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Saturday, May 29, 2010

From the Death of the Czar to Stalin’s Bunker by Bill Altaffer, Mammoth Lakes, California©

In our continuing quest to visit every oblast (region) of Russia, our group of seven arrived in Moscow by various flights from every direction within the continental United States. We spent one night in Moscow, then flew on to Ekaterinburg where we would be joined by Paul Schwartz, our MIR tour manager, and would begin our adventure in earnest.

Overweight Scam?

As an experienced group leader, I felt prepared to deal with overweight charges at any airport. In Swaziland 25 years ago, I had done a group check-in. When boarding the plane, I was given a $250 bill for overweight baggage. At the time, knowing that the bags had already been loaded on the plane, I said that my group would gladly pay their dues, but that we would have to weigh each bag individually to fairly determine each person’s bill. This was more than the Swaziland officials wanted to deal with. I stood my ground and they blinked, telling me to “Just get on the plane.” Thus, as I checked the group in at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport for our flight to the Urals, I presented all our passports and tickets at once to expedite the process. After sending our bags off on the conveyor belt, the airline representative, a stern, no-nonsense woman, led us over to the overweight counter to pay a hefty fee. Remembering my experience in Swaziland, I raised my shoulders in “ignorance,” explaining to her that each person would have to pay his or her own charges. Plainly irate, she left us to wait there, and for the next half hour, we could see her, apparently running around in circles, striding purposefully here and there through the terminal. Eventually, she gathered us up and took us where no passenger has been before: the restricted baggage area. As we approached the huge pile of luggage on our cart and the baggage handler began to pull bags off, I knew my bluff had been called. We hauled our luggage back to the check-in counter for individual weighings, only to find that the only bag actually overweight was mine, by only one kilo and apparently not worth a charge. Suddenly all the bags were rapidly re-tagged without a word of explanation or apology and we were sent off without a return to the overweight counter. It had been an ordeal, but we had held our ground and won!

Ekaterinberg is clean, modern and full of life. It is most known as the place where the last czar, Nicholas II, and his family were imprisoned and executed by the Bolsheviks, but is also the city where Boris Yeltsin began his political career. As with most Russian cities, it has many monuments and statues. The most dramatic and moving of these is the Black Tulip, a bronze of an exhausted, traumatized soldier sitting on the ground holding his gun. It captures the frustration, suffering and hopelessness suffered by the troops sent to Afghanistan in the last years of Soviet power. Just west of the city, we visited the monument on the border of Asia and Europe, straddling the line so that we stood on both continents simultaneously. Worth seeing was the Church of the Blood, built over the spot where the Romanoff family had been executed in July, 1918. We also visited the monastery complex standing on the site of the mineshaft where their bodies had been burned and dumped. The site contains seven beautiful chapels constructed of logs in the traditional Russian style, each representing one royal family member. The area is famous for its mineral wealth. We enjoyed seeing the 2,000-plus minerals on exhibit in the Urals Mineralogical Museum, including alexandrite, which had been discovered there and named for Czar Alexander II.

For the next few days, we covered about 1,500 miles, traveling in a comfortable Mercedes van. We developed a real appreciation for a territory rarely visited by outsiders. Most of the cities we visited had been closed to foreigners until the Soviet breakup. Our first day, our drive to Tyumen took us by the field where Gary Powers had landed after his U2 was shot down during the Cold War. Soon after, we passed a large concrete monument marking our arrival into Siberia. Tyumen is a prosperous city, the capital of the Tyumen Oblast, which contains more than 90% of the country’s oil and gas. It is also the oldest Russian city in Siberia. Our afternoon was spent on a city tour. That night, we had the first of our visits to a family home for dinner. It was one of the highlights of our trip. The entire family spoke English to some degree. Besides providing a delicious dinner, they had prepared entertainment and games for us. Their warm hospitality and sincere interest in us made for an unforgettable evening.

The next morning, we drove to the tiny village of Pokrovskoye to visit the Rasputin Museum. Rasputin’s home was torn down long ago, but the museum, in an old log cabin, recreates it and contains many of the Mad Monk’s personal belongings. Other items of interest were a book on Rasputin edited by Saddam Hussein and numerous commercial items, from soap to beer, branded with the Rasputin name. A Rasputin look-alike made an appearance, posing for photos with the men of our group as they sat in Rasputin’s “Viagra chair.”

