Adventures in Russia

Introduction:  Sam Nelson is a History instructor at Ridgewater College.  He was awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant for the 2012-13 academic year to teach at the Institute of Economics, Management and Law in Kazan, Russia.  His wife, Sandra, is on leave from her position as an elementary teacher in the Willmar Public Schools.

Disclaimer:  The views and information expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Program, officially or unofficially.

Kazan, Russia (Part 1/2):

What city is the first one that comes to your mind when you think of Russia?  Probably Moscow, right?  Maybe St. Petersburg?  But Kazan?  Probably not.  However, Kazan is known as Russia’s third capital.  It’s a city of 1.2 million people, is over 1,000(!) years old, and serves as the point where the European half of Russia (West) meets the Asian half (East).  Geographically, it’s located about 500 miles east of Moscow on the Volga River (Europe’s longest…their Mississippi River).

Note:  Although it appears that Kazan is southeast of Moscow, it lies on the same line of latitude as Moscow (55 degrees).  By comparison, Willmar is on the 45th parallel.

Our first impression of Kazan was that it’s a city on the move.  The construction and renovation that is taking place here is phenomenal!  Since we don’t have a car, we have walked everywhere and I can state without exaggeration that there is not a street we have been on where some kind of construction isn’t occurring.  We often walk under sidewalk shelters that can be nearly a block long!

This is a full block of renovation and/or new construction on the 10-lane(!) road I cross every day (there’s no traffic because it’s a Sunday morning). Note the sidewalk shelter stretches the entire length of the block. Also of interest in this photo are the police who will randomly pull over cars to check their papers.  The officer has the lime green vest on just behind the red car in the foreground.

I am standing under one of the sidewalk shelters. They are made of corrugated steel and you walk on 2×6 planks.

Many of the buildings, like this one, are being restored to maintain their original, beautiful architecture.

Why the huge infrastructure investment?  The short answer is “sports!”  Kazan will be hosting the University Games (“Universiade”) next summer. Twelve thousand athletes from around the world will make Kazan their home for ten days in July and compete in everything from traditional events like swimming to less widely known competitions like “Sambo,” a martial art invented in the former Soviet Union in 1938 that combines judo and wrestling.  Kazan is considered second only to Moscow as the country’s sports center.

Kazan will host the University Games in 2013. Soccer’s 2018 World Cup will be held in Russia for the first time and Kazan will be a host city. This is a stock photo of the Aquatics Center.

The recently completed housing complex for Universiade participants is currently being used by some of the more than 150,000 students who study in Kazan’s 44 universities.

Kazan’s identification as the city “Where East Meets West” is born of a long intermixing of cultures, most prominently the state of Volga Bulgaria (Tatars) dating to the 7th century and the khanate of the Mongol empire builder, Genghis Khan (ca. 13th century).  As with many things in history, where the city got its name depends on whose legend you choose to believe.  The name Kazan, however, means “kettle” or “pot” and is memorialized in the millennium park photo below.

The dragon like creature on either side of the cauldron represents another legend, of a two-headed flying snake that had terrorized the area before being killed by a Tatar warrior.  (More on Tatar history and culture in a future post.)

Next post:  Kazan’s signature attraction…its Kremlin.

26 thoughts on “Adventures in Russia

  1. Hey Sam and Sandra, good to see you. We miss you! Great overview of Kazan. Since I’m mcdonalized, I would like more pictures. Maybe, if you are doing any “real” work there, you could tell us more about that as well.
    Jon had a great party at your place the other night (jk). I know that I already said it, but we do miss you.

    • Well, my friend, pictures you shall have and a future post on teaching Russian students American history and English, too. Not as easy as one might think!

  2. Hi Sam, Thanks for the posting and pictures. It is very interesting and I am looking forward to you sharing more of your adventure. Have fun!

  3. Sounds like you are enjoying all of the site seeing. Seems like a very interesting area. What I am wondering is how are the golf courses?

    By the way the party at your house was awesome. I will talk to Jake in carpentry to see if his students can make some of the necessary repairs to the house.

    See ya
    Kevin

    • There is a course being built in Kazan, but I haven’t found it yet. When I do, Kevin, I’ll make a tee time for you! (Hmmm…. I beginning to wonder if there really was a party at our house!)

