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26Sep/111

Why drivers of Volga cars feel superior?

I noticed that unlike Russians foreigners like Russian cars, Volga in particular. So this post may be interesting for you!

 

This year Volga celebrates its 65th Anniversary. The owners of old Volgas in Yekaterinburg organized a rally and an exhibition of antique automobiles behind the Cosmos cinema last weekend.

The first Volga manufactured by GAZ was a symbol of higher status in the USSR. Very few people could afford it and those who could have chauffeurs. Usually they were people from the government or the KGBs.

The Soviet comedy film of 1966 ‘Beware of the Car’ (US title: Watch out for the Automobile) tells a story of a Soviet Robin Hood – a humble insurance agent who stole Volgas from crooks, sold them and transferred money to orphanages.

 

Later upgraded Volgas were used as taxi cabs and ambulances.

Today the drivers of Volga have a negative reputation on Russian roads. They are stereotyped as arrogant drivers who never yield to others. Probably, it is so as many Volga drivers are people over 50 and the feeling of superiority from the Soviet past stuck in their minds.

However, on the day of the rally all cars gave way to antique Volgas, honking in respect. GAZ-21 Volgas look really amazing on Russian roads. Happy Birthday, Volga!

30Aug/110

Welcome to Cuba – a green island in Yekaterinburg

Cuba is a district in Yekaterinburg but not many citizens know where it is. It’s an unofficial name of Bolshoy Konniy distict aka Green Island to the west of VIZ (Verkh-Isetsky Factory). The nickname appeared in 1960s when the Green Island of Liberty was extremely popular with Russians. It doesn’t mean they could travel to Cuba easily but everyone knew about Fidel and ‘no pasaran’ became a Russian phrase. By the way, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara visited Yekaterinburg-Sverdlovsk in 1963. Castro gave a long speech in Uralmash Factory. He didn’t see our local Cuba but I’m sure he would have liked it!

A journey to Cuba starts on the pier of Verkh-Isetsky Pond. It was made in 1725. It’s 12km long and 2.5 km wide. The pond is rather polluted but ‘the Cubans’ don’t mind fishing there all year long. It’s about 4 km along the pond from VIZ to Cuba. You can take a bicycle or tram 11. It’s the only tram that goes to Cuba. Trams run every 20 min., get off on the last station Zelyony Ostrov (Green Island) well, technically it’s a peninsula but ‘island’ sounds more romantic, doesn’t it?

I guess Cuba is the most diverse place in Yekaterinburg. The district was built in 1920s along with a power station and it was a true working class area in the USSR. The station doesn’t work anymore and I have no idea what ‘the Cubans’ do there no – not much, judging by their houses. However, there is a luxury beach opened this year in Cuba. So, the citizens might get jobs there although summers in the Urals are very short.

As I went to Cuba in August, the beach was absolutely dead, so I walked around and took some photos of the locals. They were very friendly, by the way. I’ve never been to Cuba but I have a feeling that the atmosphere there is pretty much the same as in our Cuba. Ok, you can’t grow sugar cane here but look at those tomatoes!

Click here to see more photos with captions from the Green Island of local Cuba Libre 

9Aug/110

The oldest cemetery in Yekaterinburg

Many tourists, as I noticed, like visiting Russian cemeteries, apparently because they are so different from those in the West. Yekaterinburg is famous for two mafia cemeteries but there is also Ivanovskoye cemetery in the centre. The oldest cemetery in the city traces the history of Yekaterinburgers from rich merchants of 19th century to Gulag prisoners and the killers of the Romanovs.

Church of St, Iowan is the main church of Yekaterinburg

Ivanovskoye cemetery is hidden behind the blue church on Repina Street, 6A next to the city prison and opposite the Central Stadium. The Church of St. Iowan is the only one that worked in the Soviet Sverdlovsk. During the Second World War Stalin decided to ease restrictions on churches to appeal to people’s patriotism. So the church wasn’t destroyed but, of course, Father Nikolay, the priest of the church had to be on friendly terms with the KGB. Local merchants the Telegins built the church in 1846. The family was buried behind the church. These are the oldest tombstones here.

The cemetery is pretty much neglected. You can only walk along the main alley. The most prominent citizens were buried here in Stalin’s times. A few steps further to the bushes and you will see simple gravestones with Soviet stars – the graves of 1920s-30s. Some graves have just markers with names of the so-called ‘enemies of the USSR’, the victims of repressions.

