Week 3 in Russia: Kazan, Ulyanovsk, Samara

Friday, June 19, 2015

Well, Borderheads, we meet again. This week has been spent in central Russia, a.k.a. the middle Volga region. More specifically, I've been hanging out in Kazan, Ulyanovsk, and Samara.

It's been fun, and at times exhausting--especially during those long bus rides down poorly maintained roads. In fact, I was feeling so beaten up at times that I was a little bit reminded of this video by Bi-2: 

Sure they're getting a bit long in the tooth, but Bi-2 can still rock

Nevertheless, it's been a good time. Here are some of the things I saw this past week: 


Last Friday was a holiday--Russia Day--so the library where I've been working was closed. I decided to spend the long weekend exploring parts of the Volga river region that I'd never been to before. 

Kazan-Samara is 220 miles

On Friday morning, I took a bus from Kazan to Ulyanovsk, a distance of about 150 miles to the south. Ulyanovsk is best known as the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin, after whom the city is now named (Lenin's actual last name was Ulyanov). My interest in going to Ulyanovsk, however, had less to do with Lenin that with the fact that one of the main figures in my book, Yusuf Akçura, was also born in Ulyanovsk--or rather Simbirsk, which was the name of the city prior to 1924.

On the way from Kazan to Ulyanovsk

My trip coincided with the beginning of the Tatar festival known as Saban Tue ("Tu-eh"), a festival related to sowing the fields that is celebrated at various times throughout the second half of June. Along the way from Kazan to Ulyanovsk I saw villages preparing for the weekend's upcoming festivities. 

View of the Volga en route


Despite having spent a lot of time in Kazan over the past years, I'd never made it to Ulyanovsk. Back when I was in graduate school, I didn't spend a lot of time traveling to places where I had no plans to work in archives or libraries. 

View from my room at the Venets

Now, however, I've got the time (and the money--something else I was usually lacking in graduate school) to travel a bit more, especially now that the book is out. In some ways, I feel like this year's time in Russia is a bit like the trip I took through Turkey last summer, during the month that my book was in the hands of a copyeditor at OUP. After spending years working on a dissertation, and then laboring for several more years to transform that dissertation into a book, it seemed like a good idea to get out of my own head for a while and remind myself again about why I enjoyed spending time in these countries in the first place. 

The enormous Volga


I had, after all, developed an interest in the places I now work on long before I'd ever thought of applying to graduate school. Establishing a personal connection to these places on my own, prior to getting involved with them academically, was--for me--really important in helping me to sustain an interest in what I was doing throughout all of those years of graduate school. Feeling personally--not just professionally--connected to the places I work on is important to me to this day. I guess that's one reason why I'm here.

I realize that everyone is different, but I still try to caution my students--even the supremely talented ones (and yes, I do have some genuinely first-rate students at Montana State)--against jumping immediately into graduate school. Instead, I usually recommend that they take a look around after graduation and find out a little bit more about what, other than school, they might happen to be good at. Even if they go on to graduate school, they'll be better off in the end, I think, if they take the time to develop some other skills, interests and passions beforehand.

Anyway, I guess these are some of the thoughts that go through one's mind when traveling at a leisurely pace by bus--it took us about four hours to travel 140 miles--through central Russia. 

Ulyanovsk War Memorial

Pulling into Ulyanovsk late Friday afternoon, I asked the bus driver if he knew how to get to the hotel where I'd booked a room. He said that he had no idea--he wasn't a local--but the lady sitting behind me was, and she pointed me in the right direction. From the bus station I hopped a minibus into town and within 15 minutes or so I was settled into my digs at the Hotel Venets. 

One of the most contemporary hotels of the 1970s


The Venets is an enormous Soviet-era dwelling located in downtown Ulyanovsk and visible from much of downtown (one of the reasons why I chose it, actually, as I tend to get lost easily). It was by no means the nicest place I've ever stayed, but I've definitely slept in far worse establishments. 

Whereas I've mainly been staying at AirBnB places during the course of this trip, I hadn't found anything good in Ulyanovsk. For the sake of only two nights it didn't seem worth the hassle to have to search for an address in some distant residential neighborhood far from downtown. Nor did I feel like laying down a lot of cash for a place. So, the Venets it was. 

Hotel "Venets" Wall of Fame

It wasn't exactly charming, but I ended up feeling quite fond about the Venets. Upon checking in, I was promptly greeted by Igor at reception, who had just put down a book he was reading. This alone made him seem like a bit of a throwback to me in that he didn't have his face buried in a smartphone. After Igor gave me the 411 re the hotel, I went up to my room on the 19th floor, changed my things, and went out to explore the town. 

Yusuf Akçura's house

I made a beeline for Akçura's house. Thanks to a tip from a friend of mine, I had discovered the home of the Akchurins (as Akçura's well-known merchant family was known in Russia) was  only two doors down from the house where Lenin was born. In fact, the Akchurins and Ulyanovs lived in these neighboring houses at the same time, for about a two-year period until the Ulyanovs moved in 1871.

