Existential Panic World Tour Part 10: Kazan

I’m in Yoshkar-ola in deepest darkest Russia. We took off for Russia from Frankfurt on Thursday. When we boarded our plane bound for Kazan, capital of Tartarstan, but were airily informed that the Kazan airport was mysteriously closed and that we might have to land in Perm at the base of the Ural mountains. That’s a bit like boarding a plane bound for Detroit and having it land in St. Louis. Fortunately, about 30 minutes before we did land we were told that the Kazan airport had re-opened. As we descended, my first impression of Russia was that it looked like a massive unrelenting expanse of Ohio. This place is crushingly, overwhelming flat. The horizon seems to exert a strange gravity upon the architecture which no matter how tall seems squat and insignificant in comparison with the flatness of the land.

We were met at Kazan by some one named Sveltlana. Through her job, my mother has made a number of connections throughout the country. Most feel a certain degree of obligation to her, after all, it was her job to recruit Russian scholars and once in Bowling Green Ohio acquaint them to American life by finding them an apartment, securing grant money etc. Thus Sveltlana, a kind, well-meaning but naive person, met us at the airport and arranged for us to stay at the home of a Russian family for the night.

Though the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, Russia remains an empire of sorts. Within its vast expanses lies numerous “autonomous republics.” where specific ethnic groups reside. The most famous and troubled one is Chechnya. Fortunately, Tartarstan and the Mari-El Republic (where Yoshkar-Ola is) is less eager to spurn Russian control and start a bloody guerrilla war. Nonetheless, I found people, particularly in Tartarstan, were much more eager to identify themselves as Tartars than as Russians. The identification is with one’s ethnicity rather than with one’s nationality.

The next day we walked around the center of Kazan see the sights. Unfortunately, it were was a fierce wind along with some snow. Before I left the States, we packed several boxes full of winter clothes to Prague. The boxes, of course, did actually arrive until the day after my mother and I left for here. Fortunately I had enough sense to buy a $6 thick wool sweater in Nepal along with a $9 “North Face” jacket that was probably lovingly crafted by slave labor in Northern India. Kazan seemed to be in the midst of a building frenzy. Much of the construction seems to be directed towards undoing what the Soviets did, like reconstructing churches that were either actively destroyed by the Communists or through willful neglect. They are even reconstructing a large Mosque that was burned to the ground by Ivan the Terrible. I was somewhat disappointed with Kazan because a) most of the sights were in the process of reconstruction and b) in all of Tartarstan I saw nary a fishstick.

The next day, Andrey–mom’s primary contact here in Yoshka-Ola–picked us up in a shiny black Russia car, the kind you see KGB agents drive in the movies. To further the image, he was wearing a black leather trench coat. Andrey is a massive individual, with a thick ZZ Top style beard, a large gut and hands the size of hub caps. He looks like, if the situation required it, he could strangle a horse.

This afternoon I’m supposed to go to a Russia Banya with him as my mother continues her research. A Banya is a Russia spa, which I’m told entails lots of Vodka, birch branches, saunas and lots of nudity. Stay tuned…

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