There’s this catchy Brazilian song that a Kazak covered and retitled “the boy who wants to go to Tambov.” It’s pretty famous. I am not that boy, but I did want to go to Tambov. It is a small Russian town known for its black soil, tasty potatoes and mafia.

It turns out there is a tourist souvenir that shows this curious boy on one side, with a bruised and battered version on the back, beneath which it says, “the boy that left tambov.” Duly warned, my strategy for learning about the mafia was a trip to the local cemetery to see what kind of tombstones the Russian mobsters pick out. I did not expect to find an ostrich farm nearby.

I arrived in Tambov before sunrise. An eight hour night train due south from Moscow left me at the beginning of International Street, which I followed past the concentrated gaze of the Lenin statue and headed toward the nearest cup of tea.

20121202-_DSC2818Nothing is open on Sunday morning in Tambov except church, where I quickly headed to warm my hands. I pushed through the heavy wooden doors and walked into the sound of dozens of singing people. I stayed until the grey dawn outside turning into a grey day.

Beside the church complex is one of the three large new bell-towers that are being built throughout the city. In a town known as “the city of churches” in tourist brochures, they are only the latest religious buildings to be built although.

Here’s a photo of one tower I was told needed to be renovated while still under construction (it began leaning). 20121202-_DSC2847The status commemorates a girl who fought in World War II. When she was only sixteen, she was captured and killed when she refused to give up any information. Today its a common spot to find strolling lovers. The statue is one of many that dot Tambov. There is something very imperial, or Soviet, or simply foreign to me about decorating small towns with statues of every famous resident. A famous writer, a famous scientist, a famous worker, each surveying their native city. “What have you done lately?” they seem to ask from decades before… and Tambov has definitely retained some of this Soviet literalism:

"Learn! Learn! Learn! - Lenin"

“Learn! Learn! Learn! – Lenin”

But there’s whimsy too. Here’s a king who gave up everything to marry a peasant:


And my personal favorite – The Tambov Man, or rather the Tambov “Mujik,” a work for a hardy, simple peasant:


The most abstract monument is also the most recent – a memorial to “all victims of atomic catastrophes” – erected on the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl:


After my stroll along the waterfront I took a mini-bus to the cemetery, where I had to the good fortune to meet Alexei, one of the groundskeepers:


He gave me a tour of graves and the Church, first pointing out graves of car accidents and some famous residents. There was a founder of a world class dance group as well as an area of Soviet air force heroes.

And then he mentioned the “holy alley,” but didn’t want to discuss it. I learned later that it was a sarcastic name for a lane of graves where the respected citizens are buried alongside the notorious, rich ones. It’s a strange cemetery, filled with moments of eerie beauty in one place:




And other tombstone telling a different story:


Locals tell me this grave is spat upon and tell stories about the man buried here. He was an important member of the mafia and a neighbor told me about how his children asked him to buy them a giraffe in 1990s, a time when many people in Tambov were starving. His son, buried next to him, is also the subject of many rumors.

Visitors came and went and for good reason I decided to be on my way. The groundskeeper jokingly mentioned some other local attractions I should take in while in Tambov… like the rabbit farm next to the cemetery. Don’t have to tell me twice.

I was told it was down a winding little road past a large, flimsy box of a building that housed a tombstones cutting factory. I walked down the path toward an even larger, even more hollow looking building. There were pyramids of tires rising from ditches in the black soil. I approached cautiously, thinking about dogs.

Then I saw a peacock. Then an ostrich. Then several ostriches. I met them all, along with dozens of pheasants and quills, on the way to the rabbit farm. I was expecting a depressing little fur operation, but it was nothing of the sort.




“It’s a passion for me,” said Marguerita Alexandranya, who first thought I was a tire deliveryman, but didn’t hesitate to drop everything and take me on a full tour of the compound when I explained my profession. “My husband deals with the rubber and I maintain the farm. We don’t make profit really, but it’s a bit of a dream come true for me.”




