated Russian language book about the Prophet Elijah.

   Then i made for Kazan’s Kremlin, a UNESCO World Heritage site with much of its 16th century white-washed fortifications and bastions, as well as its cathedral, intact. Having said that, not least important is the elegant Qol’sharif Mosque, built in this century to replace one that was destroyed when Ivan the Terrible captured the site in 1552. But i particularly enjoyed my visit to the Annunciation Cathedral. A recording of superb choral music was an important part of this experience, but above all the frescoes, some telling the story of the icon, i suggest, give it an interior that could be set beside that of almost any ecclesiastical structure in the world.

The Kremlin, Kazan, with mosque and (behind) cathedral.
   Towards the outskirts of Kazan i came to a “more western than the west” shopping mall with a cinema, and decided to buy a ticket to watch the new Pirates of the Caribbean flick, starring Ian McShane. Familiar to British television viewers from his signature role of Lovejoy (the lovable rogue antiques dealer), in the film he plays swarthy Bristolian swashbuckler 'Black Beard'. So in a sense his inimitable Lovejoy locks had, if you like, migrated, from the back of his head, round to his face.

   Afterwards i eventually found a suitable place to spend the night, out of sight under the ground floor balcony of an apartment block. Then next morning i stopped at a roadside cafe with an Arabic inscription above the entrance, serving as a reminder that Tatarstan is a major stronghold of Islam within Russia – hence the privileged position of the Mosque, inside the walls of the Kremlin. Curiously, as a backdrop to a news broadcast on TV there was the iconic black and white image of Bobby Moore, held aloft by his teammates in jubilation over England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup[1].

[1] A victory for which they had to thank the so-called ‘Russian linesman’, though in fact it was an Azeri official, Tofiq Bahramov, who awarded Geoff Hurst’s goal-line flirting (to put it mildly) third England goal in the final. He is said to have later received a golden whistle from the Queen in recognition of his services to English football.    

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