I'm leaving Ekatrinburg, Russia bound for Moscow on a genuine Aeroflot airplane--these aircraft have to be 30-35 years old and my enduring impression is that they don't exactly inspire confidence. There are numerous bondo patches on the side of the airplane (inside and out) and the whole plane screams and vibrates as it's taking off. Beside our airplane as we boarded was a Ural Airways jet that had no tail (it had fallen off probably during a botched refueling, and lay on the ground, where it fell).
So, at a relative loss for the best course of action to follow...run across the tarmac back to the passenger terminal (and certainly be arrested), or board and hope for the best, I choose the latter and say a quick prayer for us to land safely in Moscow.
So, a quick missive about Ekatrinaburg, known in Soviet times as Sverdlovsk...it's a two hour flight from Moscow on the east side of the Ural mountain range--often referred to as the "Window to Asia." Honestly, looking around, I felt like I was back in Sarajevo. Stepping off the airplane, we saw a fresh bed of snow on the ground and felt a blast of cold air that we Americans weren't fully prepared for. On the drive into the city we passed by a cedar forest that lined the highway, along with a host of unfinished construction projects. As Russia's third most populous city, Ekat is also the industrial center of the country, so it's sort of the Russian Pittsburgh. We toured the "Ural Mash" factory just outside the city--a big steel-iron parts factory...and a fascinating study in inefficiency-- but you can't help but admire the tenacity of the workers and their assembly-line approach to metallurgy: massive cast-iron parts for cranes and nuclear power plants are constructed from ingot to finished form on site! The floor is paved not with concrete, but with cast iron tiles. 75 ton pieces of iron pass held with steel noose cables routinely over our unhelmeted heads, and I asked the factory manager about their safet record--it's surprisingly good: one fatality last year and 18 "minor" injuries. All of the crane operators are women and all of the other workers appear to be men. Their monthly wage of workers in the factory is $400 ($2000 for "very highly skilled" workers).
We also toured the site where Tsar Nicholas and his family were executed under the order of Lenin and Sverdlov. Recently the city of Ekat placed a huge Russian Othodox cathedral on the site and called it the "Church on the Blood." Walking through the cathedral with the blown-up photos of Tsar Nicholas and his family, and the full, graphic description of how their execution was carried out, you can't help but be reminded in very stark terms of the brutality of the Bolshevik rule.
Seeing this, it doesn't take long to see that the whole city stands as an odd contradiction unto itself: as the destroyed cathedrals are rebuilt, the memorials to Lenin and the rest of his Bolshevik comrades remain, as do the main streets that still bear their names. On these same streets and avenues too are the memorials to the Romanovs, who have since been canonized by the Russian Orthodox church. Inside the Church on the Blood, people light candles, kiss icons of the Tsar and his family with great reverence and even on occasion, tears.
The roads are muddy during the winter and Spring, which we're told is preferable to the pervasive dust in the summer months. Sharing the roadways, you have a full mix of '70's and '80's vintage Ladas and Skodas with new, high-end Audis, Mercedes and Hummers. Our translator, Nikitaa, tells us that she has a home-based business teaching English, which has great potential because it avoids "the mafia...the self-important boys who are usually unhappy if you occupy their space." Just outside town there is a cemetary filled with the graves of the Russian mafioso--crowded with life-size headstones with photo-realistic engravings of men in black leather jackets, cigarettes hanging from their lips...some smiling, some scowling. Most of these men, we're told, died during the Yeltsin years when the mafia dominated Ekatrinaburg.
The place has a "looking glass" feel to it, and I've been told by folks who live here that they're still in the midst of a pretty significant identity crisis. In fact, it has all of the outward signs of an East European city in a pretty severe midlife crisis.
Tomorrow evening we're off to St. Petersburg in the overnight (sleeper) train...