Running off with the Romanovs in Ekaterinburg

Our short stay in Ekaterinburg exposed us to more contemporary Russian history (and its current repercussions), particularly the early communist years, than in any other place that we have visited so far.

Ekaterinburg is a city of 1.5 million people and is located at the foot of the Ural Mountain Range, with a big impact on history.  It is famous as the place where the Tsar and the rest of the Romanov family was executed in 1918, wiping out the Russian royal family.

Ekaterinburg is where US pilot Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane was shot down in 1962.  It is where Boris Yeltsin’s political career began.  For some reason, there is a proposal to rename the university after Yeltsin.  We learned that Kostya Tzu has recently enrolled as a student there, which would see a university named after a once drunk president attended by a once or twice punch-drunk boxer.

Ekaterinburg’s more recent claim to notoriety was its high-profile mafia killing spree in the 1990s.  Just like Melbourne really. No wonder that Tony Mokbel was for a while rumoured to be hiding out in the Urals.  (Our group has its own “Tony Boom Boom”, but that’s another story for another post.)

Ekaterinburg was established by Peter the Great in 1723 as a factory / fort city, and to exploit the Urals’ mineral wealth, and named after his wife Catherine. In the Soviet days, it was renamed Sverdlovsk after a Bolshevik who was very close to Lenin. It reverted to its original name more recently. It is a large industrial city with street after street of Soviet block apartments and commercial buildings, although not without its share of nicer old buildings.

Our full day tour started with Mariana, our guide, taking us to the river bank which was the site of the original fort. This area was heavily industrialised until around 30 or 40 years ago, when a more “human” public space was developed.  Some of the old factories have been converted into galleries or museums that show some examples of Soviet industry from the 1930s. Outside the old railway workshop are some examples of machinery – presses, rollers and stamping machines – all reminiscent of the days of heavy Russian engineering. We may have mentioned in an earlier post that virtually every Russian town has a derelict plant or factory of some sort. These were built as a part of the Soviet central planning scheme, but were never viable once the economy was opened up to competition. They remain as ruins and relics of a failed system. Nearby the workshops was another old building that once housed a mint. The river bank on the other side has been opened up as a park.  The centrepiece of this area is the dammed up river, which was to provide power for the factories.  The dam remains, and spills out a strong current downstream.  To finish the picture, the river flows towards an incomplete television tower that was commenced decades ago, but is now a concrete needle with no purpose other than being an easily recognisable landmark.

Ekaterinburg now places a strong focus on its history as the place where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were assassinated in 1918. We visited the Church of the Blood, a relatively new Russian Orthodox cathedral which stands next to the site of the house in which the royal family were executed. The house was pulled down long ago – strangely about the time as people began asking questions about the nature of the Tsar’s demise. The lower floor of the cathedral is dimly lit and acts as a memorial (shrine?) to the royal family. It contains a number of religious icons that are meant to have miraculous properties. The cathedral is in the upper level of the building. It has a very high ceiling and is ornate with decorations, icons and the usual style of a Russian Orthodox altar.

Before lunch, we moved on to see a small mineralogical museum. This area is strong in minerals, and the search for iron ore was one of the reasons for the city being founded here. An iron ore mine also played a part in the demise of the Romanovs. I found the displays very interesting, but David was significantly underwhelmed.

On the way to lunch, we drove past a number of military buildings, most of which had a number of static displays of equipment such as rocket launchers, tanks and artillery. We also passed the local university, a grand building with ornate pillars. An interesting place to stop was a large memorial to Russia’s involvement in the Afghanistan war and other Cold War era conflicts. For the Russians, this 1979 – 1989 war was like America’s involvement in Vietnam. It was very unpopular and there was no way out. The memorial was commissioned and deigned by the mothers of those who served. Its centrepiece is a moving bronze statue of a tired and dejected soldier slumped in a seated position and holding his rifle.  It was interesting to see the Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia conflicts listed on the memorial, notwithstanding denials of involvement at the time.

