More thoughts on South Ossetia

August 27, 2008
Well, the big story here is of course Russia's recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. On Russian state television, the decision is being presented quite clearly as a response to the recognition of Kosovo's independence earlier this year by the United States and the European Union. Indeed, an extended excerpt of a speech by Vladimir Putin in Germany last June in reaction to the recognition of Kosovo's independence was shown on the news tonight. I'd never seen it, but in it he clearly says that if such rules apply to Kosovo, then they can apply to countries all over the world.

Indeed, Russia's recognition today marks a reversal of a policy Russia had followed since the end of the Cold War, in which Moscow steadfastly insisted upon the principle of territorial integrity while the United States and the European Union recognized the independence of one state after another in the Balkans. While Russian support for Belgrade was often presented in the Western media in terms of some kind of mystical Orthodox brotherhood between the two countries, in fact Russia supported Yugoslavia's territorial integrity because the Russian Federation is itself divided into republics and autonomous regions which could likewise break apart--and which appeared to be, for much of the 1990s. Thus, despite the fact that the Russian government for years supported the breakaway republics in Georgia, it never went as far as to recognize their independence--until now.

A busy week in the borderlands...

August 16, 2008
I'm in Kazan, now. It's been an incredibly busy week, as my final days in Ufa involved a lot of work and numerous courtesy calls. Now I'm looking forward to settling down again and getting some more work done in Kazan.
As I mentioned earlier, I spent the first part of the week working in the archive of Rizaeddin Fahreddin, someone who was much involved in Muslim activist circles in the late imperial period and later became the second mufti of the Soviet Union. Fahreddin's archive is useful not only for the material relating to Fahreddin himself, but also for its wealth of documents pertaining to the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly. Indeed, Fahreddin spent much of his time as mufti going through documents in the Orenburg Spiritual Assembly's archive. In some instances, he recopied materials into his notebooks, but many of the documents here are originals.

Russian Academy of Sciences, Ufa

The materials on the Orenburg Assembly are not as vast as those of the Central State Historical Archives in Ufa, but I would think that anyone working on the Orenburg Assembly would definitely want to look at them. I should also say that Ramil Makhmutovich has provided a real service to research into Islam in Russia by cataloguing this large fond of materials. 
Monday and Tuesday were thus spent working intensely at the archive of the Academy of Sciences, where I took over one thousand photographs of documents. On Wednesday, however, we took an excursion. Ramil Mahmutovich (Bulgakov) had suggested that we visit the grave of Rizaeddin Fahreddin, so on Wednesday the two of us went there, accompanied by the historian Marsil Farkhshatov, as well as Gülnar Iuldibaeva, a folklorist at the Academy of Sciences in Ufa, and Liliia Baibulatova, a kandidat nauk from Kazan who recently published a book on Fahretdinov's Asar. Then we all went to a restaurant looking over the Ufa river and had lunch.
After lunch, we headed back to the Academy of Sciences so that I could deliver my otchet, or report on my activities, to the Director of the Academy, Professor Firdaus Khisamitdinova, a former Minister of Education for the Republic of Bashkortostan. It also turned out that Firdaus hanım is an old friend of Flera Safiullina, one of my Tatar teachers from way back in Kazan. Some photographs were taken, after which I was presented with a book. All in all, a nice afternoon. 
On Thursday, I took the bus from Ufa to Kazan. It's a lot cheaper than flying ($35 versus $170), and shorter than the train (ten hours, they said, versus twenty-two). In all, the trip ended up taking sixteen hours, two of which were spent sitting by the side of the road ten miles outside of Kazan due to construction. It was a pretty lousy trip, but not much worse than expected.
In Kazan I was picked up at the bus station by Lolla, the woman from whom I'm renting an apartment here. Lolla is orginally from Abkhazia, and like everyone else I've ever met from the Caucasus is extremely hospitable. Indeed, this morning she was taking her children to the "Blue Lakes" outside Kazan and called to ask if I wanted to go. They're quite interesting--today was my first time there. Due to mineral deposits they are a deep blue-green color, and for some reason are extremely cold--no warmer than the mid-forties, in my estimation. When I jumped in the first time, I felt my heart contract and thought I was going to die for sure. It was so cold I could barely feel my toes after just a few seconds. The most anyone could do was swim from one side of the pond to the other--a distance of about forty feet. It was definitely refreshing, though, and fun.
In the afternoon on Friday I worked for a couple of hours at home until heading down to Bauman Street to meet Igor, my old landlord from my Fulbright year. Igor has since sold the apartment I used to live in and is planning to emigrate to South Africa, but for the time being is renting a place on Tatarstan Street. Both he and his girlfriend, Sveta, love going to Ikea, which is located in the enormous Mega shopping center on the edge of town. I drove out there with them, and we sat in Ikea for a few hours, drinking tea in the Ikea cafe and chatting about people we know. Then we were joined by a couple of Igor's friends, who were also hanging out at Mega.
A friend of mine, Ramil, owns an apartment out near Mega, so after leaving the shopping center Igor dropped me off there, where I had dinner with Ramil, his cousin, and his sister. After speaking with Igor and his friends in Russian all afternoon, it was fun to switch into Tatar, something which reminded me of one of the reasons why I like this city so much.
At eleven I got up to leave. In Kazan the public transportation shuts down pretty early, so I had to go home by "taxi"--meaning I flagged down someone in a car and came to an agreement with him on a price.
I remember taking a "taxi" like this for the first time, when I lived in Kazan in 2003-2004. I was really anxious about it, and only did so after having spent a couple of months here. Ultimately, climbing into the car of a complete stranger in the middle of the night--or at dawn--became second nature, making small talk in Russian or Tatar as we sped down the road listening to techno on the radio.
Anyway, the guy who picked me up was a recent graduate of the Law Institute here, and we started to chat. He asked me my name, told me his was Timur, and by the time we got to my apartment near Sovetskaia Ploshchad' he asked me if he could take my picture. "No one's gonna believe this" he said to himself after snapping a couple of photos.
Whatever, I guess all of this sounds a bit self-aggrandizing--and it's not as if people here automatically go nuts upon meeting a foreigner. But all the same, there aren't nearly as many foreigners here as there are in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and people here are less stand-offish about making conversation than they can be in the capitals. Indeed, one of the great things about living in provincial Russia is that it is much easier to make contact with people.
The other great thing about living in Kazan is getting the chance to hear two languages constantly throughout the day. Indeed, while bilingual signs (Russian and Bashkir) are more present in Ufa than in Kazan, it seems to me that I hear a lot more Tatar on the street here than I hear Bashkir or Tatar in Ufa. In Kazan, I feel like I can live in both worlds, a feeling I think I've only really had elsewhere when I was a student in Montreal. Two languages, two religions, two great civilizations.
Granted, there are a lot of things about living abroad--and particularly about living in Russia--that I can find exasperating, things that I tend not to write about here. Especially at times like this, however, I feel really, really lucky to have been able to have the kind of experiences I've had over here.
To see more photos from the Caucacus journey, go to the photos page of 
More links, analysis and photographs can be found at the Borderlands Lounge

