Stage 27 – Russia: To The Urals
It was only in the twentieth century that the Urals, a chain of low and very ancient mountains running approximately 2500 kilometres from the Kara Sea in the Arctic to the steppes of northern Kazakhstan, became the most widely accepted convention used to define the notional boundary between Asia and Europe. As a result, these mostly unspectacular but soothingly beautiful mountains demarcate no great physical or cultural divide in the Eurasian continent, representing only a subtle transition to the great wilderness of Siberia. Up against the western flanks of the Urals however live a patchwork of non-Russian nations, descendants of the region’s aboriginal inhabitants, now assimilated to varying degrees into contemporary Russian society. This stage of the Odyssey would take me from the western frontiers of Russia through this chain of federal republics strung along the Upper Volga River, into the forested ridges and industrial cities of the South Urals and on to the edge of the Kazakh Steppe. As the long Russian winter finally eased its grip on the land, my 4500 kilometre eastward journey to the edge of Central Asia would complete a fascinating year spent travelling in and out of Russia.
It’s the 19th March 2011 as I enter Russia from Belarus with nothing more than a cursory check of my vehicle registration document from a traffic police officer. As if to confirm my re-entry into Russia the weather, which in Belarus had been showing signs of impending spring, reverts firmly back to winter with snow falling steadily as I drive through stands of mixed forest towards the city of Smolensk. Turning off the main M1 highway in the early evening, I stop in one grimly notorious patch of forest just outside the village of Katyn. Here, in 1940 the NKVD, predecessors of the KGB, murdered approximately 22,000 Poles, both army officers and civilians, in what became known as the Katyn Massacre. To compound this genocidal act, the Soviet authorities long blamed the Nazis, who came across the mass graves early in 1943.
After spending a cold night in the forest, I am the first to enter the memorial site in the morning. Here, beyond a small museum complex, amidst beautifully tranquil pines, walkways pass mass graves, marked by crosses and huge steel-plated memorials bearing the names of some of the deceased. It was not until 1990, following glasnost, that the USSR finally admitted their guilt in the massacre. Katyn represents not only a war crime, but is typical of the kind of official falsification of history which was routine in the USSR. In a country where people seldom reflect on the darker episodes of a brutal past and have been taught a history edited to fit both Marxism and Soviet propaganda, the Katyn Massacre is a rare example of the open revision of Soviet historiography.
A little later in the morning I arrive in Smolensk, which despite the cold, damp weather, I soon judge to be one of Russia’s lovelier cities. Smolensk is set amidst rolling hills astride a young Dnieper River and despite its strategic position on a logical route from central Europe, feels like a gently time-worn backwater. Walking north on Soviet Street, down towards the river through the falling snow, I have in front of me a scene which could be the subject of many a Russian watercolour. My eye is lead down a curve in the street, lined by bare trees and damp, pastel yellow nineteenth century buildings. Beyond the roofs of these lie first the rather plain Trinity Monastery and then the peppermint green of the exuberant, Renaissance-inspired Assumption Cathedral, unusually square in plan with three large porthole windows on each soaring slab-wall. This unusual piece of Russian church architecture took more than a century to complete and according to local legend, was spared harm during Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia, with the French Emperor threatening to personally kill any man who dared desecrate it.
As might be expected of a large and ancient city on the frontiers of a huge empire, Smolensk has a long history of invasion and destruction, having twice slipped beyond the frontiers of the Russian state. Nevertheless, as I walk downhill into one of the city’s small valleys, attractively dotted by dark brown timber houses with colourful wooden-framed windows, I am surprised to find a huge and magnificent sixteenth century kremlin (fortress) looming out of the falling snow on the opposite hill. It’s a beautiful structure with long red-brick walls and defensive towers of alternately square and round in plan, covered by steeply pitched wooden roofs; a real icon of Russian defensive architecture and a symbol of Russia’s western defences. The modern centre of Smolensk somewhat less remarkable, with tall and imposing Stalin-era city blocks, parks celebrating the important role of the ‘Hero City’ during the Second World War, and a grandiose philharmonic hall named after the composer Mikhail Glinka, the father of Russian classical music, who was a born in the city.
