Thursday, September 13, 2018

A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma - Part 2

A Journey from Moscow to Vladivostok via the Trans-Siberian Railroad - Part 2

Day 6 – Thursday, 7/26/18 08:13. UTC: Thursday 7/26/18 03:13.
58.00706 56.2487
By my reckoning: Thursday, 7/26/18 08:13.

We have crossed the boundaries of two time zones. We're starting to get out of Moscow's gravitational field. Out here we should see the real Russia. Flyover Russia, er, Trainover Russia. Perm is a smaller, poorer city. It was not one of the World Cup cities. So there were no scanners to walk through at the train station.

After breakfast we met our guide, Natalia. We loaded into our van and off we went. Natalia said we were on Perm's main street, which was named...? Lenin St. of course. We stopped at a monument, of sorts. A man with big ears. Perm was a mining town. Salt was one of the things they mined, and the Stroganoff family owned all of it. They pumped up salt water and evaporated it. Then carried it in big sacks to the port for export. On the way salt would get on their ears, which made them large and red.

Kalashnikov had a factory here. Now there are some universities but no more mining or industry. Yeltsin had ordered them all filled in. They were no longer profitable.

The city, of about 1,000,000, has a vibrant theater and ballet culture. One thing they're famous for is the Fat Ballet. The dancers are all over 200 kg. About 40 of them. They all come on stage together and the audience laughs. Then they start dancing. Soon the audience is enraptured. They become absolutely silent, their faces following the dancers like sunflowers following the sun. Russians love their ballet.

They are building a road from Perm to Siberia. There is the train but no road. Soon there will be. Prisoners were sometimes made to walk from St. Petersburg to Siberia, a trip that took two years for some and never for many.

Someone brought up Putin and Politics. Natalia said she was firmly in the President's Kremlin whereas Yevgeny was not. He thinks that with Putin there's no choice. He feels that Putin did a lot of good at first, but not so much now. He's had enough of Putin and would like to see something different. He did admit that things were bad and that Putin has done a lot of good for Russia. And most people love him. Natalia thinks it might be a generational thing. Those who remember Brezhnev, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin, the older generation, tend to like Putin. Those who have no memory of the dark days think different. This is natural and happens everywhere. The young forget, the old regret.

And I got some dirt on Tsar Vladimir. He's supposed to be the richest man on earth, which he denies. He's had affairs and has a love child with a young gymnast and maybe other lovers. Tabloid stuff. I asked if there was a lot of criticism of Putin. They said, yes. Under the Soviet Union there was only one media outlet, Pravda. Now there are lots of programs out there and political debate is robust. One show always has someone on who is an advocate for the American position, no matter how ludicrous. He is routinely reviled, like Russian expert Stephen F. Cohen is over here, though Cohen is never allowed on the American Pravda. They don't know why the Russian equivalent keeps doing it, except for the money. Or shock value, I suppose. Russia had their Rush’s and Alex Jones’. Just like every other penny ante republic.

On our way back we stopped at a roadside stand and bought wild, fresh picked strawberries. They were a bit sour, but good. Our driver got stopped for not having his seat belt on. He received a fine of three American dollars!

Then we got to the ice caves. Truly amazing. The rock is gypsum and there are a lot of underground streams, so it erodes erratically. Sometimes tubes slowly eat their way up from a great depth. When they reach the surface they open a yawning sink hole in the ground, possibly under your feet!

We went from 30+ degrees to -5 entering the caves. The ice grows and recedes throughout the year. There is an underground lake that some people have gone swimming in it. The water is crystal clear and cold.

Karl Marx Street.

Lenin Street

Peace Street. Mir is Peace in Russian. It also
means the whole world.
After lunch we headed back to Perm. Dennis and Michelle had lost their luggage. They took the same route from DC to Moscow as I did, but later then me. Moscow airport had some flooding in tunnels and 2000 people were without their luggage. We went out so they could buy some stuff. More people here didn't speak English, so they used a translate app. People were very friendly and helpful. A woman in an optics store offered Dennis 40% off on some sunglasses. She spoke English and was extremely nice and helpful.

In a grocery store we picked up a few things. We both got some vodka. For about 400 rubles you can get a half liter of a decent quality vodka. I got one called Russian Select and Denis got one called Kalashnikov. Gotta love it. We figure the state must subsidize it. Bread and circus. Or vodka and football.

