Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Tide Turns on Communism: Cruising Down the Volga on the Last Boat to Astrakhan (Russian Southern Federal District)

My journey to the Southern Federal District of Russia really WAS as much about the journey as the destination. For this trip I retraced my steps from Chechnya to Moscow (for reasons outlined in my previous blog) – and then began my river cruise down the Volga (Russia’s main river) to Astrakhan, the primary city in Russia’s Southern Federal District, courtesy of “Last Boat to Astrakhan” by Robert Haupt.

In 1995, his fifth year in Russia as a foreign correspondent, celebrated Australian journalist Robert Haupt decided to take a boat trip down the Volga River to Astrakhan by the Caspian Sea. This journey forms the core of his book, which interweaves strands of art literature, politics, history, economics and geography to capture a country and a people for which the author had an immense passion. I say ‘had’, as sadly Mr Haupt died soon after the publication of this work.

Haupt's time on the Volga cruise ship Fyodor Shalyapin, along with his earlier experiences while living in Moscow, forms a framework around which he intersperses historical episodes, numerous quotes from earlier traveller's accounts, and his own perceptive observations, to give an impression of the character of Russia. The difficult transformation of Russia since the end of communism is a central theme. However periods of difficult transformation are also presented as being characteristic of the wider flow of Russian history, and Haupt makes many telling points about how and why Russian society differs from the West, and why we in 'the West' can often misunderstand Russia by judging it through the perspective of our own past.

Haupt uses the story of his apartment building's plumbing system to illustrate the 'workings' of Russian bureaucracy; and the plight of the Chaika watch factory trying to sell handmade products in competition to machine-produced electronic watches from China as an example of dead-end paths still being followed.

Whilst discussing bribery in the police (after reading the observation of a British MP, writing in the Times, that the Yaroslavl traffic police hadn't been paid for months), Haupt notes that “What he meant was that they had not been paid by the government for months; those who live in Yaroslavl or drive through it feed the police force there everyday.” and goes on to observe that “Jurisprudence is as poorly developed in Russia as particle physics in Rwanda. To a Russian, the law is a source of oppression, not an avenue for the relief of injustice.”

The above examples encapsulate much of how this book is structured. On the surface this is an engaging and insightful account of Haupt’s journey from Moscow down to Astrakhan by river cruise. We are treated to some fascinating observations not just of the stopovers along the way but also his fellow passengers – largely the tracksuited nouveau riche of New Russia - as well as lengthy and involved digressions of Haupt’s observations of Russia’s socio-economic past, present and likely future.

I must admit, the latter often defeated me. Haupt was obviously a highly intelligent individual with an in-depth knowledge of Russia’s workings, and he exposits these eloquently here. However, not having the same knowledge of Russia (nor, I fear, the same level of intellect), these narrative diversions often left me a little bewildered. I occasionally found myself floundering though pages of in-depth socio-political analysis like a poor swimmer in a lake of intellect, looking for an island of straightforward narrative description!

That said, I can only attribute this as a fault on my part not the author’s. After all, I am on a journey of observation, keen to glean facts and impressions about each place that I visit – and the fact that I am on a schedule to visit every country in the world means that I am occasionally impatient when being given essential background information and historical context to places I am visiting.

Furthermore, during the 3000km(!) trip from Moscow to Astrakhan we are introduced to interesting descriptions of a range of cities and towns that have developed, prospered (and in some cases perished) as a result of the rise and fall of the mighty Volga river and its importance to Russia.

Ultimately, we arrive at our destination of the city of Astrakhan in Russia’s Southern Federal District.

“In Astrakhan, the air is heavy, the people sleepy. Nothing seems to get underway before ten-thirty or so. The cars move with astonishing slowness along wide streets lined by motionless trees. Even a road accident – a man who had steered his red motorcycle and sidecar into the path of a police jeep – appeared as a tableau, onlookers frozen in mid-stare as the motorcyclist, his blue helmet neatly placed on the road beside him, solemnly picked pieces of dry grass from his socks. Even when something like this happened, everyone seemed to be waiting for something to happen.”

Haupt goes on to describe Navy Day in Astrakhan. This is, apparently “the occasion in a Fleet town for epic displays of drunkenness”. Haupt’s descriptions of how drunken “young men – boys, really – with their caps pushed back to near-vertical, leant on their girlfriends and climbed imaginary stairs on their way home” are telling – they form a notable and telling precursor to the next book on my journey: “Little Tenement on the Volga.” This account is written by Englishwoman C.S. Walton about a year spent in Samara in the Volga Federal District, and one of the overriding themes of her fascinating observations here, is that of stoical females (girlfriends, wives, mothers) coping with their own harsh lives and the pressures of supporting their families. The images of Astrakhan’s Naval Day are telling: often Walton’s depiction of Samaran women’s lives involves them looking after men – sons, lovers, husbands – who are enslaved to alcoholism, with the women themselves enslaved by the Soviet social system of female subjugation.

Samara – one of the largest cities in Russia – lies in the Volga Federal District. Having already passed through here during my river cruise courtesy with Robert Haupt I am tempted to retrace part of my Volga river cruise to return here. However, the current price of 100 EURO for a single berth on one of today’s cruise ships PER NIGHT is off-putting. And even if I had been tempted, it is December and decidedly off-season (cruises only run between May and October).

Therefore, I opt for the train – quicker than the six days a cruise would take between these destinations - but still nearly 28 hours (well, the journey IS 1147km in total)!

I take the easy option for booking and buy my tickets online at realrussia.co.uk – a very user-friendly UK-based website that sends me my tickets via email for collection at Astrakhan station. I buy a one-way 2nd class ticket for £64.97 on the 373 train, which is on the lower-quality and slower end of the Russian train scale (apparently, the higher the classification number, the lower the grade of train).

And so I set off from Astrakhan’s spacious train station at 13.25, taking a train that – after numerous stops - will drop me off at Samara the next day at 16.23 in the afternoon (before it heads on to its final destination of Beijing!).

A word about the train itself: my cabin is second class, sometimes called a ‘Kupe.’ This is a cabin for four people with two lower bunks with storage underneath, two upper bunks, a window table and a lockable door. There is also a shared toilet for the carriage and a restaurant car. Russian restaurant car food is quite edible and not expensive. Allow about US$15-$20 for a 2-course meal with a bottle of beer. During my day-long trip I have ham and fried eggs for breakfast, schnitzel and potatoes for lunch and dinner, with soups and salads for starters. I also have a few shots of vodka in the evening – after all, when in Rome (well, Russia)…

And so I arrive, surprisingly refreshed, in the city of Samara in the Volga Federal District. The modern train station, I have to say, looks amazingly like a huge glass R2-D2 from Star Wars…. My rather-more modest accommodation in Samara is at Number Four, Specialist Alley, a cramped communal apartment which was occupied by Englishwoman C. S. Wilson during 1993, and whose account of her stay there forms the next leg of my journey.

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