Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Trip to Tatarstan

Near the end of April, I spent 3 days in the ancient Russian city of Kazan thanks to a kind-hearted professor I teach: Akhiar Muginovich Gataulin.

Gataulin is a lively, intelligent, 72-year old agricultural economist and statistician and is well-known within Timiryazev Academy, having served as the dean of the Economics department and dissertation supervisor for a number of current professors as far back as 40 years ago. And he’s still going strong. In 1996 he founded the Independent Scientific Agro-Economic Society of Russia as a way to stimulate discussion among agricultural experts regarding the state of Russian agriculture as an integral part of the national economy. Annual conferences are held to discuss the most current research and problems facing Russian agriculture, and this year the conference was in the capital of the Tatarstan Republic, Kazan, and I was invited to participate.

Tatarstan is located southeast of Moscow; Kazan is a hop skip and a jump 11-hour train ride from Moscow (very close by Russian standards). The city is over 1000 years old, and its population is 70-75% Muslim and the whole republic is dotted with mosques whose architecture provides a stunning contrast to the usual Orthodox church-studded landscapes of Russia. Most of the population speaks both Russian and Tatar, a Turkic language that is very similar to Uzbek, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Turkish, and the like. I often found myself in situations when people would be switching back and forth between Russian and Tatar, and I couldn’t help but think that every time they moved to Tartar, they were saying something about me…

Gataulin and I arrived after an overnight ride in a купе (good quality 4-person train compartment; my first time in one seeing as I usually travel in the crowded, smelly, but decidedly cheaper платзкарт section). We shared our купе with a very soft-spoken and curious Russian bagpipe player on his way to a performance and a very outspoken Daniel Craig look-alike with a mullet, whose rate of speech matched the train’s high speed and who waxed poetic about New York City and America after discovering my nationality (“America: what a great country. I love America. There everything works. Doors are simple to open and you know they won’t break when you grab the door handle…”).

We were greeted at the station by the dean of our host center, the Tatar Institute for Advanced Agro-business Training—a man whose company I would keep everyday but whose name I never actually caught. He was a very boisterous and generous man, delighted to welcome an American to his institute. I ate almost every meal next to him in his exclusive dining room lined with elegant red velvet curtains and gold-rimmed chinaware. I was treated to traditional Tatar foods, endless vodka toasts, and was taught a very important lesson in Tartar tradition: “Tatar men eat three things with their hands: chicken, blini, and women.” He then told to marry a Tatar woman and stay in Kazan for life. Thinking this was a joke, I laughed it off, but was then led into the dean’s office and introduced to his young secretary, Oksana…all eyes were expectantly on us.

I was able to squirm out of the situation by saying that I wanted to go explore Kazan before the conference began the next day. The dean and Gataulin stared at me and asked, “By yourself?”

“Yes, by myself. I have a guide book. And I would like to walk around.”

“No, we will get a driver for you.” The vice-dean’s son was requisitioned into driving me around Kazan for an hour and a half and pointing out all the landmarks. He was understandably hesitant and caught off guard, but the drive was very nice, although conversation was limited. I would have really preferred to go alone and not inconvenience Rushan, but Russian hospitality overruled my desires. Plus, they didn’t seem to grasp the concept of independent travel.

Thankfully, in the early evening I was able to meet up with Alyson, the Fulbright ETA stationed in Kazan. She grabbed two of her students and we went strolling through the downtown area, including a walk down Baumanskaya steet—a pedestrian-only avenue lined with cafes and dotted with statues and monuments. It reminded me of parts of Istanbul.

The next day brought the start of the conference—and the end, seeing as not enough people arrived to share their reports for a second day. I sat in a large auditorium and listened to presentation after presentation touching on the conference theme of “Theoretical and Methodological Foundations and Practice of Innovational Paths of Development of Economics of the Agro-Industrial Complex” (a very Russian title). I understood the overall message of most presentations, at least when they didn’t speak too fast, and only after they finished their requisite 7-minutes of thanks and praise to the conference organizers and their superiors (there is something very Soviet about this tradition). One quote that stood out came from one of the conference supervisors, who made a scathing comparison of American and Russian agriculture. He said something along the following lines: “America’s most dangerous and powerful weapon is not nuclear; it is their productive force and the amount of money they make from it. Why can’t Russia match this with its vast agricultural resources? It’s absurd.”

Before leaving for Kazan, Gataulin had asked me to prepare a presentation for the conference, as well. I was initially quite shocked, seeing as I knew nothing about the conference theme, but he later clarified his request and asked me to give a presentation on the higher education system in America, which the conference participants would find very interesting. He told me I would give it in English to a group of students studying the language, but during our lunch break he surprised me with the following:

Bryan, why don’t you give your presentation right after lunch.”

“After lunch? Well, aren’t there more people scheduled to present on the theme?”

“Yes, but we can squeeze you in, too.”

“OK, but am I going to give it in English? Where are the students studying English?”

“No no no, you will give it in Russian.”

I was completely unprepared. I had made the whole slideshow in English, my mental notes were all in English, and suddenly I had been asked, in between shots of vodka at lunch, to present in Russian. “This is not going to be pretty” was the only thought in my mind, which was already beginning to swim a little from the strong alcohol.

But, there I was at the podium thirty minutes later in front of about 45 Russian agricultural specialists and graduate students giving a presentation in broken Russian about the US higher education system. I decided to keep it as short as possible since the expression on half of their faces upon the announcement of my speech looked like it could burn my soul out. I must have spoken for about 10 minutes and expected to practically run back to my seat afterwards, but surprisingly, they had a bunch of questions for me. I did my best to answer, and Gataulin actually had to cut the questions short so we could move on with the conference. After the last presenter, a group of graduate students approached me and wanted to know even more. After again struggling to answer very broad questions like “how much does a university education cost in the US” and “what kind of salary can you get with a masters degree compared to a bachelors”, we made our way to the banquet dinner.

