Monthly Archives: November 2016

Kazan and Bishkek: Same Peaceful Coexistence, Different Histories

This week’s readings centered around the various faults in cities, which most often occur along lines of culture between different groups of people. For me these readings hit close to home, particularly those concerning issues related to the battle of multiculturalism vs integration. As always, all that I read and study I try to relate back to my own experiences at home or abroad, and for this week Only by learning how to live together differently can we live together at all’: readability and legibility of Central Asian migrants’ presence in urban Russia by Emil Nasritdinov was particularly germane to my own travels in the former Soviet space.

A core tenet of Nasritdinov’s work is the notion that, in certain instances, pressure to get varying groups of culturally diverse peoples occupying one urban space to conform to one overarching identity or allegiance is fraught with danger and in turn can cause greater friction between the different groups rather than a more tolerant environment. Conversely, he posits that allowing these different groups to keep their cultures and traditions and live parallel to each other, acting as symbiosis more than synthesis, fosters a more peaceful environment with less culture clash.  He uses the interplay between the different peoples in St. Petersburg and Kazan as case studies to exemplify his central point.

Kazan's "Temple of All Religions", Photo Credit:

Kazan’s “Temple of All Religions”

In Nasritdinov’s description of the interplay between the Christian Slavs and Muslim Tatars in Kazan and their simultaneous, yet peaceful, coexistence, I was brought back to my time in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where I noticed a similar phenomenon. In my experience there, I saw an entirely heterogenous city, not divided along the lines of two main demographics like in Kazan between Slav and Turk, but rather, multiple peoples from nearly every corner of the former Soviet Union. It was just as normal to see a Russian, as a Ukrainian, as a Kyrgyz, as an Uzbek, as one of the many peoples of the North Caucasus, or any other person who may have had ancestors in the Soviet space. What is more, while all having their distinct communities and spaces that they inhabit, it was completely normal to see members of each group keep friends and relationships with those outside their ethnicity.

This interplay that I witnessed superimposes shockingly well in practice over Nasritdinov’s description of the relationship between the two main groups in Kazan, instead with numerous in Bishkek. Interestingly though, the catalysts that made Bishkek and Kazan comparatively tolerant cities seem to be quite different. Kazan has existed in some form for nearly 1000 years, extending back to the period of the Mongol invasions. Due to its position as a frontier region that existed between Slav settlers and Tatar invaders, a natural equilibrium grew between the two peoples through a shared urban area with soft cultural segregation and tolerance of the other group to essentially “mind its own business”. Conversely, Bishkek is an incredibly recent settlement, having been founded as a military outpost in the 19th century by Russian settlers. The majority of the different ethnicities present in the city beyond those of Kyrgyzstan’s native peoples and the historical Russian settlers came to be due to mass deportations and resettlements instituted during the Soviet period.

Kazan, a welcome place for both Slavic churches and Turkic mosques

Kazan, a welcome place for both Slavic churches and Turkic mosques

Sad though the circumstances may be, I would posit that a mutual lot of misfortune and the necessity of survival through cooperation had something to do with the cordial, if not wholly warm, relations between the different ethnic groups in Bishkek, at least by my own observation. From my vantage point, there was very little impetus for the different peoples to conform to some larger identity of being “Kyrgyzstani”. In fact, those that I had experience with, devoid of ethnic origins, seemed to hold higher their identity as being someone from Bishkek as a sentimental focal point than the Kyrgyz national identity. Different peoples practiced different cultural traditions and no one seemed to step on anyone else’s toes, while everyone was a proud Bishkeker. While my experience is in no way officially studied or tested and is wholly anecdotal, it affirms the notion that peoples can live differently and also live together, as Nasritdinov would put it.

Me (looking terrible) with my two teachers in Bishkek, both of whom were long time friends, one ethnically Russian and one Balkarian (from the North Caucasus).

Me (looking terrible) with my two teachers in Bishkek, both of whom were long time friends, one ethnically Russian and one Balkarian (from the North Caucasus).

This post has been anecdotal indeed, and I will add to it with one more. Every saturday I would eat at the Uyghur restaurant “Faiza” during my time in Bishkek. It wasn’t uncommon to see Slavic faces, Turkic faces, Dungan faces, North Caucasian faces, and everything between all relaxing to enjoy a good bowl of boso lagman. One time I was joined at my table by three guys, one Russian, one Kyrgyz, and one Avar from Dagestan, and all members of the Kyrgyz national soccer team. The story doesn’t go much further from here, apart from there being an enjoyable lunch with three guys all of whom were obvious friends and teammates and their acceptance of me as something foreign with my at the time poor Russian. Their ethnic identities were simultaneously at the forefront, yet didn’t really matter, and certainly didn’t impede their capacities to enjoy each other’s companies. Nasritdinov would certainly have smiled upon us. While the circumstances that created the tolerant multiethnic nature of Bishkek differed from those of Kazan, both arrived at a similar state of equilibrium of peoples. Perhaps further study is required to observe what similarities both cities have in catalysts rather than differences.

Faiza: the Uyghur restaurant in Bishkek where everyone is united in the deliciousness of lagman, in spite of ethnicity

Faiza: the Uyghur restaurant in Bishkek where everyone is united in the deliciousness of lagman, in spite of ethnicity


Temple of All Religions photo source:

Kazan skyline photo source:


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How Many Rooms Do You Have In Your Apartment?

It was fascinating to read Jane Zavisca’s piece on Housing the New Russia. This reading includes a number of interesting stories, such as the great desire of Russian people to have their own space, Russians’ opinions on house rentals, mortgage, and legal property rights. In addition, it was interesting to see how contemporary Russian people think there were only pluses with regard to housing in the Soviet era and how they feel disappointed in the current housing policy and situation.