A small square on the alley has a monument to local writer Bazhov. On the left side from it you will find a gravestone of Petor Ermakov – one of the murderers of the tsar’s family. He was the one who stabbed the children with his bayonet when they were still alive lying on the blood splattered floor of Ipatiev House. When the house became a Museum of Revolution, Ermakov did excursions there, telling people how he killed the Romanovs. No wonder that his gravestone is splashed with red paint now.

You can get to Ivanovskoye cemetery by trolley buses 3 and 17. They run past the main train station and Church on Blood. Get off at Central Stadium.

23Mar/110

Unfinished TV tower – a landmark of Yekaterinburg

Although the landmark of Yekaterinburg is supposed to be Church on Blood, built on the site of Tsar’s murder, there is another famous construction in the city - the unfinished TV tower, aka fun tower or suicide tower. It is now a symbol of Soviet Sverdlovsk.

Construction of the tower began in 1981. The plan was ambitious: to erect a monument of technological progress which would be the tallest TV tower in the Asian part of the Euro-Asian continent with a height of 440 meters, with a restaurant and a viewing platform. There were no technological reasons to build a tower like this but it was to make a statement like Ostankino TV tower in Moscow.

In 1991 the tower was only half-finished (220m) but with the collapse of the USSR the project came to a halt. The unprotected building site was discovered as an adventure playground by base jumpers from all over Europe. One could reach the top by the left over scaffolding inside the tower. Those days in 1990s the tower was called ‘a suicide tower’. Officially, three people died from accidents or suicide at the tower, but the citizens say there were more than twenty. Since that the building site has been closed and the unfinished tower has become an eyesore surrounded by the new shiny skyscrapers.

In the year 2005 when skyscrapers were being built in the center

 In 2007 the city government initiated an investor competition for the completion of the tower. The future investors were permitted to erect a cultural and entertainment center with hotel and conference rooms. But the economic crisis that began in 2008 made the European investors change their minds.

The future of the tower is uncertain. Meanwhile, the citizens got used to it and it's a good mark when looking for directions. As for me, I would be very upset if the tower was demolished. There is something symbolic, beautiful even about this grey unfinished construction that reminds me of Sverdlovsk, the city I was born in.    

     On March, 8th local base-jumper Ratmir parachuted from the tower and landed near the circus with flowers for his fiancée. He got the official permission to do this. Watch his video here: http://www.e1.ru/news/spool/news_id-345421-section_id-124.html

p.s. If you scroll this page down, at the very bottom of it you will see the top of the unfinished TV tower 😉

4Feb/110

Boris Yeltsin in marble

This week Yekaterinburg is celebrating the 80th anniversary of Boris Yeltsin’s birth. A big man from the Urals started his political career in Sverdlovsk, then was promoted to Moscow in 1985 and became the first president of Russia. Now his statue is the first monument since the Soviet era erected to a political leader.

The monument is made of 15 ton marble pieces. It’s 10 metres tall - Boris’s height was 1.87m., much taller than his followers Putin and Medvedev (1.70 and 1.62 respectively). No wonder, the monument was erected on the Street named after Yeltsin. In the Soviet times the central street used to be a neglected area with shabby barracks. It was thanks to Yeltsin that the ugly barracks were demolished and people were moved to the new apartment buildings. Yeltsin also ordered to build a Drama theatre on this street. In the future there will be a presidential centre on Yeltsin Street too with a library and a museum. The museum will have an exact replica of Yeltsin’s office in the Kremlin.

The building of the future presidential centre of B.Yeltsin

2011 is also the 20th anniversary of the failed coup arranged by the Communists in August 1991 when Yeltsin climbed up onto a tank outside the Russian parliament and called for a general strike. On 23 August Yeltsin banned the Communist party in Russia. The photo exhibition of those events is now held in the Museum of History in Yekaterinburg. The exhibition is called ‘Yeltsin – Yes!’

There are very different opinions in Russia of Yeltsin’s presidency. The 90s are remembered as years when few men became billionaires while pensioners lived in poverty. Gangsters and mafia controlled the cities, it was especially characteristic for Yeltsin’s home city Yekaterinburg. The president was famous for his drunken speeches. I heard a lady from Moscow saying on the radio about Yekaterinburg: “Everything is wrong in your city – you killed the Tsar and failed to raise a president.”

