Friday, 13 July 2012

   The plan from Kazan was to span the gran’ chemin to Kurgan, near Kazakhstan, but strangely i was still in the dark, really, about distances in Russia, and only dimly conscious that, as my visa expired on 28th May, i would have to use transport at some point. After a good day’s walk on Monday 23rd of May i elected to stay in a comfortable motel where, in the morning, there was breakfast television to watch in my room. One report included excellent snowy footage of a Ural Owl hunting. No less intriguing however (though i couldn’t make out any details); the two presenters, a man and woman in every respect similar to those encountered on British TV, appeared to agree that something or other was known only, or pertained only, to God. The confidence in their tone of voice was different to anything that i ever remember seeing or hearing from the mainstream media at home. And of course, in Russia such relatively bold utterances are not met with a torrent of green ink from bleating atheist fundies.
   After lunch that day i came to a road sign with distances redolent of telephone numbers; in a state of almost shock i decided to try and hitch, whereupon a young guy in a battered old Lada pulled over. In the course of a 180 kilometre drive to Naberezhnye Chelny we had a good conversation, in which he reminisced about a visit to France and Luxemburg he’d made a few years before. He also told me that the BBC’s bewilderingly inane ‘Top Gear’ programme has a big following in Russia, and spun a wild conspiracy theory or two about Russian leaders, but readily agreed that Sergei Lavrov is a decent foreign minister. He also said that at one stage in the 1990s, there were fears that Tatarstan could erupt into civil conflict along ethnic lines, as tragically happened in the Caucasus. Dropping me off i tried in vain to give him some petrol money, but he did seem pleased to take my email address, written on the back of an Orthodox prayer card.

Shalash, near Chelyabinsk 
   I spent the night obscured by iron girders in a field on the outskirts of Naberezhnye Chelny, then went for a moderate morning walk along the highway, before catching a bus to the big conurbation of Ufa, capital of Bashkortostan. Mention here should be made of the Ufa train disaster, an appalling tragedy which took place in June 1989. 575 people, many of them children, lost their lives when two trains were caught up in a massive explosion, caused by a leak from a gas pipeline. From there i took an overnight train to Chelyabinsk, nick-named Tankograd and closed to foreigners in soviet times on account of its chief industry. At the municipal library i spent an hour or so on the internet, posting an entry to the blog that demanded to be called ‘From Russia with Lovejoy’. Beyond the city limits in late evening i was presented with a fabulous sort of ready-made tent in a field in which to sleep, made of branches and sackcloth. Called a ‘shalash’ in Russian, in the popular imagination such bivouacs are strongly associated with one V.I. Lenin, who evaded capture by hiding out in one in July-August 1917.

   Next day, Friday 27th May, dedicated to St Augustine of Canterbury, the penultimate day before my Russian visa expired, i knew i needed to reach Kurgan, about 300 kilometres away. Soon after setting off in more super weather i came to a village where i was hoping to thumb a lift, but had difficulty in getting anyone to stop. After nearly an hour, two frankly scruffy youths arrived with a similar idea, beer bottles in their hands and smoking cigarettes. I was ready to watch a surreal comedy sketch play itself out before my eyes, in which these two would be picked up by the first vehicle that passed by, but in fact they caught a bus. Eventually i was glad to be picked up by a fellow who had delivered a truckload of fish from Astrakhan, but it wasn’t clear how much sleep he had had in the previous 48 hours. At one point he literally seemed to be nodding off, so i was trying gamely to waffle on about football, Boris Yeltsin (a local lad, being born within 800 kilometres of Kurgan), Ivan the Terrible, and reeling off the names of all the kinds of fish and fowl i knew of. In late afternoon he finally set me down on the outskirts, from where a stagecoach took me to the central station.
Platzkart, Russian train carriage
   Kurgan is practically inside Kazakhstan (the border is about 80 miles away), so i bought a ticket for a suitable train that was leaving in the small hours of the next morning. The weather was then perfect for a stroll around the centre and i visited a church, dedicated to St Alexander Nevsky[1], as well as an internet place. Before departure i had a friendly conversation with a young policeman, and an attendant who led me through to a special waiting area, and said she’d come and wake me in time for the train. I also met a more senior police officer at the station, who openly stated that he disliked English “cynicism”. I said i understood, but he seemed to be quite taken with the idea of my pilgrimage, and i made sure to mention that i for one was glad when FIFA gave the 2018 World Cup to Russia, in December of the previous year.[2]

[1] Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Vladimir in the 13th century, venerated as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church. His military victories over the Swedes and various crusading orders, especially, give him a unique standing in Russian history, accentuated by monastic vows he took shortly before his death; hence his canonisation. Very few other European rulers of the Middle Ages are accorded a similar status in their nation’s chronicles; his contemporary St Louis of France is perhaps one example. Interestingly, St Louis shared St Alexander Nevsky’s desire to find an effective working accommodation with the Mongols. The church of St Louis in Moscow was one of only two Catholic churches, with the church of Our Lady of Lourdes in St Petersburg, which remained open in Russia during the soviet period.     
[2] I would have had more sympathy for a joint bid, involving Scotland, Wales – and why not both the North and Republic of Ireland?

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