A lot of people in the US are surprised to learn that there are large Muslim populations here in the heartland of Russia. Most people have the impression, I think, that Muslims in Russia live only on the periphery--down in places like Chechnya and Dagestan. In fact, central Russia--what is today Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, and their surrounding regions--constitute the oldest lands of Russian-Muslim interaction. This part of Russia also happens to make up a huge part of my book

Lenin's house

My time in Ulyanovsk was spent pretty quietly. Once I'd seen Akçura's place, there weren't a lot of other sites that I was terribly anxious to see. Instead, I spent the next day and a half mainly just walking around, taking photos of places that caught my eye--especially the enormous body of water that is the Volga River in these parts. The Volga is a fascinating river, actually--there are lots of points along it where it's so wide you can't even see the other side. 


There are a number of quiet, tree-lined streets in Ulyanovsk. I walked past a lot of old houses similar to the ones that the Akchurins and Ulyanovs had lived in. I also had a really nice meal in a restaurant just up the street from where the Akchurins had lived. Sitting in cafes and in my hotel room late at night, I also did a fair bit of writing. In honor of Akçura I read some more of his letters, saved on my computer, that he had written in Istanbul during the years immediately prior to WWI, and which I'd been working on earlier in the week in Kazan. 

Lenin Memorial Complex--very complex, indeed

On my last night in town I stumbled across a fun bar just around the corner from the Venets. They had live music--a female singer was crooning a version of Blondie's "Heart of Glass" when I walked in. The crowd was fun, too. In Russia--especially provincial Russia--"nice" places often strike me as rather stuffy and pretentious. This bar in Ulyanovsk just seemed fun and laid back. 


On Sunday morning I headed to Samara, which is located further south down the Volga from Ulyanovsk. Samara is kind of a resort town. It's got a large sandy beach which faces the west, where you can find lots of people drinking beer and eating dried river fish. Good times! 

First night in Samara

I was staying in another modest hotel--renovated and clean, but with shower/w.c. at the end of the hall--but at least I was close to the river. After putting my stuff away in my room, I headed out to the 'beach,' which was just a couple of blocks from the hotel. The vibe was relaxed, definitely very vacation-y. 


On Monday I visited the Zhiguli Brewery, where I bought a liter of beer fresh out of the keg--they poured it into a plastic bottle for me. I then took that down to the beach, where I hung out for much of the afternoon. I sat reading and writing for a few hours while drinking the beer, eating a sandwich, and checking out the scene around me. 

In the evening, I went on a riverboat excursion, where I met a family from Moscow. They were on holiday, too, and though they said that they liked Samara, they said that it was a pity that it was in such lousy shape. Compared to Moscow, I suppose it is, but then again Moscow today looks like it's located in a different country entirely from just about everyplace else I've been in Russia. This applies not only to more provincial cities like Samara or Nizhnii, but even St. Petersburg. 

Just call it the "Central Russian Riviera"

Ulyanovsk and Samara are both fun places. In the case of Samara, I wasn't too surprised--I'd heard good things about it, and my guidebook talks it up a fair bit. In the case of Ulyanovsk, however, I admit that I wasn't expecting much--my guidebook had made it sound like a real dump. In fact, Ulyanovsk was quiet and pretty, and I met a number of genuine and friendly people there. 

Samara boat excursion on the Volga

Because Samara is something of a tourist destination, most of the people I talked to either worked in the tourist industry or were tourists themselves, so it was kind of different scene. Nevertheless, by the end of my stay there, I really liked Samara, too. Especially when the sun was setting, late in the evening, the town had a really special quality to it. I can see now why there's a fun drinking song about the 'little town' of Samara: 

I ended up liking the 'little town' (gorodok) of Samara, too

Even though the bus rides were fairly time consuming--it took eight hours for us to travel roughly 240 miles from Samara back to Kazan--I think it was worth it. And frankly, even though the buses are slow, they're still a lot more comfortable than they used to be. For Ulyanovsk and Samara, in fact, the train connections from Kazan were even slower, so the bus was pretty much my only choice--I had been thinking about taking a boat, which had seemed pretty cool, but this option took days, and was a lot more expensive. And one cool thing about the bus ride back to Kazan was that we stopped for twenty minutes in Chistopol, a town that appears on a few occasions in my book.

In any case, I thought that both Ulyanovsk and Samara were pretty cool. It was nice to see something of this stretch of the Volga beyond Kazan.   

Back to Kazan

Other than the long weekend's trip to Ulyanovsk and Samara, the last two weeks have been spent in Kazan. My time here has been spent mostly working. In recent years--while I was finishing up my book--I was doing a lot more writing and working with documents that I had already read and transliterated, as opposed to reading new documents from scratch.  

Kol Sharif Mosque, Kazan

So, part of re-connecting with my own Russian past this summer has involved doing a lot of intensive reading, with some help of my old teacher, of documents that I had earlier photographed but hadn't had the chance to read.

Kazan Kremlin

Otherwise, I've just been hanging out with friends and walking around on my own, looking at how the city has changed since my last stay in 2008. 

