A Journey through Putin’s Russia Part 3
For the next stage of our trip we took another train to Yekaterinburg for about 24 hours in second class where we had to share a compartment with an elderly couple Konstantin and Galia on their way to the oil town of Nizhnevartovsk for a wedding.
They shared with us their food for journey including a version of the meat pasties we’d been told were a Tatar delicacy in Kazan, we offered our cheese and salami in return which Galia turned her nose up at, but Konstantin an Athletic fifty something semi retired oil engineer who’d only recently taken up smoking, would happily sip our Vodka when he thought his wife wasn’t looking.
Yekaterinburg is the bustling capital city of the Urals region and was the site of the murder by Bolshevik revolutionaries of Tsar Nicholas and his family in 1918 and in the 1990’s suffered from open Mafia warfare on it’s streets, resulting in thousands of deaths, evidence of which can be seen in Shirokorechenskoye cemetery with it’s Gangsters row of gaudy marble mausoleums. We were greeted on the train platform by our next translator and driver duo, Sacha ,our translator , attractive and well connected with an easy going personality and Valery, our driver, a bit of a player from Moscow, who liked to drive as fast as possible whenever he could and had a rather comical Hip Hop dialtone on his mobile.
It had begun to get very cold at this point around -7 degrees , at least for an Englishmen anyway, and one of my Canon Cameras, ironically the pro version , had begun to malfunction after short bouts of being outdoors and I had to revert to using one camera for outdoor work, which was frustrating and meant having to change lenses all the time.
First stop was a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts founded by a state Duma offical with alleged dubious mafia connections, Yevgeny Roizman.
Here we were introduced to the enormous Sergei “Boxer” Kolesnichenko, director of the “Clinic of the Yekaterinburg City without Drugs”, who’s arms were almost as big as my waist. He gave us a tour of the facility, policed by musclemen in their twenties, who mostly claimed to be former “sportsmen”, a euphemism for a members of a particular Mafia “Grupperovka” in the nineties called Uralmash , named after the factory suburb of the city it came from.
Inside a caged room up to fifty men were handcuffed to their bunks, a technique used for the first 27 days of their stay, which is often an involuntary one.
Picked up off the streets by a team of heavies usually led by Boxer , and often at the behest of their friends and relatives, these inmates are meant to take part in a clean up programme which should last the best part of a year . Roizman’s organization’s other focus is on the clamp down on drug dealers in the city, although some critics argue that only non Russian dealers are targeted.
We stopped off in a hip restaurant for lunch in the centre of town, with modern trendy dÃ©cor and “Back to Mine” style lounge music playing in the background.
The food was great, some of the best we’d had in Russia so far, not counting the CafÃ© Pushkin in Moscow, and gave our taste-buds a welcome break from the otherwise dull food we’d had so far.
That evening the old Communists were out in force, all of around two hundred of them, mostly pensioners, to celebrate the “Day of the Great October Revolution” once a public holiday, but now disregarded by the new regime, and renamed “National Unity day” and moved to November 4.
They marched down the main Lenin Street, as all main streets in Russian cities are called, and finished at the Lenin statue where they sung old songs, listened to speeches and reminisced about the good old days. Although the die hards of the Communist Party are now frowned upon in Putin’s Russia , not all of it’s hero’s and personalities are.
In recent years Putin has tried to rehabilitate the Stalin’s tainted image which was swept under the carpet by his successor Nikita Krushchev, and now four decades later the tyrant who managed to murder at least 20 million of his own people is now making a comeback and becoming a symbol of the days when Russia was a superpower. Now some of the crimes committed during his time in office are being glossed over once again.
A good case of this revisionism was close by to the next city on our visit, Perm in the Urals.
About an hours drive from the city is the infamous labour camp Perm-36 which was a labour camp for Political prisoners from 1946 until it’s closure 1988. It is now a museum and memorial to those that suffered political repression under the Soviet regime. Under new guidelines set down by the Kremlin in an advisory book for teachers not only is Stalin’s role as a dictator revised but also that of the Gulags, being painted as an unpleasant necessity for Russia’s security and advancement.
We met a teacher with her class from a local a school who were on a tour of the facility who felt that it was important for her students to learn about the horrors of the past and intended to continue bringing children there, she wasn’t aware of the new guidelines from Moscow.
I find it hard to believe that someone as evil as Stalin, who killed far more people than even Hitler could manage, could anyway be rehabilitated into society, but apparently he has a 55 percent approval rating from Russians in a recent poll. What can explain such a phenomenon? Have the Russian’s suffered so much in history that they can’t even differentiate good from evil anymore, or are they simply willing to bury their heads in the sand as long as they have a steady salary and food on the table.
Perhaps this explains Putin’s own extraordinary popularity in Russia, when asked in recent polls the incumbent President Is voted by the people as the “Russia’s Greatest Leader since the Revolution” and Stalin second. Hopefully I’ll build a better understanding of the Russian psyche during this journey.
Next Tyumen and Omsk.