My visit to Ganina Yama, Romanov burial site, Yekaterinburg

November 2001

“That’s where the Tsar was buried,” K had told me.

“That” was a simple wooden Russian Orthodox cross set among snow-sprinkled trees. It was late 2001 and K and I were on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg, the city notorious as the place where Tsar Nicholas II and almost his entire family were wiped out during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Simple wooden cross in the trees, marking the site of Ganina Yama.

Ganina Yama, or ‘Ganya’s Pit’, in November 2001. Just visible through the trees, between the cross and the tree with the plaque is the pale outline of a simple building that could be the beginnings of the monastery built to commemorate the murdered Romanovs.

I took a picture of the cross but I didn’t find out where it actually was. So nearly 15 years later it was still uncaptioned in the album. If I was going to do a proper job of writing up this trip, I decided, I really should find out where that picture was taken. I did, but I found out, too, a little about how Russia has changed in that decade and a half.

I started by doing an internet search for the burial place of Nicholas II. The top result was Ganina Yama, or “Ganya’s Pit”. There were lots of pictures, and countless reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor. But that couldn’t be the place where my photograph was taken. Sure, there was a plain wooden cross, a slightly different style to ‘mine’, but seeing as wood rots it could easily be a replacement for the one in my picture. However, everything else was different too. Behind the cross in my photograph there is a low metal fence and beyond that, under the snow, what appears to be a depression in the earth. Around that are some slender trees, and just visible through them a shadow of what could be a largish building. There are no people in the picture because there was no one else there with us, nor did we see anyone on the road leading to the burial place.

There were lots of people in the pictures of Ganina Yama, though, lots and lots of people. There were some trees around the cross, but far fewer than in my photograph. There was also a depression, clearly visible, but running round the edge of it was a covered walkway, a rather substantial, obviously permanent structure. There were pictures, too, of the seven churches at Ganina Yama, one church for each murdered member of the Imperial family, who were canonised as saints by the Orthodox Church in exile in 1981.

Nah, no way was that the place I had been to. So I (pardon the pun) dug a little deeper. I learned that, while the Orthodox Church still officially regards Ganina Yama as the place where the bodies of the Tsar and the people murdered with him were dumped and burned to nothing, it has now been established that this wasn’t the case. The remains, of the Tsar, members of his family and a couple of retainers, were indeed deposited at Ganina Yama within hours of the killings, but they were not cremated there. (Attempts may have been made, but burning 11 bodies to ash is almost impossible, especially in a wood in the middle of nowhere and without fuel to aid the blaze along.)

Within less than a day it was decided that Ganina Yama was just too public, too easy for the people of Yekaterinburg to find, so the bodies were moved to a place just a couple of miles away but less obvious, called “Pig’s Meadow” or “Piglet’s Meadow”. This fact was established in the mid-late 1970s by three local researchers, but they kept their discovery secret until the Soviet Union had collapsed and the political climate changed. The site was subsequently excavated and the remains comprehensively tested to confirm their identities. In 1998 the bones of the Imperial family members were re-interred at St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, in a formal and very public ceremony. However, senior clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church boycotted the event, as the Church was still insisting that the Romanov bodies had been burned to dust at Ganina Yama.

So, it must have been Pig’s Meadow that K had taken me to. But while there were countless pictures of Ganina Yama, there were hardly any of Pig’s Meadow, and most of what few there were dated from around the time of the killings and the first investigation into the fate of the Tsar. Eventually, though, I unearthed some modern(ish) pictures of Pig’s Meadow. The only marker was a simple cross, but in some kind of black stone. The immediate area was bare of trees – and any possible depression in the earth – and bore no trace of any fence, present or past. Plus, the topography was nothing like that in my picture, unlike that of Ganina Yama.

After a lot more searching, I found an article on a Russian Orthodox Church news website. It was about the then-Patriarch visiting Ganina Yama in October 2000 (ie a little over a year before my trip to Yekaterinburg) to give his blessing to the foundation of a monastery to honour the “Holy Royal Martyrs”. Apart from all the people on it, the cross and the setting looked just like those in my picture.

September 2000: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II blesses foundation of the monastery at Ganina Yama, surrounded by scores of people.

September 2000: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II blesses foundation of the monastery at Ganina Yama. Spot the difference between this cross and the one in my pic? You won’t – there isn’t one!

So my photo had been taken at Ganina Yama after all! Yet a decade and a half after I was there the place was all but unrecognisable.

It’s almost impossible to comprehend the change in attitudes towards the Romanovs in Russia over just, say, 25 years. For decades the mere existence of the Imperial family was such a sensitive subject that it was only in 1989/1990 that the discoverers of the remains in Pig’s Meadow had felt safe enough to report their discovery to the authorities in Moscow. Yet now, in 2015/16, Ganina Yama is an officially-recognised, openly-visited, substantial shrine to them. (Even if the bodies were only buried there for a matter of hours – despite the official Orthodox Church line.)

Of course it wasn’t just the Romanovs that the Soviets had a problem with – they weren’t too keen on the Church either, seeing it as a challenge to the ethos and authority of Communism. Put it this way, there’s a reason why the Romanovs were canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church “in exile”. Now, though, in the 20-teens, Vladimir Putin is bezzie mates with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, and tourists are posting selfies from the churches of Ganina Yama.