As charmed as I am by Smolensk however, I opt to leave in the afternoon, heading east towards Moscow – a city I have very little affection for – in order to visit the Embassy of Tajikistan the following morning. The thought of driving into the vast congested sprawl of Europe’s largest city leads me to stay instead in the satellite city of Podolsk, a rather dull industrial city which is separated from Moscow’s sprawl by just 500 metres of open land. I am hosted here by Katya, a student with impeccable English who lives with her parents in their self-built house, in a slightly unusual middle-class suburbia. My visit to the embassy annoyingly coincides with Nowruz celebrations in Tajikistan, meaning I have to wait several days to see the consul. I spend a day relaxing at home with Katya’s father who is a carpenter and seems grateful for some male company; together we drink beer and watch ‘White Sand of the Desert‘ a classic Soviet film of a chivalrous Red Army soldier set in the deserts of Central Asia during the Russian Civil War. It’s refreshingly free of Soviet propaganda, an innocent and timeless film seen by virtually every citizen of the Former USSR.
I make an excursion from Podolsk to the city of Tula, leaving the truck at Katya’s house and taking an elektrichka, (a short-distance intercity train). The train journey offers an interesting glimpse of Russian society. As we pull out of what are effectively suburbs of Moscow, the train is full of a rag-tag bunch of students (who run from one carriage to the next at each stop to avoid paying the fare), workers and all-sorts. Dark, gypsy-faced Tajiks from around Samarkand pace the train selling fruit; other hawkers sell clothes, toys and other low quality Chinese-made items. We roll through utterly bland, inconsequential satellite towns of Moscow Region, which become ever less prosperous looking. At some point, beyond reasonable commuting distance the towns break into the familiar, unending Russian countryside dotted by occasional damp, tumbledown villages which could be anywhere in the country. The train empties of students and commuters, leaving a crew mainly of drinkers; lone fishermen who board unsteadily at small, half-deserted stations along the line. Here is a peculiar type of Russian drifter; fairly clean-looking, if pallid of face, well spoken, conversing with his neighbour in a string of expletives known as mat (which is at one eloquently poetic and obscene) but whose frayed clothes reveal the underlying poverty and social decay which he represents.
Tula, 180 kilometres south of Moscow is somewhat less attractive than Smolensk. Despite an striking central kremlin housing the beautiful, gold-domed Assumption Cathedral, Tula’s centre feels rather sprawling and its proximity to the capital seems to have infected the city with a rash of unplanned, ugly modern buildings and an excess of advertising boards on every street. Like Smolensk, Tula was one of the Soviet Union’s twelve ‘Hero Cities’; and the heroics and hardware of the forty-five day siege in which the city held out in the winter of 1941, defending Moscow from the south, are remembered in a surprisingly modest Victory Park. Other parts of Tula are quite shabby; walking towards the city’s busy market I descend a street of decrepit wooden houses; a few appear to be well maintained, while others have been deliberately burnt by property developers – the fate of many wooden structures across Russia – in order to build modern houses and thus ruin the aesthetics of an entire street. I also come across the large, wooded All Saints Cemetery which is both a picture of decay and ruin, and an intriguing timeline of Russian history. Ornately carved eighteenth century tombstones sink slowly into the snowy ground; small nineteenth century obelisks lean gently, and twentieth century secular steel grave markers with red five-pointed stars slowly rust away. My favourite however is a memorial to soldiers of the Second World War; a brutal piece of Socialist-realism executed in coarse, rendered concrete which somehow manages to be quite delicately moving in its portrayal of an unknown, falling Red Army soldier.
