Venetia Thompson dislikes the resignation she finds in the most quiescent of Russia’s Muslim states. But other republics will be less apathetic in the face of Moscow’s provocations
The 12-hour train journey from Moscow was a blur of vodka, of only visiting the bathroom in pairs for our own safety and, most frustratingly, of being told repeatedly to ‘calm down’ in Russian by our formidable escort, Natasha. As we got further away from Moscow the stops became littered with people holding miscellan- eous objects for sale, ranging from stuffed and live animals to general household clutter. A feeling of pronounced claustrophobia began to take hold; gone were the romanticised Russian train journeys and boundless steppes of 19th-century literature. Instead, I had been in the country less than 24 hours and had already decided that I felt trapped and that I hated it.
This feeling reached its height when I found myself locked in my host family’s tenth-floor apartment on my first night in Kazan, with no fire escape and no means of getting out because the door had been dead-locked from the outside. I asked the 24-year-old girlfriend of the Russian who had locked us in whether this was normal, and she had merely shrugged and gone to bed. I never managed to establish whether he had locked us in for security purposes, or to ensure that his girlfriend didn’t leave the flat. I thought of my visa, which restricted when I could leave; of whether I could get a flight out of Kazan’s ramshackle airport the following morning; or whether, failing that, I could face another 12 hours on that horrific train. I resorted to downing as much of the dubious local vodka as I could manage, and went to sleep dreaming that the building was on fire.
Tatarstan is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to Russia’s Muslim states, in that it has remained relatively stable, and has been ruled by the same man since 1989, Mintimer Shaimiev. It is just over 50 per cent Tatar (who are mostly Muslim), with ethnic Russians making up the bulk of the remainder (roughly 40 per cent) alongside a small percentage of various other ethnic groups such as Chuvash, Udmurt and Azeri. In light of this I was expecting Kazan to be a culturally and historically rich city, where I would be able to at least get a sense of Russia’s diversity without the risk of being taken hostage.
While Chechnya, the most notorious of Russia’s Muslim republics, has seen endless violence, spawned countless terrorists and been constantly exposed to Russia’s horrific methods of ‘control’, Tatarstan has seemingly achieved the impossible: Shaimiev has appeased the Kremlin and yet managed to preserve the republic’s identity, and obtained enough of the attributes of an independent state to give the illusion of autonomy. At first this looks like a rare Russian success story; a relatively peaceful Muslim state slap-bang in the middle of Russia and only an overnight train journey from Moscow.
However, aside from the Tatar flag, the magnificent mosque and the odd conversation with a drunken taxi-driver who claims to be a distant relation of Attila the Hun, there is nothing here to differentiate Kazan from any other soulless grey Russian city made up of grey Soviet-era apartment blocks, grey bread and the grey Volga. No amount of red and green Tatarstan flags or freshly painted golden domes can alter this resounding sense of oppressive greyness. It is like being permanently stuck in a black-and-white photo or an Eisenstein film.
Such extremists as there are have obviously been neatly silenced — a Russian speciality — and there is scant evidence of a push for outright independence. I had spoken to many Tatars and Russians living in Kazan about Putin — whether they approved of his presidency, whether they felt that their republic was well represented and sufficiently independent — and the responses were all disturbingly similar.
These were a mixture of well-educated young people, university professors who could barely afford to eat, and taxi-drivers, yet they were all equally apathetic about the future of Tatarstan and of Russia as a whole. Putin was unquestioningly approved of, for no discernible reason other than that they thought that he had stabilised the country in all senses, and had been gracious enough to leave their people more or less alone. The future of Tatarstan? They really had not thought about it, but were sure that Shaimiev would protect their interests.
This unflinching sense of resignation and blind faith is the part of the Russian psyche that I have the most difficulty understanding. While the concept of suffering is inherent within Russian Orthodoxy and philosophy, it seems to have spilt out across Tatar Muslims and atheistic young people alike. Tatars are proud of their history, that remains clear, yet they do not seem particularly concerned about their future. Currently the situation is fairly benign, in as much as Shaimiev is allowed to run Tatarstan relatively untroubled, and in turn he gives the Tatar vote to the ruling United Russia party. Yet the Kremlin also has the ability to remove Shaimiev at any time, which is becoming increasingly likely as Russia continues to centralise power and regain control of its oil-rich regions.
Whether the Tatars will invoke the spirit of Genghis Khan and leap into action should Russia decide fully to reclaim Tatarstan remains to be seen. Tatarstan’s location is not particularly conducive to it becoming a breakaway Muslim state. And it is arguable that the natural impulse is actually for the state’s inhabitants to simply shrug, suffer and go into hibernation, however much Moscow closes in on them, in much the same way as that young girl on my first night in Kazan unquestioningly resigned herself to being locked up by her boyfriend. While this would perhaps be preferable to people blowing themselves up and taking schools hostage while calling themselves ‘freedom fighters’, it is a no less worrying impulse.
Russia is a country that I can only understand theoretically, despite my fluency in the language and love of the literature. Unlike most Europeans, Russians need a godhead — whether this is Stalin, Putin, Shaimiev or Medvedev is becoming increasingly irrelevant as their stoic desire to anchor themselves and blindly endure whatever is to come is unflinching. It is perhaps this trance-like, beaten attitude that annoys the rebels. They want to do whatever they possibly can to break the spell of complacency and trigger some sort of normal reaction to the Kremlin’s systematic human rights abuses and fading out of democracy.
If Tatarstan allows itself to be swallowed up by a Putin-Medvedev government, the knock-on effect across Russia’s Muslim states could be catastrophic. You can guarantee that for every Tatar who allows his identity to be stripped away, there will be an Ingush rebel, if not a Chechen, perfectly willing to use this as an excuse for a fresh wave of destabilising violence.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 5, 2008