Friday, 14 August 2015

Yekaterinburg gangster cemetery

It is hard to imagine the chaos that ensued with the end of the Soviet Union. To rapidly move a centralised economy into the free market without proper regulatory controls in place and a population who were used to being told what to do by the government was asking for trouble. It explains, in part, what did and is still happening in Russia.

Following on from my last post, I am once again, in Yekaterinburg. This city endured a violent gangland war during the 1990s and 2000s. A group calling itself the Uralmash gang, after a district around the Uralmash heavy machinery factory, fought vicious internal wars and also clashed with the rival Central Gang.

So numerous were the casualties that many gang members found themselves in graves, most notably in the Shirokorechenskoe Cemetery. Here they still strut in their leather jackets on elaborate tombstones, their girlfriends sometimes nearby.

 Things have settled down in Yekateringburg. The gangs appear to have realised that it was to their long-term advantage to develop a veneer of respectability via legitimate business, though there are still reports of racketeering.

Elaborate monuments. But, in the end, they are still just graves, and do their occupants no more good than a simple wooden cross would have done.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015


In English, Yekaterinburg is often also spelt Ekaterinburg. Written Екатеринбург in Russian, the E symbol in the Cyrillic alphabet is pronounced 'ye'. This, I think, is the reason for the alternate English spellings - some people transcribe the word as it looks, others as it sounds.

The Ural Mountains (which for the most part are more like rolling hills) mark the boundary between Europe and Asia. Yekaterinburg, being a few kilometres to the east of the Urals, is therefore just inside Asia and Siberia. Moscow is a mere 1800 kilometres to the west.

Yekaterinburg CBD viewed across Gorodskoy Lake. The lake is a dominant landscape feature in the city centre.
Vaynera Street. A pedestrian mall in the commercial centre of the city. I was quite surprised to find such a vibrant mall with its many quirky statues at the gateway to Siberia.
 The city was founded in 1723 and is now home to over 1 million people. The city centre is quite modern and prosperous. However, as usual with Russian towns and cities, you don't have to walk far to encounter broken pavement and shabby apartment blocks.

The Iset River cuts north-south across the city, widening at Gorodsky Lake pictured above. It could use some TLC
  The city is perhaps most infamous to the world outside Russia as the site of the execution of Tsar Nicholas and his family in 1918. The location is now marked by a memorial and cathderal. Russia being ever the land of extremes, the Romanovs have gone from being demonised under the Soviet government to canonised in more recent times (they became saints in 2000).

The Church of All Saints, which marks the spot where the Romanovs were executed.

There are statues and busts of Lenin here and there around Russia. He has fared better than Stalin, whose likeness is almost nowhere to be seen.

Cafe in the Urals at the border between Europe and Asia. I have no idea why a chicken has been chosen as the symbol of Europe. While a rooster is the unofficial national symbol of France, the English tend to see them as a symbol of dinner.
Right foot in Asia - left foot in Europe.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Komsomolskaya metro station

It is now seven months since we returned from Moscow. Sometimes, it feels long past. Yet, if I close my eyes, I can clearly see the route I regularly walked to Novosloboskaya metro station. There is the art shop, with its plaster sculpted heads in the display window; the battered little statue of a bumble bee lady near the playground; the Vietnamese restaurant; the weekend farmers market.

I recently discovered that it is possible to create tabs on my blog. That few blogs carry tabs is hardly surprising – it is not at all obvious how it is done. During the subsequent course of tidying and adding some tabs, it occurred to me that many places I had visited and photographed during the course of my stay in Moscow had not made it on to my blog. A reason to keep going just a little longer…

I never covered the grandest metro station of all - Komsomolskaya.

 There could have been few positive things to be said about living under a tyrant like Stalin. Perhaps one is that when he said, ‘build a really grand metro station’, a really grand metro station was built – or else. In Australia, there would be long debate; endless expensive feasibility studies; a close scrutiny of how many coins were in the bottom of the public fiscal purse; and then we might get something that resembled a tiled public toilet.

