The Russian butcher who moonlighted as a dentist in a Tatar food market

This week, the WordPress photo challenge theme is Unlikely.

Unlikely, like this snapshot of daily life in the food market of Kazan, in Tatarstan (Russia).

Many of us enjoy visiting and taking pictures of markets, I know, and whilst it can be interesting to make colourful shots, it is far more challenging to create pictures with a narrative.

I’m still not entirely sure what this one’s story is…

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24 hours in Chechnya Part II: Islam, patriotism and propaganda

As I told you recently, I have been very impressed by the Chechen hospitality.

And equally impressed by the omnipresence of propaganda, in a way that I found reminiscent of Astana, the city I call Dubai of the steppe, with a pinch of Pyongyang”.

The bromance of the Caucasus that unites Kadyrov and Putin is something you cannot miss when strolling around the streets of Chechen towns. It is the visible part of a strong political effort to create a national sentiment, in the context of the post-war reconstruction of Chechnya.

This national sentiment is very much centred around Islam. It is no coincidence that the first building that the government erected in the then war-destroyed capital Grozny, was a great mosque.

The big and beautiful Akhmad Kadyrov mosque, also known as “Heart of Chechnya”

And it is no coincidence that this great mosque bears the name of the previous leader Akhmad Kadyrov, and was opened during a ceremony that Putin attended.

Me inside Grozny’s mosque

A very impressive and beautiful mosque, now in the middle of a super modern district with skyscrapers, gardens, and a few cafes and restaurants.

The war feels it happened ages ago, and there are no remaining traces of it (unlike in some other parts of Caucasus such as Abkhazia)

All the city centre has been rebuilt with lots of pretty details of Muslim inspiration

And as this great mosque’s prioritisation for the post-war reconstruction manifests, Islam is a serious matter in Chechnya. Almost all men have beards (our host Alik was one of the few who don’t), almost all women wear hejab (albeit sometimes with high heels and make up; but it’s still modest clothing), there is no alcohol available, and the 5 daily prayers are observed by everyone.

All of that sponsored by the government and with the benevolence of the Russian Federation as partner; and with a strong personality cult for Akhmad Kadyrov, because what better way to contain religious fundamentalism than creating a competitive passion for another hero than God?

Besides the mosque, Grozny is full of other monuments dedicated to the glory of the leader Akhmad Kadyrov, like this museum with golden obelisque.

The personality cult is very similar to what’s observable in Astana. Portraits, quotes everywhere, newly built and enormously pompous museums and monuments to his glory.

24 hours for Chechnya was a bit short; next time I’ll stay longer!

Leninglyptophilia aka Lenin-statues-mania: I’ve found my alter ego!

If you read this blog, you certainly know how big a fan I am of Lenin statues. I’ve identified the recurring principles behind Lenin statue design, I’ve played with a giant Lenin head, I’ve reported funny attacks on Lenin statues, and demonstrated how much prestige Lenin loses when covered with snow in winter…

I was very pleased to realize I’m not the only one. First, because it’s always pleasant to meet like-minded people. Second, because I write a blog, so it’s comforting to know there’s an audience for my Lenin statue related silliness.

And finally, because this other fan of Lenin statues has committed to a true public interest task: an inventory of all the past and existing Lenin statues; more comprehensive than a Wikipedia list, and with pictures. A daunting but oh so useful challenge!

https://www.instagram.com/collection_lenin_monuments/

You’ll find their Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/collection_lenin_monuments/

Follow them and you may well see some of my own Lenin statues pictures that they are reposting!

PS I’ve been looking for a word to say “statue-mania”. Greek is often a good source for this sort of word creation, and I looked for the Greek word for ‘statue’ hoping to simply combine it with ‘philia’.

Alas, the perversion of human beings is such that agalmatophilia, literally the liking of statues, is commonly used (apparently) to describe a perverse practice involving sex and a statue, doll or mannequin.

I wanted to make sure you do grasp the irony in my love of Lenin statues, so I resorted to another Greek-based neologism around the idea of statues, glyptos – glyptophilia.

Three men, absorbed in thoughts, around the world

This week, the WordPress photo challenge theme is A Face in the Crowd.