Just before lunch, we gained an insight into the style of operations of the Russian police. Our van driver broke a couple of traffic laws when entering the main square in front of the very ornate town hall building. He crossed double lines and used the wrong entrance. He was quickly pounced on by a couple of policemen parked in the square. We had already nicknamed our driver Fast Eddie, but he now gave us a lesson in quick thinking when dealing with the constabulary.  The interchange between them began with a thorough inspection of his licence and vehicle registration papers. Then a long discussion continued, which we could not understand. Mariana explained that for these offences, Eddie could lose his licence for the double transgression, and the long discussion was really a negotiation over the value of the fine. The policeman first suggested that the fine should be 1000 Roubles (A$ 50), but eventually decided that this would be be dropped if Eddie could provide his 10 seater mini-bus free of charge for transport at a friend’s wedding next Saturday. Done deal! We were wondering later whether the policeman might also have found some reason to fine a local patisserie so he could obtain a wedding cake.

Watching fast Eddie’s driving carefully so that he could avoid driving for other weddings and funerals this weekend,  we moved off to lunch at a buffet style restaurant in the middle of the city.

After lunch, we headed out of town to see a number of historic sites. Our first stop was to see the Ganina Yama monastery, which is located at the site of an old mine shaft in a pine forest outside the city. It was in this mine shaft that the Royal Family’s bodies were originally dumped after their execution. Seven churches have been constructed on this site using the same traditional method of construction as we saw at the museum of wooden architecture near Lake Baikal – one for each of the  executed Romanovs. There is a significant conflict between the beliefs of the church and the government as to the fate of the remains of the Romanov family. The official version, backed up with no less than DNA from the remains, is that the bodies were relocated from the mine shaft, after they floated to the surface, to a rough grave elsewhere in the forest and recently moved to a family vault in St Petersburg. The church holds the view that they were cremated at the mine site and their ashes spread around the immediate vicinity. Thus, it is regarded as sacred ground, and is quite a tranquil site.  One of the monks even had a chat to our guide to ensure that she provided us with the “correct” story and not say anything bad about the Romanovs.

It seems that the church is sensitive to the version it does not like.  The Romanovs are now regarded as martyrs, almost saints, and the monastery and churches there appeared to us to really be a shrines to the family members.  We’ll leave how this reverement sits against how the tsars once treated the population up to you.  

Here is the location of the monastery:

Current Location
map

From the monastery, we drove a short distance to another memorial in the forest to local people who were murdered in the Stalinist purges of 1937 & 1938. It is located at a place where construction workers found thousands of human bones. The resultant furore forced the government to open up the archives which showed that officially 18,000 people (and unofficially up to 25,000 people) had been shot and buried in a mass grave here. This rather sombre site now consists of wall after wall of the names and dates of birth / death of people whose crime was to hold a different opinion to the official party line.  The youngest age we found was only 16.

From here, it was on to our final spot for the afternoon (14 kms from Ekaterinburg) to the obelisk at the location of the border between Asia and Europe. The Ural mountains form the boundary between the two continents, and the boffins have worked out that the marker was along the top of the geographical watershed between the two. This is notwithstanding that the Urals are no more than gentle rolling hills near Ekaterinburg.

We all took the obligatory photos of us all with one foot in each continent, and Mariana presented us with a certificate for making the crossing. We toasted ourselves with a bottle of sweet Russian bubbly. Like lots of other people, we had all stood on either side of state borders and even country borders, but this was the first time that we had stepped from one continent to another.

During he afternoon, Mariana had asked if we wanted to stop at a supermarket to buy some food for our next day’s train trip. We thought that she was being very helpful and sensitive to our needs until we noticed that the time that she had written on our pre-prepared certificates was  5.30pm. This was the exact time that she presented them to us. The trip to the supermarket was a diversion to  ensure that we reached the obelisk at the right time. Smart lady!

At the end of the day, we had a delightful meal at the restaurant near the location of the old mint building and after a quick visit to an Internet caf�, it was time to go back to the hotel and pack for our 24 hour train trip to Moscow.   Although Fast Eddie was running late to pick us up, we got away, and are watching the weather clear.  It has been a bit cold for summer (maximum about 15 yesterday), and since we have heard that the rest of Europe is having a heat wave, we think Moscow might be a bit warmer.  We arrive at 9.00 in the morning.

By the way, the menu on this train says that that the “roats” is “an original combination of prunes and meat” which will “not leave you indifferent”!  Classic Russlish!  (Although it makes far more sense than our very poor Russia!)

One comment

  1. Bill & Dorothy · ·

    What a busy day you’ve had! Are you sleeping soundly on the rocking train? It is actually warmer here (daytime, 19 degrees and blue sky, for a few days only) than your expected temperature in Moscow. Looking forward to your muscovy (!) exploits. Enjoy!