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Published: July 27th 2013
Crossing the Urals
For the next stage of my journey I had a second driver, Andrey, and we covered the 600 kilometres to Chelyabinsk without any problems. It is a great geographical myth that the Ural mountains are high, or really even mountains at all. Perhaps there’s a feeling that Russia is so impressive in other dimensions that these famous mountains ought to be big, or that there should be a suitably dramatic barrier between Europe and Modor. The highest point (Mount Narodnaya, 1894m) is in the far north of Russia, and the Urals are in the middle of a big continent, furthering their appearance as gentle hills. All the same, the appearance of some inclines contrasted the plains of the Volga region.
In May I attended the wedding of Ilya and Nadia, some of my closest friends in Russia. Nadia comes from Chelyabinsk and her mother, who I’d met a couple of times in St. Petersburg, invited me to visit her. I have great respect for Elena Yurievna, a kind and intelligent doctor who runs her own clinic.
Elena put me up in a friend’s flat; she also assigned another friend, Sergei, to show me around. Although I’m not fond of
Under construction: Elena, some friends and the house they're building together
stereotypes, I can say that Sergei is a wonderful example of a certain type of middle-aged Russian man. Wearing NHS framed glasses, he seemed to know something about everything, from chess to computers and medicine to music. And he talked a lot, recounting fascinating experiences and interesting facts. His Russian was hard for me to follow, and I kept losing the thread of his colourful anecdotes and stories until I realized that often there was no thread. He told me about how he played chess against Kasparov, how his university friends were arrested by the KGB and about fishing on the Volga (‘of course, we were drunk’). He quoted a lot of songs and poems, so that he would unexpectedly break out into rhyming verse. At one absurd moment he started reciting a poem called ‘A fly, my fly’. Sergei was generous with his word and actions, although we never made it to the ‘100 grammes’ that he proposed. A problem I find with such Russian characters is that their generosity isn’t linked to sensitivity: they give open-heartedly, but irrespective of whether it’s wanted. Sergei works as a doctor of health medicine and insisted on giving me a year’s supply
Chelyabinsk tractor factory
of turmeric to take daily, explaining how it cures everything from cancer to sore throats, but not interested in the fact that I have neither cancer nor a sore throat. Likewise we spent an hour or so kindly getting me a free extra SIM card for my phone, irrespective of the fact I didn’t need one.
Chelyabinsk is the Glasgow of Russia: merchant wealth and industry made the city famous in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and now the city is adapting to a new era. While the centre is modernising and has a pedestrian zone, some of the outlying areas are famously poor and ugly. Russians make fun of people from Chelyabinsk for their crudeness and aggression, but city is cosmopolitan and varied.
Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, many places and streets in Russia have reverted to their pre-revolutionary names. The inconsistent nature of this process leads to some absurd combinations: St. Petersburg is still located in Leningrad province and in Chelyabinsk Sverdlovskiy Prospekt leads to Yekaterinburg. Actually, Chelyabinsk seems to be lagging behind this somewhat fashionable trend of re-naming and the city resounds with famous communists. I stayed just off Sonya Krivaya
Street (a Bolshevik revolutionary who died during the Civil War at the age of 25). Nearby are streets named after all the familiar heroes: Engels, Marx, Lenin, Krupskaya, Kirov, Blucher, Gorky and so on. Alongside these are the Orwellian sounding Проспект победы
(‘Prospect of Victory’), Улица труда
(‘Labour Street’), Улица первого пятилетнего
(‘First 5 year plan Street’) Улица танкистов
(‘Tank drivers’ street‘) and the improbable Улица энтузиастов
(‘Street of enthusiasts’).
I couldn’t pass through Chelyabinsk without having a look at the famous tractor factory, founded in 1933 and since then having produced over a million tractors. Eschewing the museum, I took a walk on the edge of town, enjoying the brutal aesthetic of heavy industry in decline (for me another attraction of this country).
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