Back in Moscow I manage to enter the consular section of the Tajikistan Embassy and join a truly unimaginable scrum of people all shouting and waving towards a counter at the far end of the room. Never have I seen such a crush of humanity; these are desperate migrant workers collecting documents in order to renew their residency in Russia; something they must do monthly in order to send back money earned in tough, menial jobs to their impoverished home country. I push through the crowd shouting ‘visa!’ and over the course of several minutes – at one point with a small boy clinging to my leg – I make it a few metres to a door where I am glad to be whisked into the calm of the back-offices. The visa process is a sham, and I end up bargaining with the consul as if I were buying an antique rug, arguing the price according to duration of stay and number of entries. I get a three month, double entry visa for 120 US Dollars, the consul puts the money in his pocket, and I walk out with a visa in my passport. Simple and efficient.
Long ago, before the massive Russian expansion into Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the embryonic Russia state expanded from its heartlands around Kyiv, Novgorod and later Moscow into territories populated by indigenous Finno-Ugric peoples and Turkic peoples who had themselves migrated fairly recently from the east and south. Today a multitude of federal republics exist along the upper Volga and around the Urals; ostensibly home to these various nations, some of whom are culturally and linguistically severely endangered.
Driving east from Podolsk, away from the orbit of Moscow, past the city of Ryazan which was the first to bear the thirteenth century invasion of the Mongols, I am in the Republic of Mordovia by early afternoon. I drive through a blizzard shortly after leaving the main M7 highway and turning north-east towards Saransk, the capital of the republic; it might be late March, but I am still within the depths of winter, which has lasted for around five months so far. I reach Saransk after dark, and am hosted by Stas and Larisa, a couple of young Russian journalists. Mordovia is named after the Mordvin people, a Finno-Ugric nation distantly related to Finns, Estonians and Hungarians. The Mordvins are split into two main groups (indeed the term ‘Mordvin’ may well be an exonym); the Moksha and the Erzya, and like all Finno-Ugric peoples in Russia, they have been heavily russified and are highly assimilated into contemporary Russian society. Although the Mordvins are quite numerous, their language is endangered and little-used by the urban population; their original animistic religion has been largely replaced by Orthodox Christianity and in dress and appearance they are not readily distinguishable from Russians. Indeed, there are no outward signs that Saransk is anything other than a small, if quite pleasant Russian city; only the striking late-Soviet Seat of Government building hints that this is the capital of an autonomous republic in anything more than name.
From Saransk I drive due east through a beautiful wintry landscape of gentle, low hills and patches of birch forest, until I reach the Volga in the city of Ulyanovsk. Established as Simbirsk, a fort during the eastern expansion of Russia in the seventeenth century, it was renamed after its most famous resident; Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. In Soviet times ‘Old Simbirsk’, which amounts to the area immediately around the house in which Lenin was supposedly born, was something of a pilgrimage site, but today its draw is very much diminished. Indeed, I’m surprised to find just a simple street of wooden houses rather than any of the heroic gigantism of which the Soviets were so fond. Aside from Old Simbirsk, Ulyanovsk is a slightly noxious industrial city, albeit with a certain gritty charm and a magnificent view over part of the Kuybishev Reservoir which turns the Volga into a huge expanse of frozen water, stretching in some directions to the horizon.
Driving north-west from Ulyanovsk, I cut across the inside of a large bend in the Volga to reach the city of Cheboksary, several hundred kilometres upstream. Cheboksary is the capital of the Republic of Chuvashia, and I am hosted in the city by Dimitry and his family, who are Chuvash. The Chuvash are of Turkic origin, thought to be descendants of the Volga Bulgars, ad-mixed with indigenous Finnic tribes. The Chuvash are spread widely across this Volga – Ural region and many cities here have their own separate names in the Chuvash language, which branched off long ago from the Turkic language family, is unintelligible to speakers of any other Turkic language, and is closely related only to extinct languages such as Bulgar or Khazar. Unlike the neighbouring Mordvins or Maris, the Chuvash are a majority in their titular republic, regularly use their own language (which is nevertheless considered endangered due to the dominance of Russian), and generally seem more culturally robust. Dimitry speaks to his mother and father in Chuvash, and tells me that there are villages not so far away where people speak only Chuvash, which I find reassuring in the face of centuries of russification efforts.