By the way, it was Yeltsin who ordered to demolish Ipatyev House – the place of the Tsar’s murder in 1978. Though later he would say the order arrived from the Kremlin and he couldn’t disobey. However, Boris always had a huge support in Yekaterinburg. 95% of the Yekaterinburgers supported him in 1991 and the recent celebration events show that most of the Ural citizens don’t have a grudge against him.

Another interesting exhibition took place on Lenin Avenue. Local contemporary artists erected a carton monument to letter E. It is the most important letter for the city as both Yekaterinburg and Yeltsin start with ‘E’ in Russian. The citizens could bring the photos of the prominent people whose names start with E. The photos were then glued to the monument.

21Dec/100

The most popular Russian drink

Yekaterinburg Museum of Local Folklore on Lenina 69 opened new exhibition dedicated to the most popular drink in Russia. On a cold December day when it’s -30 outside this drink keeps you warm and the drink is chai (tea). You could have thought it would be vodka. Well, vodka is certainly the most famous Russian brand but as for popularity here’s simple statistics: I haven’t got vodka at home (I’ve got a bottle of tequila, yes, but no vodka), my brother has only some beer in the fridge, my neighbors don’t drink alcohol at all. But I bet you’ll find at least two or three sorts of tea in every Russian home!

'Merchant's wife drinking tea' by B. Kustodiev, 1923

Tea came from China that is why the Russian name of the drink was derived from cha – a common pronunciation in Northern China. Chai traveled via Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Tobolsk and Tyumen finally to the Ural town of Irbit (204 km from Yekaterinburg). The annual Irbit Winter Fair was the second largest in Russia with fur and tea brought from Siberia and Asia. It took a year and a half to deliver tea to the Ural Region on camels’ and horses’ backs then by ships. Here in the Urals tea would be packaged in finely decorated boxes and sent further to Moskovia Region. Ministry of Tourism of Sverdlovskaya oblast is now developing a new route: Great Tea Road, which will be a good opportunity to visit some off the beaten track places in the Urals and Siberia.

The symbol of the Russian tea ceremony is a big iron samovar. The whole family would gather around a hot shining samovar in winter, thus a samovar in Russia played a similar role as a fireplace in the English houses. The Russians like it piping hot that’s why they would sip tea from saucers. Gold-rimmed saucers cool down tea very quickly. Russian noblemen however found this way vulgar and inappropriate. They copied the English tea ceremonies and had their morning tea with cream.  

Samovar was invented by the Cossacks as a portable kettle during their exploration of in the Urals. Russian tea from samovar is accompanied by jam and baranki - ring-shaped dry biscuits

In the Soviet times tea was delivered mainly from India when Khrushchev made friends with Indira Ghandi. Tea industry was booming especially under dry law. Young people celebrated dry weddings drinking tea. But let’s not idealize those days – vodka was often poured to the boiled water in a tea cattle, disgusting but at least alcoholic.  

Before tea got to the Russian Empire people had brewed herbs and made zbiten. This traditional Russian drink is becoming more and more popular nowadays and you can find it in some cafes of Yekaterinburg or can make it yourself: for 1 big cup take 3 tbsp of honey,  3 tbsp of sugar, 2 bay leaves, 2 cloves, some ginger. Boil 10 min. Drink piping hot and -30 outside will not bother you anymore.

Note! If you want to tip a waiter in Russia, you leave na chai (it means small money for tea)

25Nov/100

Boris Yeltsin. How to become the president of Russia?

Among the notable citizens of Yekaterinburg Boris Yeltsin’s name is the first that leaps to mind. An engineering graduate of the Ural Technical University, he was a Communist leader of Sverdlovskaya oblast and later became the first President of Russian Federation. I believe it’s still too early to judge about the benefits and contributions that Yeltsin made or failed to make to the country. One thing for sure, he was quite a character. To give you an idea what kind of a personality he was, here’s a story that may be turned into an interesting road-movie one day.