Komsomolskaya lies beneath a major transport hub. Above ground is a huge open space surrounding which are several large railway stations, from one of which runs the line to St Petersburg. Nearby is one of the Stalin buildings – the Leningradskaya hotel. So it is a busy station. Try not to visit at peak hour.

A yellow wedding cake of a station, some countries would love to have an opera house as ornate as this subterranean train platform. Completed in 1952, it features mosaics from major conflicts in Russia’s history. From one end of the station, a bust of Lenin still watches...

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Zhivopsny Bridge

With just a few days before we head home to Australia and much to do, this really will be my final post on this blog. 

I have given much thought about how to finish. 

It would be easy to end with a commentary about the deterioration in the relationship of my own country (and many others) with Russia over the past three years. However, not all Russians are comfortable with what is going on. When MH17 was shot down, flowers appeared at the gate of the Australian embassy with a note of apology. When one speaks to Russians as individuals, some reveal disquiet and fear about the isolation of Russia resulting from current antagonistic foreign policies. As someone said to me the other day, many ordinary Russians don’t want this, they just want to be left in peace. 

A Moscow playground. Sting asked in his Cold War song 'Russians' whether the Russians love their children too? They certainly do. Let's hope some of the adults can behave a little less like sulky children.
So I have decided to end with just an ordinary post.

Rummaging through my photographs, I find there is an interesting structure I haven’t covered – the Zhivopsny Bridge. This striking bright red arch in the north west of Moscow is visible in the distance from several locations in the city, but was not mentioned in any guidebooks. So I had to hunt it down on Google Earth. 

Getting to it requires taking the metro on the purple line to Shukinskaya, then a number 23 or 28 tram south to the tram terminus, followed by a 10 minute walk west. A bit off the beaten track, so if you are a short stay day tourist you might want to content yourself with just looking at the photographs, unless you happen to be a bridge enthusiast.

Wikipedia provides a little information. Opened in 2007, it is the highest cable-stayed bridge in Europe. The structure suspended from the top of the arch is not an alien spacecraft that crashed into the bridge, but was to have been a restaurant. The restaurant was never opened to due fire safety concerns and a lack of interested investment. The bridge crosses the Moscow River at quite an acute angle to minimise its impact on the protected forest park of Serebryany Bar Island.

And with that, I will wind up this blog.

Wendy and I are moving to Melbourne, her home city. This will be a new experience for me. Sydney, where I grew up and have spent much of my life, has had a good-natured rivalry with her southern sister almost since the day Melbourne was founded by John Batman in 1835 (I kid you not – Batman founded Melbourne!). I will be blogging my impressions of Melbourne, hopefully without too much Sydney bias. You can find a link on this page.

The place - a large bay in southern Australia. The year - 1835

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Unity Day

Today (4 November) is a public holiday in Moscow – Unity Day. 

Most people also took yesterday off, which means the city has been pretty quiet, as many people take advantage of the four day break to head out to their dachas (a house with a plot of land). Moscow is surrounded by numerous villages of dachas – in Australia we might call them weekenders – and it sometimes seems that almost everyone has one. Most Friday afternoons the roads are clogged worse than usual as people drive out to their dacha to do some gardening, painting, relaxing and whatever else one does in such places.

We had coffee first thing today and then did some shopping. I was surprised at just how quiet it was, even allowing for the dacha exodus. Returning to Mayakovskaya metro station I found out why – there were many thousands of people in Tverskaya Ulitsa with Russian flags and bunches of red, blue and white balloons celebrating Unity Day.

After taking a few photos I was motivated to find out what Unity Day is about. What I write next is plagiarised straight out of Wikipedia. I, at least, admit this – there have been revelations recently about members of the Russian Duma (parliament) who have engaged in fraud and plagiarism to obtain university degrees.

 Unity Day commemorates a popular uprising which expelled Polish invaders from Moscow in 1612. It is called Unity Day because all classes of society, from tsar to serf, united in the effort. During the Bolshevik years the day was replaced with a commemoration of the Russian Revolution. In 2005 the traditional holiday was reinstated. This did not make those remaining Communists in Russia very happy.

