Leather-working had been important part of nomadic peoples’ lives. The artefacts of ornamented leatherwork found in Pazyryk (Altai Mountains) date back to 4th century BCE (before common era) and exemplify the lifestyle and crafts of people of the steppe (Huns, Saka/Scythian, Turks) who had roamed the vast territories of EurAsia (modern Russia, Mongolia, the countries of Central Asia). This short animation by Marjani Institute of History succinctly explains the origins of modern Tatars.
The semi-nomadic Tatars (amalgam of hunnic, turkic people) had settled by the banks of Volga and Kama rivers by the 7th century CE (common era) and had established a sovereign state of Volga Bulgaria. The Volga Bulgars (ancestors of the modern Tatars) inherited skilfulness, creativity from the steppe nomads and love of symmetry and natural beauty from the Islamic world (Volga Bulgars adopted Islam in 922). They got extremely proficient at all levels of leather crafting: from processing hides to producing exceptional footwear. They became successful traders exchanging leather and other goods throughout Asia and Europe for many centuries. Written sources, dating back to the 13th century, mention beautiful boots made from the soft and aromatic leather called “bulgari” (after the place it was made).
Historical documents state the popularity of the leather footwear and the large scale of the leather manufacturing in Kazan Khanate (1438-1552)– a state that had inherited the territory, culture, traditions, crafts of Volga Bulgaria. After Mongol invasion (1236), the Volga Bulgars and other Turkic people of the steppe became referred as Tatars by the Westerners. After the brutal seize of Kazan in 1552 by Muscovite Tzar Ivan the Terrible, Russian Orthodox aristocracy made much effort for all descendants of Volga Bulgars to be called Tatar (the word that has had negative connotation and contempt).
By the end of 17th century, production of quality leather and ornamented footwear recovered from devastation and turned into profitable business. The industrious Tatar craftsmen opened up many successful production and shops within and outside of Kazan area: in the towns of Tsardom of Russia (Moscow, Torzhok, Novgorod, Orenburg, Tobolsk), of Central Asia, of Middle East, of the Caucasus.
By the 19th century, the Tatar leather footwear production expanded and to blossomed thanks to the successful operation of large leather processing plants located in Kazan in neighbouring cities. Beautifully decorated shchiteqler (“soft decorated leather sock-boot” in Tatar) were worn by Tatar Muslim and Russian Orthodox aristocracy in Kazan, Moscow, NizgniNovgorod. The boots became popular in other regions of Russian Empire (becoming a part of well-recognized Russian costume) and neighbouring Ottoman Empire (modern states of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tadjikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Crimea).
Meticulously crafted exceptional Tatar boots (also Kazan boots, Tartar boots, ichigi / ichitygi – the Russified version of Tatar word shchiteqler ) of highest quality exemplified popular in early 20th century “Russian Asia” art, which became associated with richness of unique combination of “Asian” (Islamic) vegetative ornamentations and bright colored leatherwork created by the Tatars. The skilfully-decorated Tatar boots became undeniable part of many fashionable people’s wardrobes after being displayed at famous World Fairs in London in 1851, Chicago in 1893, Paris in 1925.
With the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and due to the industrialization, Tatar footwear manufacturing has declined rapidly. USSR officially sanctioned the process of assimilation of cultures, folk arts and traditions of all ethnic indigenous minorities in its territory that were inherited from Russian Empire and neighbouring then Ottoman Empire. Induced sigma of irrelevance left non-Russian, minority folk arts unsupported by federal authorities, undesired and looked-down by the Russian-majority population.
The cultural boom of 1960s brought increased interest to folk traditions and cultures of 150+ ethnicities populating the vast territory of the USSR. Tatar leatherwork got its momentum back: Arsk National Footwear state-owned company was established in the outskirts of Kazan-city to produce ethnic footwear primarily for dance companies. European fashion, Yves Saint Laurent, in particular, got inspiration from the unique Tatar boot decorations in his 1976 collection.
Currently, more than 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the art of Tatar Leather Mosaic is kept alive by the efforts of several individual craftsmen and designers, as well as couple of workshops located in the suburbs of Kazan.
“Sahtian” – a privately owned business that is operated by designers Ildus Gainutdinov and Alfiya Artemyeva – is the only company on the market that keeps inventory in the store. Sahtian continues the legacy of Arsk Footwear production that was established during 60ies of Soviet Union. “Sahtian” manufactures unique Tatar footwear of the highest artistic quality.
There are several other small workshops ( “Ay.Bulgari“, “Alsu Musavirova“, “Turan Art”, “Marianych”) who actively work in reviving and popularizing leather mosaic traditions. They use traditional ornamental patterns as well as experiment combining the old techniques with modern innovations. Among the artists and professionals creating leather mosaics are Ms. Nailya Kumysnikova, Ms. Sofia Kuzminykh, Ms. Svetlana Garbuzova, Ms. Alfia Zamilova, Ms.Tatiana Shilintseva, late Ms. Flyura Kalmurzina. There are other several amateur craftsmen working with leather mosaic in the Kazan metro area.