Cheboksary, named Shupashkar in Chuvash, was established as a Russian city in the mid-sixteenth century, on the site of what was most likely an earlier Bulgar settlement. Dimitry shows me around his native city which is attractively sited on the right bank of the Volga, here an endless white plain across which a few souls make the three kilometre hike from the opposite bank while large snow-clouds move in from the east. Unusually for a Turkic nation, the Chuvash are largely Orthodox Christian (with a minority following the traditional Chuvash animist religion) which results in a proliferation of churches in the city, especially in the now frozen Cheboksary Bay area, though all are purely Russian in style (and rite). While there is nothing in Cheboksary’s urban architecture which obviously distinguishes its non-Russian character, there is nevertheless at least something palpably vital about the Chuvash culture, lying somewhere between the near assimilation of the Mordvins, and the outright cultural assertiveness of the nearby Tatars.
Just east of Cheboksary I drive across the Volga and am immediately in the Mari El Republic. The Mari, together with the Mordvins, are the only surviving Volga Finns (other such as Murom, Merya and Meshchera are now extinct) and like the Mordvins are heavily assimilated. Driving north from the Volga I soon reach the capital Yoshkar-Ola, where I find, as in Saransk, no real sign of Mari language or culture. Indeed, the republic’s president, an ethnic Russian, has been implicated in the closing of Mari language newspapers and the repression of Mari leaders, rights groups and the traditional Mari religion.
I’m shown around Yoshkar-Ola by my Russian host Yulia and am bemused to find a rash of new buildings which remind me of the vulgar urban construction projects favoured by Central Asian dictators. The most striking of these is the mechanical clock on the outside of the National Art Gallery, a garishly coloured and incongruous piece of Venetian Gothic on the city’s central square. As the clock chimes the hour, the Virgin Mary appears in an upper door on the large, square clock-face. Piped choral music begins, and a donkey walks a semicircle with unbending legs from one lower door to another, with Mother and Child finally appearing in the opposite upper door. The whole display lasts over three minutes, during which I fail to conceal my laughter at its crassness. This rash of new development spreads along the banks of the Kokshaga River which runs through the city, and although this does give the capital of Mari El a certain distinctive character, it is in no way representative of Mari culture, reeking instead of being a pet project of the president (no doubt enriching certain of his cronies) which is of no use to the general populace of an economically stagnating region.
Perhaps however, I am being a little naive in expecting to find a series of truly federal republics of different nations living side-by-side. Indeed, what is really more impressive is the fact that these nations – and many others – are blended with the Slavic ancestry of Russians to create the very essence of the Russian nation, whose genome reflects the territorial growth of Russia over the last millennium and shows the true meaning of racial integration.
From Yoshkar-Ola I rejoin the Volga and make some real progress east, through the comparatively distinctive republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan; two Turkic nations descended from the Volga Bulgars, both of which have strongly preserved their language and individual cultures. Here Russia begins to change noticeably; mosques start to appear in the villages of colourful wooden houses, where dwellings are clustered around each other more haphazardly in closer communities, as in much of Asia. Physically, the gently undulating fields and woodlands of European Russia start very gradually to gather into ridges and, almost imperceptibly, I enter the ancient folds of the Urals. The M5 highway, Russia’s main road artery into Siberia narrows to single lanes and becomes choked with lorry traffic as it winds across the low, forested mountains, so as I enter Chelyabinsk Region, I turn off and continue on a series of backroads which wind through the small towns either side of the highway.
