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 6th-3d centuries BC 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-tribal turkic Tatars had settled by the banks of Volga and Kama rivers in 7th-8th century and established a sovereign state of Volga Bulgaria. Volga Bulgars (ancestors of the modern (Volga) 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 Historical documents mention the popularity of leather footwear and the large scale of leather production in Kazan Khanate (mid 15th-16th centuries)– the state that had inherited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 was part of Volga Tatars’ lifestyle between mid 13th and 14th centuries.
Production of the quality ornamented leather footwear had become very profitable in-home small business not only in Kazan Khanate, many small workshops had opened up in Moscow by Tatar craftsmen. Tatar footwear had been gaining popularity among Russian upper-class Moscovites and becoming part of well-recognized Russian costume.
After brutal siege of Kazan in 1552 by Russian Tsar Ivan the Great, Kazan Khanate was turned into Kazan province of Czardom of Russia: Tatar intelligentsia was destroyed and majority of islamic population was forced to change their faith to christianity. It took much time for resilient Tatar people to recover from the tragic loss and devastation.
By the late 18th – early 19th centuries, 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).
Production of Tatar boots (also Kazan boots, Tartar boots, ichigi / ichitygi – russified version of Tatar word schitek ) became profitable business in the 19th and early 20th century. Meticulously crafted exceptional Tatar boots and other leather goods of highest quality became once again tremendously popular among Russian aristocracy and artists. Tatar boots exemplified popular in early 20th century so called “Russian Asia” art, which became associated with richness of unique combination of “Asian” (Turkic) vegetative ornamentations and bright colors 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.
The overall economic downturn during the World War I affected the production of Tatar boots. The establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the drastic change from capitalistic to socialistic structure, and the process of inevitable industrialization – all these contributed to the rapid decline of Tatar footwear manufacturing. Also, the USSR officially sanctioned the process of assimilation of cultures, folk arts and traditions of all ethnic minorities in its territory (thus assigning the sigma of irrelevance) leaving the minority-crafted goods unsupported by 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 picked 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 several 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.