Gangsters’ Graveyard and other highlights of Yekaterinburg, Russia

November 2001

It was in Yekaterinburg that my journey began to get really interesting. Whereas St Petersburg and Moscow had been welcoming foreign visitors for decades, Yekaterinburg was closed to tourists during the Soviet era. The city had been an industrial base for centuries, but during Soviet times it was called Sverdlovsk and was a centre for the manufacture of military equipment.

In 1991, after the fall of the USSR, the city was given back its old name and made open for tourism. However, in 2001 (and even today, in 2017) the city attracted/attracts only a tiny proportion of the visitors to Russia. Most tourists stick with St Petersburg and Moscow and, according to research on tourism to Yekaterinburg, few of the foreigners taking the Trans-Siberian Railway choose to stop off there. However, if the tourism industry in 2017 is ‘immature’, in 2001 it was little more than an embryo.

When I did the Trans-Siberian it was supposed to be almost impossible to take such a journey independently; for a start, you couldn’t get a tourist visa unless your accommodation was pre-booked, so I was using a travel company. I had to get myself to St Petersburg, but after that I was pretty much in the company’s hands. They booked my train ticket/s and accommodation in each destination, and arranged for me to be met at the airport (St Petersburg) and, after that, whichever train station, and for me to have a guide/escort in each place.

My ‘fixer’ in Yekaterinburg was a small, new local company. My guide was Z, the company’s office administrator and secretary, and I was staying in the two-roomed, Soviet-era flat Z shared with her parents.

If there were any tourist hang-outs in Yekaterinburg I missed them. In fact, as far as I know I didn’t see another tourist the whole time I was there – not another foreign tourist, at any rate. Now? Well, do an internet search for “Yekaterinburg” (or “Ekaterinburg” or similar variant) and “tourism” and see the range of delights that comes up.

Z’s tour of the city was informative, but it didn’t have a professional gloss. That wasn’t a bad thing, though, as I felt like I was having a day out with a friend, rather than being processed through a well-oiled tourist machine.

Memorial to Afghanistan (and Chechenya) war dead, Yekaterinburg

Memorial to Afghanistan (and Chechenya) war dead, Yekaterinburg

The ‘sights’ included a collection of rocks in a museum-type place in Z’s office building (Yekaterinburg is famous for its minerals); the Plotinka, the dam built on the River Iset in the 1720s, which is supposed to have been what made possible the industrial development of Yekaterinburg; a chapel demolished during the Soviet era and rebuilt in 1992; several pieces of public art erected over the previous 10 years, and a haunting memorial built in 1996 to honour the soldiers killed during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and during the war in Chechenya.  And, of course, the site of the Ipatiev House.  That evening, K took me to the opera, at the State Opera House. Even though it was Eugene Onegin (not exactly family-friendly, I would say) the place was packed, with people of all ages – including children.

The next day was our trip into the countryside, including Ganina Yama. We visited a reconstruction of a typical Siberian village (lots of wood cabins of various degrees of sophistication) and a museum in a house where Tchaikovsky had spent part of his childhood. During the drive K told me a little about his experiences during (compulsory) military service – including how he and his fellow conscripts had had to forage in the forest for food when the food supply broke down. He was less than complementary about Chechens, too. (This was after all, only shortly after the 1999-2000 “Chechen War”, only the latest in a series of conflicts between Russia and Chechenya.) The Highland Chechens tortured Russians and used them as slaves, apparently. (Although no doubt the Chechens would have equally respectful things to say about Russians.)

Ganina Yama wasn’t the only grave-site on the trip. After a lot – a lot – of pleading and insistence on my part, K finally agreed to take me to what I could only describe to him as “a gangsters’ graveyard”, which I had encountered in a book about the laboratory responsible for keeping (dead) Lenin in tip-top condition. (I’m as sure as I can be that it was Lenin’s Embalmers, by Ilya Zbarsky.) In the 1990s, Yekaterinburg had been plagued by gang wars. Apparently, the families of dead gangsters, reasoning that what was good enough for a much-revered ex-leader was good enough for their child/parent/husband/whatever, entrusted preserving their bodies for eternity to the Lenin lab technicians.

It wasn’t the embalmed bodies of gangsters that I wanted to see, of course, but their tombs. As you can imagine, families with the confidence – and cash – to bring in Lenin’s embalmers wouldn’t be prepared to settle for a bog standard headstone (or its Russian equivalent). Nope, what they went for were almost-life-sized slabs of marble or whatever, with many of them having the dead gangster’s image etched onto them. About US$5,000 was the going rate for a tomb, according to the book.

As a massive fan of anything kitsch, I couldn’t think of anything more fun to see (in a sick kind of way), but K was initially really reluctant. The first time I asked about seeing the tombs, he seemed not to know what I was talking about. Then he acted as though they were no big deal so why would I want to see them anyway? Similarly, he implied that the gang wars themselves hadn’t been a big deal either, when I asked him about those.  However, by the time of our trip outside Yekaterinburg I must have worn him down, because he took me to the cemetery. And it did not disappoint. The graves were awesome.

Examples included a Mafioso in a James Dean-type leather jacket etched into a six-foot or so tall piece of black marble, and an extremely curvaceous, life-size, glowing white sculpture of a gangster’s girlfriend in what appears to be a shrine. Now the cemetery, Shirokorechenskoye, seems to feature on every tourist itinerary for Yekaterinburg. But this is now, when Yekaterinburg is relatively peaceful. I think back then the city may still have been suffering the tail-end of the gang wars, and K wasn’t too comfortable about the prospect of who we might meet at the cemetery. Or maybe I didn’t fully appreciate how traumatising it must be to go from having your home celebrating freedom and the dawn of a new era to being torn apart by selfish, greedy, violent thugs within just a handful of years.