Leather-working had been important part of nomadic peoples’ lives. The artifacts of ornamented leatherwork found in Pazyryk (Siberian Permafrost, Altai Mountains) date back to 4th century BCE and exemplify the lifestyle and crafts of turkic people of steppe who had roamed the territories of modern Russia, Mongolia and countries of Central Asia.
Semi-nomadic turkic Tatars (Volga Bulgars) had settled by the banks of Volga and Kama rivers in the 7th century CE and had established a sovereign state of Volga Bulgaria. Volga Bulgars (ancestors of the modern Tatars) inherited the skillfulness, craftiness and creativity from the nomads and got extremely proficient at all levels of leather crafting: from processing hides to producing exceptional footwear. They became successful traders exchanging leather 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” (named after Volga Bulgaria – the state they were produced). Historical documents state the popularity of the leather footwear and the large scale of the leather manufacturing in Kazan Khanate (mid 15th-16th centuries)– the state that had inherited the territory, traditions, customs of Volga Bulgaria and had incorporated cultural features of the Golden Horde that became part of Volga Tatars’ lifestyle between mid 13th and 14th centuries. In 1552, Kazan Khanate was conquered and turned into Kazan province of Czardom of Russia.
By 17th century, skills of producing quality leather and ornamented footwear inherited from Volga Bulgars were turned into profitable in-home business in Kazan Khanate. Industrious Tatar craftsmen had opened up small workshops in Moscow, Torzhok. Tatar footwear were gaining popularity among Russian upper-class Moscovites and becoming part of well-recognized Russian costume.
By the 19th century, the Tatar leather footwear production managed to expand and to blossom thanks to the successful operation of large leather processing plants located in Kazan. Heavily decorated chitecks (“soft leather sock-boot” in Tatar) were worn by Tatar Muslim intelligentsia and aristocracy in Kazan and many other regions of modern Russia and neighboring Ottoman Empire populated by other turkic people (modern states of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Crimea).
Meticulously crafted exceptional Tatar boots (also Kazan boots, Tartar boots, ichigi / ichitygi – russified version of Tatar word schitek ) of highest quality exemplified popular in early 20th century “Russian Asia” art, which became associated with richness of unique combination of “Asian” (Turkic) vegetative ornamentations and bright colored leather of the items created by turkic-speaking population of the Russian Empire and the neighboring turkic-languages-speaking territories (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan). The beautiful Tatar boots made it to many fashionistas’ 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 industrialization Tatar footwear manufacturing has declined rapidly. USSR officially sanctioned the process of assimilation of cultures, folk arts and traditions of all ethnic minorities in its territory that were absorbed from Russian Empire and neighboring Ottoman Empire states. 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” is the state-owned company, led by the famous artist and designer Mr. Ildus Gainutdinov. Mr.Gainutdinov and another well-known professional designer, Ms. Alfiya Artemyeva, managed to pick up what’s left from the Arsk National Footwear company after the collapse of the Soviet Union and put Tatar boots and other leather items production in full force. Today, “Sahtian” employs number of embroiderers and shoe-makers, who spend many hours stitching and assembling intricate design patterns and pieces by hand and with love. All works are of high artistic quality.
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, Ms. Flyura Kalmurzina. There are other several amateur craftsmen working with leather mosaic in the Kazan metro area.