The piece was exclusively penned for the website of the RIW Group by Tatyana Larionova, CEO, Tatarstan’s Vozrozhdenie Fund, Deputy Chairman of the State Council of the Republic of Tatarstan.

Historically, the Republic of Tatarstan has been home to multiple ethnic groups and two major nationalities, Russians and Tatars. The region is a role model and a recognized leader in dialogue between cultures, tolerance and accord, cooperation and mutual understanding between people practising different religions.

Efforts to restore monuments of historical and cultural legacy have been an important part of the campaign to strengthen peace and accord between religions in Tatarstan. Take the first site in Tatarstan that was placed on the UNESCO Heritage List – the Kazan Kremlin History and Architecture Complex. It is a testament to the interaction between religions and synthesis of Russian and Tatar architecture. Such a high status speaks to the exceptional value of the complex now recognized internationally and symbolizes respect for Tatarstan’s multi-ethnic population and its spiritual potential.

The reconstruction of the Kazan Kremlin, particularly simultaneous restoration and rebuilding of the two historical and religious treasures for Muslims and Christians, the Kul Sharif Mosque (Qolsarif Mosque) and the Annunciation Cathedral, was an invaluable experience. It proved handy for the next two major projects, the island town of Sviyazhsk and the ancient town of Bolgar.

 

For these projects, the Republic set up a dedicated regional fund in 2010, with Tatarstan’s first president and UNESCO Special Envoy for Intercultural Dialogue Mintimer Shaimiev as chairman of its board of trustees. His reputation as a strong leader and boundless trust united the people of Tatarstan around the idea to restore the towns of Bolgar and Sviyazhsk to preserve, and build on, the glorious traditions of the past.

Concurrent restoration of two religious sanctuaries, the ancient town of Bolgar where the Volga Bolgars adopted Islam voluntarily back in the 10th century, and the crown jewel of Christianity on the Volga River, the island town of Sviyazhsk, serves as a vivid example of ethnic and religious tolerance and a unique case of cooperation between the public and the government. Equal rights and attention to different religions and cultures lies at the core of Tatarstan’s policy and is the foundation behind the peace and accord between the ethnic groups in the region.

The massive project was endorsed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov and was financed out of the federal and regional budgets on a parity basis. It was a crucial decision since Bolgar and Sviyazhsk play an equally vital role for our people.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the large-scale undertaking brought together everyone in the community. The Vozrozhdenie Fund has received donations from people of different professions, financial standing, and corporations with different ownership structures and level of success. It has been supported with students, athletes and the creative community. Entire families and even villages took an active part in the project.

One of Mintimer Shaimiev’s slogans – from your heart and for your heart – is particularly relevant here. If you put your soul into a project, it comes back as pleasure and high spirits.

The entire Tatarstan came together to support the Vozrozhdenie Fund, with Bibivasima Khairutdinova, 103, being the oldest one. “I used to visit the smaller Minaret all my life. Today, due to health issues, I cannot pray there but I heard that it will be restored soon. I want my money to help the process. Let my grand- and great-grandchildren know that their granny was part of it in the past and today,” she said. Unfortunately, she is no longer with us but her story is very telling.

There have been examples when parents would make donations to the Vozrozhdenie Fund on behalf of newly born children making sure that their life starts with good deeds. I am positive that they would be proud to have been part of the country’s history.

Each of the donors, regardless of the sum, is registered in the Vozrozhdenie Fund’s Donors List. 74,000 names have been placed on the list over eight years. In 2018, we issued Volume 8 with 6,000 names. This is a token of gratitude and recognition for their support, kindness, generosity, and individual efforts to maintain the centuries-old charity traditions in Tatarstan, in particular towards history and culture monuments.

Our religious legacy has been increasingly appealing to domestic and international tourists. In 2010, when the Fund was set up, around 50,000 tourists visited Bolgar. Fast forward to 2017 that saw a tenfold increase to 540,900 tourists. This has been true to Sviyazhsk, too: 7,000 tourists came in 2010 while seven years later their number rose to more than 491,000. Visitors are surprised and fascinated by the caring attitude to culture and religion.

It comes as a result of hard work done by the Fund and all the stakeholders including our partners, volunteers, friends and colleagues. The two towns benefit from new museums, infrastructure, dredging works that allowed three- and four-deckers. More than 20 new museums have been opened in the past eight years, including 11 museums in Bolgar and nine in Sviyazhsk. 128 steamboats brought tourists to Bolgar in 2017 and 82 boats came to Sviyazhsk.

The restoration efforts completed in a short span of time made the Bolgar History and Archeology Complex as well as the Assumption Cathedral and Monastery eligible to be included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We are proud that Tatarstan leads among other Russian regions in the number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. What is more important is that each of the sites, the Kazan Kremlin, ancient Bolgar and the island town of Sviyazhsk, symbolize the idea of centuries-old dialogue between cultures and peace between religions internationally.

In 2016, Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov issued a decree to build the Bolgar Islamic Academy and restore Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral. Again, both sites were placed on the same decree.

The Bolgar Islamic Academy is a response to contemporary challenges. There was no comprehensive system of religious education in Russia before since their was no higher education establishment. It is a different situation today and religious scholars are no longer trained abroad – they study in their home country in an academic environment  that promotes tolerant Islam that has been traditionally preached in Russia.

Let us wish all the best to the future master degree and PhD holders in Islamic studies who completed their first semester. They will represent the future intellectual elite of Russia’s Ummah.

As for Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral, we must do justice to the historical value of both the icon and the former religious building. The cathedral had been blown up and a tobacco factory was built instead. It is nice to see that donations for the restoration come not only from people in Tatarstan, but also in Ufa, Samara, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities.

By June 2018 general construction works have been completed, work is now underway on the cathedral’s domes and façade. Interior works kicked off inside the Verkhny and Peshcherny churches.

All Tatarstan’s ethnic groups have taken part in the restoration efforts in the towns of Bolgar and Sviyazhsk. The White Mosque, the building marking the adoption of Islam, the Islamic Academy in the town of Bolgar have been built by Gran, a company led by Leonid Anisimov. The main sites in Sviyazhsk were restored by OAO TAIF led by Albert Shigabutdinov, Kazan Engine Production Union led by Damir Karimullin, and OOO Bakhetle led by Muslima Latypova.

It serves to show that we have a shared history, common ancestors and spiritual legacy. It is a force that unites all of us!

Tatarstan’s successful case study of inter-ethnic cooperation has been indeed very insightful and practical. We have invaluable experience of how diverse interests, ethnic, cultural and historical traditions could be aligned in the benefit of peace and accord. This is why the slogans “we stand together” and “we can” have always sounded and will sound meaningful to us. Tatarstan’s people have always believed in it.

Author: Tatyana Larionova, CEO, Tatarstan’s Vozrozhdenie Fund, Deputy Chairman of the State Council of the Republic of Tatarstan.