South Ossetia and the fate of the 'mini-republics'

August 13, 2008
Something about the recent crisis in South Ossetia that needs to be underscored is the absolute necessity of the next US president coming to some kind of understanding with Russia over the fate of the mini-republics, the “national” republics within states which have been the conflict zone of Eurasian space since the end of the Cold War. Chechnya, the republics of the former Yugoslavia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia are all examples of such “mini-republics,” regions which had their own state apparati--usually autonomous regions or republics within Yugoslavia or the republics of the former USSR.
As I discussed in my post yesterday, the question of when to recognize the independence of mini-republics and when to support the territorial integrity of larger state entities has never been answered consistently. Indeed, after years of insisting upon the sanctity of respecting the territorial integrity of states, Russia has now become more aggressive in defending separatism when it suits its interests. The United States, which for years has supported separatist movements when it felt like it, is now up in arms over Russia's support for South Ossetia.

A little bleary in the archives...

August 11, 2008

Well, it's been a long day but a good one. I was supposed to call the Academy of Sciences first thing this morning to see if they had decided to let me research there or not. Two weeks ago when I applied for permission they told me I'd find out within a week, but when I called them last week they had hemmed and hawed and told me to call back a week later. I therefore had assumed that it wasn't going to work out, and so went out to a bar last night with Albert and a few of his friends.

Indeed, I'd only been out a couple of times in Ufa since arriving here a month ago, and I'll be leaving later this week. I figured it was time to do something other than sit inside all day in front of my computer. So, in the daytime I walked around town taking photographs, and in the evening called up Albert and proposed getting a few beers at Ogni Ufi, a complex consisting of a number of bars and an outdoor terrace not too far from my apartment.

Russian media coverage of the fighting in Southern Ossetia

August 9, 2008
Well, it's not looking good right now in South Ossetia, a republic that Georgia and most of the rest of the world recognizes as part of Georgia, but which the South Ossetian and Russian governments consider independent. Russian troops have been stationed in South Ossetia for years, where the Russian ruble is the currency and where most people have been given Russian citizenship. Today, some of their soldiers were killed when Georgian troops attacked in an apparent effort to retake the region. Russian troops then responded in force, sending tanks across the border. I won't go into details about what is actually happening there, since the facts are in dispute and my only access to news right now is Russian television. However, I can make a few observations. 

From Ufa V

August 8, 2008
It's rainy and cold again here. Actually, it's kind of nice at night--with the temperatures dipping into the low fifties--to sleep with the windows open and listen to the rain while a cool breeze blows into the apartment. I've been sleeping really well, although that also might be due to the fact that I've been working twelve hours a day. Last night I didn't call it quits until after three, and I was up again at eleven today working some more.

Rainy days in Ufa just won't go away

A Loser's Bet

August 6, 2008
Hardly anybody is talking about it in the American media, but the implementation of new regulations by the US Department of Homeland Security has made the nightly news in Russia two nights in a row, where it has been criticized as a "violation of human rights." The measures allow US customs agents to copy any and all data on people's electronic hard drives, and even confiscate people's computers.

To what depths have we sunk when Russian state television is able to chastise the US government--and rightly so--for its intrusions into people's personal freedoms?