If you’re interested, the potted history of how the bodies came to be in Ganina Yama and Pig’s Meadow in the first place goes something like this:

At the time of the killings, in mid-1918, Russia was in the throes of what amounted to a civil war. The main protagonists were the Bolsheviks, or ‘Red Russians’, and the ‘White Russians’, who wanted change in Russia, but nothing as drastic as that sought by the Bolsheviks (some White Russians were actually monarchists). The Tsar abdicated in March 1917 and he and his family were taken into custody by the Bolsheviks. After several months the family was moved to Yekaterinburg. By July 1918 White forces were closing in on the city, and the Bolshevik leaders decided that rather than risk having the Tsar and his family ‘rescued’ by the White army, they should be disposed of. Which is what happened in the cellar of the Ipatiev House on 17 July. Within days the White forces had taken Yekaterinburg, and a magistrate, Nikolai Sokolov, was tasked with establishing what had happened to the Romanovs. Just a few months later, though, the Bolsheviks re-took Yekaterinburg and Sokolov was forced to flee – but not before he had amassed a whole heap of evidence, which he managed to get out of Russia before he left the country in 1920. Although Sokolov never actually found physical proof of the fate of the Romanovs, the earlier story about the remains being totally destroyed at Ganina Yama stuck and no one sought to question it – especially as even mentioning the deaths would probably have led to a trip to a Gulag during Soviet times.

Despite the dangers, in the 1970s two local geologists, Alexander Avdonin and Michael Kochurov, and a filmmaker, Geli Ryabov, and their wives, set out to establish once and for all what had happened to the Imperial remains. Using the material Sokolov had gathered during his investigation, and a contemporaneous account of the murder and subsequent disposal of the bodies, they eventually located the real burial site – Pig’s Meadow.

(In 2007, two other sets of remains were uncovered in Pig’s Meadow. Tests confirmed that they are of the missing children, the Tsarevitch Alexei and his sister Maria, but as of October 2015, they had yet to be recognised by the Russian Patriarch.)

Simple cross and chapel marking the site of the Ipatiev House.

Yekaterinburg: Cross and chapel marking the site of the Ipatiev House. This was taken in November 2001.

Ganina Yama isn’t the only site around St Petersburg that demonstrates how much attitudes to Russia’s Imperial past have changed. My picture of the site of the Ipatiev House – where the Romanovs and their courtiers were murdered – features a simple cross and a tiny wooden chapel. In 2016, while the cross appears to have gone, the chapel is still there, but now it is dwarfed by the newly-built, gleaming white Church on Blood, which commemorates the dead Romanovs. That said, I suppose the cross and chapel of my picture marked progress even in 2001: it was only a quarter of a century earlier that the house had been razed to the ground to prevent it becoming a place of pilgrimage for royalists. (The demolition was ordered by the then-Chairman of the local Communist Party, Boris Yeltsin, although he claimed later he only did it because he had been told to by the Politburo.)

Note: I’ve re-published this blog to mark the Centenary of the deaths of the Tsar and his family. There are more posts about my trip along the Trans-Mongolian Railway on the Trans-Sib tab on the header menu.


An unexpected treat: St Pancras Old Church, London

“Hmm, I wonder what’s up there?” I thought to myself as I walked from King’s Cross to the Carreras Cigar Factory in Camden.

“There” was a flight of steps, stone, characterful and obviously old, probably something like a couple of hundred years or so old, flanked by mature trees – and totally out of keeping with their surroundings.

I decided to take a quick detour. And found myself in the lovely grounds of the lovely St Pancras Old Church. From the outside, the church looked vaguely Saxon or Norman, although as the stonework looked in good state it probably couldn’t actually be that old.

And when I went inside and read the information boards I found out I was right. It looks like there has been a church on the site for more than 1,000 years, maybe even 1,500, but it has been rebuilt or restored several times, and the current building dates from the mid-19th Century. That said, there are some bits of the earlier buildings still visible inside.

The interior is nice enough, but it’s the churchyard that’s really remarkable. Not only is it a little haven of peace – it’s easy to forget you’re in a busy part of a busy city – but it contains some really interesting tombs and/or tombs of really interesting people.

One is that of the architect John Soane. Not only is he famous in his own right, but his tomb – which he designed himself – gave Giles Gilbert Scott his inspiration for the famous red telephone boxes.

There’s also a sundial that’s a monument to people who were originally buried in the churchyard but whose remains were moved when part of the churchyard was made into a public park and also when the Great Northern Railway to/from King’s Cross station was built on part of it.

Which brings me to this, the “Hardy Tree”:

It’s named after Thomas Hardy, who, before he became a famous novelist, worked as an architect, and supervised the works to clear the churchyard to make way for the railway.

You can read the story here:

Plaque about Thomas Hardy's work at St Pancras, which included moving bodies to make way for a railway line.

And you thought Thomas Hardy was ‘just’ a novelist?

Yes, I know my pictures are a bit tat (and all of the same thing), it’s just that when I took them I took them just for me – I didn’t intend to write about them or anything. But then I thought why not? Someone looking for an interesting, peaceful place in a busy part of London might just find it useful.

There’s more information (and more pictures than my lamentable ‘selection’) on the church’s own website:

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.