I make my way east stopping first in Asha, an iron mining city which is beautifully set below steep mountains, with tall outcrops of banded pink and grey limestones running to Minyar, along the Trans-Siberian mainline. Rejoining the highway briefly I pass above the town of Sim which spreads across the snowy landscape in rows of colourful low houses and is the birthplace of Igor Kurchatov, father of the Soviet atomic bomb. Soon after I turn south towards the highest peaks of the South Urals, topped by Mt. Yamantau which can be seen from the road’s end at Verkhny Katav, still completely covered in snow. Further east the land climbs into uplands and a rather indeterminate Europe – Asia border, through more mining and metal-working towns such as Yuryuzhan, Satka and Zlatoust, all established in the eighteenth century to take advantage of the abundant mineral riches of the Urals. The landscape alternates between quaintly colourful lake-side towns and grim, crumbling factories belching smoke from filthy towers into the beautiful landscape.
I stop in the city of Miass, a centre of copper and gold extraction, which is set amongst beautiful mountain scenery. The weather is well above zero and although the crystal-clear waters of Lake Turgoyak are still frozen, with ice fishermen sitting patiently next to their small holes, the surrounding hillsides are yellow with recently exposed grass, and the lakeside pines add some green to a landscape which for months has been a winter monochrome. With my host Sergey I walk up a steep hillside on the eastern side of Miass, through snow-filled forest and onto a broad ridge of basalt dotted with still-bare larch trees. To the east is lake-dotted Ilmen National Park, marking the beginning of Siberia and an inconceivably huge wilderness. To the west a succession of low ridges fade away into the afternoon sky, marking at some point the boundary between Asia and Europe. This quasi-continental divide is in reality, merely a political and cultural concept; a modern-day expression of an ancient Greek conceit. Here it seems faintly ludicrous to call this low and ancient mountain chain deep in the Eurasian continent a cultural boundary between west and east. None of this of course detracts from the beautiful views all around, with the warm air and slightly milky skies suggesting the onset of spring.
I leave the city heading south, past the Miass pond, on the frozen surface of which children are skating and playing ice hockey, backed by colourful, pitch-roofed wooden houses; a slightly timeless scene which might be a century-old oil painting. I cross the M5 one final time, leaving Siberia for a future trip and drive south on a series of small roads, keeping the Urals to to my right, weaving in and out of Bashkortostan. Large rain-bearing clouds sit just above the mountain peaks as I pick my way through Bashkir villages with beautiful wooden mosques, combining traditional Russian wooden architecture with simple octagonal minarets. I’m driving roughly along the Ural River, which here demarcates the Asia-Europe border all the way to its endpoint at the northern edge of the Caspian Sea.
More than 150 years after the Tsarist Russian government started to exploit the mineral riches of the South Urals on a large scale, the area saw a second wave of industrialisation during early Soviet times, boosted especially by both the demand for raw materials and the Nazi threat itself during the Second World War, which caused many industries from European Russia to be relocated here, well away from the front. My next stop is a perfect example of such development; the city of Magnitogorsk. Located on the Ural River, Magnitogorsk was established as part of a system of forts along the Russian frontier, but the potential riches of nearby Magnitnaya mountain were soon realised, and ore extraction began in 1739. Later, Magnitogorsk became the industrial showpiece of Stalin’s five-year plans of the 1930s, which brought in experts from the US and Germany to make up for a lack of local knowledge in building the gargantuan Magnitogorsk Iron And Steel Works, until Stalin’s paranoia grew to the extent that the city was declared ‘closed’, and foreigners expelled in 1937. Today, despite the exhaustion of ore reserves in Magnitnaya Mountain, the metal works occupies the entire left bank of the Ural as it flow through the city; a hideous panorama of smokestacks belching multifarious colours of noxious fumes, so grim as to be quite morbidly attractive. The huge Tyl Frontu monument, consisting of two metal workers holding aloft an enormous sword occupies a promontory over the river from where the metal works may best be viewed and stands in remembrance of the efforts made by workers behind the front line, particularly important for the supply of Red Army tanks.
