Fourth of July, County Fair Combined in Tatarstan

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In the Russian republic of Tatarstan, the big holiday everybody looks forward to dates back to pagan times. Sabantui is a day of games, horse races, wrestling matches and family picnics. Every town and village celebrates. This year, half the population of the capital Kazan came out to a park on the city outskirts.


The Russian peoples over the centuries have lived through wars, invasions and all manner of upheaval. But for the Tatar nation along the Volga River one thing has remained constant: a festival called Sabantui. NPR's Martha Wexler went to a fairground outside the Tatar capital, Kazan, to see what it's all about.

MARTHA WEXLER reporting:

It's like a giant Fourth of July celebration and county fair combined.

(Soundbite of music)

WEXLER: But it dates back to pagan times. In every town, in every village, through Tatarstan, family and friends gather for a day of revelry. Dancers in brightly colored folk costumes meet visitors at the gates. Maidens holding bouquets and plates heaping with a treat called chuck chuck(ph) greet a very important guest, the chairman of Tatarstan's parliament.

(Soundbite of people talking in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: He addresses the girls in Russian and Tatar and asks permission to proceed. Permission is granted, then the politician glad-hands crowd and goes on to the main business of the day: the games.

(Soundbite of games under way)

WEXLER: There are horse races, announced in both Tatar and Russian.

(Soundbite of announcing over loudspeaker)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)...Bel Conto(ph).

WEXLER: Bel Conto, a horse owned by a Tatar oil company, comes in first, winning a Russian-made car for his jockey. The day before the Sabantui, Tatarstan opened a huge mosque, so there are Arab sheiks and other Muslim dignitaries in town. They take in the horse races from a reviewing stand.

But there's nothing Islamic about Sabantui. This agricultural holiday predates Islam and remained unbroken through the Soviet era. This year a retired couple, Yacoup(ph) and Vilsivat Karamougen(ph), remember the holiday back in 1941.

Mr. YACOUP KARAMOUGEN: (Foreign language spoken)

Mrs. VILSIVAT KARAMOUGEN: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. KARAMOUGEN: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: It was the day Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Mr. Karamougen was enjoying himself on the banks of the Volga and it wasn't until he returned to town that he discovered the great patriotic war had begun.

(Soundbite of music and shouting)

WEXLER: There is plenty of Tatar music and dancing, but there's Russian music here as well.

(Soundbite of Russian music and singing)

WEXLER: Four high school girls in '60s style peasant dress with flowers in their hair come to entertain a group of disabled people. They eagerly interrupt their picnic to perform a Russian ballad that they say has an Irish feel.

(Soundbite of ballad)

SANYA(ph), DIANA(ph), DILIARA(ph) and MOSHA(ph): (Singing in foreign language)

WEXLER: Sanya, Diana, Diliara and Mosha are from Tatar and Russian families. There are lots of mixed marriages here in Tatarstan and, apparently, there always have been. Some Tatars have very Asian features, like the Mongols who conquered them in the 13th century. Other Tatars are blond and blue-eyed.

(Soundbite of ballad)

SANYA, DIANA, DILIARA and MOSHA: (Singing in foreign language)

WEXLER: The fairgrounds sprawls here across fields and a birch forest. The paths through the woods are dotted with souvenir tents. The aroma of shish kebab rises from the many barbecue stands. And here in the clearings are the games...

(Soundbite of games; crowd cheering)

WEXLER: ...the wrestling matches, the climb-the-pole contest, the whack-a-pot-while-blindfolded contest and the very traditional Tatar game of dunking for coins or, in this case, small magnets, in bowls of fermented milk called katyk.

(Soundbite of contest)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: A teen-ager named Rafice(ph) extracts the magnet with his teeth and emerges with a smiling, milky face. This may be an ancient sport, but his prize shows that Tatarstan has entered the modern global era.

(Soundbite of contest)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: As the emcee tells the crowd, look what a person is willing to do to get a mobile telephone from Euronet and Motorola. Martha Wexler, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music; ballad)

SANYA, DIANA, DILIARA and MOSHA: (Singing in foreign language)

KAST: You are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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