Friday, July 3, 2015 

Back when I was spending time in Russia more frequently in the first decade of this century, I used to fly out of Moscow in the evening to Amsterdam, where I’d have a one-night stop-over prior to continuing on to the United States the next afternoon. It was great. I’d order a double gin as soon as the drinks were served and breathe a sigh of relief that I’d made it through Russian passport control without something horrible happening to me. Just the way travel was meant to be! 

Passport control once resembled this Onion story

Don’t get me wrong. I realize how privileged I am as an American, especially a white blond-haired one who almost always gets the benefit of the doubt both domestically and internationally. And I realize that Russia isn’t the only place that can be unpleasant, at times, to enter and exit from. The US is notorious for this, too.  

But still, back in the old days getting in and out of Russia could feel like a nightmare. It seemed at times like I was spending entire days of my life standing in slowly-moving lines in airports located outside various Russian cities, wondering what ordeals I would be put through in order to obtain whatever official stamp was required of me to pass through their turnstile. The fact that I needed to carry around a Ziploc bag filled with the many little slips of paper required of me during my stay in the country never did much to dissipate this feeling of anxiety, no matter how tightly I clutched this bag while waiting in line. 

Part of the problem had involved registration. It used to be necessary to register in a city within 72 hours of arriving there. This wasn't a problem if you were staying in a hotel--they would register you automatically--but the rule created issues if you were living in an apartment. Once, when I was renting an apartment in Kazan during the summer of 2006, my landlady and I spent more than two hours shuffling from one office to another trying to register me in her apartment. We eventually succeeded, but only because we bumped into an acquaintance of hers who worked in the office, but who otherwise would normally have nothing to do with registering foreigners. No matter what I did, it seemed like some sort of rule was being bent, broken, or ignored.

Today things are much different--you still need to register in Russia within seven days of arrival, but it's a pretty easy matter that any visa service can take care of for $25 or so. Indeed, any problems that I would have run into in getting out of Moscow this summer would have been entirely of my own making, because I was running late.

I had neglected to check the schedule of the airport train to Sheremetevo and ended up arriving at the airport just 75 minutes before my flight was to depart. In the old days, this would have been a major problem, but I was bailed out by the well-staffed airport—in no other country, frankly, have I seen the enormous bottlenecks that budget-conscious American airlines and airports create by understaffing their security checkpoints and check-in desks. It took all of thirty minutes to make it through security, check-in, and passport control. 

And soon enough, I was on my way back to Istanbul. No sigh of relief was necessary.

Final weekend 

My last weekend in Moscow was a pretty wild one--at least by the standards, I guess, of an assistant professor who spends most of his time in a small town in Montana. I arrived by train from Tula in the late afternoon on Friday. The kid sitting across from me on the train had just finished his military service in Tula and was heading back to him home in Kirovskii oblast. He shyly asked me at which train station in Moscow we’d be arriving, and whether I knew how to get from there to Moscow’s Kazan Station, where he would be catching his next train back home

It turned out that this was actually a question that I could answer, because I’d just made this trip in reverse a couple of days earlier—going from Kazan Station, where my train from Yekaterinburg had arrived, to Kursk Station, which services trains to and from Tula. We set off together into the metro station and introduced ourselves to one another—he said his name was Rustam, a Tatar name. We chatted a bit in Tatar as we descended the escalators into the metro, and then I bid him farewell as he headed off to Kazan Station and points further east in Kirovskii oblast. 

As for me, I was going in the opposite direction, toward the apartment where I’d stayed a month earlier. It was nice to know exactly where I was going and what sort of person I’d be staying with, for a change. That's the one disadvantage with staying in AirBnB places--it can often be a pain finding the place for the first time.

After dropping off my stuff at the apartment I headed out on the town and had dinner. Filling up made me tired, though—I’d had a busy few days traveling between Yekaterinburg, Tula, and Moscow, and so I starting thinking that it might make more sense to just head back ‘home’ and turn in early for the night. But then I thought better of it—who knows when I’ll be in Moscow again? I decided to go over to the Arbat for one last adult beverage before bed. 

Late-night Moscow

I’m glad that I did, too. I went to the Zhiguli, an old Soviet-style cafeteria which offers beer, some food, and service with a snarl. I’d been there once before, during one of my trips to Moscow in the 90s, and while it’s now something of a caricature of what it used to be, the Zhiguli is still preferable to most of the other places on old Arbat. 

