A journey Through Putin’s Russia Part 1

My trip to Russia started with a phone call from the picture desk, saying that they might want me to go to Russia in the next few days . It all becomes clear the following morning , if I want to go I have only a couple of hours to apply for a Visa and then on a plane to Moscow after the weekend to start a journey across Russia that will last roughly a month.

This is a dream come true, I’ve always wanted to travel across Russia, and although my partner is 7 months pregnant, I feel I have no other choice but to take the assignment regardless, and hope it’ll be ok with her when I tell her later in the day.
I get a day in Moscow before the journey begins, take a walk around Red Square, which I found really disappointing, through the GUM shopping arcade (beautiful but soulless), and along the Metro which seems to spew out a never ending stream of people.

With the relentless traffic jams overhead on what seem to be the world’s widest urban roads and those on the subterranean system below, god knows where the city fits them all. That night Adrian Blomfield, the Telegraph Moscow correspondent and I took a night train to our first destination, Kazan .
Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, is a thriving city undergoing major modernization, and one of the “semi-autonomous” Republics of Putin’s Russia. It sits alongside the banks of the Volga, is Oil rich and has the largest population of Muslims outside the Caucasus.

We’re taken around on an “official” trip of the city escorted by two government minders who are working for a media relations subsidiary called Tat Media. We’re shown Lenin’s old University and various other sites like a couple of tourists before our first meeting, breakfast with the World Congress of Tatars, who welcome us with a mountain of sweet and savoury pastries including “Ichpichmak”, a kind of Cornish Pasty, and a donut which was called something like “Paris Match”.

The head of the congress droned on for what seemed like hours about the history of the Tatar people, their culinary delights, their way of life, which seemed fairly hum drum and normal to be honest, and their relationship with the rest of Russia. I continuously ate pasties to keep myself from nodding off whilst poor Adrian had to take notes. This theme seemed to follow us wherever we went in Kazan, the Tatar officials we met all seemed to be obsessed with their past History. Do they seriously think that Ethnic Russians and the rest of us give a stuff about the ” Golden Hordes” of the 15th century anymore, that it really has a bearing on present day governmental policy?

What was interesting was the fact that the share of oil wealth that has to be given to Moscow is at an all time high ,at something like 85 percent, but no matter how galling that may be they all felt that it was better to play the game than push for further independence and end up like Chechnya.
There was one ray of light at the end of the tunnel on our first day in the form of self confessed “football hooligans” Rinat and Murat whom we met in a shitty little bar off Kazan’s main pedestrianized street late on our first night.

When we arrived the inhabitants of the bar consisted of a badly dressed male cabaret singer, a Turk, and two fat Babushkas. Halfway through our beers and some awful ravioli type stuff called Manti, Rinat and Murat turned up and instantly homed in on our little table. “We are Russian Football Hooligans Yeahhhhh! ” they announced as they collapsed onto the free bench space around our table.

Rinat had the habit of shouting in your ear , and sitting very close, squeezing me up against the wall with hardly enough room to raise my arm to take a drag off my cigarette. “We are Russian football hooligans, we like to fight” …oh dear, just what we needed. Two hours later, after numerous glasses of Vodka and endless toasts to Anglo-Russian relations, we made our escape from their drunken embrace only to find ourselves being propositioned by the two fat middle aged babushkas who turn out to be off duty policewomen, we take their number and promise to call tomorrow after a good night’s sleep when we have more “stamina”.

On day two in Kazan, with its omnipresent drizzle, we visited the Kul Sharif mosque for Friday prayers inside the city’s Kremlin walls which was rebuilt after the Soviets lost power in the early nineties. Reports have come out recently that the suggest the Muslim population of Russia could overtake that of the Orthodox faith in the next thirty years. Now, whether it is just Daily Mail style racist scare mongering or a real fact I have no idea, but nonetheless having no idea previously that Russia had such a large Muslim population I thought it’d be interesting to meet some and try and illustrate their presence in Russian society in photographs.

We then met a Presidential advisor who has pioneered a movement known as Euro Islam, which appears to be a watered down form of the religion designed to be more palatable to the Kremlin and other Russians. Could this become part of David Cameron’s Election manifesto? Seems just the sort of thing that would keep the cohorts of Ultra-Right Norman Tebbit clones behind him happy. We asked one of the senior Mufti’s what he thought of Euro Islam and he of course thought the whole idea was ridiculous, but the fact that this version of Islamic ideology is now being firmly promoted inside the walls of Russia’s only Islamic University, which lies in Kazan, and in the light of Russia’s continuing problems in the Caucasus, it proves that in the future there will undoubtedly be a battle for the hearts and minds of Russia’s Muslims.

As we finished our days work and were leaving through the Kremlin gates we passed two young wealthy Russian newlyweds posing for a hired wedding photographer next to a war memorial whilst the rest of the wedding party drunkenly fooled around by the awaiting fleet of shiny new and expensive 4×4’s. These were young members of Kazan’s elite who were benfitting from it’s new wealth but not far down the road, state workers and pensioners were fighting against property developers to hold onto their old wooden homes, and mostly losing.
That evening we met up with some middle class Russians in a Bavarian style pub, complete with traditionally dressed waitresses.

They all worked for a publishing company and were wishing their friend Sergei bon voyage as he was heading off to Germany to manage a sister company there. In between mouthfulls of shelled prawns and German beer we talked politics and joked around with them reminding me of evenings back home in London, and how just like so many of my friends back home they were, giving me hope for the journey ahead.

The women were funny with their opinion of English girls whom they all believed to be fat, dumpy and unsexy, unlike their own, and the sexiest men in the world? “Why Russian men of course” was their reply. We danced half drunkenly to saccharine pop ballads the type that seem so popular in all of Europe these days, and then bid our farewells as we had a long drive ahead of us in the morning to Samara.