Sunday 15 July 2012


Moscow is without a doubt an iconic city. The image of St. Basil’s Cathedral is internationally recognizable. The Kremlin’s name is synonymous with the government of the USSR. The city was, throughout the twentieth century, the centre of one of the most powerful states in the world. On top of that, Moscow is one of the world’s biggest cities and is home to almost 1/10 of the population of the Russian Federation.

After leaving Kazan, I took a night train to Moscow, where I had one long day of sightseeing before catching a plane back to London the next day. During my very brief visit to Moscow on my first day in Russia I was somewhat numb to the whole experience, not to mention preoccupied by overtiredness and illness, so didn’t really take a lot in. This time, however, I felt the full force of the city’s lively atmosphere and could really bask in the overwhelming sense of history. The day was relentlessly hot and sunny, but I was determined to see as much as I could. As I was in Moscow for such a short amount of time, and mostly only saw the centre of the city, the extent to which I can make meaningful commentary is somewhat limited. I can, however, share some photos that I took.

The Kazan Cathedral on Red Square is coincidentally named after the city
in which I had been staying. The original cathedral was destroyed by the Soviet
authorities in 1936; it was rebuilt in the early '90s, after the USSR's collapse.
State Historical Museum, also on Red Square
There always seem to be weddings happening on Red Square, often in
tasteless style reminiscent of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. I assume this pink
limousine is something to do with a wedding.
Changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Entrance to the Kremlin
The Tsar Cannon: the largest cannon in the world, located within the Kremlin
The Dormition Cathedral, in the Kremlin, is where
the coronation of Russian tsars took place

A post office in central Moscow, with an emblem bearing
the hammer and sickle. Communist imagery is still everywhere in the city.
Lenin State Library, with a statue of Dostoevskii in front of it

The gargantuan Peter the Great Statue, photographed from behind because I couldn't be bothered to
 walk all the way to the other side. This is the eighth tallest statue in the world and has frequently
featured in lists of the world's ugliest monuments. In 2010 the city authorities tried to have the thing
moved to Saint Petersburg, but that city declined the offer.
Many of the stations on the Moscow Metro exhibit impressive Soviet-era
art and architecture, especially those on the Koltsevaya Liniya (Circle Line). 
Muscovites bustling past the copious artwork in one of the metro stations
Street art on Moscow State University's main campus
Close-up of the street art
Moscow State University's enormous main building
I'll definitely have to return to Moscow, as I would really like to have the opportunity to wander in the city's less touristic districts, to get more of an impression of the real city, behind the monuments. That said, from what I saw, Moscow is a highly impressive city.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Kazan in Photos, part 2

I'm back in the UK now, but I still have a few photos of Kazan that I want to upload. Without further ado, here they are.

A view over the Kazanka River. Visible is the new bridge, still under construction, and then the white wall of the Kremlin, with the Qolşärif Mosque, the Söyembikä Tower and the Annunciation Cathedral within.
Ulitsa Baumana (Bauman Street), Kazan's central high street
Old bank on Ulitsa Baumana. Those toy cars were always sitting on Baumana
somewhere, and I never worked out why.

A military vehicle parked at the Institute I was studying at
This striking building is the Galiaskar Kamal Tatar Academic
 Theatre, which hosts plays in the Tatar language.
Statue of a scene from some local fairytale
The teachers at the Institute kept recommending we visit this
 park (called Chernoe Ozero), claiming it was the
 nicest in town. In this photo it looks lovely.
However, this photo of the same park, taken a stone's throw away
from the one above, makes it look somewhat less idyllic.