I can totally relate to the author sharing how afraid she is of asking people for portraits, and how she resorted to taking pictures of faceless portraits captured as they are, just one in the crowd.

My dual love of people watching and of photography means that I often enjoy sitting somewhere and catching a glimpse of people as they go about their daily lives, sometimes making visual memories when the setting pleases my eye.

A man repairs a rooftop in Meghri, Armenia

Rather than a face in the crowd though, introvert that I am, I like to isolate people and show them alone in their environment, as if they were not just busy on their activities, but also absorbed in their thoughts.

A man in djellaba walks across Jemaa el Fna square in Marrakesh, Morocco
A fisherman chooses his spot on the frozen sea, in Vladivostok, Russia.

24 hours in Chechnya: Part I, the Chechen hospitality

I have visited Chechnya during a trip in North Caucasus early September 2017. I arrived in Grozny from Vladikavkaz with my travel mate Igor, and left back to the West to Pyatigorsk whilst Igor was pushing further East.

This old map, found in the bus station of Vladikavkaz, shows you where Chechnya is within North Caucasus. Grozny, the capital, is the orange dot below the vertical line.

Why just 24 hours? Serendipity more than strategy. I was on a schedule, keen to keep enough time for my next stop Pyatigorsk, and Igor was keen to reach Dagestan as soon as possible. And possibly, my mum would be happy if I didn’t stay too long.

For Chechnya has acquired quite a reputation in the media through the years. But forget about the media and let me tell you my totally different impression.

Grozny city centre

In Grozny, we were hosted by Alik, friendly and curious father of 2 kids, who turned very instrumental in helping us make the most out of our short time. We found him on Couchsurfing after sending dozens of requests.

Somewhere in a park of Grozny. I don’t know what the bears were all about.

The Chechen hospitality reminded me a lot of Uzbekistan or Iran; we were definitely in that part of the world. Hosts love taking care of guests, and feel in charge of them.

Alik and his friendly Chechen biker friends

Alik fed us, gave us a roof and a bed, a Wifi access, and made sure we were comfortable. He introduced us to his family, drove us around, and told us many things about Grozny, including what happened to his family’s house during the war: it was occupied by Russian soldiers, who during winter burnt the family’s piano to keep warm.

We arrived just two days after Eid al-Adha, and there were a lot of meat leftovers which our host’s brother prepared as shashlyk.
The only weapons we found during our 24 hours in Chechnya were our host’s dad’s, exposed in his personal room.

Alik knows someone who knows someone, and that’s how we managed to access the rooftop of the highest building in Grozny, a 40-storey tall skyscraper with 360 views on the Chechen capital. The side of the rooftop that offers views to the Presidential palace is off limits though: none is allowed to stand there, for it wouldn’t be too hard from there to aim and cause trouble to the dictator-president.

Grozny city centre seen from the roof of the tallest skyscraper

It was very amusing how, on the morning of departure, Alik found me a ride and ‘handed me over’ to a bus driver who then fell in charge of me. When our bus reached Pyatigorsk, the driver (who was further driving to Cherkessk) wished me good luck and to meet in Chechnya again.

In 24 hours in Chechnya I have met nothing but friendly people and a relaxed atmosphere!

Stay tuned for the next part of my impressions of Chechnya: Islam, patriotism and propaganda.

Moscow’s exciting transformation! Part II: What I’ve always loved about Moscow

(Second part)

Moscow is undergoing a major transformation, and it is great. The city is now so pleasant to be in, and walking around its streets you feel safer, freer, happier.

So much that I’ve had to remind myself: what is it that I actually enjoyed about Moscow 5-10 years ago?

This is the first picture I’ve ever taken of Moscow, when arriving by air for the first time 8 years ago. I was stunned by the monochrome, geometric patterns of the Moscow suburbs in winter.

Moscow was wild and crazy; really wild, and really crazy.

It’s a giant city with so many people. It can get so crowded. I’ve always been impressed by the hordes of beautiful girls from the entire Federation who invade Moscow looking for a job and a decent boyfriend.

Moscow is a city that never sleeps, with coffeeshops and sushi bars open 24 hours everywhere (and they all do serve alcohol in Russia).