20121203-_DSC3048The farm – more of a zoo really – began with rabbits about a decade ago. Raised for sale, meat and fur, there are now thousands of rabbits here, packed in heated cages in the winter and allowed to roam in the warmer months. The place didn’t smell great, but the rabbits didn’t appear miserable, kept in cages by family with mothers and babies cuddled in furry mounds. I’m sure the rabbits wouldn’t mind a run here and there, but being such delicious prey, I doubt they’d last long:20121203-_DSC3010

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The Dissident Priest

Twenty-five years before he broke with the Moscow Patriarchy, Sergei Baranov saw a strange man in black robes drive up in a beat up old truck and enter the only church in town. To the thirteen-year-old boy, this was an odd sight. Curiosity got the best of him within a few years he fell in love with the Church. “I’d skip school on high holidays and come to the church. I become more and more involved and eventually entered seminary,” he told me in the kitchen of the apartment he shares with his mother. “It inspired love in me and, eventually, without the church I didn’t recognize myself.”


A cross at a cemetery in Tambov.

Today Tambov is known as “the city of churches” in tourist brochures. Glistening bell towers and colorful onion domes dot the skyline. The same city that just one generation ago had a single house of worship now has a fully landscaped monastery complex along its central boulevard. Baranov remembers watching the priests restore the sole church with their own hands.

His entire ecclesiastic career unfolded during these changes. While he clashed with Church administrators over the years, he kept his criticism out of the public eye. But after members of the band Pussy Riot were sentences to two years in prison for their self-described “punk prayer” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February 2012, Baranov broke with the church and has become the rare voice from within, falling out with the institution he has served his entire adult life.


Sergei Baranov

“It has changed very much for the worse, especially since Patriarch Kirill has come to power,” he said, referring to the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church who took over for his predecessor Patriarch Alexy II in February, 2009. “Maybe Alexy had the cleverness to keep some distance from politics, but Keril’s turned the church into a commercial enterprise. He’s become a politician,” said Baranov, his voice brittle with emotion.

For Baranov, the Pussy Riot case was a breaking point. “Even with the Pussy Riot arrests, even with the trial, even after the verdict, I had no plans to leave,” he said, “But after the Patriarch failed to pardon them on Forgiveness Sunday, a traditional celebration of mercy, I had to resign. To remain in the church is to condone this action.”

In recent years, the Patriarch often appears in public with military and government officials. Critics argue this is a cynical relationship, with the Church conferring legitimacy in exchange for financial support from the regime. Defenders argue there had traditionally been a close relationship between Church and State in Russia before the atheist Communists took power.


Patriarch Kirill

Kirill’s critics often point out his cozy relationship with Russia’s secular leadership. For example, he compared Putin’s rule as a “miracle of God” during Putin’s successful 2012 presidential campaign.

In the months since his announcement, Baranov says has paid a price: “My email is hacked, I receive constant death threats and who knows what will happen,” he said between cigarettes, a habit he had dropped for fifteen years and picked up again the day after resigning his position.

What makes Baranov unique is that he is not a part of the middle-class uprisings in Moscow. He says no on one in the political opposition has contacted him since his resignation.  “They are purely political,” he explained, “but I am only 20% political in my thinking.”

The regions are far more socially conservative than the urban centers in Russia and it is no surprise that the actions of a feminist, anti-homophobia punk band wouldn’t resonate in a conservative country. Today, Russians embrace stability and there is little sympathy for the avant-garde. According to the Levada Center’s polling, just 14 percent of Russians said the sentence was excessive while 43 percent thought the sentence was too lenient.

To most people, the band’s actions were hooliganism and disrespectful toward the faith, but Baranov had a different reaction. “When I first watched the video a few days after the action, I was shocked, I was amazed. What is this?! I said. My first instinct was to Google the text. And when I read it, I realized this was a political action.”

The action was five women donning colorful face masks, jumping and screeching out a punk rock anthem that lasted less than a minute before they were detained. The performance itself was certainly shocking on an alter usually reserved for the solemn chants and rituals of the Orthodox Church. But the lyrics were what caught Baranov’s ear:

“Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Be a feminist, we pray thee,
Be a feminist, we pray thee.
Bless our festering bastard-boss.
Let black cars parade the Cross.
The Missionary’s in class for cash.
Meet him there, and pay his stash.
Patriarch Gundy believes in Putin.
Better believe in God, you vermin!
Fight for rights, forget the rite –
Join our protest, Holy Virgin.”

It was called a “punk prayer” and while the imagery was violent and raw, it was not anti Christian. Baranov compared the reaction to Pussy Riot’s stunt to the vandalism of Yury Piotrovsky, a 62-year-old emigrant living in Munich, who poured ink on icons in the same cathedral a few days after the verdict. “This to me that was a wholly different act,” said Baranov, defending the lyrics of the band’s song as a redemptive call, not a blasphemous one. “Seeing [Piotrovsky’s] damage hurts the heart. But no one cared about the ink, while Pussy Riot became martyrs.”

