From the train windows we note the silver birch trees everywhere, a constant presence in the Russian landscape (and in our imagination,from “War and Peace”to “Doctor Zhivago”). In Soviet times, this national tree of Russia gave its name “Beriozhka” (little birch) to all state souvenir stores. We are told that it stands as a symbol of the Russian Girl. The trees, quite fire resistant, are still used in housebuilding and in many other ways, from acoustic guitar material to twigs in the sauna. The bark has antiseptic properties, it helps make diuretic tea and is even used for making shoes. By the time we reach Vladivostok one fellow traveller, John, remarked that he had seen quite enough birch trees for a lifetime!
Having travelled overnight we reach Kazan, or the Quazan of the Mongol-tribe Tatars, our first major stop since leaving Moscow. Here we also cross the mighty Volga river, the “Mother Volga” of Russian lore, the longest and largest river of Europe, on its long journey to the Caspian Sea. The Tatar language is official. Never write or say the word “TaRtar” warns our guide as it means “from Hell”. In Tatar, the word Siberia means “sleeping land”. Our first visit is to the imposing new (2005) mosque, but the first impression is BOOM TOWN! New buildings are everywhere. “They are spending like there is no tomorrow” observes Dan our Oxford Prof “and the reason is oil “the black gold”, mostly extracted by the Tatarnaft company. There are new apartments all over the city, the first 30,000 given away FREE! Oil has made Kazan one of the largest industrial and financial centres in Russia. Oil money has produced that spectacular new mosque. There are also old mosques from the days when Catherine the Great, still remembered fondly because of it, permitted religious tolerance. There is also a new Orthodox cathedral.
In the afternoon we are able to visit the ancient and renowned Kazan University.Former scholars include the brilliant mathematicians who could calculate that two parallel lines would eventually meet (yes,in outer space!). A famous wind tunnel of the physics department made use of the former cathedral building closed down during Soviet times. Equally interesting are the academic “failures”, among them Lev Tolstoy considered “both unable and unwilling to learn” and the young, revolutionary Lenin expelled in 1877 for “student disturbances”. He remains a significant and polarising figure throughout the former Soviet regions (in February, on one day alone, some 90 Lenin statues were toppled in the Ukraine). We anticipate seeing the largest Lenin memorial, a huge head almost 8 mts (25 ft) tall, at Ulan Ude, an important stop towards the end of our journey. Here at Kazan University we see a unique flowing-hair Lenin presenting an inspiring image. We all instantly rename it the Leonardo di Caprio Lenin as it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Hollywood actor.
But our train awaits, so on towards the Ural mountains, the division between Europe and Asia, another overnight journey. There is still time for a film on the last Czar of Russia, some briefings on the next day’s Yekaterinburg visits, vodka and caviar in the restaurant, piano music in the comfortable lounge bar.