I don't know what these buildings are, but they look like a futuristic castle.
Kazan's amusement park
Lake next to Riaf Monastery, just outside Kazan
This little market looked wonderfully traditional and exotic, but when I got my camera out the creepy
 Tatar men who were working there all got weirdly overexcited, so I had to make a quick exit.
Sunset over the Kazanka

Friday 6 July 2012

Nizhnekamsk, Yelabuga and the surrounding area

In a country as vast and diverse as Russia it’s very difficult to gain a rounded impression of the people and the way that they live. A lot of the people I met in Kazan emphasized that this city is not typical, even of Tatarstan, and that I should visit some other towns if I wanted to see “how people live”. In any part of the world it tends to be the case that the places with more established tourism provide a less authentic view of the nation. Often the only way to see an unadulterated, representative view of the country is to go somewhere with no tourist industry and to stay with locals.

During my last weekend before I left I got the opportunity to do so, when I went to stay in Nizhnekamsk with a friend’s family. Nizhnekamsk is a city in central Tatarstan with a population of about 240,000, which was founded in 1961 as a centre of the petrochemical industry. The city is one that rarely, if ever, receives tourists, as it realistically has very little to offer them. But to visit a city that was built from scratch by the Soviet authorities in the 1960s is a unique experience. Almost the whole city consists of high-rise apartment blocks, separated by wide boulevards, with the occasional immaculate park scattered about the place. One of the strangest things about the town is that, once you reach the edge of the urban area, the tower blocks suddenly end and there is open grassland: there are no natural suburbs or gradual progression from city to countryside. The whole city is centred on the petrochemical industry, with the monstrous factories nearby being virtually the only sources of employment. The local ice hockey team is even called Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, which translates as “Nizhnekamsk Petrochemist”.

A tank in a Nizhnekamsk park 

Not everything in the park was military: there was
also this "tree" of multicoloured bird houses.
Fountain with mosque in the background

"Победа!" means "Victory!". This huge poster and the two cutouts of soldiers were
put up in celebration of "Victory Day" (which commemorates the USSR's victory
over Germany in WW2) in May, and are still there two months later.
War memorial.
A stark contrast from the artificiality and modernity of Nizhnekamsk was provided by visit to the neighbouring city of Yelabuga. This town, with a population of 70,000, has a history dating back to the 10th century. Walking through its quaint historic centre is like walking into one of Chekhov’s stories. The town was once home to a 19th century landscape painter of considerable talent, Ivan Shishkin, and the early 20th century poet Marina Tsetaeva. The former’s erstwhile home is open to the public as a museum, fully furnished and decorated as it would have been during his childhood. Yelabuga is a contrast to Nizhnekamsk in that while the latter has little appeal to conventional tourists – only of interest to those with a desire to see an authentic Soviet city – the former is beautiful and charming, and demands a visit from any tourist in the vicinity.

Yelabuga from a distance
Road leading into Yelabuga
Small port just outside of Yelabuga
The Devil's Tower, a relic of the mediæval state of Volga Bulgaria
Yet another distinct setting that I had the fortune to enjoy during the weekend was Krasnyi Klyuch, a small village just outside of Nizhnekamsk, where my friend’s family own a dacha. It was the perfect image of the ramshackle Russian village: a mosaic of colourful wooden homes with big overgrown gardens demarcated by rickety wooden fences. There are no paved roads, nor any shops, and most of the people there grow their own vegetables. The simple, traditional lifestyles led here could scarcely be more different to those of Nizhnekamsk’s factory workers.

As well as various different types of settlements, Russia is home to a lot of emptiness. For me, the primeval nature is one of the most enchanting things about the country. A short drive out of Nizhnekamsk, I went for a walk by the banks of the Kama River, in the middle of an area of open grasslands. The spot wasn’t anything exceptional, just one of the innumerable places in Tatarstan’s countryside that is outstandingly beautiful. It was calming and humbling to wander in the middle of the boundless landscape, surrounded by beautiful birds and wild flowers.

Russia’s a country that has a lot of conflicting stereotypes and clichés surrounding it. In one weekend I got to see a whole spectrum of them: the Soviet-era industrial city; a beautiful, historic town straight out of a work of 19th century literature; a small, underdeveloped village; and vast expanses of untamed nature.