The Bizarre Guide to Russia
When most people think of Russia just a few images come to mind: vodka, mafia and children getting caught in the crossfire between nutjob terrorists and government security agents in their school. But beyond these surface impressions there’s a vast land for the traveller to discover; not for the common tourist perhaps, but rather for the anti-tourist, who shuns pretty postcard views and instead seeks out the pleasures of horror, bizarre violence and the macabre wasteland…
Long ago, all the Slav tribes were one. However, as they headed West they settled in different areas and split into different groups. Time passed and the Czechs, the Westernmost tribe, grew mullets and drank a lot of beer. Their neighbours, the Poles developed droopy moustaches and invented vodka. Meanwhile the Ukrainians evolved the pig fat sandwich and after a thousand years of existence finally succeeded in producing a Eurovision song contest winner.
But the Russians were marked out for a different, darker destiny. Conquered by Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis, they spent three hundred years as the vassals of cruel Asiatic overlords. During this time the Russians intermixed with their Tatar masters and a unique fusion of Asian and European culture formed. Some hold this blend responsible for Russia’s long traditions of brutal tyranny and bizarre violence. Whatever the explanation, since that time the country’s history has been marked by periods of severe oppression combined with bursts of genius followed by long periods of stagnation. The country’s greatest advances have been made under its cruelest leaders—Ivan the Terrible liked to fry people alive and killed his own son, but conquered the Tatars once and for all and established contacts with the West. Peter the Great also killed his own son and employed slave labour to build a city in a hideous bog, but he added Siberia to Russia’s territory. And of course there’s Stalin who killed about 20 million of his own citizens but also crushed the Nazis and created a nuclear superpower. All three of these leaders are still greatly admired in Russia today.
Moscow was founded in 847 by Yuri Dolgoruky (‘Long Arms’), so called because of his penchant for grabbing other people’s territory and adding it to his own. Today it is the largest city in Europe, with over 10 million residents. As for what you’ll want to see, well, the Kremlin, the Kremlin, everybody says the Kremlin… but you can forget about that as it just contains museums and offices for the president. Instead take the anti-tourist route and go straight to:
Unlike in some former Eastern Bloc countries, the Russian secret police were never abolished, reformed or even criticised much. They just changed their name to the FSB and kept on truckin’. The secret police HQ at Lubyanka metro station is a grim building that no-one is ever seen entering or leaving. There used to be cells in the basement where Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s police chief and a serial rapist of young girls, tortured confessions out of enemies of the people before they were shipped off to the prison camps of Siberia. One of the neighbouring buildings houses a Museum of the Secret Police that was originally intended to instruct KGB officers, but is now open to group bookings from the public. Inside you cans see the history of Russian state repression since the 14th century and portraits people who were tortured and shot in the 1930s. Once you’re finished, pop into Detsky Mir, Russia’s biggest toy shop, which is conveniently located next door.
A nice corpse
Adjacent to the Kremlin, Red Square contains the mausoleum which houses the remains of Vladimir Illyich Lenin, Father of the Russian Revolution. Though apologists often seek to dissociate him from the violence that followed, Lenin was in fact a keen enthusiast for shooting priests and the first Gulags (prison camps), were set up on his watch. In fact, Lenin hated the church so much he established the first soviet prison colony in the Solovetsky Monastery in northern Russia. Today, however he is a brainless shell under the ground, kept from rotting by a secret solution that was developed on pain of death by soviet scientists in the early 1920s. Best of all, he’s free, though you have to get up early to see him as the mausoleum’s doors close at 1. Recently burying the corpse was discussed in the Russian parliament, but for now he’s still there, lying soft and pink and pulpy in his comfy glass coffin, like some kind of alien larvae.
However the real anti-tourist will derive the most pleasure from the time he spends underground, in Moscow’s famed metro system. The Lonely Planet will direct you down there to marvel at the mosaics and marble columns of these fantastical ‘palaces of the proletariat’. But turn away from the decor and you will see that it’s down here, in these tunnels beneath the city, that all the lost souls congregate: Kurskaya Station on the circle line is the main spot where homeless children gather and beg for food or spare change. Or take a seat in a carriage on the green ‘Zamoskvoretskaya’ line heading south and wait for the veterans of Russia’s lost wars to come on, still in uniform but missing limbs and eyes, to ask for your spare coppers. Then there are the victims of industrial accidents, the begging grannies, the homeless tramps from out of town with nowhere to go, pants sometimes sagging with their own shit. After all, isn’t it a bit false to visit a country just to look at monuments and galleries? Surely the real goal is to find out how people live….
