Thursday, 7 June 2012

A Month In Tatarstan

I’ve just finished my first year studying German and Russian at University College London. When I started in September, I already spoke reasonably good German, but I was a beginner at Russian. Eight months later my class has a mandatory trip to Russia. What kind of trip might the university deem appropriate to reward our hard work? A few days of sightseeing and cultural activities in the beautiful historic city of Saint Petersburg? A week of well-earned relaxation on the Black Sea coast? Try four weeks in Tatarstan, living with local hosts who are unlikely to speak English, and attending daily language classes. No doubt an exciting opportunity, but an extremely daunting prospect nonetheless. Especially as for me, as for the majority of my class, this will be a first trip to Russia.

The Republic of Tatarstan is one of the 83 “federal subjects” (i.e. states) that make up the Russian Federation. Located some 800km east of Moscow, just west of the Urals, Tatarstan covers an area of 68,000km2 (slightly smaller than Ireland, slightly bigger than Sri Lanka) and has a population of 3.8 million. The populace is divided between two main ethnic groups: the indigenous Tatars account for 53% and ethnic Russians for 40%, while the remaining 7% is made up of other groups such as Chuvash, Ukrainians and Mari. Tatars, after whom the republic is named, are the second largest ethnic group in Russia (after ethnic Russians) with a population of 5.5 million (making up 3.9% of Russia’s total population), mostly concentrated in Tatarstan and neighbouring Bashkortostan, with smaller communities scattered across the whole enormous country. Tatars traditionally practise Sunni Islam and speak the Tatar language (a Turkic tongue, related to Kazakh), though state atheism and russification during the Soviet period mean that today many Tatars are largely irreligious and almost all speak fluent Russian.

Tatarstan's location within Russia

During our stay we’ll be living in Kazan, the capital and largest city of Tatarstan, located on the banks of the Volga, in the northwest of the republic. With a population of 1.2 million (49% Russians, 48% Tatars), it’s Russia’s eighth biggest city and boats of being a paragon of multicultural harmony. As well as being a cultural capital for Tatars, the city is regarded as an important centre of both sport and education, home to the successful soccer team Rubin Kazan and several prestigious universities. So hopefully Kazan won’t be as much of a backwater as it might sound to the uninformed. It will certainly be an unusual introduction to Russia, a country in which most foreigners only see St. Petersburg and Moscow. However, staying in a smaller city, in a less culturally-Russian area, could in fact provide a more authentic experience of the “real Russia”: it’s important to realize that in this vast, culturally and geographically diverse land, the two famous metropolises can hardly be considered “typical”.

So, at 5am on Saturday I’m going to have to get up and head to Russell Square underground station, to get the first train to Heathrow. From Heathrow I’m flying to Moscow Domodedovo Airport, where I should arrive at 4pm. We’re hopefully going to have a short coach tour of Moscow before taking the 11-hour train to Kazan, where we’ll meet our hosts and the experience will really begin. 

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