  4. Loved the blog, Sam. Also great to see photos of you and Sandra in “your space.” It is hard to spend this school year without you, but what a great gift for the two of you to share this experience. Kazan is lucky to have two fantastic teachers in their mix. Send a few photos of your apartment and the view from it. How goes the classroom work? Elections finally over; Obama goes for a second term. Hope there are some different decisions from both sides as to cooperating!

    • Thanks for your note, Jan. Will get some apartment and view photos up in a future post; teaching experience, too. From all reports I’ve read, Obama’s re-election was welcomed in Russia, a sentiment echoed by people who chatted with me about the election today.

  5. I love this blog! …knowing what is going on with you and Sandra…and learning about Kazan. Keep the infomation coming! What a great opportunity! :-) lkk

    • Lorna, I could sure use your expertise some days! No wifi at the school and the wifi “stick” I use is rather unreliable. Cables don’t match up so I’m schlepping a projector daily to school along with extension cord, speakers, and laptop. Some catching up to do on technology, but everyone wants it so I’m sure it will happen…hopefully sooner than later! Thanks for writing!

      • FaceTime!…if you can get a solid signal with WiFi! …then there is the time difference…we can coordinate. I’m here for ya Sam! :-) Have a great Day! LKK

  6. It was interesting hearing about your experiences and finding out how things have changed since Wendy and I were there in Russia (Kursk) 10 years ago for 4 weeks. I noticed that the signs on the housing complex are in English. I did not expect to see that. 10 years ago everything was in Russian only. Is this typical now, where you see more things in English?

    • I’ll be interested to compare notes with your experience from 10 years ago, Allen. The English on the housing complex is the exception and only because of the Universiade; otherwise, everything is in Russian and, just to make it even more fun to figure out, Tatar! Down the blogging road I’ll post some Russian/Tatar sign photos.

  7. Hey Sam and Sandra! Yeah, I sure wish I would have been invited to the party at your house. It sounds like it must have been a real barn-burner! I am fascinated by your pictures and stories. Keep ‘em coming!

  8. Hi Sam, and congradulations on having this exciting opportunity to experience teaching over there. My big question is how do the people respond to, and the news report on, events in the United States? What is the general feeling toward their former Cold War foes today? I am also intrigued by the idea of your teaching experience there. Did you and your wife speak the Russian language already, and is it common for them to already speak English?

    • Thanks for your interest, Brice. I have a separate blog planned for Russian attitudes towards the U.S., but the short answer to your question is great admiration for America, especially among my students. They “dream” (their word) of visiting the U.S. As for news events, I had numerous people ask me about Hurricane Sandy and received expressions of concern and sympathy. The election was also of great interest to them. Everyone who talked to me about it thought President Obama would be re-elected. We did not know any Russian, so that has made the adventure more adventurous! If I get stuck, I’ll look for the youngest person and ask for help because most younger people know some English. We are taking Russian classes and slowly but surely making our way.

  9. Hi Sam:
    Your blog brings back memories of my time in Russia. Looks like alot has not changed, always construction and always the “authorities” looking over your shoulder. Do you have a choice of radio and TV stations? And how are the open-air markets as far as quality of produce? I’m sure capitalism has changed alot as far as goods available to the natives versus the tourists.

    Can’t wait to reap the benefits of your year when you return. Take care.

    • Have thought of you on several occasions, Carolyn, as we have been experiencing the “new” Russia. The vestiges and legacy of communist rule are apparent in various ways, but most noticeably in terms of forms, paperwork…bureaucracy for seemingly routine requests and in the amount of manual labor that is still used for construction projects. Radio and tv are pretty wide open now, but the internet is monitored closely. I’ll have a food post with pictures of the open air market in the next week or two. A bit reluctant to buy fresh meat, but produce is good. The spices aisle has birds flying through and sitting on some of the spice bins, so again not too sure about checking those out. More to come on the food experience!

  10. Awesome photos and writing Sam – good for you. I will continue to check your progress. Thanks to Teren for sharing this link. Sure have been thinking about you and your travels. Enjoy and I’ll continue to enjoy your pictures and writings.

    • Thanks for your note, Mary Ann. It has been an experience rich with almost daily surprises. Somedays it’s still hard to believe we’re here! Hi to Roger!

    • Thanks for your note, Cam. It’s a privilege to have this opportunity and I so appreciate the interest shown by readers like you! Any questions in the future, please ask!

  11. So fun to keep up with you and hear of your escapades, Sam. Never had a chance in person to congratulate you on this amazing honor and experience–I can’t think of a more worthy recipient. Keep the info and photos coming; many are interested, including me.

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