My wife and I will be leaving Russia in a matter of weeks, which is incredible to me. As is ever the case, time flies, so I’m particularly glad of the timing of Russian holidays. The big celebration here for people of all faiths is New Years, but Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th, the result being a solid 11 day holiday at the beginning of the year. We’d originally planned getting out of the country to somewhere warm, but with the plunging ruble we decided to stick around Russia, and as a result got to see several beautiful, frigid cities we never would have here.
– 25 C/ – 13 F, folks
We spent New Year’s Eve in a nearly empty train, drinking it up and headed east to Yekaterinburg, at the foot of the Urals. This was originally a mining town founded in the 1700s around a dammed river and lake, which now lies in the heart of the city, surrounded by old mansions and modern office towers.
We arrived to find that it was two hours later than we expected. All train tickets in the country are expressed in Moscow time, regardless of the time zone the train arrives in (or more dangerously, departs from). At this altitude, it meant that we had about three hours of daylight to work with, but we took advantage by heading straight for the Church-on-the-Blood, a modern cathedral built as a sort of national apology to the Romanov family, slain here in 1918 at the end of the October Revolution.
That a place like this even exists speaks to the singular psychology of the Russian people and the way history and religion are all wrapped up together to a bizarre degree in many Russians’ minds. There’s an iconography in the church where the family, from Nicholas II on down to Anastasia, are literally situated right next to Jesus and Mary. This is a collective guilt I can’t imagine anywhere else- how many Mary Antoinette memorials do you think you’ll find in France, much less people no-shit praying to her like a saint? All this in some country where Stalin’s grave at the Kremlin is inundated by flowers while the graves of non-monstrous despots around him lay bare. We saw another example of this historical cognitive dissonance the next day at the Volga Urals Military District building, an impressive example of “Stalin’s Empire Architecture” still in use today, but surrounded by a wrought iron fence emblazoned with Russian Imperial Eagles.
After basking in the warmth and intriguing history, we headed back out into the extreme cold (we could only manage 15 minute or so bursts of walking before ducking into somewhere warm- my mustache even froze… which was a new experience). Across the street was the 18th century Ascension Church in standard Orthodox style, but with a nice elevated location and evening view.
Our last stop was the central Square of 1905 and its annual Ice Town, full of colorfully lit ice sculptures, an ice maze, knickknack stalls, and tons of kids with sleds shooting every which way down ice ramps. After that, it was definitely time for a hot Russian meal of veal stroganoff in its famous creamy mushroom/sour cream sauce (Jeonghee had a delicious mixed grill) accompanied by warm mulled wine.
We took our time getting out the door the next day with few concrete goals. First up was the Novo-Tikhvinskiy Monastery with its beautiful white church with a uniquely decorated, almost Asiatic Muslim interior decor.
A brutal 20 minute walk later we peeked at the zoo just for the hell of it and found to our near disbelief that it was still open. The polar bears were totally cool with the weather, along with the lynxes and Andean Condor, but a lot of the inside animals weren’t so happy with the status quo, especially the chimp that hurled itself cannonball-style against glass that looked a little flimsy for my taste. Still, the white tiger and polar bear were cool.
Close by was the Tinkhoff brewery restaurant, a la carte-style like many Russian fast-ish food, but with solid dark and wheat brews on tap and a store in the same building that actually had Belgian beers at a not completely insane price. After trekking to the Volga Urals building like I said before, complete with its Marshal Zhukov statue commemorating the time Stalin banished his most successful general to a command 30 hours eastward because he was too popular a figure.
Our last stop was the 52nd floor of the Vysotsky Tower, with its outdoor viewing platform. We got there right at twilight, and watched the sun dip below the horizon as the city lights rippled out to merge with it. Gorgeous.