Between 1703 and 1917 Saint Petersburg, a city built by slave labour on a mosquito-infested swamp, was the capital of Russia. Today it is famous for its beauty and the Hermitage museum, which contains lots of works of art amassed by the Tsars while their subjects lived in abject squalor. Also, Finns go there to take advantage of cheap beer and the easy availability of prostitutes. However, the anti-tourist will want to avoid all that and head straight for:
Some people collect stamps, but Peter the Great, well he was different. In his youth he visited a display of pickled freaks in an embalmer’s workshop in Amsterdam and after that, he just couldn’t get them out of his head. So twenty years later he bought the whole collection and had it transported to Russia where he put them on public display. Not content with that he then issued an edict commanding his subjects to deliver their ‘monsters’ to him. This wasn’t entirely unusual in the 18th century as many European monarchs had collections of weird dead things in jars. But Peter’s collection is one of the few that has survived to this day and in the Kunstkamera museum in Saint Petersburg you can see almost every imaginable malformation of the human body—from cyclops to pinheads to Siamese twins to babies with vestigial twins hanging out of their bodies. In Peter’s time there were even live exhibits, among them Foma Grigoriev, a dwarf with lobster claws instead of hands. Just make sure you don’t eat your lunch before going in.
A Mass Grave
During World War II the Nazis imposed a blockade around Leningrad, as Saint Petersburg was then known, for 500 days. 16,000 civilians were killed by air raids and 33,000 were wounded. However hunger claimed the largest number of victims, over 600,000. To stay alive, some citizens resorted to cannibalism, and yet at the same time cultural life continued. The zoo stayed open and the premiere of Shostakovich’s 7th symphony was held in the city, though we will never know how many members of the audience were digesting human meat as they listened to that thunderous piece of music. Today the enormous Piskarovskoe Memorial Cemetery on the northern outskirts of the city provides a sombre memorial to the dead. Nearly half a million skeletons are stored in mass graves, with no names or markers, just long low mounds marked by stones bearing the year in which the victims died. Visit in the summer and you might see something strange: the cemetery is a popular spot for Russian wedding parties. So while you stand there musing on man’s inhumanity to man, don’t be surprised if a laughing party of girls and boys start giggling and posing for photos…
Ordinary travel books focus on Saint Petersburg’s great art and literary traditions but overlook the city’s reputation as one of Russia’s major centres of skinhead violence. Foreign students, many of them from Africa, come to the northern capital at their peril, as do immigrants from Central Asia. Saint Petersburg gained special notoriety in 2004 when Khursheda Sultanova, a 9 year old girl from Tajikistan was stabbed 11 times by skinheads. Prior to that, most attacks had been directed against adults. The Russian police however, rarely recognise racist crimes and responded by implying her father was a drug dealer. If you want a taste, just head out, alone, after dark to one of the working class neighbourhoods that circle the city and ask for White Energy (a group that mistranslated its name from White Power) or the National Imperial Party of Russia, making sure you avoid the syringes lying in the kids’ play parks and the alcoholics slumped in doorways… or if you’re too scared, head to the Jewish cemetery and see the gravestones daubed with swastikas.
As any Russian will tell you, Moscow and Saint Petersburg are not Russia. Yet few tourists venture beyond these two cities, and with good reason: the distances are enormous, the cities are bleak, the food is terrible and the hotels are grim. But if you’re an anti-tourist that won’t stop you. In fact, there are mysterious pleasures to be had in a rotting hotel, with cockroaches crawling over you as you struggle to sleep on a rock hard mattress… and if you have the time and the energy, one of the strangest places you can visit is:
Few people realise that Russia is a federal republic consisting of many different nationalities with different religions. For example, the southern desert republic of Kalmykia is home to the descendants of a tribe of Buddhist Mongols who got stranded in Europe three hundred years ago. Today 150,000 of them remain, living alongside 150,000 Russians and Ukrainians in an area the size of Scotland. The ‘president’ of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilumzhinov, is a chess fanatic who claims to have been abducted by aliens. In fact, Ilumzhinov loves chess so much he built a city dedicated to it in the desert. Chess City contains several streets lined with nice modern houses and a four story high ‘Palace of Chess’ full of chess tables and photographs of Grand Masters, from Mikhail Tal to Garry Kasparov. However nobody lives there and the palace is pretty much abandoned. But straight-to-video action movie star Chuck Norris visited once, and there’s a photograph to prove it.