Soviet Arcade Games

One day last week I was walking down Kremlevskii Street in Kazan when I passed a "Museum of Soviet Arcade Games." I would have been more surprised to see this, I suppose, if I hadn't read about a similar place in Moscow the week before. In any case, I decided to go in and have a look around. I didn't feel like paying the admission fee ($6) or buying a bagful of USSR-era 15-kopeck pieces (which you need in order to operate the machines), but the people working there were nice enough to allow me to walk around and take a look at the machines for free.

Here are a few shotz: 

Hoop Dreams--USSR version

Soviet pinball machine: "Circus"
Navy Battle game
Soviet joystick--smaller than I expected, frankly

"Game Over, Comrade"


In some ways, the Soviet Arcade Game Museum seems like part of a trend in the country, and not only because there's another one in Moscow. In Kazan there are two-other Soviet-themed museums that I visited during this trip: the Museum of Happy Childhood and the Socialist Lifestyle Museum, both of which have pretty similar types of exhibits--knick knacks and goods from people's daily lives, mainly from the Brezhnev era. I wonder: is there really so much demand in one city for this kind of late-Soviet nostalgia? 

Tatar Work 

One of the best parts of my stay in Kazan was meeting up with my old Tatar tutor. I'd contacted Elvira back in February to ask if she'd be interested in reading Arabic-script paleography with me this summer. Previously, we'd worked together for most of the academic year that I spent in Russia in 2003-2004, as well as during some of the other stints I'd spent in town in the following years. What's great about Elvira is that she knows Arabic and some Turkish in addition to Tatar, and she can read handwriting quite well. 

New home of the Tatar philology department



When I'd started working with her for the first time in the summer of 2002, all I could really read was printed documents in Ottoman Turkish. In the years that followed we moved onto more difficult printed texts written in a less Ottomanized form of Tatar, and then to handwritten ones documents I'd found in the Kazan State University library. Finally, we'd ended up working on a bunch of letters I'd found which had been written by Yusuf Akçura, which were a real mess. Not only is Akçura's handwriting a real challenge to decipher, but he also switches constantly between Ottoman and Tatar. On other occasions, I'd spend all sorts of time flipping through Arabic, Ottoman and Tatar dictionaries trying to find a word, or what I guessed was a word, only to realize later that he was actually just writing out a Russian word in Arabic letters. 

Yusuf Akçura

I really like the atmosphere surrounding the Tatar philology department at Kazan University. The ladies checking my documents as I entered the university building were friendly, and I can always hear a lot of Tatar spoken in the corridors. After working with Elvira on Thursday, I walked around for a while on the north side of the Bulak canal--the Tatar side of town--which is where this part of the university is now located (back when I'd studied at Kazan University, my lessons were up on the main campus near the Kremlin). The little bookstore I used to go to over there has since closed down, but it's still my favorite part of the downtown area. If you go to Kazan and want to see or hear Tatar culture, that's the best place to go.

Nurulla Mosque, Kazan


And that's what's really cool about Kazan--it's not so big that people feel like they have to ignore you in order to retain their sophistication, and I often find myself having long conversations in both Russian and Tatar on a daily basis. Later in the afternoon on Thursday I had tea and baklava with another friend who teaches at the university, and with whom I speak in Tatar. Fast-forward a few hours and I was at the banya, the Russian bath, speaking Russian to a specialist on China who had just defended his dissertation. After bidding him farewell, I stopped at a bar in my neighborhood that I've been frequenting the past couple of weeks, where I chatted for an hour or so with another group of Russian-speakers. For someone who generally likes speaking foreign languages on a regular basis, the Tatar and Russian-speaking worlds of Kazan offer, collectively, a really compelling kind of variety. This was even more the case when I was researching here as a graduate student, as I was also friendly with a group of Turkish scholars who were also here researching at the time. 

Church near Bauman Street

I still remember filling out an ACTR application in the fall of 2001, requesting pre-dissertation funding so that I could study Russian and Tatar in Russia. Frankly, it seemed like a bit of a joke at the time--study Tatar? I knew Turkish back then, and spoke a very primitive form of Russian, but Tatar just seemed like something I was totally pulling out of my backside. But then, nine months later, it actually started happening. The folks at ACTR had found me a Tatar teacher in St. Petersburg, where I spent two months of the summer, and then I came to Kazan for a month, where I began taking my first classes at Kazan State University, as it was then called. 

Bauman Street, Kazan


I wonder how much different my career, and frankly certain parts of my life, would have been if I'd never gotten that grant, or if it hadn't existed in the first place. Today's graduate students have it a lot harder, thanks to the geniuses in Congress who decided that no one in the US really needed to know much about Russia anymore, and decimated the funding that supports this kind of research and language training for specialists. I feel really lucky to have been able to study these things at the time that I did.    

More travels...

Anyway, the research portion of my trip to Russia has pretty much come to an end. Nevertheless, I'll still be doing a little bit more traveling here for the next week or so--I've got to get back to Istanbul somehow. In fact, I've been leaving some of the places that I'm most excited about for last. 

115 libraries can't be wrong! Get yours to order a copy of Turks Across Empires at the OUP website or from Amazon

More links, commentary and photographs available,
как всегда, at the Borderlands Lounge.     

No comments:

Post a Comment