It was my friend Joe who suggested going to Kazan, the capital of
Tatarstan. He had a thing for the Golden Horde, for Grand
Tartary and all that stuff. I didn’t. I had once read a book about
the Mongols by some old Oxbridge duffer and it put me off their
history forever. Joe, however, was planning a summer assault on
Mongolia and Central Asia, perhaps a retracing of the Silk Road,
and he wanted to get some practice in. The thing was, his
Russian wasn’t much cop and he was nervous about buying train
tickets and visas and all that. He thought a trip to Kazan would
be a good opportunity for him to rehearse. I agreed to go with
him, as I am always ready for adventure, especially if someone
else is willing to organise all the difficult bits.
Joe proposed the trip in Moscow in February. A few months
passed while we waited for the weather to improve. Then when
the sun finally did come out, we went to get the tickets. One hot
May day we queued in Kazan Station in Moscow for about half an
hour, pushed and nudged on all sides by sweaty shuttle traders
and dodgy characters. I was nervous because my Russian wasn’
t that great and I knew the women who worked in Russian train
stations rarely had patience with foreigners who couldn’t speak
their language. I didn’t think Joe was going to be able to do all
the talking on his own and I was preparing to help him in spite of
his promise I wouldn’t have to do anything.
Suddenly we were at the front and Joe had disappeared. I looked
around. He was standing behind me. ‘Go on’ he said, ‘Talk to
her.’ The jowly old hag behind the glass was already barking at
me to hurry up or let the next person through. Her hair was the
colour of Kia Ora and it looked as though she had smeared pigs’
blood on her lips.
‘What do you want?’ she demanded.
I stammered out a request for two tickets to Kazan.
‘Not possible’ she said.
‘I don’t have information about those trains.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t have any information about trains to Kazan leaving
‘But this is where you buy tickets for Kazan.’
‘Well when will you have the information?’
‘Tomorrow. Come back tomorrow.’
‘But I want to go tomorrow.’
‘I know. So come back tomorrow. NEXT!’
She refused to talk to me any more and an Armenian guy had
already taken my place at the window. I turned to Joe. ‘I thought
you were going to do all the talking.’
‘Thought I’d leave it to you.’ he said. ‘Never mind, why don’t you
come back to mine? I’ll make you a cup of tea and show you a
video of a dwarf getting a blow- job.’
A few weeks later, Yoshi, Joe’s Japanese friend arrived in town
from Georgia. According to Joe, Yoshi was a professional
photographer who had left Japan three years earlier to roam the
globe and take pictures. He had lived all over the earth, in some
of the worst hellholes under the sun- places like Cambodia,
Burma, Iran and Turkmenistan. He was a true world citizen. He
was also probably insane, but very quiet with it.
Joe persuaded Yoshi to come to Kazan. When we went to get
tickets the next time I also disappeared behind Yosh and let him
do all the talking. Although he barely spoke Russian we had
tickets within a matter of minutes.
Tatarstan was Joe’s idea, but I rapidly began to take an interest
in it. Not so much because of its connections to the Mongol
Horde, but more because it was a strange other zone in Europe.
It had its own president, its own parliament, but nobody knew
anything about it. Was it a country? Was it a nation? Was it a
state? Was it, in actual fact, any different from the rest of
Few people realise the extent to which Russia is multi- ethnic,
like no other country in Europe. It has 70 distinct nationalities,
twenty- one of which have their own semi- autonomous
‘republics’ within the Russian Federation. At first glance this may
look similar to the structure of Britain- one political union
comprised of four nations- England, Scotland, Northern Ireland
and Wales. Unlike Britain, however, Russia’s Republics were
hastily created in 1918- 1920, by the Bolsheviks- prior to that
they were mere provinces of the Tsarist Empire.
Lenin created the republics as a sweetener to the regional ethnic
elites, to keep them from seceding outright from the collapsing
Tsarist Empire. This does not mean he sympathised with their
dreams of self- determination. He simply needed to make allies
fast while at the same time holding Russia’s vast territories
together. To that end ‘homelands’ were given to the more
important non- Russian nationalities, which had more autonomy
to decide local questions than the other regions of Russia.
In most of these republics, however, Russians outnumber the
people who give their names to the Republic. In the Republic of
Adygey, in southern Russia for example, less than thirty per cent
of the populace are ethnic Adygey. Tatarstan is rare in that 48%
of the populace are Tatar, while only 43% are Russian. Even
then, only 23% of Tatars actually live in their official homeland.
The rest are dispersed around the former Soviet Union.
In the 90s, however, the Tatars in Tatarstan were quick to grab
as much autonomy as they could get their hands on. For
example, article 61 of the constitution of Tatarstan, states:
“The Republic of Tatarstan is a sovereign state, a subject of
international law associated with the Russian Federation-
Russia- on the basis of a Treaty on the mutual delegation of
powers and areas of jurisdiction.’
The Russian Federation has never accepted that declaration of
sovereignty. Nonetheless, the Tatars insist on it. The constitution
also gives Tatarstan the right to independently conclude trade
and economic agreements with foreign states and to form ‘free
economic zones’ on the territory of the Republic.
Neither Wales nor Scotland define themselves as ‘sovereign
states’. Nor are they free to establish tax free zones. Is
Tatarstan, then, although invisible internationally, more
autonomous than some of the famous, ancient nations of the
UK? And if so, why do we know nothing about it?
It was hard to fit Tatarstan into any categories, and this more
than anything made it attractive. It was unknown, a black blot on
the map, at the easternmost point of Europe. I knew it would
probably be impoverished and rather depressing, but this made
it all the more attractive as, like many bourgeois Westerners, I
like to look at poor foreigners. Unlike other bourgeois
Westerners, however, I don’t require picturesque settings to
offset the poverty. In fact, the bleaker and more dismal the
landscape, the more I enjoy it. I’m funny that way.
Flag of the Republic of Tatarstan