At the time, everything looked like this in Moscow: roadworks, inconvenient passage for pedestrians, messy streets. Today, all of this has disappeared and given room for a livable urban space.At the time, you couldn’t see more than 2 meters away in Moscow, because there was always something in the way: a kiosk, a wasteland or building site that had been there forever, or any other, abandoned-looking mess.

And whilst I like much better the new airy Moscow, I did enjoy the sense of mystery and discovery that old Moscow provided. Nothing was every acquired there, you had to go and look for it.

Everywhere in Moscow there is still old metal stuff that none knows if it’s still in use, like this one by the river at Kotelnicheskaya.

Wandering around Moscow was somewhat a challenge, and challenges excite me. Navigation was difficult, everything was in Cyrillic, you would struggle finding things, you would get lost and constantly have to figure things out.

I enjoyed the process of figuring out, and I enjoyed creating my workarounds, and I enjoyed feeling initiated. Sometimes I was showing international travellers around, and I enjoyed sharing my experience and initiating others to Moscow’s wildness.

I also enjoyed that I didn’t always figure out. For example I’ve never known where and how to buy a tram ticket. Every time I’ve used a tram in old Moscow, I’ve crawled under the gate and travelled without paying. (In new, transformed Moscow, there’s a unified system for public transportation which you can use with a digital card called Troika. I finally can pay for my tram rides!)

In old Moscow, everything was a fight or a struggle, and I admit I kind of like that; at least when I travel…

There’s always something surprising to see or experience in Moscow’s streets.

And what I liked most in old Moscow, which luckily so far has been untouched by the transformation, is the sensorial exoticism.

Exoticism of the language. More and more people speak English in Moscow, but Russian will remain the dominant language for a long time.

Exoticism of the dresses in winter. I have spent hours sitting in the metro just to observe the parade of Russians in their winter costumes, with the furs, and the assorted hats; it is priceless.

The smoothness of the untouched snow in winter…

Exoticism of the materials. Sensorially, Moscow is extreme, full of contrasts, and rich of sensations that one doesn’t often have the opportunity to experience so intensely. All Russia is like this, but Moscow is a concentration of these sensations.

The intricate business of skies full of cables for the tramways and trolleybuses, and somewhere in the background an old Soviet star…

The fur of a coat;

the rusty metal of a door and the polished one of a gas pipe;

the sturdy stone of the Stalin-era skyscrapers and the delicate glass of the new capitalistic ones;

the shiny golden dome of a church;

the pastel colour of an old house;

the grey of the Brejnevkas and the little irritating music that plays when you open their front doors;

the whisper of a feminine voice that says hello in a hiss;

the sensorial pleasures of Russian banya;

the sweet sensation of Soviet ice cream melting on the tongue;

the shivers when visiting the Gulag museum;

the extreme temperatures of course;

and how I’ve never understood how Russian girls keep beautiful straight hair in winter whilst mine is all electrical and untidy.

Everywhere visual contrasts
Everywhere temporal contrasts
Everywhere colourful contrasts

The imaginativeness of the snow-removing machines in winter. The parade of the water-spraying trucks in summer.

In winter, everywhere men and machines constantly working on removing snow
In summer, trucks spray water to cool down the city and remove the dust

Finally, wandering around Moscow is like a treasure hunt, with Soviet symbols hidden and scattered throughout the city. Hammers and sickles, Lenin heads, Soviet statues, can be found everywhere and add a surrealistic touch to the overall urban landscape.

Finding hammers and sickles is like a constant scavenger hunt in the streets of Moscow

Oh, I loved these things 8 years ago; they’ve made Moscow so intriguing to me and an endless discovery. And luckily, most of them stay true even in transformed Moscow, making it such a wonderful place to visit today.

The Moscova river flows timelessly through the ages. Around it, Moscow changes and transforms itself. The Kremlin is the old, the Moscow City skyscrapers are the new.

Do me a favour: if you’ve visited Moscow in the past 15 years and hated it, do reconsider and give it a new chance.

 

 

 

Moscow’s exciting transformation! Part I: What is changing, and why it’s great

Moscow is undergoing a major transformation, partly under the impulse of the current mayor Sobyanin. If you’ve been in Moscow in the past 15 years and hated it, maybe it’s time to reconsider and visit the new Moscow.

