Finding a spark: Friends House Moscow visits Kazan

By Patricia Stewart

On 28 May Natasha Zhuravenkova from the Friends House Moscow office and I took the night train from Moscow to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan.

FHM helps conscientious objectors

Pat Stewart and German Alyokin
We spent a day with German Alyotkin. German is the editor of Al’ternativshchik, a publication for Russian conscientious objectors. Friends House Moscow has helped support the publication since 2006, coming in after German had self-published the first few issues. We all had a long visit over a meal in a Muslim café near the train station and German talked to us about his work with the conscientious objectors and also about the sources of his own pacifist convictions.  His beliefs are the result of his own experiences in the Soviet Army. Paradoxically, being a soldier made him a pacifist and philosophical anarchist. German enlisted in the army, eager to serve his native land. In those days he was a member of the Komsomol, the Communist Party youth organization, and a true believer in the Communist system.  In the army he experienced the realities of a system that was very different from his ideal; he saw how army and state alike deprived people of their humanity, turning them into small parts in a very big machine.  It seems to us, that through his activism, his writing and his teaching, he has indeed found ways to serve his native land, although not the ways that he might have anticipated.

Alternative civil service

German would like to see Friends House Moscow join other groups in supporting an international human right to alternative service, especially in the former USSR. He had just been at a conference on the issue in Belarus and passed on some of what he has learned about the legal inequalities in the different former Soviet republics: in Armenia, for example, would-be conscientious objectors are imprisoned. According to German, Russians are
not yet fully educated about the post-Soviet constitution and about how to exercise their rights under the new laws. According to one of the Russian conscription counsellors, Sergei Sorokin, who works in Moscow,  even one person peacefully claiming his legal right to alternate service can help to educate army staff and government officials.  FHM can give German immediate help for a new booklet on the law on alternative civilian service in Russia. There have now been almost 2000 men doing alternative service in Russia. The tenth anniversary of alternative service will be in 2014, when more than two thousand stories will beg to be heard.

The culture of Kazan

We also had a quick tour of Kazan, and saw social decay and a kind of new-money triumphalism that is, unfortunately, typical of other former Soviet cities. For example, there are deteriorated factories on the city’s margins and, in one survey, half the workers in Kazan reported working under hazardous conditions or with toxic substances. However, the city has a new sports centre, a multi-storey mirrored pyramid with a baby pyramid by its side. On sunny days, the effect must be dazzling – not to say blinding.  The local political joke is that the big pyramid will be the tomb of Tatarstan’s president; the little one is intended for his son.

Half the population of Kazan is Tatar, and thus at least nominally Muslim. One of the city’s newest public buildings is a magnificent, and enormous, blue and gold mosque, right next to the historic Kremlin. It is possible to go into the mosque; there is a small museum with educational exhibits.  Most of the visitors were Russians. If we think of what Natasha and I noticed at the mosque – signs of openness on the part of the Muslim authorities and signs of curiosity on the part of Russian visitors – we see a more complex and hopeful picture of Russia and Islam than we often find in the government-controlled media. Pre-revolutionary Tatarstan was the Russian centre of Jadidism, a nineteenth-century Islamic movement which was largely concerned with educational reform.  Jadidism valued personal piety, practical education and the work ethic; it has been compared to early Protestantism. The tsars distrusted Jadidism; the Communists purged Jadidist writers and teachers, along with most of the rest of the Central Asian intelligentsia. However, it may be that Jadidism’s progressive, indeed Muslim Universalist, outlook still has some influence in the culture of Kazan.

Work with young people, supported by FHM

Young people outside cafe
We spent an afternoon with a group of young people who gather on Saturdays to watch a socially relevant film and to discuss it. They have met in several locations.  It is difficult to use officially-sanctioned educational venues, and German sees this fact as a contrary-wise proof of the educational value of the screenings. Currently everyone meets in a café owned by the father of one of the girls.  Here there is a bar and, in the evenings, live music. The walls are decorated with the dark dizzying pictures and graphics that, thanks to Japanese anime and manga, have become global popular culture. The films are shown using the Friends House Moscow projector. The loan of the projector is our contribution to what is essentially a cost-free project. We should have more like it.

Inside cafe/theatre
The film on this particular Saturday was The Ugly Swans, a Russian science-fiction film, based on a story by the Strugatsky Brothers which is essentially a darker version of Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End – as science-fiction fans will know. Fans of Russian cinema will see that the dark visual style of The Ugly Swans owes a lot to Tarkovsky’s Stalker.  To summarize the plot of the film:  we are on the brink of apocalypse after a mysterious environmental catastrophe. The action takes place in a strange zone of mutated weather: constant rain and darkness are lighted dimly by a sinister red glow. A community of mutants – or possibly aliens – are teaching and protecting a group of human children. The children seem to have made some sort of evolutionary leap and have paranormal powers, but seem to have lost their human capacity for feeling. In the darkness an anguished father is searching for his lost little daughter. The UN has sent in a team of experts who are compiling a report on the situation. Meanwhile, the military are preparing to resolve the problem in the only way they know how.

It was a good, and very discussable, film. About twenty young people, aged about 16 to 21, and four or five adults were present. Apparently there are usually about thirty participants.
Discussion after film
The discussion went on for nearly two hours. It ranged from questions about violent and nonviolent responses to problems, to questions of free will and about what makes human beings human. The strange new children are uncannily detached. Are they cruel? Or do their superior powers give them a superior moral outlook?  How far may any of us rightly go to help others? Someone brought up the example of a drunk who has passed out in the street. Is it right to save him, or her, from the consequences of his own actions?

Young people with environmental concerns

We talked a little afterwards with some of those attending and German and his wife, a journalist who writes for one of the local papers, told us more. The teenagers we met used to put out a magazine The Free Generation, both in print and on-line, but the project died for lack of money. The issue that we later found on-line had a long article about a protest held to protect a local green zone from development. In Russia as in other countries, environmental concerns are very much a youth issue.

Natasha and I met a teacher from Kazan when we were back in Moscow at the Reconciliation in Schools conference.  She heartily agreed that the students she teaches are very much concerned about environmental issues. She herself, by the way, to continue my earlier hopeful thought about the complexities of religious and ethnic identities in a the new Russia, is a Tatar. Her grandfather was a prominent imam. For her, however, Islam is a matter of family history and identity, not so much of traditional religious practices.  It supports her own work as an educator.

Painting out the swastikas

Some of the young people we met have been painting walls. This information particularly delighted me, since in America there is a complex subculture of graffiti and wall-painting. In Kazan, there are a lot of skinheads and the skinheads paint swastikas on the walls. Some of the young people we met have been responding to the fascist graffiti with their own. They paint over the swastikas, turning them into something new. Then – quite prudently – they run away. This project has therefore not been very fully documented. We have asked German to take some photographs, but he seems a little uncertain about the logistics of keeping up to speed with the younger, and free-er, generation.

As Natasha said, we found a spark in Kazan. It is good to know that we have been able to give some support to these projects.  We have already learned a great deal from them. With further donations from our supporters, we could deepen our relationships with our friends in Kazan.

Patricia Stewart

Member of FHM Board

July 2010