The train is not as relaxing as you might assume: there’s not a lot of room to stretch out, and you sleep as well as the most noisy person in the cabin does. I got some reading done, saw some countryside and brooded about the future. But by the time I arrived in Yekaterinburg just after 5pm on Thursday, I was tired and disshevelled and not really conscious of my surroundings. Which is why I was very grateful to Roman, our homestay host, when he met us on the train platform and drove us to his flat. He was chatty, curious, full of suggestions about what to do, and his easy manner – at the tender age of 23 – made him impossible not to like. His sister was staying in his own flat, so he was moving into his wife’s and putting us up in their shared place – a two bedroom apartment, completely newly renovated with high ceilings, hardwood floors and a shower with jets on the side. I couldn’t afford a hotel like this, and it was well beyond my expectations of a room in someone’s apartment – we had the whole place.
Roman drove us downtown, and we had beer by the waterfront – in that we got bottles of beer from a nearby vendor and sat drinking them, without cups or a paper bag, along with dozens of other people. There was a fridge with lots of bottles – Russian and European lagers, $1 for 500mls – that I tried to yank open, attracting stern words from the nearby vendor woman in her booth. I figured out that you pay first, she presses a button and it releases the fridge door. Which makes sense, otherwise people would rush up and take everything inside. She still took the cap off for me when I motioned ‘bottle opener’. I find that with Russians: they tell you the rules (which take me a long time to figure out), but they don’t hold a grudge. I’ve read of people complaining that Russians are rude, and I suppose that if you’re used to a “Have a nice day now” customer service ethos, they might appear so. But I understand why they’re angry – e.g. no one wants their fridge yanked open and their beer stolen. I’m not offended – in fact, I’m grateful that they’re still willing to treat me fairly given that I don’t speak their language, and they have to try harder to communicate.
Yekaterinburg is 1.3 million people but we stuck to Lenina, the main road where our apartment was, which made the place feel small, particularly after Moscow. But it’s a beautifully laid out main road, tree-lined, with cafes and shops, a classical post office and theatre, leading to the river at the city centre and, beyond that, a pedestrianized shopping precinct with some interesting statuary.
An ad for a bank – the fictional characters that Bruce Willis portray make you feel safe about your money:
The rebranded post office, in cool blue and marble, still has Lenin at the centre of attention at the back, austere and forbidding:
But wait – he’s actually friendly and welcoming:
The Trade Union building:
The town hall:
Some Soviet-era public art from 1973. After the Tsarist palaces and heavy Stalinist buildings, non-representative shapes feel light and refreshing. It’s like eating a salad after days of meat:
The main pedestrian shopping area, just past the river:
This is who you think it is:
… in a disturbing amount of detail:
After checking out the mall and having some kvas – which is growing on me – we saw one branch of the Yekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts. There was a massive display of contemporary photographs – I particularly liked the ones of Putin, either silhouetted ominously or starting to climb a climbing wall, surrounded by photographers. The paintings were arranged in four small rooms, ranging from socialist realism – but not on as grand a scale as the Tretyakov. There were happy railroad-builders, and one 1954 piece entitled Asking the son for money, displaying a sitting room with a mother too ashamed to look at the viewer, a grandmother dressed in black, her eyes lowered, and in the middle the son, dressed like a dandy in a burgundy sportcoat and striped pants, examining his fingernails. He wasn’t building the Soviet society, that’s for sure.
The next room had some beautiful constructivist pieces, including a big Rodchenko and one by Rozanova, an artist I didn’t know – but both created forward-moving structures of multi-coloured blocks and shapes. Their new world of human-made organic forms didn’t make it past the first Five Year Plan, unfortunately, but I loved the audacious rejection of old decorative techniques and desire to create a new artistic – and, therefore, philosophical and political – language of self-determination. They were the scifi geeks of their day, but with a basis in socialist construction, not white collar professionals.
We walked to the spot the Tsar and his family was shot.
In 1918, at the height of the Civil War, the imperialist White armies were at the gates of Petrograd and the Bolsheviks thought defeat was imminent. The Romanovs were the head of the old regime and, as long as they remained alive, would provide a rallying point for counter-revolution. Given the amount of anti-Bolshevik propaganda that survives to this day – including Anastasia, the Disney movie about the Tsarina who supposedly escaped execution – it’s worth reminding that, in 1905, a delegation of thousands of Petrograd residents appealed to the Tsar to relieve their poverty and oppression. They shuffled on their knees to the Winter Palace, holding giant portraits of the Tsar, appealing to the Father of the Nation to save them. The Father of the Nation ordered his troops to open fire, killing 400 demonstrators. This is usually left out of the narrative about the evil Bolsheviks killing the defenceless Tsar and his family, as is the centuries of absolute rule over exploited workers and peasants. It’s why, when I visited the cross erected on the site of the execution, my feelings were so complex and nuanced:
I earned a dirty look from a passerby for that. But it was a small gesture before the two massive cathedrals the Russian Orthodox church had erected nearby after the fall of the USSR, where parishioners were crossing themselves and putting on head scarves (women) and wraparound skirts (men) before entering. The celebration of voluntary submission to religious and state authority made me queasy.
This is what happens when you don’t build in central air – it was a relatively new building too:
Here’s Sverdlov, the head of the Russian Communist Party, after whom the city was named Sverdlosk for 75 years. I like the fact that these monuments still exist.