It is becoming so great that it fills me with joy just to think about it.

Gorki Park has everything a family needs to spend a great day, and indeed in summer it feels like all Moscow is here.

Sure, in a sense, a lot of what is new about Moscow is quite normal: there is space for pedestrians to walk, the bus stops have information about bus lines, important navigation signs are written in English.

Yes, in a sense, Moscow is just catching up and becoming a normal city that’s nice to be in. Under the mayor’s motto to make the city “for the people”, Moscow is becoming more livable.

During the transformation, many buildings being renovated were bearing a painted cover, making the city still relatively pleasant despite the heavy works everywhere.

From a hostile, crazy urban environment developed too fast in a new capitalistic world where the rights belong to the rich, Moscow is slowly transforming into a pleasant, welcoming urban space with more opportunity for respect and equality.

The horrible and dirty kiosks that had invaded the public spaces when capitalism boomed, arguably made it very easy to find somewhere to repair your shoes or eat a quick snack, but left no space to walk for people; they have all been removed.

The disgusting asphalt of the streets, full of potholes and covered with stains, have been replaced by new, clean one, and sometimes even stone or other prettier materials.

The whole area around Tretyakovskaya has been fully renovated with many pleasant, green places for pedestrians.

The authorities are encouraging Moscow people to drive less and walk more. People now have to pay for parking (yes only that’s very recent), and the city has reduced the width of big avenues to create more space for the pedestrians.

Tverskaya, at the very heart of Moscow, also underwent recent transformation: less space for cars, more for pedestrians and cyclists.

The bus stops now have information about bus lines and times, which makes it easier for anyone to use public transportation.

A clean bus stop with (digital) information like this may look absolutely normal, but it was unimaginable 5 years ago. This transformation has made Moscow so much more easy and pleasant to navigate.

The parks have been renovated, including a sparkly new one that just opened close to Red Square, and include imaginative new features such as the super cool obstacle ride of the Crimea Embankment (Krymskaya Naberezhnaya) that’s so much fun on a hot summer evening. And you can now rent city bikes like in every other big city in the world.

Squares have been renovated too, with more space to hang out and enjoy life, like on the big swings on Triumfalnaya Square.

Triumfalnaya Square has been completely transformed and is now a very green and pleasant square

And all of that great transformation culminates with a smoking ban finally in place everywhere, ultimate sign of modernity.

There are street photo exhibitions very regularly, reminding Muscovites of the beauty of Russia, making Moscow not just a huge megalopolis but a true capital to an attractive country, and adding to the pleasure one has to walk around its embellished streets.

One of the many street photo exhibitions, here in front of Kazansky Vokzal (railway station), that show the beauty of Russia.

Moscow is crowded, and remains crowded, but at least the people now have somewhere to go and enjoy life, even for free.

This all went actually quite fast, with the mayor instilling a tempo to ensure the city would be ready for its 870th anniversary celebrations in September 2017.

Moscow’s 870th birthday celebrations in September 2017 were the deadline mayor Sobyanin had set for Moscow’s transformation

There’s some criticism of course, and in particular about when and where this transformation will stop. The authorities’ have decided to next tackle housing, and destroy up to 70% of the so-called Brejnevka building – pre-fabricated apartment blocks from Brejnev’s time. Not all agree, and quite a few wonder if the mayor is doing this just to give contracts to his friends, a very common practice in Russia; and many fear that this will only increase rents, already very high in Moscow.

The metro is still the metro, but you can now pay your tickets by credit card (when it works), and there are even designated areas for musicians!

But at least, Moscow has caught up with other megalopoles and is becoming pleasant. So pleasant, that when I look back to how things were 5 years ago, I am starting to wonder: what exactly did I like about it?

I had breakfast on this sunny terrace in September 2017 and it took me a while to recognise this as what I’d known as urban wasteland since 2010. By the wasteland was a cut-throat alley that led to the entrance of my favourite Moscow club, Krisis Zhanra. The club has gone alas, replaced by this restaurant, but so happy to see the square now renovated and very pleasant to hang out on.

(Second part tomorrow)