Wednesday 13 June 2012

An Introduction to Russia

As things turned out, my arrival in Russia had a somewhat delayed impact on me.   I started to feel a bit off-colour on the plane to Moscow, and my illness was only exacerbated by the fact that we had to spend well over an hour sitting in the airport, waiting for our coach to arrive. By the time I got on the coach, I was feeling absolutely shattered, and thus I was in a horrible sort of half-sleep for the vast majority of the bus tour of the city. We did get an hour of free time to wander around the vicinity of Krasnaya Ploshchad (Red Square), which was a brief window of something approaching lucidity in my day. That said, I was still in a semi-dazed state as I wandered around Moscow’s touristy central district with a group of my peers. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to take a few photos.

Saint Basil's Cathedral
Inside GUM

We were somewhat disappointed to discover that Krasnaya Ploshchad itself was fenced off, seemingly so that a group of dancers could practise some sort of choreography there. After taking some photos of the iconic Saint Basil’s Cathedral from the less than ideal vantage point remaining open to the public, we wandered around GUM, a high-end shopping centre that has the feel of being a pedestrianized high street that was three storeys high, rather than a usual soulless indoor mall. After that we wandered around the environs, taking photos of various buildings and monuments, before returning to the coach. I’d seen a lot of Moscow’s major sights, but it didn’t really feel like I’d been in Russia yet: the area I’d been walking around has a direct equivalent in any major European city, complete with vendors selling tacky souvenirs and people walking around in irrelevant costumes, asking you to pay for photos with them. My first encounter with something approaching “real Russia” was probably in the train station, where there was a lively atmosphere and an eclectic mix of people, ranging from a couple of homeless men with huge Alsatians wearing muzzles to a group of sailors whose naval uniforms included striped tops. Unfortunately, at this point I was feeling too ill to really take much in, and spent most of the time before the train arrived dozing in the luxurious waiting room. Then, when I finally got on the train, at about 10pm, I got straight into bed and was soon fast asleep.

Eternal Flame at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

I don't know whether these policemen were telling this
 street vendor to move along, or just doing some shopping

A little slice of home
Moscow train station's waiting room

Russian fashion
At 1am in the morning, when I awoke, feeling fully awake and alert for the first time since the airplane, I looked out of the window and saw we had stopped at a small station apparently in the middle of nowhere. I don’t know why the train stopped here, but when it did hoards of Russian passengers alighted and started haggling with people who had been waiting on the platform. These people were selling everything from champagne glasses to bracelets, and I even saw a guy trying to sell a two-foot tall vase. I’d woken up from a dreamlike nine hours and found myself deep in the madness of Russia.

Six hours later, when I woke up again, I was feeling even better, and seeing the vast expanse of the Russian countryside out of the train window filled me with excitement. It had really sunk in that I was in Russia, and the thrill of being on the road had finally hit me. However, the one positive result of my illness the day before was that it had distracted me from worrying about my homestay in Kazan. Suddenly I was confronted with this reality and, as our destination got ever closer, panic started to set in. I became painfully aware of the meagreness of my Russian vocabulary, realized I really should have brought a Russian-English dictionary or phrasebook, and began to anticipate a thoroughly unpleasant experience. When we got to Kazan there was a large group waiting for us on the platform. As we were waiting to be told who to go with, I noticed the looks of terror on some of my peers’ faces. In a whirlwind I was introduced to my host, and before I knew it I was sitting in a car on the way to the place I would be calling home for the next four weeks. As I caught a glimpse of myself in the rear-view mirror, I saw an expression of no less fear than those I’d noticed on the platform.

But I could not have hoped for a better host. Her name is Nelya, though she prefers the anglicized Nelly (said with a Russian accent it’s more like Nyelli). She lives alone in a large apartment in a quiet and pleasant area of Kazan, a short bus journey from the centre. Her and her friend Rustem, who gave us a lift from the station, made me feel immediately at home and in no time all my fears had evaporated. She speaks a bit of English: enough that no serious communication failures should occur, but not enough that I can avoid speaking Russian. We’ve been communicating through a mix of Russian, English and a bilingual dictionary that she has (huge sigh of relief when that came out), and already through the course of my first day here I feel that my ability to use Russian has improved.

