Friday, July 29, 2016

Sviyazhsk Island

Sviyazhsk, Tatarstan, Russia, 422520

For the last two weeks I was working at a bootcamp for incoming students at Innopolis University. Since it was a bootcamp we were required to work every day, Monday-Saturday, with a day off on Sunday. One of the teachers who was working with me suggested we go to Sviyazhsk Island because it is a popular tourist destination for those visiting Kazan. It is outside of the city, so I thought it would be a good idea to go because I probably wouldn't visit if I were to come back to Kazan again. We had trouble getting a taxi to and from Innopolis because it is so far out of the city that taxi drivers don't want to make the trip out, even though Innopolis is closer to Sviyazhsk than Kazan. One finally agreed to take us, and ended up having to make two trips so all seven of us could go.

Sviyazhsk has been around since the 16th century when Ivan the Terrible asked for the construction of a military base near Kazan in his attempt to take over the region. The fortress was built some 700 km away, in the town of Uglich, and all the pieces were shipped downstream so the construction of the fortress would not bring attention to Ivan's plan. The name, Sviyazhsk, was given to the island by Ivan because of its location on the Volga and Sviyaga Rivers. 
After Ivan defeated Kazan it was no longer needed as a base and was turned into a center of Orthodox Christianity and Russian influence in the area. Ivan asked Postnik Yakovlev to build the churches and monasteries at Sviyazhsk. Yakovlev is best known for his design of St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square. Today, Sviyazhsk is a livable city with a school and most of it's residents working in the cafes and shops on the island. I really enjoyed walking around the town and seeing the architecture of the houses. While many wooden towns are falling apart it seems the residents are trying to keep up the charm of the town. There was a lot of construction of many of the houses while I was there. 
As I was walking around I noticed a lot of the Orthodox crosses (pictured above) in random spots around the island. While doing some research I learned that they mark the areas where churches used to stand. Unfortunately, during the Revolution, the Bolsheviks destroyed many of the churches on the island. The buildings that weren't destroyed still stand today. During Stalin's rule the island was turned into a Gulag and many of the buildings were turned into prison cells. The Monument  to Victims of Political Repression (pictured below) stands at the front of the town in remembrance of the island's dark past.

There are several cafeteria style cafes, a restaurant, and plenty of places to buy souvenirs in addition to the historical sites. One of the teachers and I actually met each other while sitting on a bench and decided to get something to eat on the island. Keep in mind the restaurant near the front fills up pretty quickly and doesn't have many places to sit. I would recommend the cafeteria though. I believe there were also activities for young children, but I didn't get a good look because I was tired, hot, and hungry while I was walking around alone and just wanted somewhere to sit.
The island is definitely worth visiting. Entrance to the island is free, but you must get a ticket from the office to the right of the stairs leading up to the town. The also allow purchase of tickets for a guided tour and to the museums at a cost. Also, you should note that in the areas housing the monasteries (the areas surrounded by walls) will require you to wrap a long cloth around your waist if you are wearing shorts or pants. I learned this the hard way and was told by one of the priests to wrap it around my waist. The island provides them at the entrance to the monasteries. A lot of women were wearing head scarves which you should wear inside most Orthodox churches. I heard that they usually allow tourists to enter the churches without them, but I didn't even try because I didn't want to risk it. Plus, I hate getting yelled at in Russian.  Would you add Sviyazhsk to your Kazan itinerary? Why or why not?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Innopolis: The Silicon Valley of Russia

Innopolis, Tatarstan, Russia

What do you think of when you here Silicon Valley? Do you picture endless IT specialists working at computers? Do you think innovation and technology? If you are like me then you think of a world you don't really know. Something you can't quite comprehend because you are terrible understanding and using anything related to technology. I'm getting off-track, so let me get us back on track and tell you the real reason I wrote this post. If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook you may have noticed I wasn't in Ufa. I spent the last two weeks working at a summer bootcamp at Innopolis University, a city about 50 minutes away from Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia.

Innopolis is Russia's newest city with construction starting in 2012 and having its foundation ceremony in June 2015. It is a new government-funded project meant to replicate Silicon Valley in the United States. It is a high-tech city focusing on IT related development. Currently, IT makes up 34% of GDP for the USA but only 3% of Russian GDP. I think this is a smart move for Russia since their economy is falling apart as world oil prices decrease. Plus, where do all those hackers live? To me it seems like they are always in Russia. I'm not knocking Russian hackers either. It's actually a compliment. Russian IT specialists are very talented. Heck, I'm even dating one - not a hacker, a Russian software engineer.

It's obvious as you walk around that the city is still being established. It's eerily quiet most times of the day and there are construction sites every where you look. The university is really the only part of the campus that constantly has something going on. Innopolis University is based on western/American universities, so to me I felt like I was back in the United States. All instruction is given in English, and their appeal is that students will not have to take useless classes like you'd see in most liberal arts schools in the USA. Russia offers free higher education, but Innopolis is a tuition-based school. Fortunately, most students receive scholarship money to attend school there. One of my students told me that students can get money for startup companies through the university. Obviously, Innopolis will get money back from the startup, but I think it's great that they are encouraging students to use their skills and offering a chance for them to do so. Students without money are now given opportunities to better themselves, and I think the USA could learn a thing or two from Innopolis.

While the university itself is a hotspot for activity the rest of the town looks like a scene out of The Walking Dead. As of right now the city can hold 5000 residents, but according to Wikipedia the city's population is only 96. Other than the sports complex - which features state-of-the-art equipment, a pool, two types of saunas, and different sports sites for soccer and tennis - there is literally nothing else except for one grocery store. In a later post I will have more photos which will show how barren the place is. Although it's still in the early stages of development I'm really excited to see what will become of Innopolis. If you are interested in seeing the future of Innopolis you can watch this video.

There are a lot of street dogs running around. I love any dog I see, and this one was so nice she even posed for a picture. One day I also saw a puppy running around and I was sad to learn it had lice. The dogs were so funny. The one day I was walking and saw it chasing some kids (not in a mean way) on bikes. As I was going in one of the tunnels to cross the street I heard the dog running behind me. It was so cute looking like it wanted to use the tunnel just like humans and he kept stopping to make sure I was following.

What are your impressions of Innopolis? Do you think it's a good idea?
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