On the way back to the hotel we walked through a park. It was like a carnival with rides and animals and little tacky gift shops, musicians singing on the streets and metal trees especially designed so people could pledge their love by placing pad locks on it like in Paris.

Tonight we check out at 21:30 and ride the train to Ekaterinburg, arriving at 3:30. Dennis and I traded a few shots. Straight up!

Strip joint next door. Or so they tell me.

Our tour bus.

Completely meaningless tourist attraction. AKA Long 59E. Lat 59N

Ah, the Kungurokaya…Lbdyanaya…Oh, forget it. The Kungar Ice Caves.

35 degrees outside. 5 below inside.

Underground, albeit cold, river.

Father Frost.
One or two hundred rubles, I think.

A park in Ekaterinburg.

Teatre Opera y Baleta… Zoopark…Teatre
Kukal… Galarea Kovremenora Eskusva. A
Theater. A zoo. A puppet museum. And an art

This stadium was built for the world cup. The
Romaneaque façade was from an original
Soveit era arena which they meticulously
What should we say about Vladimir the Terrible? Putin is a tsar, but a tsar for the 21st century. He has to answer to the Duma, courtesy of Nicholas II. There is a robust media which routinely criticizes him. The cities I visited so far have been clean and safe, the people friendly and helpful. Are they repressed? Somewhat. Not in the drag off to the Gulag type, but there are certain expectations on what you can say or do. It would make an American uncomfortable and some people resent it, but again, generational differences made it either repressive or a breath of fresh air. Giving up liberty for a little security? Maybe. On the one hand it's bureaucratic. On the other hand it's liberating. It depends on how much you want. Anarchy? Regiment? Or just Russia? Franklin for thought.

Sunset 9:00PM. Sunrise 3:30AM.

Vocabulary word for the day: привет Priv-YET Hi.

Day 6 - Addendum

When we first got to the hotel a couple went out exploring. They found bars and stores open, people coming out of the bars, and general activity. Yevgeny said Thursday night is gay night. I don't know if that's all over Russia or just here. The custom had to come from some place. No, gays are not hunted down by wolves driven by bears bearing Kalashnikov's and hammers and sickles! They are for the most part left alone, except by Russia's version of our assholes. Just like here. Yes, Russia has some draconian anti-gay laws in some republics. So have we in some of our states. Perhaps we should clean up our own act before being the conscience of Russia, hmmm?

Window dressing. Downtown Ekaterinburg.
While talking to our guides yesterday about politics, the Church came up. I asked if the Church had a lot of power. Yes. And it's growing. Putin is a Christian and goes to church on Sundays. Now. Is the Church gaining power because of Putin or does Putin have power because of the Church? Good question. The Church has been gaining power since the fall of the Soviet Union, so it's probably a little of both.

Russians have a reputation for being cold or distant. But they will readily talk to strangers about their personal lives. Don't ask a Russian how he is unless you've got all day. Russians don't go to psychiatrists. They just go find someone they've never seen before and will never see again to unburden themselves. People they bump into, taxi cab drivers, you name it.

So I've got an idea. Let's do the math. Say you're having a general bad day. That could take a 50 ruble taxi drive. Basically you get in, say you hate life, and get out. Your kids are misbehaving, 100 rubles. You had a fight with your spouse, 2-4 hundred. A close relative died, 500. Kids are becoming juvenile delinquents, 1000. Elderly parents are getting on your case for not joining their political party/Church/bridge club, 2000. You are under investigation by the FSU, 5000. All of the above, 10,000. You're still ahead of the deal.

Think Blue Cross will cover it?

Day 7 – Friday, 7/27/18 12:02. UTC: Friday, 7/27/18 07:02.
56.83695 60.61808
By my reckoning: Friday, 7/27/18 12:02.

We got into Ekaterinburg around 3:00 this morning. Off to our hotel and straight to bed. I got up in time to grab breakfast and then went for a walk before we were scheduled to leave at 2:00PM. I need to get a watch band. The area around the hotel is in a pretty built up area without a lot to see. Up the street I saw an electric trolley without any track to run on. It used overhead wires for power and it ran on tires like any other vehicle. How clever. If you want to extend a line all you need to do is hang some more wires and you're good to go!