A groundskeeper in Tambov who looked after a recently restored Church at the cemetery took a more theological tact. “He is a humanist, which is fine,” he said of Baranov, “But by definition that puts the interest of mankind first – and that doesn’t fit well with our church.”

The translation of “Punk Prayer” comes from The Guardian.

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The Persistence of Pirs

Villages in Azerbaijan can seem like introverted places to outsiders. But there is a place where people’s everyday hopes and fears are arranged in plain sight, usually in the form of a ribbon or a piece of colorful cloth tied to a tree.

A simple pir in Qax, typical of hundreds of these sites throughout the countryside.

A simple pir in Qax, typical of hundreds of these sites throughout the countryside.

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Xinaliq = 6,000 Sheep

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“Broken stones, inlaid stones, stones in riverbeds, stone in hand, tombstones, stones with drying dung, holy stones , stones to grind, to heat, to cool, to roll down the mountain and wait a hundred years for a shepherd to put salt on top of it, stone on stone, for sheep to eat”…

…I wrote while waiting for thousands of sheep to come down from the mountain to drink. I wait for them in the valley on the other side of the stream because of the sheep dogs that accompany them. I have asked everyone I could for advice about how to get past the sheep dogs to meet the shepherd, but no one filled me with confidence – these are pretty vicious dogs bred to fight wolfs in the mountains, so it’s a valid concern.

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Stray Strategies

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Had another story go up on EurasiaNet.org, so here’s a few photos that didn’t make the cut there.

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Azerbaijan has always been located between cultural traditions, absorbing words and ideas from the vast empires that have surrounded it. So it is fitting that the only thing everyone agrees about today’s meykhana – a form of poetic improvisation – is that it is a unique product of the Absheron peninsula where Baku is located.

Some say it originated with from Sufi dervish traditions, while others see its origin in more secular literary forms. Even the word meykhana, which can be literally translated as “the place of wine,” – although “spirits” captures the meaning more closely – yields many interpretations, from heavenly nectars to back alley taverns.

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About a week before Eurovision I went to see some Azeri Rock & RollAbout a week before Eurovision I went to see some Azeri Rock & Roll

About a week before Eurovision I went to see some Azeri Rock & RollAbout a week before Eurovision I went to see some Azeri Rock & Roll

When Azerbaijan won Eurovision I was drinking with a Meskhetian Turk somewhere in the flatlands of Central Azerbaijan. I had gone to see the night livestock market, which isn’t exactly at night nor a market. But the point remains, instead of covering the biggest story of the year about Azerbaijan in the Western press, I was feeling sorry for sheep on a roadside in Sabirabad. Figures…

Even the sheep were thrilled!

Even the sheep were thrilled!

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Flower Day, Aliyev Style

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On May 10 Heydar Aliyev, the former president and current billboard favorite in Azerbaijan, would have turned 88 years old. So naturally, the government pulled out all the stops. Like last year, thousands of flowers from 50 countries literally covered the park between the Heydar Aliyev Palace and the statue of Heydar Aliyev as two hot air balloons were inflated in front of the giant flower mosaic of Heydar Aliyev, ensuring that his unmistakable Kremlin-Mona-Lisa smile would soar above the city already covered by his portraits. Continue reading

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Poppies in Turkey (new old story)

The first story I wrote and photographed for EurasiaNet.org was just published. It only ran with three photos, so here are a few additional ones:

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Carved Rock and Flowing Mud

Should you decide to take in the more-tourist friendly, less rusted-tanks sights of Azerbaijan, here’s the next thing I found heading southwest from Baku.

First the Gobustan petroglyphs, which the guide said are from 23,000 years ago. Yes, thousand. The internet says, 12-8th century BC, but honestly who even knows? There’s a couple hundred of these and they really cool in real life. Apparently, they put tooth paste inside the crevaces to make more contrast in the photos. I didn’t even try to do that – they already demand a 2 AZN fee for taking photos. But here’s a pretty holy site from long before there was an Azerbaijan, an Armenia, a Georgia, a Russia, a Persia – before any of that. Plus, look at that cool boat they made:


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