Siberia: The Exile Trail

Czar-ville
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
July 29 2003 2:32 PM

Siberia: The Exile Trail

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Today's slide show: Images from Yekaterinburg.

The entrance to the new Church on Spilled Blood
The entrance to the new Church on Spilled Blood

"You're going to Yekaterinburg?" Leonid asked, when we awoke the next morning. "Why?"

"Turizm," I answered. My compartment-mates discussed this among themselves, and the gist seemed to be that there wasn't a whole lot of touring to be done in Yekaterinburg. It was as though they'd come to America and asked to be taken directly to Detroit. During World War II, Stalin had moved much of Russia's heavy industry here, just across the Ural Mountains, out of German reach. Now much of it was rusting. The town was trapped in the familiar postindustrial death spiral.

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But I hadn't come for the industrial archeology. Just a few days earlier, a brand new cathedral had opened on the site of the house where Czar Nicholas and his family had been killed in July 1918. (A local party official named Boris Yeltsin had the house bulldozed in 1977.) Such luminaries as Mstislav Rostropovich had flown in for the opening of the Church on Spilled Blood. Seventy-five years after their deaths, the Romanovs are more popular than perhaps they ever were. Even my kupe-mates openly wished for a new czar—orderly oppression apparently being preferable to dog-eat-dog chaos. Yekaterinburg was playing host to a full-on clash of symbols, old-style communism versus an even older royalism, both battling for the future of new Russia.

Except perhaps for St. Petersburg, no Russian city is so closely identified with the czars—and their demise. In the early 1700s, Peter the Great had named it for his wife, Catherine (not Catherine the Great), and it was key to his own dreams of empire, as both a mining center and a major staging post for the Great Siberian Trakt, the imperial post road that Peter pushed east, linking Russia's new Siberian settlements to the motherland. The Trakt itself was impressive, being wide enough in some places for 10 coaches to pass, but the journey could take months. "I have become a martyr from head to toe," complained Anton Chekhov in 1890, while headed east to investigate the prisons of Sakhalin Island. Yet George Kennan found the post system far more efficient than our own fabled Pony Express. After the Trakt gave way to the railroad, Yekaterinburg remained the gateway to Siberia for opportunists and exiles alike.

I'd awoken in the night, perhaps because of a slowing of the train. As the cars swayed gently over a set of switches, I realized that most of the people who'd traveled this route, by Trakt or train, hadn't had a choice—and that many millions of them had traveled via packed cattle cars, caught up in the purges of the 1930s or 1940s or 1950s, bound for Kolyma or Magadan and never to return.

After the revolution, the Romanovs were kept in nearby Tobolsk while the Bolsheviks tried to decide their fate: exile or death. The civil war was raging across Siberia, and the royal family represented too powerful a symbol, not to mention a source of future czars-in-waiting. The man who planned their murders, Bolshie goon Jakov Sverdlov, had the town renamed in his honor. It had supposedly been changed back to Yekaterinburg after the old regime collapsed, but my train ticket still said "Sverdlovsk," and Jakov himself still stands bestride Ulitsa Lenina—Lenin Street—pointing at the ground, or into a mine shaft, which is where some Romanov bodies were dumped. Someone has splashed his groin with fluorescent green paint. Just a few blocks down the street, we find Vladimir Ilyich himself.

Most of the city of 1.5 million looks gripped by a particularly severe post-Soviet hangover. Not far from Lenin Street, I wander through a zone of concrete-slab apartment buildings, stained and filthy, like they'd been dipped in sewage and then used for artillery practice. Dull, depressed-looking residents slink along the broken sidewalks and dirt paths. Weeds are everywhere. The few old-style wooden houses in this neighborhood are collapsing, as if they've suffered one too many seismic historical shifts. (Speaking of history: The local historical museum is currently playing host to an exhibit of wax figures of Michael Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Marilyn Monroe, and Madonna—the last two tarted up in Russian-style eyeshadow. And, of course, the full Romanov family.)

The Gary Powers mural in Yekaterinburg train station
The Gary Powers mural in Yekaterinburg train station

In the next block, a few other wooden buildings have just been bulldozed to make way for a new commercial complex—the first sign of renewal I've seen. There are others: a block-long '60s-era building facade with the usual dirty windows turns out to conceal a gleaming, three-story shopping mall watched over by a flock of security guards. Even the train station is a gleaming marble palace, its soaring ceilings decorated with frescoes depicting key events in Sverdlovsk/Yekaterinburg's history, from the 1960 shoot-down of spy plane pilot Gary Powers (shown plummeting to Earth in flames) to the Romanov martyrdom: Trapped between the Bolshevik and White Russian armies of the Russian Civil War, the family ascends to heaven inside a column of white light.

With a couple hours to kill before my train, I wander back to the Church on Spilled Blood; it's easy to spot the brilliant golden domes, the freshly painted white brick walls. It's the cleanest, newest building in town. Next door stands an old wooden church that anti-royalists used to burn down on a regular basis, now closed. I wonder, for a moment, why there's no similar temple on Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

The line stretches out the door, and more Russians arrive every second, old women and 25-year-old men in Adidas jackets crossing themselves and bowing to the ground outside the door. As at most Russian churches, the entryway is patrolled by a squad of old women mumbling prayers and holding plastic cups. One in particular catches my attention, one eye bulging massively heavenward. I put a 5-ruble coin in her pocket. A little later, I add another.

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