Ekaterinburg is Russia's third or fourth largest city, in competition with Novosibirsk at about 1.5 million each. It is Russia's industrial and mining center. There is metal here, some of which was used in the Eiffel Tower and some in the Statue of Liberty. And it's the mayonnaise capital of the world, should that interest you. Personally, I’m a sour cream man, myself. Borsch, and all, you know.

Pushkin, the Russian Shakespeare, lived here. Every Russian school child memorizes Pushkin and can recite it. Chris asked Yevgeny to recite something so he recited the first verse of one of Pushkin's poems. He said it's difficult to translate.

We had a very nice lunch of salad, fish soup, and a kind of pork stew that was very good. Speaking of food, on a visit to the US Nikita Khrushchev discovered corn. He liked it and ordered the farm collectives to grow it. At first people didn't know what to make of this grain on a broom handle, but they got used to it. After the fall of the Soviet Union all the state subsidies dried up and the farm collectives or 'Soviets' were no longer profitable. Well, they were never profitable but they were at least viable. Now wheat is grown north and south of Moscow. And there is a kitchen garden on everybody's front lawn. Everyone owns a dacha (pronounced gotcha! but with a short a instead of the ‘o.’) out in the country with a kitchen garden for their own use and for market. Plus people forage and hunt. You make due.

By the way, the other day was Dennis' birthday. When we got off the train, our driver had a present for him. A half-liter bottle of vodka! Michelle didn't arrange it, so I, at least, don't know who did! That was a very sweet gesture.

Yevgeny said during Soviet times there were only so many nationalities you could choose from for your passport. Russian, primarily. But there were the other republics, such as Tatar, Kazhak, etc. Now you can put down anything you want. So they have passports for Hobbits, Jedi, Morlocks, anything you want. Here's a factoid for you. Only 18% of Russians have passports for travel outside of Russia. So only 18% have had contact with the outside world. They are curious about us more than anything else. Yevgeny said he watches CNN. I said, I'm sorry. But how many Americans watch Russian news shows?

In the van we had a little discussion about Putin. Yevgeny is still of the opinion that he's been there too long. He did a lot of good for Russia, but now he may start abusing his power. He readily acknowledges his popularity and what he's done, but it's time to go. Not to mention that there really was no selection in this latest race. It was Putin or, well, it was Putin. He thinks it might be a generational thing. People remember the Yeltsin days in the Crazy Nineties. Boris Yeltsin led the way in privatizing Russia's state run sectors, which was not very popular. He issued vouchers to everyone so they could buy shares in whatever new, capitalist style corporation they chose. The idea was to have the industries be owned by the people in the form of shareholders so it would be socialism and capitalism. What a stupid idea.

That's the theory. The reality was that there was no food on the shelves. People couldn't wait until they started earning dividends on the shares and they couldn't exchange them for cash, so they sold them to buy food, a much more urgent investment. Or they lost them. They were too busy thinking of eating to think about economics.

The result was that some oligarchs were able to buy up the companies and grow immensely rich. Then in 1998 the currency was devalued and prices went up five or six times overnight. They were devastated. The Crazy Nineties. Yeltsin is not very popular today. Everyone knew that we got Yeltsin reelected in 1996 and even bragged about it on Time magazine. People believe he sold them out, though in reality his hands were probably tied. Russia was on its knees and western carpet baggers were calling the shots. With Putin Russia stood back up again.

Many of the oligarchs live in London, where they avoid paying taxes to Russia. London asked Putin if he wanted them back. He said, no. Just send me the money they owe.

Let's see. Ekaterinburg was founded by Peter the great about 30 years after he founded St. Petersburg. It is named after his wife, Katherine. Someone looking for gold in the area some time later found iron, instead. Good quality iron.

The bridges tend to come to life around here.

Yevgeny in his home town in front of a block
of iron ore.