As a student, Boris had a passion for traveling and decided to explore our huge country (it was the USSR back then) by train during summer holidays. If he’d been a foreigner, he would have gone by Trans-Siberian as many of you would. But Yeltsin was Russian and the Russians tend to go south. So here’s Yeltsin’s itinerary:  Sverdlovsk – Kazan – Moscow – Leningrad – Minsk – Kiev – Simferopol – Yalta – Novorossiysk – Sochi – Sukhumi - Batumi – Rostov-on-Don – Volgograd – Saratov – Kuybyshev – Chelyabinsk – Sverdlovsk. It’s quite a long trip, isn’t it? Now it’s interesting to mention that Boris didn’t have money to buy train tickets. In fact, a poor student had no money at all. So he traveled on the train roofs. As you can see, the Indian slumdog millionaire wasn’t the first to do it! His friend gave up and got off on the second day of the journey but Yeltsin didn’t. He visited all the places of his itinerary.   Of course, he was stopped by the police from time to time. Boris would explain that he was going to visit his sick babushka in Simferopol. When asked about the address of the babushka he always said – Lenin St, 5. The thing is, every town in the USSR had Lenin Street and obviously had # 5. So the police would buy his story. The future president wasn’t the one to travel on the roof. A gang of ex-cons made him play a card game where the looser was to be thrown from the running train. Fortunately, Yeltsin won although had to give the criminals his grandfather’s watch. Boris even managed to make good money somewhere in Ukraine: he helped an officer to get prepared for an exam in mathematics and nearly fell in love with the officer’s wife who was feeding the Ural student with Ukrainian borsch and pirozhki. Finally, Yeltsin returned back to Sverdlovsk. By that time he looked like homeless in worn out pants, straw hat with holes and dusty sandals. He was sunburnt, skinny, happy and full of stories. 

I wonder if somebody would dare to repeat his trip these days (on the roof, of course)? May be it’s the road that leads to the presidency…

Yeltsin never forgot about his roots. He visited Yekaterinburg frequently and always appeared at classmates’ reunion parties. Now the Ural Technical University bears the name of Boris Yeltsin, there is a museum of the first Russian president in Yekaterinburg and one of the central streets is named after him.

5Nov/100

Culinary adventures in the Soviet Urals

A new delicious exposition is opened now in the Museum of History of Yekaterinburg. It's called The Journey of Sverdlovsk Gourmet: culinary adventures in the Soviet Urals. The word gourmet sounded somewhat ironic in the Soviet times of food shortages. Still Soviet cafes and restaurants were interesting and exotic places in terms of ideology and red propaganda.

Factories in the Urals had no canteens until 1930s. Workers went home for a dinner break.      - A good communist must spend all his day working for Mother Russia! - the government said and established a new institution - a canteen where a worker spent 2 minutes of his working time instead of 2 hours. If you think it's impossible to finish a borsch, chicken Kiev and a glass of juice within 2 minutes, you'd better believe it. There was special person who timed you break. At the beginning the factory canteens in Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk those days) were very fancy. They had fountains and even libraries with endless volumes of Marx and Lenin works. After Nikita Khrushchev visited the Uralmash factory, all the canteens lost their glamorous touch - Khrushchev was very stingy with government money and despised luxury. Thus canteens were turned into regular fast food cafes in an American self-service manner with typically unfriendly Soviet service.

Dishes in a canteen neither looked nor smelled delicious but tasted good

Everyone who lived in the USSR remembers that Thursday was a fish day. Fish was cooked in all canteens, cafes and restaurants all over the country. This way the government tried to support and develop fish industry. Thursday was not randomly chosen. Factory workers who never opted for dieting  weren't at all happy about fish days and preferred more substantial meat. Thursday (and that was proved by a careful scientific anlysis) was the least irritating day for serving fish - one day until Friday and the weekend mood was already there.   

Caviar wasn't included into Thursday fish menue but it was easier to buy than today. At the moment Russia doesn't produce black caviar. Black caviar can only be bought from black market

Soviet children enjoyed visiting ice-cream cafes, again thanks to the USA. The first equipment for making ice-cream was bought by the Bolsheviks in America in 1932. Since that time the USSR has been the major ice-cream producer making 25 tons a day!

Ice-cream is tasty and healthy in summer and in winter! - the advertisment says

A restaurant was a dream place for many Soviet citizens. Ordinary people couldn't afford it, but once in a life time a relative of a high rank would invite you to a wedding or birthday celebration. Getting there you got into a different world. Yekaterinburg restaurants like Big Ural or Cosmos were known for a special Unsoviet atmosphere, i.e. no self-service, waitresses in shamelessly short skirts were ready to serve you, a music band could play your favourite song for 3 rubles, more than that some male customers paid a certain some of money to certain people and all of a sudden beautiful women came in and joined their table! 

