Some places attract us in the summer, others entice us during the winter. Not in Tatarstan, where holiday reigns all year round: the merry Maslenitsa (Pancake week), the Russian Karavon, the Tatar Sabantuy, the magical New year, the medieval combat festival Great Bolghar, and the cuisine festival Sviyazhskaya Ukha (fish soup). Whenever you come, joy, pleasure and fun awaits you here.
Whatever the stubborn calendar says, whatever the windy weather whispers, it is Maslenitsa which heralds the advent of spring. For a few days before Lent, Tatarstan dives into rollicking fun and pure joy. The Pancake carnival is celebrated in all major cities: Kazan, Yelabuga, Naberezhnye Chelny, Chistopol and, of course, in the fabulous island city of Sviyazhsk.
The frozen, crystal-filled air rings with the echo of playful songs, teasing ditties and a traditional Pancake chorus. Stately khorovods (circle dances) lure you into their magical circle. Encouraging cheers can be heard from the sites where bold hearts face off in contests, competitions and games. People are crowding around craftsmen's shopping stalls with skillfully made handicrafts and rich scents from portable kitchens. This is where they cook the main treat of Maslenitsa – pancakes, as round, golden and hot as the spring sun. Everyone is eagerly waiting for the main attraction of the celebration – the Maslenitsa farewell to winter. A huge, brightly-clad, straw man is burned, symbolizing the winter departure. By local customs, maslenitsa dolls are thrown into a giant fire where they burn with all the mischief they carry.
The Karavon Festival
Every year in late May, the quiet village of Nikolskoye, 30 kilometers away from Kazan, becomes the center of the Karavon – a public holiday of Tatarstan and a festival of Russian folklore. The villagers had hardly dreamed of such fame centuries ago, when this special tradition of celebrating the Day of St. Nicholas was originated. After the ceremonious liturgy, the time came for festivities. They were bona fide celebrations - three days long, filled with feasts, songs, dances, games and, of course, the "karavon". That is the name given by residents of Nikolskoye and nearby villages to the special khorovod dance: participants form a circle grab each other's pinky fingers, and walk clockwise with a kind of ‘duck’ step, converging and diverging and singing three strictly designated songs three times each.
In Soviet times, the tradition almost died, but was revived by enthusiasts in the 90s, having gradually become a cultural event of national scale. Today the Karavon celebration is attended by people from all over Russia willing to see performances by folk groups from Tatarstan, the Volga region, the Urals, Siberia, and to tap the treasury of the versatile and original Russian civilization.
A long time ago, Sabantuy – the plough’s feast – was celebrated in April, to praise the beginning of springtime farming work, but now it is celebrated in June, upon its completion. If you want to feel the spirit of the Tatar nation and familiarize yourself with its culture, then come to Sabantuy. This is the most Tatar holiday and it gives a welcome hug to all of its guests, regardless of ethnicity. The entire first half of June passes in Tatarstan under the sign of Sabantuy: first, it is celebrated in the countryside, then in large cities a week later and, finally, in Kazan, where the main Sabantuy of the Republic is held.
No matter which Sabantuy you attend, you will find yourself in the eye of a real festive hurricane. A formal opening is followed by a concert, then comes the phase of competitions for which a special site – the maidan - is equipped. Traditional ‘kuresh’ wrestling with towels is the highlight of the program. The best wrestler-warriors perform in front of hundreds of people, demonstrating their agility and strength. But if you want to participate and not only watch, then get ready — Sabantuy is ready in that everyone can test oneself and become a winner.
Tug of war, arm wrestling, comic running races in bags or with water-filled buckets on yokes, breaking of pots, fighting with hay bags while sitting on a log and other sabantuy games cannot be found in the list of official sports, so you don't need to be a professional athlete to participate. Bravery, sincere passion, and commitment to win is enough for the kind-hearted Sabantuy to present you with a chance of victory. The official celebration ends at noon but the spirit of celebration and fun stays in the air till the day ends.
If you were not lucky enough to attend Sabantuy, don't fret, come to Pitrau. That is the name of the holiday in honor of the apostles Peter and Paul, celebrated by Kryashens – baptized Orthodox Tatars – on July 12. After changing their faith, the Kryashens kept many of their national traditions and customs, so Pitrau is very similar to Sabantuy. However, there are some differences. Pitrau starts the celebration in the evening and it goes on until late at night. Pitrau is also called the holiday of love. It necessarily involves a marriage broker who collects notes from single girls and boys describing their desired sweethearts. The marriage broker compiles the most matching couples and pronounces the names. The newly-minted brides and grooms are given presents and invited to attend the event next year as the husband and wife.