Remnants of the World Cup
Yevgeny said that after the fall of the Iron Curtain heroin from Afghanistan started pouring into Russia. That's when the Russian mafia was born. There were gang wars, killings, drugs, and prostitution. There were too many fat police, officers who took bribes and grew fat. The mayor of Ekaterinburg decided to do something about it. He put together a committee and set up a hot line where citizens could report gang activity. Slowly, the problems diminished. Then disappeared. Many of the war lords just became legitimate (sic) businessmen. And he passed a law that cut the salary of overweight police. Yevgeny said it was like that all over Russia. There is no longer a drug or crime problem in Russia. I mentioned Ben Franklin's admonition about those who will exchange freedom for security deserving neither. However, people can't deal with freedom. There's something to be said for the strong arm. Sometimes.

But, being tough on criminals is great until they decide to be tough on you, of course. Still, this mayor was immensely popular. When it came to electing a governor for this region, even though he is a critic of Putin, he won handily. Putin changed the laws so now he appoints the governors of the republics, all 85 of them. Imagine if Trump could just appoint state governors? That's a pretty strong arm and just begging for abuse, if not by Putin, then by the next guy who comes along. This is one of Mashe Gessen's legitimate complaints about him. Who watches the watchers? Who governs the governors?

Does Putin see himself as a tsar? Possibly. Has he abused his position? I'd be surprised if he hadn't. How will history judge him? Vladimir the Great? The Terrible? The Ambiguously Good and Evil? Or just the Leader Dealing with an Ungovernable Mass of Humanity, Russian, at that?

How should I know? That's for history to decide. And the Russians themselves have lots of opinions and they're not afraid to express them. But I don't see the personal animosity that I see in the west. People may argue, that's a national pass time in Russia, but there's not the name calling or shouts of Treason! Bigot! X-o-phobe! that passes for rhetoric in our country. Every Russian is a Russian, regardless of race, religion, or belief.

I said in America we have a great deal of animosity. A tow truck driver once refused to help a young woman stranded on the highway because she had a Bernie bumper sticker on her car. He couldn't comprehend it. Neither can I. Now who's the enigma? I've been called a Putin lover because I refuse to let others do my thinking for me. So be it. I'm a Putin lover. Now let's talk about it. A Russian may argue about politics and the price of borsch in Belorussia, I'd check their pulse if they didn't, but leap to help you if you are in need. That's their enigma.

Russians have a lot of hands. On this hand this but on the other hand that...This is a good place to be since each hand holds a little truth. Even Masha Gessen, the Russian civil rights activist, will admit that Putin has done good for Russia without being called a Kremlin Kupkake. They have a lot of hands they use for thinking. We're different. Some of us have a lot of shoulders. Each one balances another chip. Each one a fight waiting to happen.

Would I like to live in Russia? Well, the people are lovely and kind and the country is vast and beautiful. The current government is good to their people, as good as they can be, considering the economics today. We in the west may bash them and exaggerate their living conditions and lie about their politics. But it's easy being a well fed philosopher.

What should we think of Putin? Besides the fact that it is none of our business what Russia does with its internal politics, I have never had a problem with him. He has done great things for the Russian people and isn't that what he's supposed to do? He can be Tsar Vladimir if he and the people of Russia want it. What’s that to us? Only how he treats us. Nothing more.

We headed out of the city to Asia. There is a monument right on the border of Asia and Europe. It is a popular spot for tourists and wedding parties. They don't let them put locks anywhere, but the trees near the monument are covered with ribbons. There was a wedding party there when we arrived. I asked a member of the party to take a group picture of us. She said sure, and pretty soon she had a little pile of cameras in front of her. She cheerfully took pictures with everyone's camera. It's a custom for people to bring champagne and drink some on one side and finish it on the other. Oh, and someone snuck a lock on one of the signs. Long live the revolution!

We were in the Urals, but there was nary a mountain in sight. There are a lot north and south of here, but right here is a low spot, so, naturally the trains and roads run through it. Still, not a great photo opportunity.

The next stop is more somber. While excavating for a new road, they discovered a mass grave from Stalin's era. 18,000 remains were found, unidentifiable. Their names were recorded in Moscow, but they were not marked individually. They built a monument there which is much like the Vietnam Wall memorial in Washington, except much bigger. In the center is a monument with an Orthodox cross, Crescent and Moon, Catholic cross, and Star of David on the four sides, memorializing all the faiths that suffered under Stalin. There were probably more. There were fresh flowers and ribbons on many of the names. Russians don't forget. And this is just one site of victims from Ekaterinburg. Estimates of Stalin's murders are from two to as high as twenty million.

