A Journey through Putin’s Russia Part 2

December 3, 2007

Our drive to Samara is helped along grandly by our miserable second Tatar translator Ilnur who drones on continuously about Tatar self determination, the Golden Hordes (heard that before), how immorally behaved his other housemates were when he studied in a university in the UK , Islam , and why don’t British Tourists visit his beautiful state (I didn’t have the heart to tell him) and how one day he’d like to be President of Tatarstan.

A less tolerant soul would have probably just opened the passenger side door and given him a gentle nudge, and I might have if my stinking hangover hadn’t sapped all my energy.
After a brief stop to talk to an Islamist activist who’s suffered repression from the local authorities, including a spell in jail, we stopped for a Big Mac meal in an Industrial eyesore of a town by the name of Naberezhnye Chelny, we finally arrived at the Volga Hotel on the bank of the famous river by the same name, which then winds it’s way down to Volgograd (Stalingrad) and finally to the Caspian sea.

The Hotel reception area is exactly what you’d imagine your first contact with a State run hotel to be. A great cavern of a reception hall, designed to make you feel incredibly small, with melancholic staff sitting behind a crumbling desk , and a team of builders attempting to modernise the interior , whilst trying not to damage fading murals painted during the grand days of the old Soviet Republics. A huge Industrial city, with close links to the space programme, it also hosted the second home to Stalin’s government during “The Great Patriotic War” (or WWII to you and me, most Russians still believe we didn’t join the war until 1944 unless they’re from Murmansk).

Whilst sitting in the enormous Soviet-Roman style Dining hall café area which is adorned with wonderful old Stalin era posters I’m rudely interrupted by our first meeting of the day, with a Police Colonel, who has become disenchanted with Putin’s regime since his daughter tragically died in a hospital due to alleged malpractice. “We can’t talk here, it’s full of FSB agents” he said at the top of his voice, alerting everyone in the room, and totally destroying my wish to remain keep a low profile.

Adrian finally shuffled him off to his room and left me to finish my lunch watched by the staff and other guests who were whispering in each others ears. The problem travelling in a country that still suffers from acute paranoia is that it also rubs off on oneself. Later we accompanied the Colonel to his daughter’s grave on what was a very dark grey day, and one couldn’t help feel sorry for this man who suffered the loss of his own child to what appears on the face of it to be gross negligence on behalf of an ailing health system riddled with problems on an enormous scale.

Our other focus in Samara is on the issue of Aids and Drug Addiction, and we meet a number of people and drop in centres and meeting and hearing very touching stories. I myself have never known anyone with HIV, and meeting with people and hearing about their journey into first drug addiction and then living with HIV was an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. Samara is a major transport hub, and heroin that comes in from Afghanistan via Tajikistan and the other central Asian republics flows into the city giving many a release from the frustrations of day to day life in a provincial city with limited job prospects.

The problems that young people face in Russia today on a social level seem no different to that of the rest of us in the West but are somewhat amplified by the scale of the population, the poverty, and the indifference of their government . That be said I’d like to see anyone govern a country as vast as Russia and do a perfect job, we in the west certainly aren’t perfect, the U.S.A in particular has a pretty poor track record when it comes to public healthcare, but I do feel that a lot more could be done by the Russians.

I wouldn’t be sad to leave Samara and the coming of the first winter snows that it bore witness to, the memories of a glorious past evoked by monuments around the city may have faded now to the same colour as the weather, but the city’s inhabitants reinforced further in my mind how alike people are across the world, but at the same time how the lottery of your place of birth can alter your life irreversibly for better or worse.
a few of my pictures can be see here.