Here, again, vodka and wine was poured to the brim and I counted at least 10 different toasts that required everyone to raise their glasses and drink to the bottom. Some toasts were short and sweet, some involved singing traditional Tatar songs, and others were 10 minute long anecdotes by people who had clearly had one (or four) too many. I was seated across from a group of five female graduate students from Orenburg (southeast of Tatarstan and bordering on Kazakhstan), who were stunned to discover I was only 22 years old. Their eyes widened and they all gasped, saying out loud that we were the same age, but they had taken me for much older, although they couldn’t tell me exactly why. They then invited me to go to the movies with them that evening, after they had been very awkwardly invited to a night club by one of the drunken members of the conference committee who was easily 25 years their elder.

After the banquet ended, Kristina, Lena, Tanya 1, Tanya 2 and two others whose names I can’t remember took me by the arm and led me down the street to the bus stop, where we hopped on for a quick ride to the center of Kazan. We went to two 10-minute 4-D ‘adventure experiences’ where you watch a 3-D clip and sit in seats that move like you’re in a roller coaster as water and wind are sprayed at you. They thought it was the coolest thing in the world; I was just feeling sick afterwards.

This was followed by a walk to an upscale sushi restaurant where I was further grilled about life in America and my personal life: what are relationships like in the US? How does dating work? We hear that one-night stands are the norm in America…is this true? What do you look for in a girl?

After sushi and some ice cream, we hopped into a gypsy cap waiting outside the restaurant for a ride back to the institute dormitory. The guy driving looked very pleased to have four young women in his back seat, but not so thrilled that I was there in the passenger’s seat…talk about a buzz-kill. Although I had a good laugh when we hopped into the cab and the driver asked the girls if they were freezing (it was quite a cold evening). They replied that they were cold, and the driver then jacked up the heat in the car and said with a smirk: “Now it will soon be like Tashkent in here.”

The following day had been rescheduled from a conference day to an ‘excursion’ day where all participants of the conference were invited to go on a bus tour of the whole city. We made stops at the Kremlin so everyone could wander around for a bit, and even took a 30-minute detour to the Raifskiy monastery outside the city limits. The monastery and churches were essentially like every other monastery and church I had visited so far in Russia, with one exception. This one had a very nice lake on its territory (although ice was still covering part of the lake…in late April). Our guide told us that this was the monastery’s holy lake, to which one woman replied in astonishment, “You mean the whole lake is holy? All of the water?” The guide assured her that this was the case, and that it was the healthiest water in all of Russia to bathe in. Russians really do love their religious superstitions; in their mind, there is no doubt in their truth.

Gataulin had changed our return train tickets to leave that evening since the conference had been shortened, so I spent my final few hours after the excursion going on a walk and sitting in a café with Alyson and the Orenburg girls before heading back to the train station. But it was this train ride that proved to be the most interesting of the whole trip. Gataulin and I had a купе entirely to ourselves, and I inadvertently started the most interesting conversation I have had in Russia when I innocently asked Gataulin if he ever came to Kazan as a child, seeing as he was born in the neighboring Orenburg Republic.

Gataulin launched into a nostalgic memoir of his childhood during the war, during which he worked as a 12 to 15-year old bookkeeper on a kolkhoz measuring the wheat and oat production of every woman in the commune. He said it was here that he became fascinated in agriculture, and recounted several stories about how he made measurements, developed new techniques to make his job easier, and even delivered horse-drawn carts of wheat to a town 10 hours away through the driving winter snow as a 14-year old. He told me of how almost all of the family’s belongings were transferred to the front in the war effort, and how after the war the country was in a state of disarray. He told of how banditry and gang wars were rampant, especially among the teenage population, and how he became an experienced train-jumper in order to get anywhere, seeing as his family had no form of transportation and he had no money to afford a ticket. He said that train conductors were often sympathetic to the young boys traveling without tickets, as they understood well the hardship of life at this point. He even remembered one time riding in an empty, open-topped cargo cart when two rival gangs hopped in and began a knife-fight, during which Gataulin was cut across the hand before he managed to hop out. It was the first time I got a really true feeling about what the war meant to Russia, and the nature of its lasting effects.

Later, he told of how he made his way to Moscow to enroll in the Timiryazev Agricultural Academy, seeing as he had received highest marks in his schoolwork in Orenburg. Again, he train-jumped to get to Moscow (a 24+ hour ride), and immediately asked the dean if he could get a job while studying so he could earn money to send home. He was attached to a work team that reaped wheat in the fields by the academy, and he again excelled in his studies. After a few years of post-graduate studies, he became a full-time professor in the Economics department and has been moving ever-forward since then.

He then recalled a story of a visit he paid to the agriculture minister of the scarcely-populated yet huge Yakutia Republic in the northeast of Siberia. He was taken by helicopter along with the minister and a few other people to a remote fishing ground, where they were to spend the day outdoors. The weather in Yakutia is very harsh and tempermental, and when the helicopter returned to look for them, it could not locate the group through the thick fog, although they could clearly hear the helicopter not far off. They were stranded and forced to spend the night in the wild. They built fires, made makeshift tents out of wood and leaves, and waited until the next day when the helicopter made another effort and finally found them. So Bear Grylls.

All in all the trip was a huge success. I formally participated in an official Russian conference, made some new Russian friends, heard a GREAT story, and thoroughly enjoyed the city of Kazan, which I found to be much more friendly and personable than Moscow. And after just one week of being back at work, I took off for St. Petersburg. But I’ll save that for my next post.

You can see my photos of Kazan here.