Published in Georgia Straight, February 27, 2013
To most Canadians, Ufa is best-known for Team Canada’s fourth-place finish at this year’s International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Hockey Championship. I was there as a journalist to cover the tournament, and I discovered many quirky dimensions to this Russian city of more than one million inhabitants, both inside and outside the rinks.
The 439-year-old capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan lies 14 time zones away from Vancouver and almost 1,200 kilometres east of Moscow, in the Ural Mountains. It’s an oil town, and petrodollars power Salavat Yulaev Ufa, the local Kontinental Hockey League franchise. You’d never guess ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev grew up here.
Although the roads all seem as wide as the Champs-Elysées, they’re caked with brown slush in –10 ° C winter weather. Daily, I was chauffeured back and forth between the Amaks Hotel and the Ufa Arena in the tournament’s official Skoda cars.
In the smoke-tinged hotel lobby, stiletto-booted prostitutes sat alongside security guards. Peculiar ramps led up into the tiny elevators. A waggish colleague dubbed the compact gym the “Museum of Physical Culture”—it had a broken treadmill and an ancient elliptical trainer, and could only be accessed by requesting a new key each day. At the breakfast buffet, Russian disco and rap music accompanied the pancakes, salted fish, and sliced cucumbers.
At the 2007-built Ufa Arena, the modern audio-visual system and concession stands were just what westerners would expect for entertaining 6,000 spectators at the U.S.–Sweden gold-medal game, and tournament volunteers were invariably friendly. But it was odd that the perky cheerleaders never stopped performing—even during the play, they waved their pom-poms relentlessly.
When I had a free day, I wanted to explore this eclectic city, which has both a halal restaurant and a McDonald’s on central Lenin Street. Fortunately, I had an English-speaking local guide, Mansur Yumagulov, an Ufa-based Russian journalist related by marriage to a Vancouver friend of mine.
Across from the brick Ufa opera house, we sipped tea in a large yurt with a sheep’s-wool–lined roof, while an old Soviet war propaganda movie played on a flat-screen TV.
Mansur, a genial 34-year-old with spectacles and long brown hair, informed me that his father was Bashkir and his mother Tartar, and that he’d graduated from Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University (officially renamed People’s Friendship University in 1992). The university’s original name, derived from that of a Congolese independence leader, rang a bell for me as a Cold War–thriller buff. “Carlos the Jackal went there, too,” Mansur said, laughing, referring to the infamous 1970s assassin.
We headed off to a snowy square on Communist Street with a new Lenin statue, unveiled in November 2011. Ufa’s unusual reverence for the Bolshevik leader is partly explained by the fact that his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, was exiled here circa 1900. “We’re not yet in capitalism, and part of our mind is still in Communism,” Mansur said wryly.
Surprisingly, the statue, which appears to be marble, is actually hollow white plastic, as I confirmed by tapping it with my knuckles. Mansur explained that in the late 1980s, the Communist party commissioned a 10-tonne granite statue from a sculptor in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). However, due to failed negotiations and corruption, it was completed but never delivered. So a plastic alternative was installed decades later. This fiasco cost the city four million rubles (about $134,000).
To warm up, we ducked into nearby Gostiny Dvor, a restored 19th-century shopping arcade. I told Mansur I wanted to taste a Bashkir delicacy. At a crowded supermarket, we bought two half-litre bottles of kumiss (fermented horse milk with four percent alcohol) for about $2 apiece.
Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov drank kumiss for their health, as it purportedly wards off tuberculosis and enhances sexual performance. I didn’t detect those side effects while we swigged the stuff at ogogo, one of Mansur’s side businesses, which sells handmade woollen hats. Kumiss tastes like a mix of skim milk and light beer, with a cheesy aftertaste. For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I won’t repeat.
Still, my offbeat tour didn’t end here. I’d found a plastic-covered Koran in my hotel room earlier, and now I’d get firsthand evidence of Ufa’s status as Russia’s leading Muslim centre as we visited the Tukayev Mosque. It was built in 1830 as the city’s first mosque.
The white building with a green spire looked surprisingly churchlike. Inside, a green-robed, turbaned Tajik cleric welcomed us after we removed our shoes, and we quietly checked out ornate stained-glass windows depicting scenes of Mecca, while others prayed or meditated. When we left, a bearded Uzbek merchant selling heavy-scented holy oils at the gate asked to squirt a sample on my neck. It resembled a spicy cologne.
After we viewed a huge horseback statue of Salavat Yulaev, a Bashkir poet who took a leading role in the 18th-century Pugachev rebellion, Mansur suggested we use our status as journalists to cover a military ceremony at the nearby, glassy Congress Hall.
Brandishing my IIHF press credentials, I followed Mansur into a huge meeting room packed with banners and green-uniformed soldiers. For 30 minutes, patriotic speeches and videos hailed Ufa’s Second World War hero, Gen. Mingalei Shaimuratov, and the elite special forces who maintain his tradition today.
Mansur told me parallels were drawn between the war against Hitler and more recent battles in Chechnya and Dagestan. Completing the shock-and-awe treatment were two full-force renditions of the anthems of both Russia and Bashkortostan by a 24-piece military band.
After that, I was ready to lighten the buzz. We went to a cozy Dostoyevsky Street store called the Beekeeper, where I bought plastic bear-shaped jars of traditional Bashkir honey as souvenirs.
That evening, we hung out at the spacious apartment of Mansur’s friend Timur. We chatted about hockey, U2, and Timur’s agricultural-equipment firm while munching on duck dumplings and open-faced salmon-caviar sandwiches. I was feeling a little discombobulated, still trying to make sense of everything I’d experienced. I guess Ufa hits you like a hockey puck.
ACCESS: To apply for a Russian tourist visa in Vancouver, contact SIAT Consular Services.