Moscow-Kazan-St. Petersburg

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Since getting back from Morocco two weeks ago, I've been pretty busy. Mainly, I've been finishing up work in the archives where I've been working in Moscow, but I also managed to head down to Kazan last weekend for a short visit. 

Bauman Street in Kazan

Kazan! It had been a couple of years since I'd been there, and other than a few days spent visiting the city during the summer of 2015 I hadn't been there at all since 2008. For the first decade of this century, however, Kazan had practically been my second home. I went there for the first time for a month during the summer of 2002, when I began learning Tatar and Kazan State University (now called Kazan Federal University). Then, during the Fulbright year I spent in Russia as a graduate student in 2003-2004, I was back in Kazan for another six months. After that, I kept coming back. In 2005, I spent four months there, and a month each in 2006, 2007, and 2008. 

It was my research that originally brought me to Kazan--the dissertation that would eventually become Turks Across Empires grew out of the many months that I spent working in the National Archive of the Republic of Tatarstan and the manuscript reading room of the Kazan State University library. But it was mainly personal reasons that kept me coming back. I fell in love in Kazan toward the end of my Fulbright year, and in addition to the woman I was seeing there had made some other very dear friends. 

Kazan was an easy place to meet people, especially then. There were relatively few foreigners living there in the early 2000s, especially foreigners who could speak Tatar. My own Tatar skills were quite weak until the end of my Fulbright year, when I began conversing on a regular basis with friends. Prior to that, I could only read Tatar, and was much more comfortable with the Arabic-script documents that I was reading from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than with more contemporary materials. As for speaking, it was hard at first. While the Tatar spoken in central Russia is related to Turkish, they are distinct languages. Knowing one will help you pick out a few words of the other--like knowing Italian will help you understand some of the vocabulary in, say, French or Spanish--but I had to study a lot to even get to the relatively crude level that I had reached by the spring of 2004. 

Kazan Kremlin
For personal reasons, however, I eventually ended up speaking a lot of Tatar over the next several years, and in time Tatar became, after Turkish, the foreign language I could speak best. Like most Tatars I know in Russia, I felt no compunction about slipping in a Russian word or phrase whenever I couldn't remember the Tatar equivalent, which made me feel quite relaxed about speaking because there was always a second option. Dating a Tatar philologist, moreover, exposed me a very precise lexicon that I probably wouldn't have encountered otherwise. 

Language-switching was one of the aspects of living in Kazan that I enjoyed the most. It reminded me a little of Montreal, where I spent my years as a university student. Only whereas in Montreal I was speaking one foreign language and one that was native to me, in Kazan both of the languages that I spoke on daily basis were ones that I had learned relatively recently. I had my routines and knew places where one language or the other was more commonly spoken. Linguistically, it was a blissful experience. 

I've grown apart from some of my old friends, but have kept in touch with others, and have even made some new friends in Kazan in recent years--including through my work at Montana State University. So, it was really nice to get a chance to visit them. I stayed with a Kazan-born friend whom I first met at MSU, and had a great time hanging out with her family at the weekend. On Monday I saw some old friends of mine, and even had the pleasure of bumping into two former acquaintances on the street--people I hadn't seen or spoken to in years. 

Tatarstan is super good--just ask Super Alisa

Perhaps more than anything else, the trip down there reminded me of why I liked Kazan so much in the first place. It made me start thinking of how I might find a way of spending a semester or a year there again sometime. 

Last week in Moscow

I got back to Moscow from Kazan on Tuesday morning of this week, and have mainly been busy with finishing up my business at the archives. It was a bittersweet experience, but mainly sweet. I remember the feeling from various times when I was researching my dissertation and book--gradually coming to the conclusion that the well is going dry. When I first got to Moscow in October, I used to get to the archive first thing in the morning, and stay fastened to my chair until closing time. Every day, it seemed, I was finding material that was positively mind-blowing. I didn't want to waste a single minute of my time or take a day off. 

RGASPI, from Bol'shaia Dmitrovka
But lately, I've mostly been finding material that basically just reaffirms arguments that I'm already making. Sure, every once in a while the occasional interesting detail will crop up, but for the most part these just repeat the points that I'm already making with loads of other details that I've already found and written down. But it's a good thing that this is happening--the last thing I would want would be to leave Moscow with the sense that my work was unfinished. Indeed, I feel like I'm getting out just at the right time, because I feel like I have the material I need to complete the book that I'm writing. 

My last day at RGASPI--the archive where I first started working in October--was on Friday. Again, I was picking through documents that told me relatively little that was new to me, and again I felt good about this. At the desk next to mine was a researcher from somewhere in Europe, someone who apparently didn't know Russian well enough to conduct research on his own because he was reading the documents alongside a translator. Toward closing time, he got up and took a picture of the large painting of Lenin that hangs in the reading room. I remembered the sense of wonder and excitement I felt when I first started working there, particularly the rush I'd get whenever I looked out through the enormous windows that look out over Bol'shaia Dmitrovka street and the neighborhoods to the east. Red Square is just a ten-minute walk away, and I often liked to walk from the archive through Red Square, and then over the bridge all the way to the Novokuznetskaia metro station. Once winter came, I would pick up a hot chocolate at the candy store/coffee house on Bol'shaia Dmitrovka, then take it with me as I walked as quickly as possible to keep warm. 

I think I'll remember these past six months in Moscow mainly for the work I put into them. This was my first time working on a Soviet-era topic, and the archives where I researched were all new to me. It was also my first time living in Moscow, as the longest I'd ever spent here at one time before this year was three weeks. Most of my trips to Moscow had been just for a couple of days, as I passed through en route to St. Petersburg, Kazan, or Ufa for research or travel. 

More from Super Alisa...

And now I'm heading off to St. Petersburg, a city where I have spent a fair bit of time previously--stays of two, three, and one month, respectively, in 2002, 2004, and 2010. But still, it's been six years since I've been there at all, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it's changed. 

Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.


More commentary, photos, and links can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.

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