Joseph Stalin is still a controversial figure in Russia. There are still people who like him. Under Communism there was food in the grocery stores, health care, education, and university was free. And Russia was great. What's not to like? OK, the borders were closed, people could be disappeared, there was corruption at all levels, and they were rigorously lied to. But the Russian spirit was strong. Russians will go from one extreme to another. There's a saying in Russia. Russians will endure a lot of suffering, then there will be a revolution. They also say that you can't understand Russians with your mind. Or measure them with any instrument. Or as Churchill said, Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…

Four sides. The Orthodox Cross. The Catholic Cross. The Star and Crescent. And the Jewish Star of David.

Monument to Stalin’s murders in Ekaterinburg. No. These are just his murders IN Ekaterinburg. Other cities have their own monuments.

The last stop was the mine where the bodies of the Romanoffs were dumped. There is a monastery there now. The women were asked to wear head scarves and aprons if their knees were bare. The mine shaft is very deep. I don't know how they were discovered. It's been excavated and filled in. Now there is a walkway around it. At one end is an oak cross. The cross was made from a tree taken from one of the sites of the battle of Stalingrad, where 2,000,000 Russians died repelling Hitler, thus breaking his back. It had been riddled with bullets from the intense fighting. When it died it was made into this cross. The Russians are nothing if they're not good at symbolism.

Once a man walking in the woods found a ring. He liked it and had it enlarged so he could wear it. Then, when he was in a place where jewelers were, someone recognized the ring and read an inscription inside. It was one of the Romanoff girl's rings. It is now in a museum. I asked Yevgeny about something I've noticed. Once, Forbes was selling nine Faberge eggs from his collection. He was going to auction them off. An oligarch in St. Petersburg contacted him and said, name your price. He then built a museum in St. Petersburg to house them. Is it common for people to give valuable items to the public? Yes. Russians are taught from childhood that valuable things are not to be horded by anybody. They belong to everyone.

We went into one chapel where a service was going on. The monks’ singing was beautiful. I noticed that Yevgeny crossed himself at the threshold.

I asked Yevgeny what Russians think of American politicians. They don't like any of them. Good, I said. We have that in common. How about Russia? People have a lot of different ideas about Putin, Stalin, even the royal family. Do your debates get heated? No. People just disagree. What an odd idea.

Russia has adopted the practice of building presidential centers. Well, one for Boris Yeltsin. You have to start somewhere. It cost one billion Euros. That's right. Euros. Not Rubles. Euros with a Yu! The government only put up some of the money. Oligarchs put up the bulk of it. Putin gently reminded them that Boris Yeltsin had been responsible for their arguably illegal and bloated wealth and raping of Mother Russia and they may just consider ponying up a few rubles. Amazingly, they all did. Putin can be very convincing.

The center was fabulous. They had some of the limos he used. Pictures. Gifts. The helmet worn by a Mir cosmonaut. Gary Powers came down here. There's a room there like one of the grocery stores with empty shelves. We didn't go all through the exhibits so I saw very little, but it certainly throws light on a desperate situation. I came away with a little sympathy for Yeltsin (or Eltsin.) He was a player with no rulebook to play by.

The Church of Blood.
It was getting close to train time but we had one last site to see. The Church of Blood. The place where the Romanoffs were slaughtered. Alexandra was English and the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. Nicholas was a cousin of George II. Victoria had the gene for hemophilia, which women can carry but cannot get the disease. Of course, Alexis, her son, could and did. Doctors said he wouldn't live past 17. An earlier tsar had passed a law saying that women could not ascend to the throne. This was after that little incident of Catherine the Great's husband and son dying of obvious causes. Many people thought the Tsar was cruel. He was bloody. He was out of touch with the people, etc. He wasn't cruel. Bloody? Yes. All rulers are. It's often necessary but people like Ivan the Terrible enjoy it. How do we judge history? I can’t. Can you?

At Nicholas' coronation 1,800 people were crushed and died in the stampeding crowds. He did not call off the evening ball. This is in extremely poor taste for Russians or anybody else. It's called celebrating on bones. That was bad. But he also had a sick son and heir to the thrown to think about later on. In 1905 was the first revolution. This one demanded limits on the Tsar's power and more say to the people. He consented and created the Duma, the Russian Parliament. That’s not even ten years of governing. And he had lots more to come.

