Tuesday, February 12, 2013

An American Interlude

In case you have, by now, lost track of the story, recall that we left our intrepid adventurers at the airport in Vladivostok after having wended their way by train across nearly the entirety of Russia. At this point, they parted ways: Rachel returning to the United States via warm tropical Honolulu to eat burritos, cheddar cheese, bagels, peanut butter, ranch dressing, and barbecue to her heart's content, while Ann and the hero of this tale remained in the land of endless winter. In fact, their flight to Moscow was delayed for three hours because the airport's computer system was down, and the flight attendants had to write everyone's boarding passes and luggage checks by hand. Of course, this meant they missed their connecting flight to Nizhny Novgorod, and had to wait several more hours in Moscow, where they learned the true lesson of this adventure -- there is no place good to eat in Shermetyevo airport.

I dare your geography to improve. Go on then.

Eventually, however, they (we, in a dashing feat of pronoun substitution) did land in Nizhny (so called "Lower" Novgorod, presumably to distinguish it from Veliky "Great" Novgorod, one of the oldest and historically important cities in Russia), took a marshrtuka more or less at random, transferred to the two-line metro system, where we managed to miss the one transfer, and eventually walked the final kilometer to our hostel down the admittedly beautiful Большая Покровская pedestrian street in light snow at midnight.

Большая Покровская, notable for stores that blast the same jingle on
loudspeakers all day long, also decent coffee.

Nizhny Novgorod is one of the biggest cities in Russia, with a population of over a million. Located at the confluence of the Volga and Oka Rivers, Nizhny has long been a major trading hub, and its thick Kremlin (original fortified city center) walls made it a chief asset in Moscow's fifteenth- and sixteenth-century wars against the Tatars in Kazan. Nizhny's Kremlin, atop a formidable hill overlooking the rivers, still dominates the city and commands a spectacular view. Even in winter, it was always full of people towing kids on sleds, strolling with friends, or having snowball fights in the lawns.

Part of Nizhny's Kremlin wall
View from the Kremlin, with the Volga and Oka Rivers.

From 1932 until 1990, the city was called Gorky, after the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky (a pseudonym), who was born there in 1868. He spent many years traveling around Russia and the world, writing about the bitter injustice and miserable conditions of the working people. He was Lenin's friend and his own politics aligned closely with the Bolsheviks', but he also criticized Lenin for being cold-blooded and iron-fisted, and he left to Italy for health reasons in 1921. Eleven years later, he returned to the Soviet Union permanently, where he was hailed as a propaganda poster-boy for leaving Fascist Italy, decorated with the Order of Lenin, given a mansion to live in, and had his hometown named after him. His death in 1936 may or may not have been a covert NKVD murder connected to Stalin's purges in the later 1930s.

Regardless, the apartment where Gorky lived in Nizhny Novgorod from 1902 to 1904 is now a museum, furnished to look as it did when he lived there with his family. Ann and I were the only two visitors, and quickly drew the attention of the babushka attendants, who were clearly not quite sure what to make of us, but delighted -- two American girls who spoke Russian and were interested in Gorky? We were from so far away, they declared, it was "like the cosmos!" Then they personally made sure we saw every photograph the museum had to offer; a textbook example of kind-hearted Russian authoritarian hospitality.

The Chkalov Staircase under snow and construction. Named for famous
aviator and Hero of the Soviet Union Valery Chkalov, who flew non-stop
from Moscow to Vancouver, WA across the North Pole. I hear it's more
beautiful in summer.
Рождественская церковь (Stroganov Church) and
ubiquitous smokestacks.

One very short (nine hour) train ride later, we arrived in Kazan, another large city of over a million located on the Volga, and Nizhny's historical nemesis. Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, one of twenty-one ethnic republics within Russia, which differ from the standard край or область (territory/province) by retaining the right to have their own official language and constitution, although their actual levels autonomy are debatable. Tatarstan today is officially home to the Tatar ethnic group, which speaks the Turkic Tatar language (as well as Russian) and is mostly Sunni Muslim, although only about half the total population of the republic is classified as belonging to the Tatar ethnic nationality.

