Searching for Varikino – part one

Yekaterinburg, 15.06.2019

Since the first time I saw David Lean’s cinema epic based on Pasternak’s novel, the images of the fictitious Varikino estate in the Urals fascinated me. The Urals of the movie were filmed in Spain though. I had always wanted to find out how the real Urals looked like, the land border between Europe and Asia. On the other side Siberia, a vast land mass covered with Taiga and Tundra, offering a fascination of its own that I had the chance to admire briefly in 2013. During the preparations of this journey the original idea was to drive from the northernmost tip of the arctic Urals all the way down to Central Asia. Nice idea – but there are no roads to the arctic Urals, and while there were roads of unknown quality on both sides of the Urals up to some point, there seemed to be no crossing further north than Perm. Given the distances around here, I could have easily ended up driving a few thousand km up and down the same way on pretty bad roads with not much to see, further away from the Urals. In Moscow I had toured book stores to find updated Russian road maps, hoping they would reveal something Google maps didn’t know. Studying the Russian v Google maps in my hotel room in Perm at night, I found better roads but nothing further north.

Leaving the Gulag, I continued eastwards, hoping to see some great mountain ranges that should have taken my mind off the horrors of the lager I had just seen. At Chusuvoy I left the main road briefly to check the city. A grey Soviet mining town greeted me, incl. (guess what?) a tank monument, a monument to the miners, plenty of crumbling concrete, roads and bridges. I started to accept that around here the towns are mostly made to exploit natural resources, and that tourism is not a word in the local vocabulary. I kept driving further east, through a hilly landscape with forests, maximum elevation of 500m, when after a few hours suddenly I reached a massive monument delimiting the Europe-Asia border. I wanted to stop, take a break, maybe do a picnic. But the whole place was so run down, dirty and full of trash and broken glass everywhere, that I took the obligatory pictures and left again. Since entering Russia I’ve had to learn that roadside stops are a practical affair, needed to fuel up, go to the toilet (mostly open air), throw trash away (often into the countryside), and maybe check your car from below if you find a ramp. So far I have found not a single place that would have been pleasant to stop at, take a break. There are no views generally, and no real reason to stop apart from the above mentioned practicalities. This made driving overland less enjoyable, not to mention the sudden deterioration of roads for stretches of different duration.

During the afternoon I passed the town of Nizhni Tagil, that featured a “Metallurgic Kombinat”. A stark smell hang over the place as I drove by a massive grey concrete factory. Needless to say the town wasn’t much of an attraction. Metalworks towns are just as lovely as they come. Here the “Kombinat” is still alive, together with Soviet insignia across the street and comrade Lenin on the central square.

As the day passed, I realised I wouldn’t find what I was looking for around here. It got late, and I decided to drive south to Yekaterinburg. I found a hotel on Lenin street (!) called Four Elements, and while the name sounded like a Chinese remake of the Four Seasons, the place was actually very decent. A Georgian restaurant across the street saved my dinner (the Georgians are the Italians of the Soviet union – good food available everywhere). A coffee shop next door saved my breakfast the next morning, as I left under a grey and rainy sky.

Ekaterinburg is the city where the last Czar and his family got shot. (By the way, every time I see his pictures I can’t help it but to think that he was a good looking hipster, 100 years ahead of his time with his beard.) Boris Yeltsin, at the time the local party chief, executed the task to demolish the Ipatiev house where the family was kept prisoner and later killed. Now on the same location there was a church, with golden domes, and a monument to the Czar and his family. The exhibition under the building is in the firm hands of the orthodox church, incl. an exhibition on how the Bolsheviks killed the clerics and destroyed churches after 1917.

This whole setting wasn’t my cup of tea. Leaving the church I though that, while I understand that shooting a whole family isn’t a great idea, I also understand how that family stood for a system gone wrong, millions of people in dire poverty while the upper 1% lived in luxury. Our social inequality of today is a piece of cake in comparison. These Russian frontier towns of the 18th century (Yekaterinburg, Perm, Kazan) resembled each other, as they had a small amount of old buildings in the city center that got recently renovated, and were surrounded by enormous Soviet industrial and residential areas. Some cities are getting a clean up, like Yekaterinburg, others apparently have to wait still.

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