On the Road in Russia: Week 1

Friday, June 5, 2015

On Saturday of last week I got up early, had a quick cup of tea and a poğaça, then grabbed a taxi to take me up the hill to the metro station en route to the airport. I was on my way to Russia.

Zemfira knows a thing or two about catching planes

My taxi driver was a guy called Şapka ("Cap"), so named, he claimed, due to his legendary comb-over. Şapka was visibly jealous when I told him my destination. "A young man like yourself should have a wonderful time there," he said wistfully, assuming that my visit had something to do with prostitutes. "Here you have to pay 300 Lira for the night." He opened the glove compartment to reveal an impressive stockpile of Viagra. 

I took the metro the rest of the way to the airport, then caught my Aeroflot flight to Moscow. Aeroflot sometimes gets a bad rap based upon its Soviet-era reputation for poor service, but my experiences with them have always been positive ones. I'm even an Aeroflot frequent-flier member, a status that comes with certain perks. Like free second helpings of their famous fish casserole.   

In all seriousness, though, the flight to Moscow was easy and relaxing. It took all of 30 minutes to go through passport control, collect my bag, and pass through customs, a serious departure from my first visits to Russia back in the 1990s, when I had to spend literally hours waiting in line just to get my passport stamped. 

In 1993, when I visited Russia for the first time, my girlfriend at the time and I had heard so many horror stories that we'd hidden all of our money--cash dollars--in our socks, fearful that even our moneybelts wouldn't provide safe storage. Then, to our horror, we were asked at customs to prove that we had money to live on during our stay in Russia. Removing our shoes and socks and peeling off stacks of toejam-scented Benjamins, we proved our financial worthiness and our otherwise uselessness at our very first bureaucratic encounter. 

For some reason, they let us in anyway.

Red Square at sunset

Despite the poor first impression that we undoubtedly created back then, I've since managed to get along better in Russia. Between 2002 and 2010 I came here every year but one, staying for periods of time ranging between one and ten months. More recently, however, I haven't been able to make the trip, as I've been spending most of my foreign research time in Turkey and Georgia. 

Metro art


I spent this past weekend in Moscow, adjusting to my surroundings and basically just feeling awesome about being back in Russia again. While I visited a few sites, mainly I just wandered around neighborhoods, taking photographs and writing whenever the mood hit me. 

Christ the Savior Cathedral--rebuilt in the late 1990s

Moscow has definitely changed a lot since my last time in town back in 2008. Hipster yuppie-types ride their skateboards home from work, and "cocktails" no longer mean face-puckeringly sweet sugar-bomb concoctions of colorful syrups that only a hummingbird could love. The more I walked around, the more Moscow reminded me of Brooklyn, frankly. Maybe it's just me, but people there also seemed way friendlier (to strangers) than before, and there are loads of smiling faces--another rather radical departure from my first trips to the city, especially. 

Smolensk Cathedral

I stayed with a family through AirBnB and, coincidentally, they turned out to be Tatar. The mom could speak a bit of Tatar, and when she found out that I could speak it she invited one of her Tatar friends over to make Эчпочмак ("Uchpochmak"), a kind of meat pie that Russians call "triangles" (Treugol'niki). Minnur Apa regaled us with stories about her early days in Moscow in the early 1970s. She said that she'd arrived in the Soviet capital from her village outside Kazan with two enormous suitcases--one filled with potatoes, the other with onions. 

Эчпочмак time!
Minnur Apa told good stories, but I was also struck my how humble she was. She instinctively felt, it seemed, that as a peasant who'd later become a factory worker in the big city, her life wouldn't be at all interesting to me, a foreigner who'd come from the United States, of all places. She had no idea.

In any case, I stayed in Moscow until Tuesday, then took the train to Nizhnii Novgorod. I've put up an album up of Moscow pictures in the Borderlands Lounge if you're interested in seeing more shotz from the capital city.

Heath Lowry's Ongoing Affair

On my last day in Istanbul I was browsing at Robinson Crusoe's and found a copy of a new book by Heath Lowry. Lowry was my advisor when I was doing my MA at Princeton, albeit really in name only during my second year there. In any case, his new book--called An Ongoing Affair: Turkey and I--is a book of memoirs that recalls his days as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small village in western Anatolia in the mid-1960s. 

It's a fun read and a valuable source, I think, regarding village life in Turkey back then. Lowry writes with humor and obvious affection for the people that he encountered and lived alongside. While better editing could have helped with the misspelled words and grammatical/punctuation errors that sometimes mar Lowry's otherwise fine writing, these flaws don't distract too much from the fascinating, and often quite beautiful, story that he has to tell.  

One point I found interesting: early on, Lowry mentions that the villagers he lived among instilled in him "a sense of fatility, best summed up by the oft-repeated phrase inşallah (if God so wills)" (p.7). Fair enough, I suppose, although I must admit that I've always interpreted the term inşallah in somewhat more prosaic terms--as a means of saying "hopefully, but let's see." Anyway, it seemed to me that the stories Lowry recounts in this volume actually show that Lowry's village compatriots worked really hard to try to make their lives better according to their own understanding of what this meant. The overall impression that I got while reading this book was that it was not so much religion that inspired whatever sense of fatality that Lowry may have detected, but rather the actions of (secular-minded) government officials, who are portrayed as constantly talking down to the villagers and taking away their agency. 

