Monday, September 06, 2004

Adrian and the Romanovs

Hi all,

I'm in a flash internet cafe adjacent to Red Square in Moscow at the moment, probably the flashest internet cafe I've ever been in. Nice, but complicated when you only know 5 Russian words...

We left Irkutsk for Ekaterinberg on the train, taking a two-day trip on the Trans-Siberian, probably about the maximum comfortable time without a stop. You get pretty stir crazy after awhile, but at least all the colds and stomach troubles had cleared up. Ekaterinberg used to be a closed city because of a strong military presence there - it used to produce tanks and stuff for the Soviets in WWII and has continued up until recently. A closed city means you need special papers to enter, and from talking to one of our guides it's actually a pretty cool place to live, since not everyone can enter and you get a nice community spirit with low crime, etc.

When we arrived in Ekaterinberg our guide, appropriately named Ivan, showed us round the town. It is near the Ural mountains, so a lot of mining goes on nearby. The place is covered in statues and monuments but apart from Lenin almost all of it is post-1993 or so, introduced to wipe away some of the Soviet times. Probably the most obvious example is the huge Church of the Blood cathedral built on the site where the Romanovs were executed. There was an old church there before, but Boris Yeltsin demolished it in 1977 cause too many people were doing a pilgrimage to it - Yeltsin used to be governor of Ekaterinberg. Now there's a great huge cathedral plonked there. Ivan was pretty philosophical about it, a little critical of the post-Soviet history which has glamourised the Tsar and his family far beyond historical info. This is exacerbated since the whole family were canonised and made into Russian Orthodox saints.

We had a great homestay with a little old lady who said 'Da da da da' (yes yes yes yes) to just about everything. She reminded me of my granny and cooked some really good (and huge) meals for us. Her apartment was way bigger than Japanese ones - a hall, bathroom, toilet and 5 biggish rooms in all.Next day we visited a Russian Orthodox monastary built around the mineshaft the Romanovs were dumped into. To get into it (and other Russian Orthodox buildings) women have to wear scarves and skirts, which meant Susan and Cindi ended up looking like a pair of Russian grannies. Accordingly, we took a lot of photos. The buildings are six or so log churchs built among the trees and surrounded by a log wall, the place was really cool and really new - the whole place is post-Soviet, built in the mid 90s, part of the Church's rebirth. I had a real movie Russian moment when a military helicopter flew low overhead: white-barked Russian trees and a sinister camouflage helicopter swooping over. I guess the log Churches didn't fit in, but you can't have everything.

Apparently about 90% of Russians consider themselves Russian Orthodox, but the guy who told us, another Sasha, said the Church didn't do anything for people, just strengthened its own position.After that we visited the point where Asia and Europe meet and visited a graveyard where Russian mafia are buried. Their gravestones are carved with their images, a driver guy holding his car keys in his hand, stuff like that. They had 5 full on busts of Mafia guys killed in a car bomb. No attempts to glamorise them really, they all looked pretty thuggish from their faces. Sasha said it's almost impossible to get rich in Russia without breaking the law in some way or other, due to crushing taxes among other stuff. Even the head of the tour company has a false name and company for tax purposes.

Our last day there we went on a hike in the Urals, including a raft along the unfortunately named river Urin (pronounced urine). We went with an English couple and Sasha, but were driven by a Russian hero, a guy whose in the Guiness book of records twice for climbing Russian peaks using husky dogs - one of the mountains was almost 7,000 metres high and he has photos of him posing with Russian film stars and even with Kurosawa Akira, the famous Japanese director (did Seven Samurai, Ran, Throne of Blood and lots of others). The guys name is Pavel Smolin, and I have no idea why he was slumming it as a tour guide driver, neither did Sasha. He brought two of his Siberian Huskies along too, which were a hit with Susan.We rafted a bit, visited some caves and got really muddy and Susan and Dan had a go of a big flying fox there, then we went home. The whole thing was a long day though, since there was a lot of travelling there and back in addition to the hiking. Me and the English guy had the unlucky job of carrying the bag with the 3 inflatable rafts in it, but we worked out a system in the end.

On the way to the hike we visited a memorial for 20-25,000 people killed in the forest nearby. The bodies mainly date from 1937-38, during a purge by Stalin and 5 mass graves were discovered in the '90s when soldiers started to build some barracks. When KGB records were opened the names of all those killed were released and used for the memorial, one of the many mass killings Stalin committed around that time all over Russia prior to WWII.

The army in Russia sounds like a worry. Every young guy has to spend 2 years in the army and I asked Sasha about it, since he's got to go after he finishes university. It sounds a lot worse than military service in South Korea, which I've heard is more boring than anything else. Sasha said he'd prefer going to Chechnya over somewhere quieter, because where it's boring there's a lot of bullying and senior officers have absolute control over new recruits, with no real recourse for complaints. It sounds really tough, but I don't know about it being worse than Chechnya - more chance of getting killed there.

Ekaterinberg has a big monument erected by veterans to soldiers killed in wars from the Spanish Civil War onwards, including wars Russia still officially won't admit involvement in, like Vietnam and Angola. By far the biggest list of names of the dead (not counting WWII) from Ekaterinberg are due to Chechnya.Then we left Ekaterinberg, declining to pick up some of the souvenir plates and posters featuring President Putin. It was a shame in some ways, as they really were works of art, all soft focus and flattering poses. Apparently Putin enjoys a 70% popularity rating, but with his control over the media it's a dubious statistic.

One more day's train travel and we got to Moscow this morning and transferred to a hotel. Tomorrow we move to a homestay and we've spent the day exploring the Moscow Metro, which is full of Soviet-era artwork and chandeliers, then visiting Red Square and the sights nearby. Only 2 more days to go then I'm on a plane back to Japan, then onto New Zealand!
I think Susan and I will come back to Russia if we get the chance, especially to visit St. Petersburg. The people are a mixture of surly on the surface and in service jobs, but friendly and helpful individually. One of the strangest things is that lots of Russian girls seem to look like models or tennis players, yet all the older Russian women have invariably gone kind of apple shaped. It doesn't apply to the men either, just the women. The average Russian young guy is big with a crewcut and looks like they'd fit in well with the Hollywood stereotype of Mafia thug or Spetnaz commando, and people start drinking early round here - 10.00 am isn't unusual.