Julia Akhmetzyanova was born in Tajikistan and moved to Naberezhnye Chelny at the age of 16. After graduating from school there, she entered Kazan State University in the Faculty of Law with a criminal justice major. She returned to Naberezhnye Chelny to work in law, but after two years she left to work at Kamaz, a well-known Russian truck and engine manufacturer. In 2015, she created the Sun Inside Foundation to help people with disabilities adapt to society and get them interested in design, modern art, and contemporary theater.
Julia Akhmetzyanova was born in Tajikistan and moved to Naberezhnye Chelny at the age of 16. After graduating from school there, she entered Kazan State University in the Faculty of Law with a criminal justice major. She returned to Naberezhnye Chelny to work in law, but after two years she left to work at Kamaz, a well-known Russian truck and engine manufacturer. In 2015, she created the Sun Inside Foundation to help people with disabilities adapt to society and get them interested in design, modern art, and contemporary theater.
You were born in Tajikistan and lived there until the age of 16. How did you end up in Tatarstan?

A civil war broke out in Tajikistan in 1992, and new type of youth appeared, a new Tajik opposition. When they seized power, they set about creating a Tajik society that excluded other nationalities, ensuring that only the Tajik language was to be used, and so on. Against the background of this internal conflict, it started affected everyone else as well.

My uncle Ibrahim Kakharovich was an award-winning surgeon in Tajikistan. But he wasn't a full-blooded Tajik: he's half Tatar. For this reason, on nationalistic grounds, the militants put him against the wall and pulled his family, aunt Alla and their children, from the basement. They were saved by chance: one of the militants remembered that my uncle had treated some of his relatives.

The bloodiest confrontations began in the summer of 1992. We left before that; otherwise, my parents, Tatars, would have been shot as well. On May 18, my sixteenth birthday, we left Tajikistan forever.
The whole family left, and there were a lot of us. My relatives left a little earlier; I had to get some kind of certificate from school, so my parents and I went a little later.

My mom and dad took a bottle of champagne with them to the airport. They knew—but I didn't at the time—that it would be the last flight from Dushanbe to Orenburg. Flights between Tajikistan and Russia would resume only two years later.
after we checked in AT THE AIRPORT and got our TICKETS, My PARENTS OPENED THE CHAMPAGNE AND DAD SAID: "WELL, that's it; our NEW LIFE has begun. WE'RE REFUGEES."
Then, for the first time in my life, with my parent's permission, I tried champagne.

We didn't sell the house, we just grabbed our knapsacks and went to Orenburg. We had relatives there. Then we moved to Naberezhnye Chelny. Why there? Some other relatives living there agreed to let us stay with them. We were lucky with our documents; everything went smoothly.

How did you get settled in Chelny?

Our first home, as refugees, was at the hydroelectric power station neighborhood. We lived in the area of the Yildiz madrasah. Later it was known to be a hotbed of extremism and terrorism, but we would talk with everyone there and never noticed anything of the sort.

I have a great memory associated with this area, because we, as people from Central Asia, experienced our first winter, and we had no idea what to do, how to survive it.

What were your parents doing when you arrived and settled at the hydroelectric power station?

In Tajikistan, my mother was in a leadership position, a quite serious one. In Chelny she began cooking in the dining room of the Yildiz madrasah for the students. They called her mom because she always gave them bigger servings than normal. The students at the madrasah really wanted to feel at home, and my mother would come up with new deserts for them on the sly, from stuff she found around the kitchen.

My dad worked in inventory management in the madrasah. But then they got new jobs, and we started renting a place. My parents left for Kazan, and I married Ilya from Chelny. He's the one that really showed me Naberezhnye Chelny.
I graduated 11th grade at School no. 10 at the hydroelectric power station. Now, whenever I go by it and run into the gym teacher, I mentally thank him for not torturing me with skis. As someone from Central Asia, it wasn't my destiny to ever stand on them.

Then I got into the Faculty of Law at Kazan State University, majoring in criminal justice.

What was your first impression of Kazan?

