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Kazan – the Peacock Big Enough to be Seen from Space

In about 2014 some genius decided to plant a peacock in front of the Kazan Kremlin.

Kazan is the currently the capital of Republic of Tatarstan, part of the Russian Federation. The city is relatively recent, but for over a thousand years there has been a state of some form in this region. One of the earliest of these was ‘Volga Bulgaria’, which was  a Muslim country even before Russia was Christian. Since those days its history has been a complicated mix of peoples, faiths and cultures. Anyone needing a cure from a simple nationalistic outlook on politics would do well to visit a place like Kazan. Islam dominates now, but Judaism, Christianity and others, have long-featured.

The view from the Kazan Kremlin towards the Kazanka River.

The view from the Kazan Kremlin towards the Kazanka River.

Today Kazan is a major tourist magnet. Just for a start, its walled-Kremlin, with buildings going back to the 16th century, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It dates back to when Ivan the Terrible invaded, and did his best to stamp out Islam and (unsuccessfully in the long run) make it Christian instead.  Inside the Kremlin there are a few museums and galleries. I’m a fan of portraits and ‘slices of life’ paintings and was thrilled to see some works of Pavel Petrovich Benkov and Nikolay Ivanovich Feshin at the Khazine National Art Gallery

Portrait by Pavel Petrovich Benkov (1926)

Portrait by Pavel Petrovich Benkov (1926)

A rather complicated scene by Nikolay Ivanovich Feshin (1914)

A rather complicated scene by Nikolay Ivanovich Feshin (1914)

The Natural History Museum of Tartarstan has a terrific paleontology collection and some high-tech. There’s one spot where you can stand, and when you look at a big digital screen,  you can see extinct animals wander up and sniff you out.

A mammoth walks up to me and checks me out at the Natural History Museum of Tatarstan in Kazan.

And now a sabre-tooth tiger saunters up to me, at the Natural History Museum of Tatarstan in Kazan.

And now a sabre-tooth tiger saunters up to me, at the Natural History Museum of Tatarstan in Kazan.

A shortish walk from the Kremlin is a very long pedestrian  street, with a lively market and various places to eat and drink. An even longer boardwalk has been built along the river and it seems that in recognition of the value of tourism, some careful planning is going into Kazans’ future development. ‘Careful’ being the operative word here – as at least some areas of ‘old’ Kazan have been leveled to make way for these grander tourism developments. I’ll get to them in a future post.

The main pedestrian street in Kazan.

The main pedestrian street in Kazan.

Part of the very long boardwalk along the river in Kazan.

Part of the very long boardwalk along the river in Kazan.

But in the meantime, these developments bring me to that peacock. Could it have been something to do with Muslim culture, I wondered?

Peacocks are odd things. I’m sure I remember my mother being annoyed that I once had a feather in the house (bad luck). The birds certainly puzzled Darwin. The males developed their massive, showy plumage – surely making them easier to be caught and eaten. But it seems like the benefits of being attractive to the females outweighed the risks of ending up as a meal (various analogies in human cultures). That much is science, but peacocks have been puzzling and somewhat ambivalent creatures in various Central Asian mythologies as well. For instance, they don’t feature (beyond passing references) in the Bible, but they are important in Hindu, Yazidi – and Muslim belief.

In the Bible story of Adam and Eve, there’s a snake. But in Islam, a peacock figures as well. Satan couldn’t corrupt the peacock but the peacock sent him the snake (Seems somehow less than virtuous to me). Whereas in Hindu, the peacock is sometimes figured as killing a snake – a symbol of the cycle of time,  while the Yazidis have a ‘Peacock Angel’.

The common threads in these tales spread across Central Asia would make (and may be they already have) an intriguing study. They would have been told back and forwards along the Silk Route for centuries, evolving all the time, although the Silk Route phenomenon was well to the south of Kazan and was basically over by the time Kazan was established (the Kingdom of Khazaria controlled part of the Silk Route until the end of the tenth century, the site of Kazan was on its border). However, if Putin and Xi have their way, Kazan will become central in a ‘New Silk Road’. In that sense, perhaps the symbol of a peacock is rather appropriate.

I have no idea why a peacock made of flowers was chosen for here – it’s probably just because … well, it looks so good with the Kazan Kremlin as a backdrop. At 30 m across, the Kazan peacock can be seen from space – at least from Google Earth (and perhaps there’s not much that can’t be these days), but I think it’s a nice touch.

The Kazan peacock as seen from GoogleEarth. Its at bottom-left and the walls of the Kremlin are on the right. In between is a road with a couple of cars for scale.


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