Metallurgy in the Urals is far from being a modern activity, and out in the sparsely populated steppe where the Urals, the Eastern European Plain and the Kazakh Steppe all come together, a series of archaeological sites of the Sintashta Culture show that metal production was prolific here in the Bronze Age. Far more interesting however are the similarities between burial practices observed by archaeologists here and those described in the Rig Veda, the oldest Indian religious text (in fact the world’s oldest religious text). It is therefore hypothesised that the Sintashtans were speakers of Proto-Indo-Aryan (which may itself have been influenced in part by local Finno-Ugric languages), and may have been a stepping-stone on the migration of the Indo-Aryans from the Lower Volga region to the Indian Subcontinent and Mesopotamia. The best preserved Sintashta site yet discovered is Arkaim, around 150 kilometres south-east of Magnitogorsk. Leaving the Ural River, I drive out into the steppe; that endless expanse of rolling grassland which I find so comforting, past forgotten small towns and villages to reach Arkaim, only to find the area flooded, and the site itself inaccessible. Nevertheless, climbing a nearby ridge I get a good view over the site. It’s truly fascinating to think that these people, from this barren and forgotten area, may have gone on to seed one of the world’s great civilisations, pre-cursors also to many of the cultures through which I have travelled for the past four years.
I make a final crossing of the South Urals, heading east from Magnitogorsk through the Bashkir towns of Abzakovo and Beloretsk, where low cloud boils over the mountains, then through beautiful forest-covered hills, where bare, wispy birch trees grow amongst occasional green sprigs of pine, revealing the snow on the forest floor. After several hours of this glorious scenery, I emerge in farmland just south of Ufa and turn south, passing through the industrial cities of Sterlitamak, Salavat and Kumertau. As I progress southwards, the snow-cover recedes and I enter the yellowish steppe, leaving behind both the winter and the mountains.
My last stop in Russia before entering Kazakhstan is Orenburg. Rather whimsically, the name of this city had long been in my mind and for no other reason I was keen to visit. Orenburg was in fact the name of several settlements initially named after the Or River. The first became the city of Orsk, around 250 kilometres to the east; the second was destroyed, and the current Orenburg is in fact the third incarnation of the city. Established as a frontier fort for Imperial Russia’s expansion into Central Asia, Orenburg lies off the country’s main road and rail conduits, out on the fringes of the windswept Kazakh steppe, though its gas industry and large student population neutralise any forlorn or frontier atmosphere that one might anticipate.
The highlight of my stay in Orenburg is my host Ruslan, a local with whom I immediately strike a lasting friendship. We sit smoking and drinking tea in his kitchen, then go to explore the city, walking down Orenburg’s elegant, tree-lined main boulevard to the Ural River, which is marked on either side by ceremonial posts labelled ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’. The river is in flood, its surface a huge, glacier-like mass of broken ice and fallen trees, something Ruslan says he has never seen before. Sadly, the famous Orenburg Fortress, from which many of Russia’s expeditions into Central Asia were mounted is long-gone, though there are many charmingly shabby backstreets still to explore. After having another smoke in the ruins of a Tsarist-era electrical supply building, we are driven to Gagarin Park where we happen upon a huge fireworks display to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first man being launched into space, one of the greatest achievements of the Soviet Union. Although Gagarin hailed from Smolensk region, it was here that he spent much of his time training as an air force pilot. The colours are especially vivid, and I feel it’s a fitting celebratory end to my year spent in and out of Russia.
After two very enjoyable, mellow days with Ruslan I have to say farewell to both him, and to Russia. My year-long visa, obtained in Tehran last year has come to an end, and I must finish this ninth trip into Russia which I have made with it. I drive south, past the town of Sol-Iletsk, home to Russia’s infamous Black Dolphin Prison, then turn south east to the border at Sagarchin. Despite a year of travel, I’m sad to be leaving Russia – the north and far east of this country are still unknown to me – but for now I am heading south, into the vast steppe of Kazakhstan, and a summer in Central Asia.