This week’s adventures happily fall into these alliterative categories; although lessons are taking up quite a lot of our time (with each lesson being 1.5 hours, which is slightly too long for me to concentrate for the whole thing!), we’re still managing to see more of Kazan and Tatarstan.
On Tuesday evening I met up with Tatar pal again (I feel like this might become a regular event in my weekly updates, so I may as well call him by his actual name, Amir). In a typically bizarre Russian style, we went to a small art exhibition hidden in the middle of a rather soulless shopping centre. It seems to me that the shopping centres here are essential for much social and community activity in Russia, since they offer wide (heated!) spaces to hold events such as this exhibition. There are always many benches inside, which rather than being full of dodgy characters like in England, are full of young people who are simply hanging out and families having trips out.
I couldn’t really define a singular theme in the art exhibition; there were images from Kazan, Russian popular culture and obviously, some “subtle” political motifs.
The artist himself was working in a small closed off section, and we went to talk to him about the gallery. He spoke largely about one particular piece, inspired by the drinking problem in Russia, which was a small coffin-shaped box with two shot glasses balanced on top which looked like a bottle of vodka when you stood further away. The artist explained that many children could immediately understand the meaning of this work, as they were able to link the drinking imagery to the image of the coffin quicker than most adults. He then invited us to sign a bit of Putin’s face; I didn’t quite understand why, and he did insist that the work ‘wasn’t political’…
The next evening we headed off to an ice-hockey match, which I was really looking forward to since I had never been to one before! It was between Ak-Bars (Kazan) and Jokers (Helsinki), and once again Kazan’s sporting prowess gave way to a 4-2 win. I didn’t understand the rules, I didn’t understand the Ultras Fans (who lead the cheers, beat drums, sing Russian songs to the tune of ‘When the Saints go marching in’) but I did understand why it was so popular. The atmosphere and excitement of the event was incredible, and by the end of the match I’d nearly lost my voice!
As the weekend arrived, we had asked for permission to miss our Saturday lessons in order to get a bus to Bolgar, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is supposed to have been the capital of Volga Bulgaria from as early as the 8th century. It is also considered as one of the first attempts to conserve a historical site in Russia, with Peter the Great issuing an order to conserve the ruins in the 17/18th century. What was most striking however was the Islam heritage of this site; it has acted as a key Islamic Religious centre in Russia for centuries, and during the Soviet era many Muslims who could not participate in the hajj to Mecca would instead travel to Bolgar. The site of the main White Mosque was stunning and such a contrast to the many onion-domes of Orthodox churches .
The trip itself was really fun, as we got to spend some more time with our German roommate Inessa and some of her German friends who also live in the same Block as us. Despite nearly flattening a random woman who cried out ‘Devushka!’ when I reclined my coach seat dramatically to squash Emma, who had moved seats without me knowing, and five hours of travelling, the day trip was was a success!
Sunday brought more walks in parks and along the river with Russian pals, which was a good way to chill out after a busy Saturday. Going back to lessons this week after such a nice weekend was quite difficult, and so on Tuesday I skived off my final lesson to go and get some much needed time alone from my hectic timetable. Sitting watching the sun set over Kazan gave me an opportunity to reflect and remember that although Russian is important, I shouldn’t push myself all the time to do everything. Russia brings lots of amazing opportunities, but sometimes its better to just chill out and be kind to yourself.