It seemed like a huge city, which made me happy. It didn't feel unfriendly at all. Quite the opposite; I found my own places. I really liked the Mergasovskiy House and Lake Kaban: we celebrated my first birthday in Kazan there.
I KNEW THAT MY ANCESTORS were FROM KAZAN, AND that helped drive me.
Chernoye Lake was still vital; its buildings had not yet become dilapidated housing. I even lived there. We would walk across the lake to the university and back. The next year it was all demolished.

After graduating, I returned to Chelny and worked as an investigator for two years. I had a contract with the republic's Ministry of Internal Affairs, but I left after two years. My values were too different.

One day my dad said to me: "Maybe we should get a job at Kamaz?" And I said: "Maybe we should!" During the interview there they asked me only one question: how do you spell legal counsel? I answered correctly and they hired me.
I worked in the contract department and proofed all of Kamaz's contracts for seven years, but at some point, I decided that I wanted something different.

When did you become a volunteer at the Children with Cerebral Palsy project?

This was during the election campaign. My friend was running as a legislator and, while I was at her headquarters, all the problems that people in her district had were pouring in. There were a lot of inquiries, including many from mothers of children with disabilities.

Then I met Tanzilya Zufarovna, who created the Children with Cerebral Palsy Foundation. This is how I was introduced to social services for the first time. It was 2006, and I was thirty. I got involved, became a volunteer, and stayed there for 10 years.
AFTER SOME TIME, I THOUGHT: HOW can I help THESE CHILDREN FURTHER? THEY're NOT going to disappear when they turn 18, THEir DIAGNOSIS won't go away. HOW will they WORK?
These questions led me to found the Sun Inside Foundation. My legal education really helped out. It made everything a lot easier.

It only works in Naberezhnye Chelny, but we have premises in Kazan too, allocated to us by the city's property relations committee. They need to be renovated.

What does the foundation do?

The purpose of the foundation is socialization, so that the public will learn to perceive disabled people as ordinary members of society.

The most important thing is that they continue to create and, through their achievements, focus on their additional needs. So they don't say straight away "I am such and such, and I need this," although that's also needed. But people pay attention to the problem as a whole through good things, through your participation in something.

And we began implementing such projects. For example, with the Art Gallery: our participants became tour guides at the exhibition of Alexander Khaldeev, a graphic artist from Chelny. They conducted more than twenty excursions, learned how to behave with the public, how not to be afraid.
They confessed that they didn't expect to see a tour guide in a wheelchair. But everything went well, and nobody felt that the fact that the excursion was conducted by someone in a wheelchair had any bearing on it.

We also have a weaving workshop. We won a grant two years ago and bought weaving looms and found premises.

The girls have been working in the workshop for two years now, mastering different types of weaving. They have a mentor named Svetlana; she's a professional weaver.

Of course, our main goal is selling our stuff. And in order to sell high-quality products, it needs to be assembled without manipulating people's feelings, like "this was made by a person with a disability."

We'd rather have a person buy it and then read somewhere that Alsou Khairullina, a person with a disability, made it.

Do you make them under the Sun Inside brand?

Yes. We don't have anything specific for sale yet, only in development. We've made samples, sewed, checked the tightness, put out our feelers, some of them have already finished their pieces, like scarves and stoles.

Some of them can find the strength to weave so well that they sell their items for a profit. For example, textiles for a dining room; they can make some nice place mats. Or a set of party napkins or pillow covers. We're still getting the hang of it.

If you're good at it and it turns out you like it and you want to work on it more, we'll find any opportunity for you to continue.
I often hear people with disabilities say that they don't want a diploma purely for the sake of a diploma, like many people get, a bunch of different educations, like just generic "manager," and then they don't know what to do with it. Our task is not just a one-size-fits-all solution, like, let's all be accountants or lawyers or work in IT. Everything is individual, based on what physically someone can do.

How can people help Sun Inside?

We always need physically strong men to take people in wheelchairs for a walk. It could be a couple: a guy pushing the wheelchair and a girl walking with them and talking.

