Lost Cosmonaut (Sample) – Tartarstan
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 tomorrow.’
‘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 Russia?
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 percent 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.