In 2011, Dmitry Medvedev abolished Daylight Saving Time in Russia, to mixed reception. Perhaps a testament to the strength of the executive and even to his democratic mandate in a nation where Old Father Time himself votes United Russia, everybody knows that for the powers that be, time is money. Forget nuclear confrontation and Cold War fears—the President is a man who has the power to abolish entire time zones. In March 2010, the residents of Samara Oblast and Udmurtia lost an hour which they will never get back—a sobering thought in our troubled times! As a result, Tatarstan has the unusual distinction of bordering a time zone not one, but two hours ahead. Medvedev quoted irritation with the “extra hour” as his justification, saying that people simply “did not know what to do with it.” Was this a genuine move with the public’s wishes in mind, or a sinister scheme to extend Russian Presidential terms, an hour at a time?
To reiterate—time is power. In up-and-coming and rapidly developing regions such as Tatarstan, the inhabitants simply need to know that their ministers and officials take their time in the service of their motherland seriously. Of course, the time of any bureaucrat or businessman is worth its weight in gold, and what better way to demonstrate this than a magnificent wristwatch? Imports of Swiss watches to Russia have increased by some 84 per cent over the past decade, testament that, in the booming, gas-fueled economic growth of Putin’s Russia, time does indeed go faster when you’re having fun.
In Tatarstan, leading politicians are consequently very eager to show just how valuable their time spent in the service of the republic really is. “Biznes” has been kind to the region and the nature of “biznes” (as opposed to its English counterpart, business)—that peculiarly Russian manner of wheeling and dealing, of favors for friends agreed over many a “biznes-lanch” (business lunch)—demands a wealthy flamboyance in return. In November 2010, Kazan’s local version of the Russian business magazine Delovoi Kvartal ran a piece titled “Chasoviye Vkusi” (Watch Tastes) on the wristwatches of choice of Tatarstan’s elite. Maybe more aptly called “Taste Watch,” it identified the brands of wristwatches worn by leaders in the Tatarstan government and, most interestingly, their financial value. Figures given included the 900,000 ruble Breguet worn by Chairman of the Tatarstan Parliament Farid Mukhametshin, and watches of the same brand worn by Mayor of Kazan Ilsur Metshin and Minister of Agriculture Marat Akhmetov, each worth 1.3 million rubles.
Most of Tatarstan’s leaders seem to prefer the Breguet brand, also favored by Dmitry Medvedev, whilst President of Tatarstan Rustam Minnikhanov (whose time is doubtless the most valuable of all) is the proud owner of not one but two magnificent wristwatches—a Patek Phillipe worth 1.5 million rubles, and a Daniel Roth worth 2 million. Ambidextrous perhaps—or maybe one is kept constantly timed to Moscow to ensure his republic is in sync with the Kremlin as closely as possible? Former President of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiev—told his time was up in 2010—sports a French Cartier gold watch worth 800,000 rubles.
Outside the government, businessman and Director of Kamaz Sergei Kogogin wears a Breguet worth 900,000 rubles. The icing on the cake must be the 700,000 ruble Chopard watch worn by Muslima Latypova, director of the upmarket Tatar supermarket and bakery chain Bahetle.
It was also observed in the article, in the spirit of Tatarstan’s modest dissent against Moscow over the past 22 years, that “if the Kremlin were to pass a law saying that all wristwatches had to be worn on the right arm (a fashion trend started by Vladimir Putin and now emulated by many of his supporters), everybody in Kazan would start to wear theirs on the left.” Also true to Tatarstan’s spirit of finding peaceful compromise with Moscow, Minnikhanov can go a step further and wear an elegant watch on each wrist, outfoxing everyone.
Sometimes, however, public office allows politicians to be generous with their time, or even go so far as to give it back to us all together. In 2009, Vladimir Putin spontaneously handed his Swiss Blancpain watch worth some 260,000 rubles to factory worker Viktor Zagaevsky, in a public speech on the economy in the Central Russian town of Tula. The public circumstances of the speech made it difficult for Putin to refuse, especially after the worker’s curt request that he hand it over. Zagaevsky now must have a lot of time on his hands, especially given that the value of Putin’s watch is roughly an average Russian’s yearly wage. An embarrassing encounter perhaps, but perhaps a merrier one compared to the theft of George Bush junior’s watch in a crowd in Tirana, Albania’s capital city, in 2007. A President’s time must be valuable indeed.
Tatarstan indeed has a long-standing connection with telling the time in style. The southern town of Chistopol, home to the Vostok Watch Factory, was the source of the Soviet Union’s luxury range of Kremlyovskaya watches, a highly fashionable and sought-after accessory for Soviet men to wear. In a similar vein, Delevoi Kvartal’s article reminded us that this conspicuous consumption when it comes to timepieces has simply “always been the case.” This is perfectly true. With this in mind, perhaps further examination of the legend of Lake Kaban needs to be undertaken. Resembling a tale about the Byzantines and the Golden Horn (a river off the Bosphorus in Istanbul), the legend holds that as defeat of the Kazan Khanate in 1552 was imminent, the Tatar nobility threw all their treasures into Lake Kaban, now the northern boundary of the Old Tatar Settlement. Much like Istanbul’s Golden Horn (hence the name), it was said that the treasure made the lake gleam and shine, hinting at the riches beneath. If, as the article suggests, so little has changed over the ages in the attitude towards material wealth, one could be forgiven for indulging the thought that somewhere, deep beneath the Kaban’s waters lie the Khans’ hidden Rolex—or more likely, Breguert—collection.
It is said that change is the only constant, yet the trappings of power must come a close second, to finish on a well-worn pun, whether it be in the Kazan Khanate or in Rustam’s Mini-khanate.
“Idel-Ural” is a column about the Volga region and its melting pot of peoples.