Nelly was born and raised in Kazan and her mother was a Tatar whose family had lived in Kazan for generations, while her father was a Mordvin. The Mordvins are a Finnic people indigenous to the Republic of Mordovia, which is located roughly halfway between Kazan and Moscow. But the most interesting thing about her father, Mikhail Devyataev, is not his ethnicity but his biography. During the Second World War he was a fighter pilot for the USSR, who was shot down over Nazi-occupied Ukraine. He survived the crash and was imprisoned by the Nazis and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, just outside of Berlin. He escaped incineration by taking someone else’s prisoner number, and was thus moved to a camp on the island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea. Here, as he had someone else’s prisoner number, the authorities didn’t know he was a pilot, and made the mistake of allowing him access to aircraft. He with several other Soviet prisoners managed to steal a plane, in which they flew eastwards. As they were flying a German plane, they were shot at over Poland by Soviet forces. However, he managed an emergency landing, and when the Soviet soldiers saw that the crew of the plane were not Luftwaffe members, but in fact half-starved compatriots, they ensured their return to the USSR. But, even though the escapees provided the Soviet authorities with vital information about the Nazi missile program, former PoWs were one of the countless groups whom Stalin persecuted, and so Devyataev was imprisoned for the remainder of the war, and after release was disallowed from working as a pilot. As such, he settled in Kazan to work on hydrofoil ships on the Volga. After Stalin’s death, however, a sea change occurred and the government bestowed upon him the honour of Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest decoration there was. Since that, he was awarded a Guinness World Record for his escape, and at least a couple of documentaries have been made about his life. Apparently a film is even being made about him, a joint Russo-German production to be released next year. Just around the corner from the apartment block that Nelly lives in, on the wall of the building in which she was born, is a plaque declaring that Devyatoev once lived there. You can read his Wikipedia article here.

"In this house
from 8.05.1958 to 24.11.2002
lived legendary pilot
hero of the Soviet Union
Mikhail Petrovich Devyataev
- in Russian and then Tatar 
After having told me the fascinating story of her father’s life, Nelly showed me around Kazan, which was really interesting, but I forgot to take my camera with me, and I’m sure I’ll do much more exploration of the city, so I can write about that another time, when I have photos to accompany. I will mention that we had lunch at a local restaurant, where I had some sort of traditional Russian soup followed by a Central Asian meat and rice dish, and they were both absolutely incredible, so I’m feeling pretty optimistic about the food here now. One odd thing about the restaurant though: in the corner of the room was a sink in which to wash ones hands before eating; I’ve never seen this anywhere else before.

I’ll finish off this entry with a couple of interesting things that Nelly told me throughout my first day in Kazan. Firstly, she painted a picture of real ethnic and religious harmony in Kazan: she insisted that there are no such things as “Tatar neighbourhoods” or “Russian neighbourhoods” here, and claimed that most people of her generation are part of mixed families. She grew up with a Muslim mother and a Christian father, chose Christianity for herself but married a Muslim, and my understanding is that her children aren’t religious. This is a stark contrast to what I’ve heard about Russia being rife with xenophobia, racism and islamophobia. Kazan even recently hosted a festival of Jewish music. This is also a strong contrast to what I saw of the strained relations between the Croat (Roman Catholic), Serb (Eastern Orthodox) and Bosniak (Muslim) populations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country that in the early ‘90s was ravaged by inter-ethnic warfare. However, the other interesting impression that Nelly created on me could be an indication that this integration and harmony is the result of the loss of identity on the part of the Tatars: although to a visitor the ubiquitous bilingual signs suggest otherwise, she seems to think that the Tatar language is endangered. She explained that although children in Tatarstan’s Russian-medium schools do have to study Tatar, it is taught badly, so no-one ever really attains any real level of competency. On top of this, the existence of Tatar-medium schools is undermined by Putin restricting Tatar-medium universities; this means that any parents who hope for their children to gain higher education usually send their children to Russian-medium schools. The loss of identity and culture in exchange for harmony and integration: certainly food for thought.

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