I told Yevgeny that the same thing happened to Trump. His inauguration was attended by so many people that millions were trampled to death. He looked confused, so I said, Joke!

Then in 1917, the Bolshevik and Communist revolutions. Nicholas agreed to abdicate. He tried to get asylum with his cousin in England, but there was too much opposition and George betrayed him. So. He and his family…

And that brings us to the night of July 16, 17, 1918. The royal family was kept in confinement in a house in Ekaterinburg. Soldiers guarding them mocked them and stole valuable items from them. They're not sure who ordered them to be killed, there are no records. It might have been Lenin or it might have been Sveydlov, the mayor of Ekaterinburg. Sveydlov was Lenin's right hand man. There were no records.

Either way, they were woken up at night and ordered to the cellar for a photograph. When they got there the soldiers open fired. Two of the girls survived the firestorm because they had jewelry sewn into their corsets which acted like a bullet proof vest. So they were bayonetted.

The family did not have to die. If George II had granted them asylum they could have gotten out of the country.

This year, the 100th anniversary of the slaughter, 18,000 people came to the church and walked all night to the place where they were dumped. Now they are saints in the Russian Orthodox Church and their memory is preserved. Cities have been renamed. Russian historians are reevaluating the Romanoff era, including Rasputin, who certainly was given a bad rep by the Bolsheviks. History sweeps. The dustbin takes.

The Soviet Union has become a smear on history, easily wiped away.

Now we board our train and travel for the next 24 hours, stopping only for breaks. Das vedanya.

Vocabulary word for the day: доброе утро Dobro-U-tro. Good (kind) morning.

Day 8 - Saturday 8/28/18

I have no idea where we are, what're our coordinates, or what time it is. We are on the train and will pass through one time zone and into another over the next 24 hours. Google maps thinks I'm still in Ct. The location app just stares at me blankly. My phone coughs uncomfortably when I look at it. Outside a sea of birches and deciduous trees float by. We've got probably another twelve hours on the train. This one is going at about 120 km/hr. The high speed train from Moscow went about 180.

It's 10, 11, or 12 thirty later that morning/afternoon. We've stopped at a little town called Oomst to stretch our legs. It's comfortable but promises to be hot again today. Above 30 degrees. Back on board I cut up and passed around some sausage and cheese. There’s hot water for tee or instant coffee.

At one rest shop vendors were offering their wares. Fish, handmade knitted items. And hats. Fur hats. The kind of hat you MUST have in Siberia when it's 30 below outside. Customs in the US would confiscate it, of course.

It's pleasant here. About 21 degrees. Slight breeze. Lots of people. Our train is almost full and there's got to be at least 15 cars. Ours is first class. Second class has cabins with bunk beds in them. Third class is all open, bunk beds on both sides of the isle and tables every so often. I hear there's a forth class. What's that like, the train in Dr. Zhivago?

The meals on the train are surprisingly good, of course we are traveling first class. We had salad, potato and chicken soup-there was a chicken leg sticking out of the bowl, and a chicken mushroom stew.

Outside the countryside keeps rolling on. Siberia is 80% of Russia. Occasionally we pass fields and farms. No crops, just hay and haystacks. They look like lodges for land beavers.

We'll be at our hotel in about an hour. Who knows what time it is?

We've crossed through one time zone and into another and are now in Novosibirsk. It's around 7:40PM here. After checking in a few of us went exploring and looking for some place to eat. They gave us dinner on the train. I couldn't eat it all and had my mushroom stew a while later, so I wasn't very hungry, but I went along for the walk. We found a neat Russian restaurant the front desk told us about, but it was full. We ended up in a Mexican restaurant a few blocks away. I just had a bowl of chili and a beer to be sociable. Then we came back and we men, Rob the Ausie, Dennis from Michigan, and I had three rounds of Baluga vodka, and went to bed to sleep the sleep of the damned, for tomorrow is the revolution. How very Russian.

Vocabulary word of the day:  пашли PASH_li. Let's go, I am going, Go!

A train station, one of many.

And dachas everywhere. Before factory farms, this is where food came from.

The endless rails.
Click for part 3.