A town on the border
My overwhelming sense of the place when I was in Kars was that it was just a very strange town. My first acquaintance with the place was through Pamuk’s book Snow (Kar) which was set in Kars and when I was there it made total sense that Pamuk would set that strange novel in this very strange place.
Armenian, Selçuk, Georgian, Mongol, Ottoman, Russian, Turkish; Kars has had the chequered history of a city that is located at the confluence of empires. For most of the 20th century the town was the object of territorial tussles between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, frequently switching hands. In her article on biodiversity in Kars, Elif Batuman writes that when the Russian poet Pushkin decided to travel outside the realms of the Russian Empire he came to Kars. However, by the time he reached Kars it had been taken by the Russians and so Pushkin realised he was still in Russia after all. Kars spent its longest spell as a Russian town, when after the Russo-Turkish War (1877 – 1878), it was transferred to Russia under the Treaty of Stan Stefano. The city became part of modern Turkey when Kazim Karabekir’s troops took the city in 1920. Today it is located on the border with Armenia and not very far from Georgia.
Kars has the air of a city that has seen better times. At one time being a border town was advantageous and the city boomed. The Armenian-Turkish border was closed in 1994, when the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict broke out and has not been opened since. As a result, Kars has suffered. Its location, which was once an advantage, has now relegated it to the status of effectively being an outpost.
There is still a certain Russian air that Kars has. I kept hearing people speaking Russian while I was there. There is probably a strong underbelly that keeps trade between the closed borders going. The Russian past is also quietly referenced at almost every turn by the samovars you see. I never saw traditional Turkish çaydanlıks, but rather the very Russian-style samovars at all the tea houses. It was nice to see that they were still being used because in many other ways the other Russian influence – the architecture – is going to shit.
There are still remnants — broken and tired — of Baltic architecture here. The basalt rock houses with their clear lines add to a sense that this town has a history that it does not share with others in Turkey. But the beautiful 20th century Russian buildings have been overtaken by really atrociously bad concrete structures that hurt the eye. Imagine a cowering old basalt house with a multi-storied pink apartment block on one side and another multi-storied yellow apartment block on the other. TOKİ, the organisation that is in charge of housing development projects in Turkey had signs all over the city. It didn’t make me hopeful. If anything, Kars will probably see an explosion of ugly, cheap construction projects. Unfortunately, that will only make it more similar to other cities in this country, and less like Kars.