The exhibition of culinary adventures to the Soviet past is opened until 3d April 2011. Every visitor gets a free icecream - the most popular and delicious plombir! The Museum of History of Yekaterinburg 0n Karla Libknekhta st. 26 open daily from 10:00 to 18:00 except Mondays.  

21Oct/100

Merkushino – the oldest village in the Urals

Merkushino village is the oldest settlement east of the Urals. It was a gateway to Siberia until 17th century. When the new Great Siberian road and later Trans-Siberian rail road were built, Merkushino was about to be forgotten. However, the village became a spiritual place to Orthodox believers thanks to St. Simeon. A man of a noble descent who called himself Simeon came to Merkushino as a pilgrim. He spent his life there praying in summer and making shubas (fur coats) for the villagers in winter. For his righteous life, Simeon was lifted to the status of a saint.

St. Simeon was buried in the Verkhotursky monastery (50 km from Merkushino). After the Revolution the Bolsheviks brought the remains of St. Simeon to Yekaterinburg and displayed them in Ipatiev house - the place where the Romanovs had been killed served as Anti-religious Museum of Revolutionary Revenge.

St. Simeon is now a patron saint of the Urals. His coffin was returned to the monastery. After the collaps of the USSR Merkushino village has become a center of Orthodox pilgrimage. It's one of 12 most popular tours around the Urals 

1Oct/101

American Spy in the Urals

It looks like history is repeating itself. This year a few Russian spies were detected by CIA and exchanged for a couple of spies who had worked for the USA in Russian territories. The Russian failed spies, by the way, were heartily greeted by the authorities in their Motherland and the new Mata Hari - red-haired spy Anna Chapman is even starting a modelling career in Moscow.

This incident is not the first and I suspect not the last in the history of Russian-American espionage. The Ural region with numerous nuclear factories has always been largely involved. It's not that we are told about everything but one incident that happened in 1960 is well known and remembered by the senior citizens of Yekaterinburg (those days it was Sverdlovsk). On May 1 - Labour Day in the USSR there was an annual parade of the Soviet workers on the main city square. The Communist leaders received the workers' salutes from the granite tribune next to the monument of Lenin. It was a bright sunny day that's why the citizens spotted two white clouds that suddenly appeared in the clear sky.

S-75 missile in the Military History Museum in Yekaterinburg

That was CIA's U-2 aircraft on a mission piloted by Francis Gary Powers. Powers was able to take high-resolution photos of the military sites. U-2 had been invulnerable to Soviet anti-aircraft weapons for good four years causing the KGB's considerable dismay until in 1960 Russian S-75 missile hit the aircraft over Sverdlovsk. The American aircraft wasn't the only one hit by the missile that morning. The Russians also brought down their own MIG-19 jet that had been sent to intercept the U-2. The Soviet pilot Sergey Safronov crashed his plane in the woods and died. Colonel Powers was lucky. He parachuted to the field and was greeted by the local villagers. The villagers were happy to see the survived pilot in the first place but because the pilot didn't speak Russian (a big mistake for a spy) they sent him straight to the KGB.

Soviet intelligence couldn't be happier: the brought down U-2 turned out to be intact. For some reasons Francis Powers didn't activate the aircraft self-destruct mechanism and didn't have time to destroy the camera and films. Besides the KGB was able to extensively interrogate the American spy of a high rank who was actually expected to have taken a CIA suicide pin but he didn't. Powers was sentenced to three years of imprisonment in Moscow and seven years of hard labour in Gulag. Once again he was lucky - in 1961 Powers was exchanged for Soviet KGB colonel Rudolf Abel. 

A Soviet 1968 spy film Dead Season features a scene of that exchange on Glienicke Bridge in Berlin. Power's biography also became an American television movie in 1976: Francis Gary Powers: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident   

The story is not finished yet. In 2010 the released CIA documents revealed that the US Government never believed in Power's account and thought the story had been cooked by the Russians. Garry Powers Jr, who visited Lubyanka quarters in Moscow on May 1, 2010, said that it had taken the US Government 50 years to set the record straight about his father and the record still has kinks in it.