History: Starting point
Leatherwork has always been an important part of nomadic peoples’ lives, and the nomadic Tatars were no exception. The Tatars are a Turkic ethnic group with a total world population thought to be about ten million. The majority of Tatars live in the Volga region of the modern Russian Federation. The Tatars are well-known across Russia for their craft skills. Historically, they were extremely proficient at all levels of leather crafting, from processing hides to producing gorgeous footwear. The Tatars of the Volga region were also great traders, with the Volga River being a natural trade route. This helped to spread their leatherwork and reputation well beyond their own communities. The history of Kazan leather mosaic dates back to the Middle Ages, when Turkic tribes populated the Volga region in the 8 and 9th centuries. In the beginning of the 10th century, they established a new sovereign state called Volga Bulgaria. Volga Bulgaria’s location in between the West and East made the state an important and valuable center of communication and exchange. The capital of the state was situated on a major trade route – the Volga River. Volga Bulgaria’s cultural and trade interests were very much connected with Eastern countries, which dramatically influenced the development of local craftsmanship.
Writings dating back to the 13th century mention beautiful boots made from soft and aromatic leather called “bulgari”, which was named after Bulgaria – the area where they were produced. The word “bulgar” still means colorful aromatic leather in modern Farsi. There are more historical documents that mention the popularity of leather footwear and the large scale of leather production in the Kazan Khanate – the state that had inherited the territory, tradition and customs of Volga Bulgaria, and incorporated many other features of the Tatar Mongol tribes that invaded the area of the modern Republic of Tatarstan in the 13th century. Production of Kazan leather footwear was an in-home, individual enterprise during most of that time. In the beginning of the 19th century, leather production became an organized business. The leather boot business expanded and blossomed also because of leather processing plants located in Kazan. Production of well-known Kazan boots – also called Tatar (Tartar) boots, or ichigi (from Russian ичиг), or schitek (from Tatar читек) – was popular and very profitable in the 19th and early 20th century. Expensive Tatar boots and other leather goods became tremendously popular among Russian aristocracy and artists. These goods represented so-called Russian Asia art, which was associated with the richness of Asian ornamentation and bright colors. The basic design of Kazan boots was adopted by Paris fashion in the beginning of the 20th century. During that period Kazan footwear was exported to Western Europe, as well as to America. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston possesses Tatar boots that might have been worn by a stylish American woman.
The overall economic downturn during World War I affected the production of Kazan boots, which had a pre-war production of more than a million pairs per year. Leather and boot production deteriorated. The Soviet government provided some official support, but the change in political structure from capitalistic to socialistic made a huge impact on the art of leather mosaic. There were no marketing and no wealthy buyers anymore; and, as a result, the younger generation had no interest in taking the craft over. Industrialization also played a big role in the decline of hand-made goods. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) officially sanctioned process of assimilation of cultures and traditions of ethnic groups meant any art other than Russian art was considered irrelevant and thus largely unsupported by authorities.
The cultural boom in the 1960s, along with an increased interest in folk traditions and cultures of the over 100 ethnicities in the USSR, brought some attention to Kazan leatherwork and sparked an interest to reviving its production. In the 1960s and ‘70s two workshops (small production companies) were established; they produced small amounts of footwear primarily for dance companies. See examples of the boots while watching Tatar folk dance.
Today, more than 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the art of leather mosaic has occasional grant support, which is insufficient to keep the production of leather masterpieces rolling. The art is still alive with tremendous effort from a few individual craftsmen and designers, as well as a couple of workshops located in the suburbs of Kazan. Production of Kazan leather goods, which had become a “mass” production of inferior quality, is now a recognized as decorative and applied art. It continues to serve a utilitarian function. Few craftsmen, designers, and small workshops are well recognized in Tatarstan for creating unprecedented pieces of clothing, wall art, furniture, accessories, and souvenirs and, of course, splendid footwear.
“Sahtian” is the most well-known workshop, led by the famous artist and designer Mr. Ildus Gainutdinov. Mr.Gainutdinov and another well-known professional designer, Ms. Alfiya Artemyeva, managed to create “Sahtian” from what was left of the huge Arsk national footwear manufacturer after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Sahtian” employs a number of embroiderers, who spend many hours assembling and stitching by hand each pattern, which has been designed by Mr. Gainutdinov and Ms. Artemyeva. All of their works are of high artistic quality.
There are several other small companies/ateliers (like “Grandmaster”, “LuiZa”, “Turan Art”, “Marianych”) that actively work in reviving and popularizing leather mosaic traditions. They use traditional ornamental designs to create primarily footwear. They also experiment combining the old techniques with modern innovations. Their customers are mostly dance companies and tourists as well as individuals who can appreciate all the effort, time, and energy instilled in each masterpiece. 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.