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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Side Trip to Tatarstan

To all of the world, St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square is the very symbol of Moscow and Russia. Few, however, know what the cathedral has symbolized to Russians, especially when it was built in the mid-16th century on the order of Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan had several times unsuccessfully attacked Kazan, a strategically important city located on the Volga and a capital of Russia’s perennial enemy, the Tatars. In 1551, Ivan had an entire wooden fortress prefabricated upriver, then floated downstream and rapidly assembled on the island of Sviyazhsk. The resulting fortress was bigger than the Moscow Kremlin of the time and garrisoned the 75,000 troops that would lay siege to the nearby city of Kazan. Ivan was on the island during the fighting, praying fervently for victory. St. Basil’s Cathedral was his offering of gratitude and commemoration.

In recent times, Kazan had become a symbol of peace and harmony. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the city in October, wishing to see for herself this place of “religious tolerance and interfaith connection.” Indeed, Muslims, Russian Orthodox Christians and Jews appear to live in a rare and real harmony in Kazan. They enjoy and respect each other’s traditions, cuisine and jokes. Intermarriage is common. A soaring mosque, the Kul Sharif, was recently built in the Kazan Kremlin to replace the one razed by Ivan nearly five centuries ago. Meanwhile, Tatar activists who call for independence are subjected to severe pressure.  

After meeting with local officials, prosecutors and publishers, I decided to take advantage of a quiet Sunday to make a side trip out to the island of Sviyazhsk from which Ivan had initiated his successful siege of Kazan. The roads were better than I expected, but the signage was worse. It took a lot of stopping and asking to get there. But then finally, there it was: a cluster of graceful cupolas and spires against a low steppe sky.

Because of the scale of his cruelties and the cinematic portrait of him by film director Sergei Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible had always seemed larger than life. Here, however, on the dirt paths and plank floors in the old churches, he seemed more real and accessible. Medieval Muscovy may have felt easily accessible, but it was the more recent past that proved harder to shake.

I asked a young, bearded priest about a series of buildings with crumbling walls and missing windows that the steppe wind blew through. He told me that they had been monasteries until 1924, when they were emptied out by order of the ­Bolsheviks. By 1935, those buildings were officially part of the gulag. Between Stalin’s death in 1953 and 1993, they were turned into a psychiatric hospital, one of those used to punish dissidents with insulin injections and electric shock therapy. “Practically no one got out of here alive,” the priest said. “Where are their graves?” I asked.  He paused and then gave a quick, sharp look that encompassed the island. “Everywhere,” he said.

There are no side trips in Russia. Sooner or later, they all lead to the mass graves of the Soviet era, still unexcavated, still unexpiated. The better future that President Dmitry Medvedev envisaged in his state-of-the-nation address will remain out of reach until the weight of the Soviet past is removed from Russia’s shoulders. And when that victory is finally won, another great and glorious monument should be raised on Red Square.

Richard Lourie is the author of “The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin” and “Sakharov: A Biography.”