Age shall not weary them. A small group of diehard communists gather regularly in Plochad Revolutsi (Revolution Square) near the statue of Karl Marx
  Apparently only about 4% of Russians know what the holiday actually commemorates. I won’t be too critical of that though. I have spoken to Australians who don’t know who the first governor of Australia was (come on guys – he came out with the First Fleet – rhymes with fill up) and watched a You Tube video of Americans unaware of what the DC stands for in Washington DC (and it’s not Dodgy Congressmen). There are people everywhere who don’t make much of an effort.

For the younger generation, the hammer and sickle adorned red flag seems to be a thing of the past

Entrance to Tverskaya metro station. Bad day to catch a train.
The ever security conscious Russians (the word on the jackets is 'police')

OK, I know I'm getting a bit long in the tooth and young people keep looking younger with the passing years, but aren't these guys a bit short to be in the army

Map of a part of Ukraine known as Crimea painted up with the colours of the Russian flag and being carried by a guy dressed up as a Russian bear. I find it ironic that a day commemorating the expulsion of invaders from Russia is being used to celebrate the invasion of a neighbouring country by Russia. I confess Russian foreign policy completely baffles me - their actions over the past 12 months may have poisoned relations with Ukraine for decades, if not longer.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Crocus City & Old Arbat

As I have picked up my pen again, and with less than 5 weeks to go before we return to Australia, I am inclined now to write a few posts about places of interest in Moscow that I had intended to cover earlier.

An inch of snow settled on Saturday. It is -4 degrees C and snowing again today. And still only October. Returning to an Australian summer next month is sounding pretty good. 

First, though, some people have asked whether anything has changed for us here with the sanctions and other Ukraine related goings-on. Short answer – no. 

The supermarkets are still well-stocked, though the produce is, understandably, oriented to Russian tastes, which don’t always align with ours. Muscovites have, for example, a preference for root vegetables and red meat - it has not always been easy to find green, leafy vegetables. 

There has been no overt hostility to us as English-speakers and nobody has singled us out for targeted rudeness. 

So, from an expat’s day-to-day perspective, I wouldn’t have realised there were any sanctions in place had I not known from watching the news and seeing the rouble’s exchange rate steadily drop on the ubiquitous neon signs around the city.

One of the numerous currency exchange signs found around the city. Given the rouble has dropped almost 25% of its value against other major currencies over the past few months, I am surprised they remain so brightly lit.
In fact, an observer could be forgiven for becoming a tad confused about Russia's economy. I took the Metro out to the Crocus City Mall today ( see earlier post dated 21 July 2012) and was surprised to find this very fashionable mall has been massively extended. Included in the new section are a skating rink themed on New York's Rockefeller Centre and an indoor 'Times Square'. Someone's obviously got some $ (sorry, roubles) and for a nation always squabbling with the USA, more than a few Muscovites seem to retain a fascination with things American.
'Rockefeller Centre' in Moscow. New indoor skating rink at Crocus City

Moscow's indoor 'Times Square'. Crocus City.
 On to the topic of the post - Old Arbat features in every tourist guide book about Moscow. It is possibly the most famous street in Moscow and was once inhabited by the nouveau riche, nobility and various bohemian and artistic folk. Wonderful buildings. It is now a long pedestrian mall a couple of kilometres to the west of the Kremlin. 

Part of Old Arbat
 However, as a tourist magnet, Old Arbat has become a long strip of expensive souvenir shops, cafes and stalls. It is also often over-crowded in good weather. Which doesn’t mean it’s still not worth visiting – but if time is an issue I would instead recommend a stroll around the beautiful pedestrian streets closer to Red Square – such as Kuznyetskiy Most, Nikolskaya Ulitsa and Kamergersky Pereulok. The architecture in these is just as stunning – if not more so.

Arbat busker - no rap dancers here, thank you.
Street artists abound

Poster and book stall next to a handy toilet. These particular pay toilets have sprung up all over the city recently. Men more typically seem to use the outside of the structure to avoid the expanse of opening the door.