We also need money for the threads for our weaving workshop and to bring in some great lecturers who can talk about art or theater, so we can run a first-class educational program.

We also need strong guys for Natasha's Summer, a project named after a particular Natasha who once wrote to me: "Julia, do you think we can find someone to go for a walk with me?"
AND all the sudden it just hit me: WE can GO FOR A WALK WHENever WE WANT TO, BUT NATASHA can't.
And we didn't just go for walks. We all traveled outside Tatarstan for the first time, to Izhevsk. Natasha wanted to do that. And it wasn't just Natasha; there were about 30 people on that bus. It was so emotional when we got back, after midnight, tired, but no one could leave; we just hugged. Moments like that make it all worthwhile.
We won a grant from Tatneft for Natasha's Summer for the second year, and this time we'll go to Bolgar.

Now we're putting together a play and an exhibition with Ksyusha Shachneva and nine girls with disabilities. Nothing is prepared in advance; the girls just talk about their lives and Ksyusha listens to them. The girls themselves chose the new formats, whether it's a performance or exhibition, and they suggested a topic: what it's like to live with a disability in a small Russian city. Plus–Minus Performance is a first-person theater, the person on stage is being themselves, not playing a character. Today it's one of the most important areas of documentary social theater. A Meaningful Discussion is an art exhibition created by the participants based on their personal stories. Both of these will be shown at the Art Gallery in Chelny.

This year has been particularly unusual for us. The pandemic and self-isolation are a new reality and, with it, we have a new photography project, Fictional Life, which we're doing with Tanya Lepp. It's about how different a person can be online, you can play, try on digital clothes and masks, and much more. And they can run and move around, for example, in the Louvre. This is a new, different life. An Imaginary life. Even if it's still inside.

After Chelny, you moved to Kazan again. But this year you moved back. Why?

I returned due to COVID. My husband Ilya and I started working remotely, then the Kazan division of the Support Fund was disbanded, and we were immediately offered another job in Chelny. I couldn't do anything with the Sun Inside in Kazan either, due to the pandemic.
We felt like we were returning to our apartment, like we still have to do some remodeling, but soon we'll be ready for guests.

So the pandemic is what brought you back to Chelny?

Yes, the pandemic. And I was very happy to get an offer from Tagir to work in his campaign headquarters. He's our friend that builds roads; he owns a company that makes roads and improves the urban environment in courtyards as part of the Our Yard program.

But he has more ambitious plans than just making a few improvements. The Komsomolskaya embankment is completely desolate. When Tagir talks about what can be done with it, you just get goosebumps. He can see how everything is being built and renewed here and there, bit by bit, and how you can make history out of a run-down building. He's checked out all these abandoned buildings, crossed the whole district by foot. And it's not just his fantasies, it's what the residents want. Everyone agrees that the hydroelectric power station needs a reboot.

You don't happen to know Ayrat Tagirov, do you? He lives in our district. He's the owner of the IT company Aytat. They call it the Tatar Google, because it's so independent and has its own view of IT in Tatarstan. Ayrat has earned some money and is carefully going through all the abandoned buildings of the hydroelectric power station, restoring them. He already has two buildings completed.

Here's the question that is always asked of anyone living in Chelny: what complex are you from [Naberezhnye Chelny is divided up into numbered neighborhoods called complexes]?

I'm from 62, and from 3, from the New and Old cities. I also lived on ZYAB [aerated concrete plant, a district in Naberezhnye Chelny] and at the hydroelectric power station [fthata municipal district].

Now I live in the Complex 11, and it's great.
BUT WHEN anyone talks about our "COZY CITY," for some reason the first think I think of is our hydroelectric station. The FACADE OF THE LIBRARY AND PYRAMIDAL POPLAR trees, that's VERY DERIVATIVE of the LANDSCAPE of the hydroelectric station. it has LOCAL flavor.
What places would you show visitors to Naberezhnye Chelny?

We start from the Tukay embankment, from the Tsentral'naya Street and the turnoff to the embankment. This point is the historical center of Chelny. But on Tsentral'naya they didn't really work with the history of the city.