The Zhiguli attracts a diverse crowd



I was sitting alone by the window, drinking a beer and reading Autumn Quail by Naguib Mahfouz when one of the women sitting next to me asked me, in English, what the book was. I answered in Russian, and then she and her friend started chatting me up. Given that my early experiences in Moscow were all in the 1990s and early 2000s, and that I was in a pretty touristy part of Moscow, I was at first a little wary. But Tania and Sveta just turned about to a couple of women who worked together and who each, for her own reasons, had a pretty lousy day. I could relate. We took turns buying rounds of beer for each other over the next few hours.

By the time I got up to leave the bar on the new Arbat that we had since migrated to, it was well after two. The metro had been closed for an hour, so I took a taxi back to my apartment. The driver asked me where I was from and started asking me questions about the United States, but then after a while I asked him where he was from. 

"Armenia," he said. That was no surprise. Every time I meet a chatty taxi driver in Russia, they turn out to be from somewhere in the Caucasus. 

"Really, whereabouts?" I asked. Not like I've ever been to Armenia, but still.

"Well, I'm Armenian, so I said I'm from Armenia, but actually I grew up in Gence, in Azerbaijan," he said. He asked me if I understood what he meant, and I responded that I did. Like the Azeris who'd been forced out of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, my driver was one of the Armenians who'd been forced out of Azerbaijan in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

We drove over the river toward my place on the south side of the city. As we crossed the bridge I thought about how many people, like this guy, had been displaced from their homes since the final years of the USSR, to the extent that they couldn't explain where they were from without getting into a history lesson. 


On Saturday morning I was feeling rather hung over, but determined nevertheless. I was heading to Borodino. 

On the fields of Borodino


Borodino is the battle in War and Peace that Tolstoy likens to one billiard ball smashing into another, in which the ball that is hit retreats backwards, yet nevertheless manages to dissipate the momentum of the ball that had hit it. This is how Tolstoy described the 1812 clash between Napoleon’s armies and those of Russia that took place in Borodino, which is also where a number of the novel’s characters—both real and fictional--were killed. During World War II, the Soviet and Germany armies also fought a battle here, and monuments to both conflicts are dotted across the fields. 

Even though you can’t see that much at Borodino without a car, I’d wanted to go there for a long time and figured, the previous night’s revelry notwithstanding, that now would be a good time to do so. 

Monument to 1812 war dead in Borodino


The suburban (elektrichka) train from Moscow took a couple of hours, and there were no buses running from the train station in Borodino to the museum (it’s about a 2.5 mile walk), so I just started walking briskly once I got off the train. The weather was overcast, and it started to rain a little bit, but by the time I was halfway there a car pulled over and a woman asked me if I wanted a ride. In the five minutes that we chatted she explained that her name was Tania, that she was from Moscow, and that she liked walking out in the fields of Borodino at the weekends because it’s quiet and peaceful. Then she dropped me off at the museum and we said our goodbyes.

The museum wasn’t terribly interesting, but just across from it is the site where General Bagration, who was an actual person in addition to being a character in War and Peace, was mortally wounded. Having read War and Peace a couple of times in the 1990s I felt an affinity for Bagration, along with many of the other characters in the book, so I had been really looking forward to seeing his tomb.

Bagration's tomb


After walking around in the field a little bit--the area I saw constituted just a miniscule portion of the actual battle site--I went back to the museum and had lunch in the cafe. I was really hungry, as in my haste to get to the train station that morning I'd had no time to have breakfast. I wasn't expecting much at all from the museum cafe but the food ended up being surprisingly good. I chatted with the lady who ran the place while I spooned borsch into my mouth and chewed on black bread. She asked me where I was from, and when I told her I was American she made a point of telling me how much she liked us, despite the problems between our governments. This is something that happened to be probably 9-10 times while I was traveling over the course of the month. A lot of people made a point of telling me that they didn't like American policymaking toward Russia one bit, while still emphasizing that they made a distinction between the US government and US people.

After lunch, I walked up the road a bit and took a bus to the next town over, the name of which I no longer remember, where I caught a train back to Moscow. In the evening, I met up with a friend for dinner at a Georgian place I’d been to earlier in the month, and we then had drinks on New Arbat. I stayed a bit later than I'd intended, and ended up making a mad dash through the metro station to make my connection before the final train departed—I didn’t want to have to take a taxi two nights in a row. I caught the last subway with a minute to spare, got home, packed my bags, and slept a few hours before getting up again at 6 to head off for the airport.