After, we continued our drive to Kurgan, notable because it is not mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide book. It is one of the oldest settlements in Siberia, founded in 1553, and has a pre-Scythian history. It is a stop on the Trans-Siberian Rail Road and had been a key city in the Soviet scientific and industrial communities. As was the case everywhere except Moscow, the only English TV channel available in our hotel was BBC News. In Kurgan, we were surprised to find a hard-core, unrestricted X-rated channel available on our TVs. The next morning, we took a city tour which included a very nice, informative museum, concluding our visit with lunch.

During the afternoon, we drove through the countryside to our next stop, Chelyabinsk, a large industrial city on the eastern slope of the Ural Mountains. Since it had begun as a stop on the Silk Road, its symbol is the camel. It was the home of the Soviet Katyusha rockets and T-34 tanks during WWII, earning it the nickname “Tankograd.” As in all the cities we visited, traffic was extremely heavy, the current affluence of the society reflected in the numbers of new, luxury cars packing the streets, including Hummer stretch limos. This city, as most we visited, boasted international ethnic restaurants and modern malls with up-scale shopping. Prices seemed to be comparable to what we would pay at home.

After a full day in Chelyabinsk, we took an overnight train on a spur of the Trans-Siberian Rail Road to Ufa, crossing the Urals back into Europe. We occupied a new, very comfortable, first-class car, arriving early in the morning. Ufa is the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan and is a major industrial center. It was founded in 1574 by Ivan the Terrible, but had been occupied by Turkic-speaking Bashkirs and Tatars before that. Currently, of the million people living there, 36% are Russian, 30% Bashkir and 24% Tatar. Here we saw the first of many mosques we would see in the following days. We enjoyed our tour of the city, experiencing our first light snowfall and clean, invigorating air.

Our drive the next day was another highlight for most of us. Crossing the midlands of Russia, we were impressed by its vastness as well as the richness of its farmland. For most of the morning, we went through breathtaking scenery. This area has extensive oil deposits, and thus we saw countless “nodding donkey” pump jacks in fields, working continuously but not detracting from the beauty of the countryside. More eye-catching were the many thick forests, their trees in the fullness of fall colors, vibrant yellows interspersed with oranges and reds. We noted many signs indicating that the forests were protected and urging care for the animals and the environment. Where the trees had been cleared for farming, the soil was black and rich. Our drive was a continuous panorama of brilliantly painted trees and fields, interspersed with lovely, colorful villages characterized by their old Russian wooden architecture and minarets, the “lighthouses” of mosques. The houses were brightly painted in vivid colors, most commonly mustard yellow, burnt orange and green, with shutters and intricately carved trim painted royal or sky blue. Each village felt timeless, as if it had existed quaintly forever, a little treasure nestled in the rolling hills of this very beautiful region.

After a night in Naberezhnye Chelny, the second largest city in Tatarstan, we proceeded to Kazan, the capital of the region and another city with a very old history. It is the farthest point west that Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde conquered. Ivan the Terrible defeated the Mongol Tatars there in 1552 and built a beautiful cathedral that is now the oldest building in the Kazan Kremlin (fortress), a UNESCO site. Both Russian Orthodox Christians and Muslims have lived together peacefully in Kazan for over 500 years. It is now a vibrant, prosperous city. Students at Kazan University gather under a statue of a young Lenin in a location called “the frying pan,” where they wait to hear their test results. Pushkin and Tolstoy were among those who failed exams there. Our evening meal in a family home was another highlight. These home visits, where we met and interacted with average citizens, provided insight into Russian home life far beyond what we could experience in our casual encounters with hotel and restaurant personnel as well as vivid memories to be cherished for years to come.

The following day, we boarded the MS Sholokhov for a pleasant six-day cruise down the lower Volga River. The cruise took us to five Russian cities and through beautiful countryside. Between the cities, the banks of the river were often covered with forests in the fullness of their fall colors. Fishermen in small boats contributed to the idyllic, peaceful scenery. Up to this point, the weather had been overcast and cold. Once on the river, an Indian Summer gave us warm, sunny days. Our first stop was in the mid-sized city of Ulyanovosk, the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin. His childhood home is now a museum. It was obvious from its many rooms and furnishings that his had been a wealthy family. The following day, we toured Samara, another prosperous city and home of the Samara car and many other manufactured goods. Stylish boutiques line the main shopping street. This is the city where Lenin practiced his entire, unsuccessful law career, chiefly notable because he never won a case. It is also the home of Zhigulovskoe Beer, a chocolate factory, and boasts Russia’s oldest permanent circus. We took an optional, fascinating tour to Stalin’s secret bunker, only discovered in 1990. He never occupied it and there is no evidence that he even visited it, but we felt it was well worth seeing. It descends 35 meters underground and would have been his refuge if necessary. That evening, as the sun set and we continued our cruise down the Volga, we were treated to a piano concert of classics played by a prize-winning pianist, a fitting ending for another fulfilling, pleasant day.