They set out to remodel the historical center, this old street, but I don't really like it, to be honest. There's nothing unifying about the style, there's no thoughtfulness, just a lot of color in the signs, in the names, in the facades.

The only upside is the updated embankment [on the bank of the Kama River, which runs through Naberezhnye Chelny]. I like the concrete descent on it: we used it for Fairy Tales on the Kama, when we did a performance there with the theater; we used it as the stage.
Fairy Tales on the Kama?

Yes, it's a combination of local history, design, and theater in an unusual place. It uses just the surrounding environment as the stage, the urban environment. It's awesome that Vika Shtanke, who came up with the idea, puts on the Fairy Tales.

So where do we go next?

Then we go to artist Hamza Sharipov's workshop. He's interesting for his view of "Tatarness," of the Tatar people, how he interprets everything so softly, tenderly, like a hug or something. Plus, Hamza has an interesting workshop, and as you make your way through it you can see the sketches that he did, for example, on fabric for the Energetik recreation center, a large, thirty-meter canvas.

After Khamza's workshop we'll walk to the Energetik recreation center to look at the mosaic on the wall and Hanov's sculpture Rugby Players near the Stroitel recreation center; then along Gidrostroiteley Street to the central library and check out the facade, the pyramidal poplars, and Hanov's sculpture Fountain; and then go to the Motherland sculpture, which is also by Hanov.

Then we'll get on the tram. It connects both parts of the city, passing through the Cellular Concrete Plant, from the hydroelectric power station to the New City and back. We reach the Organ Hall. Unfortunately, there's not much going on there, culturally, unless someone like [classical pianist] Denis Matsuev is in town.

We'll take the bus to Azatlyk Square. There was a lot of controversy about this project, but everything worked out in the end. Even these green hills, which people compared to graves, are a popular hang-out place now.

Going further, our path takes us to the Masterovye Theater. My father-in-law, Yuri Mikhailovich Kolesnikov, whom I never had the chance to meet, founded this theater. There's an interesting story connected with it.

Can you share it?

When we moved there, my mother immediately sought out the cultural spots, "magnets" that drew her to them: the art school, where conductor Igor Lerman started out with the Provintsiya chamber orchestra, and the Masterovye Theater. After she had seen all the performances there, she went to find the main director (which was Yuri Kolesnikov, Masterovye's founder) and, when she found him, she simply said, "Thank you."

After a while, Mr. Kolesnikov died. Mom, without even envisioning our future family with Ilya, seemed to be thanking his father in advance for everything.

After the Masterovye, we go to Entuziastov Boulevard to see Ildar Hanov's sculptures The Tree of Life, Awakening, Evolution, and Guardian Angel. At the entrance to the city, near the Borovetsky Bridge, there is another sculpture by Hanov, Energy. For me, they are all the most important symbols of Chelny. Behind The Tree of Life I show off the Business Center 2.18 high rise and we'll walk to the Art Gallery.

There's nothing special on the boulevard, except for some very talented cyclists that hang out there. You can watch them for hours, how they put on shows with their bikes, how they are woven into the urban environment. And it's very harmonious, without disturbing grandmothers or mothers with children.

I recommend eating Ak Batyr corndogs.
WHEN URBAN Planners came to FIND OUT WHAT local industries the people of Naberezhnye CHELNy were proudest of, their TOILET PAPER came IN FIRST PLACE, followed by the AK BATYR corndogs. KAMAZ WAS NOwhere near THE top of the list.
At first, a lot of people asked me if I was moving back to Chelny or something like that, and it annoyed me a little. Who cares, have I moved back or not? For now, this is the time and these are the opportunities.

But after some time I myself began using this verb myself: yes, I just moved back to Chelny. And it turned out to be exciting! Realizing this gave me more freedom in understanding myself, my boundaries.

Chelny is home. Somehow the colorfully painted buildings don't even bother me, not that much, at least. Of course, I'd like to paint them white, but it's not that important right now. More importantly, this is my path, my city, and it gives me opportunities.