Gay Pride in Istanbul

On Sunday I flew from Moscow back to Istanbul. Everything went great. I took the metro and Aeroexpress to Sheremetevo airport in Moscow, had an easy time there, then had a comfortable flight back to Istanbul. I took the metro and a taxi to the place where I'm staying. 

After settling in, I decided that I really wanted to eat some kebab down at one of my favorite places on Istiklal Caddesi. I took a ride up the hill, got back in the metro, and got off at Taksim station. 

It was absolutely packed in the station, but at first I just thought that it was a crowded Sunday afternoon. It's Ramadan, I figured, people are probably just out killing time until iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast. Once I got out of the station, however, I saw that Taksim Square was packed with thousands of policemen forming a tight perimeter. Most of the square and the area around it was completely cut off by the police and impossible to get to. I tried turning back into the station but was propelled forward by the mass of people following behind me. After moving slowly ahead for twenty yards or so, I peeled off to my right toward the line of cops. Walking back to the station with the police immediately to my left, I pushed my way back into the metro and took the train down to the next station. 

The occasion was Istanbul's Gay Pride parade, which had been refused permission but whose organizers were trying to hold anyway. Even further down Istiklal, where I ended up going, the streets were really crowded with supporters, often carrying rainbow flags, and police, who were out in incredible force. It reminded me of the scene, to some extent, after the Soma mining accident last year, only with much greater numbers. 

Photo from the Turkish Daily Tattler 

In the end, the march didn't really happen, and the police ended up firing water cannons and rubber bullets at people in order to disperse the crowd. Walking down the hill from Galatasaray, which is about halfway down Istiklal from Taksim Square, I saw lots of pride supporters heading up toward Istiklal. They hadn't come prepared to fight. Unlike protesters over the last two summers, who would show up in Taksim carrying gas masks, the would-be pride marchers just carried little rainbow flags.  

At one point, toward the bottom of the hill as I was getting closer to the road that goes along the Bosphorus, there was a small crowd of people that had formed and a lot of nervous shouting back and forth. Then, as I walked past the crowd, I saw a group of four or five individuals carrying pride flags walking up a steep side street, with one of their friends limping slowly and looking like he'd been beaten up pretty badly. 

All day long, it seemed, I'd been surrounded by nastiness. The ugliness of what I'd seen in Taksim, the heavy police presence in the face of people who just wanted to march peacefully, the beating that I had apparently just missed, all colored my interpretations of what I saw around me. Walking past random couples sniping at one another, strangers shouting over a taxi, even kids treating each other badly, all fed into my increasingly bad mood.

I walked further up the Bosphorus, toward Ortokoy, past gridlocked traffic and through exhaust fumes, which didn't do much to improve my descending grumpiness. Suddenly I heard heavy metal music--Metallica, more precisely, blasting loudly from a few vehicles ahead of me. I looked up to see an elaborately-decorated motorcycle, complete with synchronized flashing lights on the back. The bike was souped up in a way that reminded me of the dashboard interiors of dolmuşes (shared-taxis), which are often festooned with pictures, football flags, and other eye-catching accessories. As I walked past the motorcycle, I turned to see this guy:

This dude helped rescue my mood


I couldn't help laughing. The fact that he actually looked like an old dolmuş driver cracked me up, so I asked him if he could take his picture. He seemed to be reveling in the attention he was drawing, and nodded his head with a smile. At last, I thought, I'd found someone with a bit of levity surrounding him.

Moving On… 

I’ve spent the week writing and hanging out with friends. I’m benefiting from the close proximity of a few really good libraries with Turkish and Ottoman history collections, including one in the place where I’m staying. 

Beautiful Istanbul

The writing isn't super serious yet at this point. In case I've forgotten to mention it lately, I did publish a book last year (this summer I've made a point of bringing this up about ten times daily when talking to taxi drivers, waitstaff, and other captive audiences). So, I don't feel totally under the gun to publish something else quite yet. Mainly, I've just been throwing ideas down onto virtual pages, organizing thoughts into chapters, and writing down notes for a prospectus, but it's still been helpful to be able to consult books that aren't readily available to me at the MSU library.

Now that the trip to Russia is over, I’m looking forward to a different kind of vacation over the next couple of weeks. One that involves blue water and soft sand. Sure, the past four weeks have been a lot of fun, but now is the time to rest a little bit. I'm looking forward to spending time in one place, seeing some friends, and chilling out for a spell before heading back to the MT. 

More photos, links, and analysis can be found, as usual, in the Borderlands Lounge

Order your copy of Turks Across Empires at the OUP website or on Amazon

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