Train number 054 left Moscow’s Kazansky Station bound east for the Middle Volga’s unheralded republics. The night train was lively. Four noisy men drank vodka and played cards in one compartment; two mothers barely contained boisterous infants in another. Throughout a fitful night’s sleep I was aware of passing stations and shadowy moonlit forest. The next morning, 750km later, we disembarked at Cheboksary -but I knew little about my destination. The Russian Federation incorporates 22 federal republics. Some are better known for the wrong reasons, such as Chechnya. And you may have heard of Russia’s latest acquisition, the Republic of Crimea?
I’d joined a pioneering small-group trip to six of these republics clustered around the River Volga’s lowlands, west of the Urals. I’d heard of Tatarstan but Chuvashia, Mari El, Udmurtia, Mordovia and Bashkortostan remained mysteries. Ivan the Terrible brought them into Russia’s fold when overcoming the warlike Tatars in the 1550s. He established a series of forts along the Volga to guard Russia’s borders across the lands of these minnow minorities; they were eventually subsumed into the Russian Empire and, over time, forgotten. Yet now they seem extra relevant given the prevailing crisis of Russia’s intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. If this current bloody mess is a precursor of how Russia might rule its republics I wondered what life must be like for those already assimilated? Are they subjugated people yielding to Russia’s power? Or thriving ethnic diversities with cultural and religious freedom? Only one way to find out.
The master brewers – At Cheboksary, capital of Chuvashia, we were greeted by Chuvash women dancing to accordion music in white dresses sewn with breastplates of coins. All very faux. But Tamara Vorobieyeva, our waiting Chuvash guide dressed in an embroidered scarlet kaftan, possessed the engaging enthusiasm of an explorer making first contact with a strange tribe. Tourists are a novelty here. We were soon touring Cheboksary with excitable Tamara yielding her microphone like a Gatling gun. She explained that Chuvashians speak a Turkic language courtesy of the Bulgars who settled here around the eighth century before dispersing.
Over time they mixed with the neighbouring Mari (more of them later) and were duly invaded by the Mongols before federating with Russia in 1552 for protection. They surrendered their paganism for Orthodox Christianity but, Tamara insisted, joining Russia was a matter of preservation rather than colonisation. She said that 68% of the republic remains indigenous Chuvash while the remainder are ethnic Russians plus myriad minorities such as Ukrainians and Tatars. Trying to piece together this region’s complex cultural casserole would prove as challenging as solving a Rubrik’s cube only using one hand.
Cheboksary sits alongside the Volga, a river so wide that the opposite bank was barely visible. The city’s landmark is a 46m-high statue called Mother the Patroness, a sort of Chuvashian Christ the Redeemer. Otherwise Cheboksary retains a Soviet legacy I’d find common throughout these republics, with trolleybuses, solid neo-classical tenements and broad boulevards named after Lenin and Marx: “We haven’t got around to changing the street names,” offered Tamara.
Hearteningly, she felt Chuvashia was well represented inside the Russian Federation. “Were happy being part of Russia. We have our own national congress and our language is taught alongside Russian,” she said. Chuvashia’s cheeriest statistic is providing Russia with 80% of its hops. The Chuvash are prodigious beer-brewers. “In Chuvash culture you’re more likely to be offered beer than tea,” said Tamara. It duly flowed during lunch, when the costumed dancers returned to perform a Pythonesque beer dance that saw me eventually engaged in a traditional kissing ceremony. I took one for the team.
The pagan survivors – There was barely time for a third (or was it fourth?) glass before we departed for our second republic that day, Mari El – which sounded more like a fashion magazine. It was a 94km drive north through pine lands to its capital, Yoshkar-Ola. Mari El National Museum contained artefacts and costumes relating to the Mari, a Finno-Ugric people who share a linguistic heritage with Finns and Estonians. The museum guide, Nastia, said they were recorded migrating west from the Urals back in the sixth century. With 600,000 Mari remaining, they’ve long been a vulnerable minority so they too ceded to Russia. Nastia, raven-haired and dark-eyed, explained that it’s impossible to say how a true Mari looks because over centuries they’ve mixed with Russians and Tatars. Yet the Mari remain the last true pagans of Europe.
Recent photos showed karts (shamans) in birch groves practising the Mari traditional religion that, according to Nastia, still thrives in the forests. “Every village has a kart. I have attended the ceremonies and the energy of our offerings, including animal sacrifices, travel up sacred birch trees to the spirits above,” she said. Outside the museum, Svetlana Maimina was waiting to guide us around Yoshkar-Ola. ‘Are you Mari?” I ventured. “No, I’m Jewish,” answered the English tutor with an accent lifted from the streets of Brooklyn. She insisted she’d never been to America; I vowed to quit guessing ethnicity.
“My parents are Ukrainian-Jews who migrated here after the Second World War,” she said. “I’m one of many minorities in Mari El among the Russian majority but I’ve never experienced anti-Semitism.” We began our tour – which was totally unexpected. Yoshkar-Ola has become a city of architectural preposterousness that makes Dubai seem like a paragon of modesty. “Ten years ago three adjectives could be applied to Yoshkar-Ola – boring, boring, boring,” quipped Svetlana. “Now, whatever architectural style you want to see you’ll find.”
Neo-Lego meets Disneyland is one description of Yoshkar-Ola’s showy rebuilt centre. Amid the abundant building cranes were a newly rebuilt replica Kremlin, a scaled-down fake of Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein Castle and a part-finished St Basil’s cathedral that was awaiting its golden domes. A fantasy Venetian clocktower was animated by a mechanical Jesus and the Apostles, while the pseudo-Gothic waterfront along the unfortunately named River Kokshaga resembled Bruges. Totally flabbergasted, I asked how Mari El could afford this theme-park makeover. Svetlana smiled and shrugged: “They say our president looked out of his office window and didn’t like the view.”
The easy-going oil-men – There’s no mystery surrounding the wealth of Tatarstan, the largest republic we were visiting. Eastern Tatarstan overflows with oil and gas. It was a 160km drive south to its capital, glittering Kazan, Russia’s third-largest city, home to 1.3 million people. Kazan’s darker-haired occasionally eastern-looking Muslim Tatar majority seemed to bear the most cohesive identity to date although our excellent Tatar guide, Rezida Mukhametzyanova, warned against stereotyping. “We’ve no particular look as we’re a mixture from Europe and Asia,” she said. Appropriately the word ‘Kazan’ translates as cauldron.