the paradoxes of kazan


Though he dropped out of Kazan University’s Faculty of Oriental Languages after his first year, Leo Tolstoy’s grades in Arabic and Turko-Tatar were good. It was history, which Tolstoy considered a “false science”, in which his examiners declared him a “total failure”. Tolstoy’s Professor of Turco-Tatar Letters was a Persian from the Caucasus called Mirza Kazem-Bek, who had been converted to Presbyterian Christianity by Scottish missionaries in the 1820s, changing his name from Muhammad to Alexander. Though he had rejected the Islamic way of life and thinking as “too fanatical”, and was a loyal subject of the Tsar, he proudly wore flowing robes and a silk turban in the streets of Kazan, and insisted on the Persian title “Mirza”, meaning “scribe”. Mirza Kazem-Bek embodied the paradoxes of Kazan, a city on the Volga, less than 450 miles east of Moscow, which in its turn embodies the paradoxes of Russian Orientalism. As the Encyclopedia of Islam summarizes, Kazan was a Muslim Tatar khanate in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and had become a Russian university town by the nineteenth. One traveller remarked on its “strange blend of Russian sophistication and Asian simplicity, Islam and Christianity, Russian and Tatar”.

more from Rachel Polonsky at the TLS here.