Kazan, Kazan.

Kazan, Kazan. I’m not sure about this place. I came here because it’s the capital of Tartarstan, one of many semi-autonomous republics of the new Russia. Its history is complicated – I’ve read about it a few times, and I’m still confused. The originals, I think, are Bulgars (kin in name, at least, to modern Bulgarians, who were absorbed into the native Slavic people after migrating to the western shores of the Black Sea). The area was converted to Sunni Islam by an ambassador from Baghdad in the 10th century. Then there are the descendants of the Mongol Golden Horde, which sacked the city in the 13th century. In the middle they mixed it up with some Finno-Ugric people – the same people who settled Finland and Hungary. Ivan the Terrible burned everything down and started Kazan over as a Russian settlement in the 16h century. And finally, both Leo Tolstoy and Vlad Lenin famously got kicked out of the local university due to their political activities.

The modern architecture is as big a mish-mosh as its history. Half-burned wooden houses, severe Soviet concrete megaliths, 19th-century brick buildings crumbling into karst sinkholes – a result of the limestone earth and the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka Rivers, I’m told. And now, it seems, each new building boasts whatever architectural style suits the project architect.

In my short walk around the original Tatar settlement and current “muslim area”, separated from the town center by a small canal, I saw remarkable extremes. On the one hand, the area is dilapidated, strewn with buildings with collapsed roofs and piled high with trash. At rush hour, the rutted roads are clogged with Ladas, Volgas, trams and new buses, all kicking up dirt from the streets and spewing greasy exhaust. But among all this ruin sparkle crisp new structures – mosques, hotels, office buildings. This part of town feels like a Third World city that has recently come into some serious cash.

The people also consist of an inscrutable jumble of ethnic groups and opinions. Along with the inevitable Russian Orthodox (and atheists), there is a large Muslim population who practice an easygoing brand of the religion. I haven’t heard a single call to prayer, and few women cover their heads. Every third building, it seems, is a ministry or government office of the “Tartarstan Republic” or of “Kazan.” Souvenir shops sell green, white and red flags of the Tartarstan republic. Adding to my own confusion, street signs are in both Tartar language and Russian.

All this ethnic pride, however, doesn’t seem to translate into a desire for independence from Russia. Shakirova Dilyara, the president of a private business school I met with yesterday, talked about Russia’s future. Tatiana Kamaletdinova, the director of the Junior Achievement program here, spoke proudly about Tartarstan’s great wealth of natural resources and industry…in the context of its place within Russia.

Beyond these cultural insights, I haven’t found much of interest here in Kazan. Sure, the Kremlin is lovely and the town is good for a wander. But honestly, it’s kinda boring.

I have yet to be delighted by any particular place in Russia. I don’t know if it’s my expectations, or what. I have high hopes for Tomsk, which by all accounts boasts a vibrant cultural scene fed by the dozens of local universities and institutes of learning. Off the main Trans-Siberian route, it maintained its culture through Soviet times, while escaping the fate of most other non-Trans-Siberian towns, which have faded into ghost towns.

We’ll see if Asian Russia appeals more than European Russia has so far. Tonight I leave Kazan by overnight train, passing the arbitrary border between Europe and Asia on my way to Yekaterinburg. Yekaterinburg, on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains, is famous for many things. Most noteworthy, I think is that it the city where Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks and tossed into an old mine. I’ll only stay there for about 12 hours – a layover between the Kazan train, which arrives at 14:00, and the train to Tomsk, which leaves at 3 am and arrives in Tomsk 36 hours later.

It’s going to be quite a three days:
May 16 at 20:00, leave Kazan. Arrive Yekaterinburg May 17 at 14:14.
Hang around Y-burg.
May 18 at 02:57, leave Yekaterinburg. Arrive Tomsk May 19 at 05:56.

In other words, don’t expect to hear much from me before Tuesday, unless I find an internet cafe in Y-burg (which I will try to do).

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