All in all, though, I thought An Ongoing Affair was readable, funny, and replete with drama. While it's too late for me to use it for the summer class I'll be teaching this year, I plan to use it in future years when I teach my Turkey class at MSU. İnşallah.

Nizhnii Novgorod

After spending the weekend in Moscow, I headed toward Nizhnii Novgorod. I'd never been to Nizhnii before, but had long been Nizhnii-curious. Former Cold Warriors out there might remember Nizhnii as the formerly closed city of Gorkii, a consequence of the sensitive nature of the nuclear research that was conducted there. Gorkii is also where Soviet-era dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner lived. As a child in the late 1970s and 1980s I remember reading about Sakharov, Bonner, and the "closed city of Gorkii" and feeling so intrigued. How did one actually close a city, I wondered.

Nizhnii Kremlin

In any case, the city is open now, and has been since 1990. During the years when I was traveling to Russia more frequently I was often tempted to visit Nizhnii, but never really found the time. Back then I was a graduate student, and my work generally involved just going to a city where I was going to do research, renting an apartment, and getting down to business. I'd done a lot of backpacking around the world prior to entering graduate school, and so wasn't really interested in spending my time and money visiting places that weren't part of my research agenda.  

The main pedestrian drag

Now, however, I have the time and money to travel around a bit more, and especially not that my book is finished it seemed like this summer would be a good time for me to re-connect with Russia. Moreover, Nizhnii is connected to a number of the events that take place in my book. It helps that I'm able to do a bit of work here, as well as find new books on Muslims in central Russia that I've been unable to locate elsewhere. Slowly, Nizhnii might just be turning into a future research city for me.

The Volga and Oka rivers meet at Nizhnii

Nizhnii is a provincial town, and in many respects reminds me of a number of other such places that I've seen in Russia. They've got their Kremlin, their pedestrian street, their Peruvian pipe-players on the pedestrian street, their kitchy public art, and other hallmarks of small-time cities in this country. It's also rough around the edges, which is frankly kind of nice after spending a few days among the cheerful, smiling, skateboarding cocktail-drinkers that I saw so frequently on display in Moscow. In short, Nizhnii reminds me of the Russia that I got to know in the 1990s and early 2000s. 

 Girls posing around a neon fountain

As I did in Moscow, I'm staying with a family that I found through AirBnB. I hate to sound as if I'm advertising for the site, but I've found it a really great way to find accommodation here. I'd used AirBnB before to rent entire apartments on earlier trips to Berlin and Copenhagen, but for this trip I've preferred to live with families for a number of reasons. In particular, it's nice to have people who can provide information, and to whom I can have extended conversations in Russian--something that I'd frankly been missing back in Montana.  

Here's an album of photographs from Nizhnii that I've put up in the Borderlands Lounge.  

Visit to Sakharov House

On Thursday I visited the house-museum of Andrei Sakharov, where the nuclear physicist and dissident was placed in internal exile between the years 1980 and 1986. 

Sakharov bust

Sakharov's apartment is located far outside the downtown area--it took about thirty minutes to get there by minibus. The little museum, which is situated in the apartment that Sakharov shared with his wife, Elena Bonner, was opened in 1990. 

The place has seen better days, and doesn't seem to get a lot of visitors. When I asked the girls working in the grocery store around the corner from the museum where the entrance was, they didn't have the faintest idea what I was talking about. I guess that honoring political dissidents from Soviet times is not exactly a priority in Russia these days, unless the individual in question can be re-purposed into some sort of nationalist figure like Solzhenitsyn. Sakharov, who died in 1989, spoke truth to power until his very last days, and he paid for his honesty. 

He'd seen a movie about Sakharov on cable TV

While touring the museum's exhibits, I was touched by the tone of some of the letters that people had sent to him during his years in Gorkii. Many other letters, meanwhile, remained undelivered. Throughout the period of his exile in Gorkii, Sakharov was guarded closely, his visitors were strictly limited, and his apartment closely monitored. 

For years, Sakharov had no telephone, either. Then, one day in late 1986, the KGB agents stationed outside his door suddenly arrived to install one. The telephone rang soon afterward. Mikhail Gorbachev was on the phone, calling Sakharov to tell him he'd been released. Nevertheless, Sakharov remained a thorn in Gorbachev's side until the end, challenging the leader to speed up the pace of perestroika until his death. 


It started pouring rain shortly after I left the museum, adding to my somber mood. Once I got back into town I jumped off the minibus and ran into a cafe and sat for awhile to wait out the rain. I thought about the sacrifices that Sakharov and others made against what must have seemed like a truly terrifying juggernaut. Yet somehow they had the guts to see it through. 

I compared his life and activities with the sort of grad student-type grousing, public shaming/outrage production, and faux FB-based "protests" that I'm inundated with online every day, and felt even better to have had the opportunity to have spent some time in this little museum that likely won't even be around a few years from now.    

Moving On

All in all, it's been a good first week back in Russia. I've been speaking loads of Russian and Tatar, and have actually managed to get back into the swing of things, research-wise. I'm not leaving Nizhnii just yet, but will be soon enough. I've got other places to see in the weeks ahead. 

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

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

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