Kazan became part of the Russian fold in 1552, after almost a century of wars between Moscow and the Khanate of Kazan, when Ivan the Terrible finally conquered the city and massacred most of the population, destroying mosques and forcibly Christianizing the survivors. Given its history, I was expecting a little more of a Tatar influence on the look and feel of the city, but either my conception of what that might entail is flawed, or the city was destroyed and rebuilt enough times under Russian control that Kazan looked to me, admittedly a tourist, almost indistinguishable from the typical Russian European style. Still, the city is beautiful and has very open feeling, with wide boulevards (perfect for Imperial parades?) and of course the Volga running through the center. But the city's architectural highlight is unarguably the Qol Sharif Mosque, completed in 2005 in the center of the Kremlin, a gorgeous blue and white structure that restores my faith in Russia's ability to still build beautiful things.

Qol Sharif Mosque, even more stunning when illuminated at night.
Kazan Kremlin, built by Ivan the Terrible on the ruins
of the castle that used to stand here.
The mysterious Soyembika Tower, date of construction
unknown. It was leaning so badly that they've been
trying to stabilize it since the 1930s.
Annunciation Cathedral, within the Kremlin, also
built at the behest of Ivan the Terrible.
Kremlin wall -- even in January, days are short and nights are long. 
The giant Рубин-арена stadium is just visible over the river. Kazan is
notably hosting the 2013 Summer Universiade and the 2018 FIFA
World Cup (along with Kaliningrad and eleven other Russian cities).
Striking statue outside the Kremlin to Tatar poet Musa Jalil, who
wrote The Moabit Notebooks while in a German POW camp.
Kazan refers to itself as Russia's third capital.
This is the glory shot you've been waiting for. 

But for me, the highlight of the end of my trip was meeting ten or so other Fulbright ETAs in Kazan before training back to Moscow (a mere thirteen hours) and reuniting with the entire contingent of American Fulbrighters in Russia, including all of the researchers, whom I had never met before. Although I wouldn't have said I was starved for native English conversation, after a full week of being surrounded by gratuitous and constant punnery, word play, slang, regional accents, idioms, cultural references, and the exuberant invention of new words and grammatical constructs (frequently Russklish), I have to say that nothing matches the implicit level of underlying understanding between people who share a cultural background.

It was also fascinating to hear about where everyone is living, what research they're doing, and what questions have emerged as the most regionally interesting to them. I am beginning to understand that Russia is simply an enormous country, geographically and culturally. There are so many different nationalities, each with its own unique culture and language, all sharing one huge country, and all interacting with others for hundreds of years -- the sheer complexity of identities and histories is staggering. I live in one unique corner, but all of Russia is unique in its own way.

After over a month of travel, landing in the marshes of Kaliningrad to a deliciously warm 35 degrees F and rain felt fantastic (and also like summer). St Petersburg is billed as Russia's European city -- and, granted, Piter far outshines Kaliningrad in architectural beauty -- but this little Baltic oddity is Russia's real window to the west, even if it's sometimes left off maps. Even during the Soviet Union, when this was a closed and secret city, it was also a port, connecting it with the world. Today that is still true. Ordinary people here travel to Poland, to Lithuania, to Spain, to Croatia, to Turkey; and if they don't, then they also aren't unaccustomed to foreigners, only some of whom are tourists.

Living in Kaliningrad means being Russian, but walking on streets and living in buildings that were not built by Russians. Having a trade-based economy means wearing Polish boots and eating Lithuanian cheese. Being an exclave, completely surrounded by the European Union and cut off from Big Russia, means being aware of the region's place and role in a larger context. The Soviet Union may have been the Great Standardizer, and it certainly destroyed enough of Königsberg and built enough generic monuments to fool a casual glance, but Kaliningrad is still different. It feels like Europe compared to Russia, and like Russia compared to Europe. I don't know what it is, and most of the time, I don't think City K knows either. But if there's one thing that I learned from traveling over 18,000 kilometers of Russia, it's that I am incredibly lucky to be living in this strange little chunk of it.

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