Our next stop was Saratov, another city founded originally as a fort by Ivan the Terrible in 1590. Yuri Gagarin had studied there and his capsule had landed in a nearby field after he made history as the first man in outer space. The following day was spent in Volgograd, our first Hero City and formerly Stalingrad, the site of the turning point of WWII. Hitler had lost no major battles before his defeat there and won none thereafter. The battle virtually destroyed the city, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. Not surprisingly, the city commemorates this battle with innumerable statues and monuments. The War is not something from the distant past here, but a presence and memory that still touch its citizen’s lives. We visited the Mamaev Kurgan, a dominant view overlooking the city. Defense of this hill exacted extremely high casualties from the Soviets. Even today, fragments of bone can still be discovered on the site. At its summit is an enormous, dramatic statue of the Motherland with upheld sword. When it was built in 1967, it was the largest free-standing sculpture in the world and must be seen to be appreciated. Below it, built into the hill, is a rotunda where a giant hand holds a torch with an eternal flame guarded by somber soldiers. Later we visited another must-see location, the city’s war museum, where the reality of war and its devastation were portrayed. Our group was quiet and subdued after our city tour due to the seriousness of the sites we had visited. Our local guide had lived through the battle. Her simple words, without any drama, self-pity or rancor, made a huge impact on us. We felt a tremendous gratitude that we have never had to deal with such a thing on our own soil. As is so often true with travel, what we experienced that day gave us a renewed appreciation for our own lives, our own country and the times we live in. Our impression was that, in spite of the modernity seen in its many trendy shops and restaurants, the entire city of Volgograd is a poignant memorial to the War and the countless lives lost as it raged.

After a day cruising down the river, we arrived at Astrakhan, the center of the chess board where the Great Game (the Anglo-Russo “war” for control of the Orient) was played out. From this base, Russia launched many expeditions into the Caucuses and beyond. Tamerlane burned the city in 1395 and it was conquered by Ivan the Terrible in 1556. We saw many centuries-old buildings during our city tour, including the beautiful Ascension Cathedral, built in the early 1700s, in Astrakhan’s kremlin. In the afternoon, we drove out of the city to a hunting and fishing camp where the Volga splits into many smaller branches to form its delta on the Caspian Sea. We loaded into three small fishing boats and spent the next two hours speeding to the Sea and back. The banks on either side were brilliant with fall colors. We saw huge stands of lotus, no longer in bloom, and many birds, including gulls and groups of white swans. After returning to the fishing camp, we were treated to an incredible feast to cap another highlight of our trip. The following day, we flew back to Moscow before returning home.

All the cities we visited contained a pleasant mixture of old and new. Very old buildings housed new internet cafes. Signs in English competed with those in Cyrillic Russian. On park benches, elderly Babushkas bundled in scarves, heavy cloth coats and thick socks watched as myriads of fashionable young women in spike heels, tight jeans and trendy jackets hastened by. How much longer these cities will keep their old charm is anyone’s guess. As we saw, bustling traffic and cell phones were everywhere. McDonalds and Baskin-Robbins were only two of the American franchises that have become common. Twenty-four-hour, modern grocery stores were also abundant. Modern freeways and luxury car dealerships have sprouted up like mushrooms. To all appearances, capitalism is alive and well in Russia, and it has dramatically improved the standard of living of the average citizen.

I had planned our itinerary in conjunction with MIR Corporation in Seattle, who had made all the arrangements. As usual, they did an outstanding job with our accommodations, local guides, family visits, sites, and restaurants. The trip was a perfect mix of history, architecture, scenery, culture, people, activities and leisure time. Paul (in our opinion the best tour manager ever) took excellent care of each of us and our individual needs while helping us experience Russia and the Russian people in a way that few Americans ever do. Many travelers take the Trans-Siberian Rail Road from Moscow to Vladivostok and think that they “know” Russia. Perhaps they do, in the same superficial way that a person would “know” the USA after taking the Amtrak from San Francisco to Chicago. What a difference it made when we visited little-known cities, drove through the vast, beautiful countryside and had meals in people’s homes. We are grateful to MIR and Paul for helping us to experience more of Russia and its people in such a meaningful, memorable way and look forward to the next time we travel with them.©

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