The Mari, another little known ethnic group, are also of great interest to the anti-tourist. Related to Finns, they are the last pagans in Europe. That is to say, they are not hippies in dresses but real pagans, who never converted to Christianity. In the villages of this republic there are sacred groves where the people pray to their various gods, and several times a year perform sacrifices. Usually they sacrifice small animals, such as rabbits, torturing them slowly to let the gods know how much pain they themselves are in. But once every five years they gather together and kill a horse, while saying prayers for the whole world. Russians fear the Mari due to their powerful magic, which they believe is always evil. The Mari deny this and say their magic is good. There are, however, several sects, and not all of them pray to Osh Kech Yuma, the good god. Some also seek help from Keremet, their Satan…
Serial Killer Heaven
Meanwhile, in the south of Russia, Rostov-on-Don gained international fame in the early 90s as the home of Andrei Chikatilo, the Soviet Union’s first serial killer. Between 1978 and 1990 Chikatilo killed at least 52 women and children, often cutting out their tongues, removing testicles and wombs and occasionally eating body parts. After a long search full of blunders where Chikatilo himself was picked up by the police only to be released several times, he was finally captured, tried (in a cage) convicted and shot in the back of the head. In the years following Chikatilo’s execution the region surrounding Rostov-on-Don gained some notoriety as several more psychotic sadists turned up, among them Roman Burtsev, who killed at least 6 children and Vladimir Bukhankin, who killed 8 women. There was a brief quiet spell in the late 90s but that appears to be ending and Rostov-on-Don is regaining its title as serial killer capital of Russia as in November of 2005 a woman and her two sons were arrested for kidnapping a man and eating his entrails… Important: do not confuse Rostov-on-Don with plain Rostov, which is a boring town containing some churches and a Kremlin.
If you plan on heading into Asian Russia, one thing you must never do is take the Trans-Siberian railway. Only naïve foreigners do this. It is rather like being locked in a coffin for two weeks, while outside your window endless flat plains roll slowly past. So if you’re going to visit the gangster graveyard in Yekaterinburg, you really ought to fly. Fortunately not all planes flying to the regions crash, so you stand at least a 50% chance of surviving.
In the 90s, Yekaterinburg was the scene of a bloody mafia war between two romantically named gangs Centralny (‘town centre’) and Uralmash (the name of a local metals plant). The struggle for control of the region led to many shootings and bombings, and as a result, the cemetery in north of the city is today an interesting monument to the period of ‘bandit capitalism’. Take a stroll through the forest of shiny black tombstones and marvel at the crassness of the Russian mobster. Many of the monoliths display full body portraits of flat-headed goons in tracksuits, wearing gold chains and dangling the keys to their Mercedes from their hands. But Russia has since moved on and it’s possible now, among these monuments to violent morons, to feel a strange nostalgia for a time that was simpler, if not happier, when people practically had to step over corpses on the way to work in the mornings.
Russia is so huge that there are some areas where nobody goes, ever. In the 1970s soviet explorers found a family who had been living in the depths of a forest since the 18th century, didn’t know there had been a revolution, and spoke in an archaic form of Russian. Also out there are corpses of mammoths frozen in ice. Periodically these are discovered, thawed and brought back to Saint Petersburg for study. The most famous mammoth was found in the Arctic circle at the start of the 20th century. He was so fresh that when he was thawed dogs ate his head, and rumours circulated in Moscow in the 1920s that some well connected communist functionary had also chowed down on a mammoth steak. Today his mummified corpse (complete with erection) is on display in the Zoological Museum in Saint Petersburg, handily located next to the Kunstkamera. But if you’re feeling adventurous, why not head out to Siberia and look for one yourself? Start on the river Lena where the last one was found, though of course, you might freeze to death instead…
The Red and the Black
No trip to Russia is complete without contemplating prison. In a country where nearly 1 million of the citizens are incarcerated and some statisticians claim that 25% of male population have been in jail, among them many leading political and business figures, it’s unquestionably a profound influence on society. Why, there are whole cities that began life as prison camps! Prisons are divided into two types—black and red. Black are those where the inmates are in charge, and the prison is run according to ‘Thieves’ Law’. Red are those where the administration rules. Though the black may be brutal, the red are generally considered worse. The worst prisons are in the Far East and Arctic Circle. Krasnokamensk (‘Red stone’) is a radioactive zone near China where Russia’s once-richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky is currently serving an 8 year sentence for tax evasion. Now he is being rehabilitated and acquiring valuable new skills, such as learning how to sew, while trying to avoid the attentions of psychotic predatory homosexuals and the contraction of tuberculosis (10% of Russia’s prisoners have TB). Many of Russia’s own citizens consider the rules of the jail to be as valid outside prison walls as within. For your information, these are: don’t ask anyone for anything, trust no-one, and fear no-one.
At the end of this tour however, you may feel somewhat darkened by this immersion in Russia’s grim yet fascinating reality. You may need salvation. Fortunately for you, Jesus lives in Siberia, in the southern Krasnoyarsk region to be precise. Well, maybe not Jesus, but his reincarnation at least, Vissarion Christ. Vissarion is an ex-traffic policeman who in 1991 realised he was the Messiah. Now he lives on top of a mountain surrounded by 5000 followers who inhabit over a hundred villages, where they eat vegetables, weave baskets, and wait for the end of the world, which Vissaron assures us is imminent. All you need do to join is sell everything and give it to the Church and they will build you a wooden house where you can live.
So there you have it. The largest country on Earth summed up in 3000 words. So if you’re contemplating a holiday that’s a bit different next year, throw away your Lonely Planet and take this guide instead. It will open your eyes to a world of darkness and grotesque drama you thought only existed in your most secret, macabre dreams…