However, throughout the reading there was one thing that grabbed my attention. Though it might have seemed trivial to other readers, the expression that the author used to describe the apartments, such as “two-room apartments” or “three-room apartments” piqued my curiosity. For example, on page 107 the author says that “Mikhail was living with his mother in a two-room apartment” and on page 109 “Svelana was living with her children, her mother, and two adult sisters in a four-room house.”

People in the US usually say a “two bedroom apartment” instead of “two-room apartment.” Even if they say two-room apartment, it usually implies two bedrooms plus some kind of communal space, like a living room. It is the same in Korea, too. When we say “three bedroom apartment, it is common to imagine that there are three bedrooms and a living room.

However, in Russia a living room is also regarded as a room (комната) and it is included in the two or three room count.

In fact, it drew my attention because I have an experience regarding this when I was in Russia. It was a basic Russian conversation class with a Russian professor. There were some exercises in the textbook where I had to answer the question, “How many rooms do you have in your apartment?” However, it turned out that I had to add one more room because the living room is also counted! The professor even looked surprised when I asked why the living room is regarded as a separate room in Russia.

However, it actually makes sense because there are many cases in which Russian citizens, who are neither wealthy nor poor, live in apartments which do not have a living room. For example, in the reading on page 108, the author talks about a young couple living with their parents and their child in a two-room apartment, where the grandparents live in one room  and the couple and their baby live in the other. Considering that the author says the couple and in-laws only meet in the corridor and the kitchen, there is no living room in this apartment.

It reminds me of my experience in Novosibirsk, Russia. I rented one of the rooms in a three-room apartment. There was a kitchen that we shared together and a bathroom. However, there was no such space that could be classified as a living room. Of course, there are many better apartments with living rooms in Russia, but I want to emphasize that the apartment I lived in was just an average apartment located near Lenin Square (the center of the city) and the rent was not much cheaper than that of the other apartments in that area. In fact, I paid 8,400 roubles which was equivalent to around 350 dollars, cheap by DC standards but reasonable by Novosibirsk standards.

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                                                                My room in Novosibirsk

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               Apartment that I lived in                                     Apartment door in the winter


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Of course, there is living room in expensive apartments (My friend’s place)  

Considering that there are many apartments without living rooms in Russia, it is understandable to count a living room as a bedroom, since it can provide extra space to an apartment. However, if we think about the Soviet Union period, communal space was always prioritized. How did Russia, which emphasized the communal life style for decades (in the Soviet Union era), not build the living room in average Russian apartments?

Residents in a communal apartment

The answer is simple. As we read in the previous reading, the space that one person can have in Russia was only 7 (?) square feet, which is much smaller than in any other country. In this kind of situation, it might have been a luxury to build living rooms in all the average apartments in Russia.


Photo Credit

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A playground in the apartment complex that I lived in

It just reminded me of the previous class discussion on playgrounds in Russia.

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A metro station in Novosibirsk

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Golden Ghettos in Sofia, Bulgaria

From this week’s readings, I was amazed at how many old topics (who am I kidding, old friends!) from other classes came into sight: infrastructure, expanding homes into green spaces, gates and seclusions, and several other themes. With so many threads to choose from, it really took me a while to settle down onto one specific topic. Reviewing all of this week’s readings, I was most intrigued by the ‘golden ghettos’ in Sofia, Bulgaria. These new suburbs bring up a few different topics: space in post socialist Bulgaria, new security measures in the suburbs, and the suburban impact on women’s role in society. Although socialist cities had many pitfalls, Bulgaria in the post socialist space can shows deep implications and downsides when capitalism and housing intersect.

Sofia, Bulgaria showing the dense city.

Sofia, Bulgaria showing the dense city.

Beginning with space, the decentralization away from Sofia struck a cord-the new suburbs, according to Hirt, showed a total rejection of the old clustered socialist city. Instead of living and working in the city center, people commute to the more affluent suburbs and ‘get out of Dodge’ as quickly as they can. One memorable excerpt addressed a Bulgarian’s complaints about a traffic jam downtown…caused by sheep, so the old and the new were still very much clashing. I think the dislocation away from the urban center takes away from the sense of community, people did not know their neighbors as well and neighbors lived more secluded, private lives. Additionally, moving out from the city center gave the Bulgarians almost a dacha-like escape, once reserved for the party elite, now everyone (who can afford it) could escape the dirt and grim of the city for green space.

The Bulgairan 'burbs-actual picture taken by the Bulgarian state to nab homeowners for tax evasion.

The Bulgarian ‘burbs

Throughout our course, the term green spaces always sounds like a yeoman appeal for nostalgia and simpler times. However, just like the communal gardens in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, it’s a private green space complete with a high stone walls and security cameras. My thoughts immediately turned to the sheet metal car protectors and thick steel doors from last week’s readings. People at last have private property and ‘nice’ things, but across society people turned inwards to protect what they have. One can look at this two ways, as a negative since the public cannot enjoy green spaces and share in community experiences, or as a positive since families’ hard work was rewarded with “a nice big yard so the kids can play…it’s a better place, really, for the family.”












Yards, moats, gates, anything you want-just build it!

            Speaking of the family, I would lastly like to touch on the effect that these suburban neighborhoods had on the family and specifically on the role of women in society. It did not cross my mind before this reading, but in post socialist society women lost out on many state programs that assisted raising children such as daycare services. With the new neighborhoods far from the city center and not many two car families, women were increasingly isolated professionally and socially. Much like other aspects covered in this reading, the feelings were not universal as some women enjoyed more free time for themselves and more attention for the family. Regardless of how one assesses the suburbs and gender roles, one can observe a step backwards in terms of gender equality under the banner of increased wealth and prosperity for the family and Bulgarian society.


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photo two’Eye+Properties+from+Above’


Photo three

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