Trans-Siberian Railway, November 2001. Part I: St Petersburg to Yekaterinburg

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.

“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.

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.

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!

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.

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.)

St Petersburg and Moscow

Compartment, St Petersburg-Moscow train.

Compartment, St Petersburg-Moscow train. That Dr Marten’s carrier bag lasted the entire duration of my trip – nearly 17 months!

Yekaterinburg was the third stop on my Trans-Siberian trip. I started in St Petersburg (not part of the Trans-Sib but Russia’s second city so definitely worth a look) and then caught an overnight train to Moscow, which is the starting point of the Trans-Siberian route. At the risk of sounding all blasé, I won’t go on too much about St Petersburg and Moscow, as (compared to the rest of Russia) they get quite a lot of visitors, so I don’t know what I could add to what has probably already been posted/printed elsewhere.  All I will say about St Petersburg is that I paid my respects to the Tsar and his family and their (then-still new) tombs in the St Peter and St Paul Fortress, and I marvelled at the stunning exhibits in The Hermitage while noticing how poorly maintained the spectacular building was – paint peeling off the walls, that kind of thing.

In Moscow, I failed to post small parcels to two friends; the Post Office would accept letters but not parcels. I visited St Basil’s Cathedral and The Kremlin, where I coveted the handful of Fabergé eggs on display. The museum also boasted a collection of carriages, including an ornate winter sledge that had belonged to the Imperial family. It must have been a joy to travel in. For the royals, anyway – they were enclosed in glass. The driver, however, had to brave the elements outside. Little wonder there was a revolution, really. Speaking of which, I was a bit miffed by the difference between the ‘foreigner price’ and ‘local price’ for attractions; the admission charge for The Kremlin, for example, was 150 roubles for locals but 650 roubles for people like me. I didn’t mind paying more than locals who were poorer than me, but what really rankled was the thought that Russian oligarchs could waltz into museums in Britain for free, while I had to pay 500 roubles more than them to get into a museum in Russia.

I also pondered how much more interesting Moscow must have been when my friends visited the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Then, a trip to Gum, the pre-eminent department store, was the retail equivalent of a sojourn in a Siberian Gulag, and Western jeans so desirable that a tourist could probably swap a pair for an entire apartment block. (And if the jeans were Levis, the vendor would probably hand over their blood relatives as well.) By late 2001, Gum was almost indistinguishable from any shopping mall anywhere in the United States or Europe, selling goods from the likes of Estée Lauder, Christian Dior, Lancôme – even Frederick’s of Hollywood. Mind you, not everyone approved of the ‘new Russia’: en route to a chocolate shop I happened upon a ‘7 November’ parade, featuring several hundred (mainly older) people, some of whom carried placards of Stalin (yes, Stalin). A fellow spectator explained that these were: “People who think the Revolution was a good idea and want Russia to go back to those times”.

The following day I went to the Lenin mausoleum where, after the parade the previous day, I shouldn’t have been too surprised that, of all the memorials to former presidents, the one that had the most flowers was that for Stalin. After being herded at a rate of knots through the room where Lenin lay in state, I decided that the reason cameras were banned is because photographs would probably reveal that Lenin looks more like wax than preserved human.

I also visited the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. They were looking, so a leaflet I picked up read, for any help in expanding. The museum wasn’t a wreck or anything, but it was a little rough around the edges, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether that would have been the case if the Americans hadn’t stolen the Soviet thunder by beating the Cosmonauts to the Moon (even if the Soviets had got into space first).

The Trans-Siberian train, like the one between St Petersburg and Moscow, was so big it made a British train look like a toy, although I suppose that’s not really surprising when you compare the size of Britain with the expanse of Russia, and the distances the respective trains have to travel. I was travelling ‘economy’, which meant I was in a compartment with four berths – two sets of bunkbeds, the top bunks of which could be folded up against the wall during the day. Each carriage had about a dozen compartments, and each carriage also had its own attendant – a ‘provodnik’ – to look after the passengers and keep order, and, at one end, a samovar, which dispensed a non-stop supply of boiling water.

Yekaterinburg (again)

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, 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 offthere. However, if the tourism industry in 2016 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.

That night, or rather the next morning, I was due to leave Yekaterinburg, on the 3.15am train. K collected me from Z’s, but when we got to the station, we learned that the train would be more than three hours late. K was reluctant to leave me but I didn’t see the point of making him hang around, especially as he was due to leave himself on an industry trip (to Egypt, of all places) in just a few hours. “I’ll be fine,” I said breezily, shooing him out of the waiting room.

As I pointed out to K, the waiting room was warm, safe and comfortable; I had something to eat, something to drink, and a selection of books to keep me entertained if I got bored of people-watching. Heck, the waiting room even had its own security guard! Besides, I told him, the journey is as much part of the travel experience as the destination.

Unfortunately, about half-an-hour after I had made K leave, this particular travel experience manifested itself as excruciating stomach cramps and colicky pains and a slushy gurgling in my guts. The prime culprit had to be the evilly sulphurous ‘mineral’ water I’d had that afternoon – so much for sticking to boiled or bottled water. Knees buckling with pain I carried my luggage towards the ladies’ toilets and pushed the door. It was locked. I scanned the white marbled room; these were the only facilities.

I flicked through my phrase-book then hobbled towards the security guard at his desk. “Tualetti!” I gurned, wafting an arm feebly between the (locked) toilet door and the station concourse.  He pointed to a piece of paper bearing the details of my delayed train and expostulated in Russian. I fished out my phrase-book and plonked it in front of him. “Tualetti!” I whimpered, jabbing at the page, “Tualetti!!!” He gestured that he didn’t have his reading glasses. Clearly, K’s little chat before he left hadn’t been a whinge about the unreliability of Russian trains, but a threat about what he would do to the guard if he let me out of his sight and something bad happened to me. Great. There were other people around, but did I really want to risk pouncing on some stranger on a Russian railway station in the middle of the night and babbling on about toilets? Probably not. It was either the waste bin in the quietest corner I could find or Plan C: make “toilet” comprehensible to a non-English-speaking security guard. I got out my notebook and a pen and set about copying what I hoped would look like “tualetti” in Cyrillic from my phrase-book, in letters so thick and black that they would be legible even from Moscow.

It’s amazing how long several rubbish attempts at copying a strange script can take, and my masterpiece wasn’t actually finished by the time the train arrived, slightly earlier than expected.

The next stop for me was the Siberian city of Irkutsk, an incredible 48 hours away. The train was just as comfortable and cosy as the previous ones, and for the first 24 hours I had delightful companions – Sveti, a 10-year-old girl, and her mother. Sveti was learning English at school, so we could communicate a little; enough, anyway, for her to ask me to write out the words to “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”. Sveti was extremely polite and had lovely manners, although I think she tried her mother’s patience a little. But then being confined on a train for a whole day and night can’t be easy when you’re just 10 years old. That was inside our compartment. Outside the train things were, I’m ashamed to admit, just a little bit boring. Siberia was predominantly scrub and trees with a bit of snow. No doubt it’s lovely in the summer, when there’s grass and flowers between the trees, and awesome in winter, when it’s snowing. This was November, though, and one of the warmest Novembers on record, not that much cooler than Lancashire in November, and we all know how scenic that is – grey and beige and more grey and beige. (Yes, I am aware that whinging about a trip that most people can only dream about is the sign of an ungrateful wretch.)