Thursday, April 4, 2013

From Istanbul to Moscow

Recently I spent a couple of weeks in Istanbul and I was struck by the many parallels between Turkey and Russia. For instance: Turkish rugs. Turks like to put them on the floor, Russians hang them on their walls. But people in both countries dig the oriental style.

It’s not just carpet tastes that are similar. Both countries begin on the periphery of Europe and stretch eastwards into Asia; and in Russia and Turkey alike Islam and Orthodoxy have rubbed shoulders for many centuries.

I visited the Haghia Sofia, the ancient Byzantine church that Mehmet the Conqueror turned into a mosque and which Ataturk subsequently converted into a museum. It’s an astounding and strange place, where you can see Byzantine mosaics alongside Islamic motifs. Tourists from the East and West walk through it experiencing very different buildings, I suspect.

It’s a very important site in Russian religious history too, as for many centuries it was the biggest church in the orthodox world. But perhaps it was only after it fell to Islamic Ottoman conquerors that it had its biggest effect on Moscow - for at the same time the Russians were throwing off the Tatar yoke, and looking around they saw themselves as the only free Orthodox people on the planet. The collapse of Constantinople and consequent loss of the Haghia Sofia thus super charged the messianic-apocalyptic aspect of Russian religion for centuries to come.

I took the tram to Aksaray, an area that during the 1990s seethed with shuttle traders from Russia and the former USSR. In those days it was a hotbed of prostitution and every kind of vice; today it is much more sedate. But there is still a huge Russian influence- here the taxi drivers speak Russian and shops sell parts for Zhiguli cars. Grozny Avia offers flights to Chechnya while currency traders offer everything from the Russian ruble to the Kyrgyz som. I even managed to have dinner in a Georgian restaurant (not a very good one, mind).

Then I headed towards the sea and found myself wandering in an area that had once been populated by Armenians, who also constitute a large minority in Russia. We all know what happened to the Ottoman Empire’s Armenians however and it was a melancholy prospect indeed to see Armenian writing chiseled in the stonework of mansions. This area is now populated by gypsies, but soon they will be driven out to make way for rich folk, a process very familiar to anybody who has lived in Moscow also.

Tired after my wanderings in the former Armenian quarter I returned to my apartment, stopping off in MiGROS to buy food. I felt at ease in that Turkish supermarket, possibly because MiGROS is the parent company of Ramstore, a chain of shopping malls that stretches from Moscow to Almaty in Kazakhstan. In fact, I think Ramstore was the first mall to open in Russia.
Similarly, Turkish building firms are working all over the USSR. I discovered that Istanbul is the source of the plague of bland blue glass towers that afflicts cities from Moscow to Yoshkar Ola to Ashgabat in Turkmenistan.

On a visit to the Asian side I saw where Turkey’s Prime Minister Recip Erdogan plans to erect a colossal mosque. In both Russia and Turkey religion is making a forceful reentry into the public sphere after decades of forced secularization. However even though Russia’s experience of secularism in the 20th century was much more traumatic than Turkey’s, Turkey’s ruling party’s efforts at Islamizing society constitute a much more intense and systematic attempt at imposing religion on people than Putin’s alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church does, which is essentially political.

So it is very interesting indeed to walk around Istanbul, reflecting upon the parallels between the Ottoman and Russian empires, Ataturk’s secular authoritarianism vs. Lenin and Stalin’s atheistic totalitarianism, and the arrival in both countries of the post-modern age where religion mixes with international business and nobody can escape Keeping Up With The Kardashians on cable TV.

And yet there is one very, very big difference. When Russians protest against Putin, they are guaranteed massive media coverage in the West. When Pussy Riot went on trial, everybody from Hillary Clinton to Madonna spoke out in their defense. Crowds gathered outside Russian embassies worldwide. However although Erdogan has arrested over 700 opponents to his rule on not very convincing conspiracy charges, and keeps more journalists in prison than China or Iran, nobody cares very much. Obama chuckles and asks him for advice on raising two daughters. Madonna recently played Istanbul, flashed an aged breast at her fans and went on to the next city on her tour. I doubt she even knows all those anti-Erdogan chappies are rotting in prison.

Curious and curiouser! It would be nice to think that it’s not because Turkey is more or less an ally while Russia is more or less not, and that our press and governments and semi-professional protesting class turn a blind eye to these egregious violations of freedom of the press because hey, what’s a little intimidation of the opposition between friends?  But you know, I suspect that that’s exactly what lies behind the paucity of coverage of Turkish oppression. Well, that, and a general lack of interest in Turkey. The world can be a terribly simple place, you know.