The Medieval Combat Festival "Great Bolghar"
The effort and thrill of battle and victory – everything is in earnest here, even though the arms are not sharpened and the knights’ kits are supplemented with ‘unconventional’ mobile phones. Even the traditional craft fair takes the appearance of a medieval market, to add to the usual items you can buy like armor, historical jewelry and clothes. To make the plunge into history complete, spectators are offered master classes in medieval crafts and dancing, while the combative can learn archery or how to shoot real siege-guns.
The All-Russia Spasskaya Fair in Yelabuga
In the 19th century, the Spasskaya fair in Yelabuga was a marquee event, like the famous Makarievskaya or Nizhegorodskaya fairs. The Soviet era oblivion was interrupted only in 2008. The Spasskaya fair is the place where it is possible to not only buy products from experts from 150 cities in Russia and other countries, but also to see the manufacturing process and even try as an apprentice. The fair is traditionally accompanied by the festival of bell ringing and folk group performances. The
Republic of Tatarstan and the City of Kazan Day
On the second to last day of summer, Tatarstan celebrates the day the republic was established. This date has been declared an official holiday, so the day is celebrated on a wide scale with outdoor festivities, concerts, fireworks and, of course, feasts with family and friends. But August 31 is also a good day to be in Kazan, since this is the City of Kazan Day for the capital of the republic.
The Sviyazhskaya Ukha Festival
There is not a more mysterious dish in the Russian cuisine than ukha (the fish soup). So many secrets and rituals are related to this fire-smoke flavored broth of fish! And don't even think of calling it a soup! If you want to sort out this mystery, just develop a good appetite and set out to the ukha festival in autumn. The lively and rich ukha is directly related to Sviyazhsk, where fishing has been thriving since the town’s construction. Not without reason, the symbolic arms of the town carry five perches proudly floating above the blue waves.
If you inherited a secret recipe from your beloved grandfather or invented one by yourself, bravely apply to take part in the ukha team competition. The organizers will provide you with everything you need except for your own secret ingredients. If your team has not been assembled, but you still want to show your skills, then you can compete in high-speed fish gutting or fish arrangement. The festival program is not limited to chef's amusements: a medieval shooting gallery, handcraft workshops and a fair are there. And those who stay in Sviyazhsk for the evening can attend a folk group concert and a fire-light show.
In Tatarstan, the advent of New Year starts to be felt as early as the beginning of December, when the residence of Kysh Babai – the Tatar Santa Claus – opens in the village of Yanga Kyrlai. In the middle of a mysterious fir forest there is a spacious wooden house, where Kysh Babai and his granddaughter Kar Kyzy (the Tatar Snow Maiden) give their guests a hearty welcome. But before you get there, you will have to go through some adventures: get acquainted with the cunning Shaitan, learn from Shurale, the forest ghost, how to use the magic map, pass the tests of the golden-haired Altynchech, meet the prankish old witch Ubyrly Karchyk, and other characters from Tatar fairy tales. The efforts will be repaid with access: Kysh Babai will award a special diploma with his signature and seal and allow you whisper your dearest wish to a listener standing in the bedchamber.
The old year tears off the last calendar pages, immersing Tatarstan in the atmosphere of magic and miracle expectation. Now, Kazan has covered itself with a lace veil of glowing lights. The Republic’s main fir tree is set in Millennium square, and a Fairytale town opens its gate onto the Kremlin embankment. There is everything here that a town is supposed to have: shops and cafes, a school, a workshop, even the mayor's house, but everything bears a hint of fairy tale.
During the Christmas holidays, Sviyazhsk turns into a real pilgrimage destination for admirers of Russian fairy tales and winter fun. Every year, kids and adults can have a lot of fun taking part in the exciting interactive programs ‘Story about Nikita-the-Archer’ and ‘Sviyazhsk Amusements.’ On Christmas night the island town gives its guests a real miracle – the opportunity to touch ancient traditions and participate in carols together with local residents.
The winter adventures may continue in Sviyazhsk, and during these days it resembles the Pushkin island of Buyan. Its main square hosts a fabulous performance in which spectators act as the main participants. Christmas magic works wonders: the shy come out boldly to show themselves off in competitions, the serious laugh themselves into fits participating in imitation contests, and grown-ups play whole-heartedly, like they did in childhood. More fun and flavor is added by lively folk songs, amusing ditties and mysterious carols. People say: as you celebrate the New year, so you will live it – in Sviyazhsk you will fill the next twelve months of your life with joy, happiness and wonder.
The Kazan National Show
This bright and special, winter ethnic show can be seen during the Christmas holidays only. Its guests are offered a traditional dinner and a theatrical performance in which fairy tales are intertwined with facts: Tatar legendary characters tell visitors the history of Kazan in the language of dance and song.