Reaching Yekaterinburg, another surprise. Not only another modern city, but one with the tallest building outside Moscow, a 54 floor business tower surprisingly named after Vladimir Vysotsky – singer, poet and satirist (“Vodka is our enemy, let’s finish it off”). He was a rebellious and charismatic figure, often seen to discomfort the powerful, who died in mysterious circumstances, aged 42. There is a Vysotsky Museum on the third floor (and he was even quoted by Baryshnikov in his thriller film “White Nights”).
Certainly the “feel” of this city is quite different. The locals in conversation are happy to consider themselves “Eurasians” having the best of both sides of the continent. Rebellious “Ural Rock” music is highly fashionable. Some young people openly say there is no need to discuss a return to authoritarian Imperial rule as “we already have a Czar”. They mention the Pussy Riot incident at the Cathedral in Moscow but refer to it as Russian Performance Art. In contrast,the white cross marker for the murdered Czar Nicholas and his family has been replaced by the Church of the (Spilled) Blood. It makes an important and interesting focus for our city visit.
The original execution site, the Ignatiev house, was demolished under Soviet rule but the cellar has been faithfully reconstructed within the church. The patriarch of Moscow has a huge house nearby and many people speculate about the close links between the official church and the Kremlin. In any case, a cult is growing around the Romanoffs, who have been canonised. Czar Nicholas is presented as an ideal father and husband and many young people with children are joining the church in growing numbers. The Bible has become a mandatory subject in grade schools. All this is explained to us by locals as being part of the increased search for basic values as, according to them “Russian values today have become money and sex”.
Not far from the Church of the Blood, we noticed a poster advertising performances in one of the twenty city theatres, much patronised particularly during the long winter months.It was a production of “The Master and Margarita”, based on one of the great novels of the twentieth century by Mikhail Bulgakov, which was highly critical of a stifling bureaucratic society. Tickets were sold out.
Returning to the Golden Eagle, we exchange notes with fellow travellers who had gone to stand with a foot in each “continent”, the marker for the Europe/Asia border. They had been subjected to a good-humoured mock “passport check” followed by celebratory champagne.
There is further animated discussion on the train after another documentary film “Joseph Stalin; Red Terror” is shown. We recollect how our Moscow guides had illustrated Stalin’s despotic power with a story, maybe apocryphal, but credible to most, explaining the map of the Moscow metro lines. They mostly run north to south but in the middle is an absolute circle. Stalin insisted on approving all plans personally. When by chance he placed his coffee cup in the middle of the proposed map, it left a perfect circle. No one dared to even point this out, so there it remained and the circular metro line was built. During our debate, someone remembered that a recent Moscow television poll to determine public perception of Great Russians placed Stalin at number three, Tolstoy at number forty!
We go to the dining cars for the evening meal, but not before some enthusiasts ask for a 6.30am wake-up call, anxious not to miss anything as, already well into Siberia by then, the train was scheduled to make one of the short “in-between” maintenance stops at Omsk, Siberia’s second city and once a major place of exile.