What did Boris do?
We reached our next Trans-Siberian stop: #Yekaterinburg (or #Ekaterinburg, as it's sometimes spelt). What a great city. It has everything: fascinating history, geology with gems, prosperous industry, thriving music and art scene and most importantly, our friend Valentina came to meet us.
We met Valentina and her sister Olga in Argentina (see Day 447) spending a lovely time with them in El Chaltén. When I mentioned to Valentina that we were going to Russia, she immediately arranged to see us, organising for us to stay with her other sister Natasha who lives in Yekaterinburg. We do meet the kindest and generous people.
What a delightful family; we met Natasha, her son, daughter and grandchildren, and also one of Valentina’s daughters and her eldest grandson. They all chipped in and helped us, one way or another, driving us around, feeding us, chatting with us. We are very blessed.
On our time in this fine city, Valentina took us around key landmarks. First was to see the #ChurchOnTheBlood, built on the spot where the last Tsar of Russia Nicholas II, his wife and five children and servants were murdered by Bolsheviks in 1918. The cathedral was consecrated 85 years after their death, and what a fine building it is; white with gold domes on the outside, and beautifully decorated with muted colours and a serene feel on the inside.
The family and servants were canonised as Passion-Bearers by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000; surprising as many perceive Nicholas II as a weak leader whose incompetence led to the revolution.
One guide directed us to the Imperial Room in the lower church, opened last year on the site of the basement room of the Ipatiev House where the brutal killings took place. What stood out for us was the stunning mosaic, created by specialists from a Monastery in Minsk, depicting the Holy Royal Passion-Bearers and their faithful servants.
Later in the day, we zoomed up the 52 floors to the top of Vysotsky Business Centre to experience a very cold and windy view of the city, with old and new buildings blending together, the Iset River weaving its way through, constricted by the dam, originally built during Peter the Great’s rule, making this the oldest structure in the city. I loved the paintings of the tower; isn't it fascinating how people interpret a place so differently.
The highlight was visiting the museum in the #BorisYeltsinPresidentialCenter “for the preservation, study and public presentation of the heritage of the first President of the Russian Federation”. Valentina thought we would whizz around the museum in an hour, but it was so fascinating that we ended up there for more like 2.5 hours!
We learnt, not just about Boris Yeltsin life, but also a window into the lives of ordinary people and the complexities of Russian economics and power during his leadership.
Yeltsin came from a family of hardworking peasants. Through their industriousness, they built a mill, selling flour to local people. They were categorised as Kulaks, affluent peasants and under Stalin’s #DekulakizationPolicy, their farm was violently seized, and they were left with nothing.
Valentina shared a similar story from her own family, the stress eventually killing her grandfather, aged 47. I find it so difficult to understand how people can segregate their neighbours, sadly history repeats itself, people ostracise others who are different and often through propaganda and paranoia, they are dehumanised, resulting in, at its worst, genocide.
Back to the museum: Boris was a rebel and a reformer even from a young age. Despite his natural leadership qualities, he was expelled from school for announcing that a certain teacher should be banned from teaching as she was exploiting children to do her domestic chores.
The structure of the museum was called “The Seven Days”; the story of Boris Yeltsin forming a new Russia:
Day 1 "We are waiting for changes!" – Yeltsin’s speech on October 1987, where he criticised the leadership and communism, shocking many and showing courage and determination. In 1990 he resigned from the Communist Party in front of 4,000 delegates in the Kremlin Palace, eventually becoming the first President of the Russian Federation in 1991.
Day 2 “August coup d’état" – We walked into a room representing a typical apartment with a small TV set showing “Swan Lake”. This ballet was continuously played for three days during the 1991 August Coup d’état where hard-line communists tried to overturn the government. Local Moscow people built a human shield around the White House, but mainly the general public was kept in the dark. Finally, the coup failed.
Day 3 “Unpopular measures" – The end of 1991, the price of crude oil had fallen by 25%, shops were bare, currency devalued and people were hungry. Valentina remembers clearly the enormous queues where she would line up for a loaf of bread, while at the same time, the price would be rising. The museum states that Yeltsin established brave and innovative changes with freedom of trade. Times changed where people could travel abroad, entrepreneurs thrived, and TV programmes were more liberal.
Day 4 “Birth of the Constitution" – Another bloody internal conflict resulted in Yeltsin appealing to the people and calling for an election. A new constitution declared Russia to be “a democratic, federative law-governed state with a republican form of government”. Copies of the constitution were free to take away; it was in Russian, so we didn’t.
Day 5 "Vote or Lose" – A re-election in early 1996 after difficult times. The communist party was leading the polls. Yeltsin had reservations about standing for the second time, especially as he was in poor health, needed heart surgery. One slogan challenged people to participate in the election or lose the freedom they have gained; another slogan said: “Listen to your heart”. He won.
Day 6 “Presidential marathon” – Yelstin compared his time as President to a marathon – a relentless and gruelling race. It was like a rollercoaster, with the world stock market crash in the mid-1997 and a time of great change for people both political and economically.
Day 7 “Farewell to the Kremlin" On 31st December 1999, Boris Yeltsin stunned the nation by resigning as President. He offered an apology for the mistakes he made.
We found the museum quite moving. It showed that Yeltsin, through his vision and determination, liberated Russians from the dogmatic Soviet years of repression to freedom of speech, religion, politics and open borders. But history is never a simple black and white picture. His presidency was chaotic, he was often seen drunk, and it is said that handouts were given to Kremlin allies. The Museum has even had protests in front of the building, criticising the distortion of historical events and demanding closure.
In the evening Valentina kindly took us to the #UralOperaBalletCompany to see Verdi’s #Rigoletto with her delightful 19-year-old grandson Mark. This opera was Tim’s Dad’s favourite so very poignant. The interpretation was focussed on the psychology of Rigoletto for his love of his daughter Gilda. We all agreed that the Soprano who played Gilda was incredible, her voice was like a sweet song of a canary, effortless even when reaching the high notes. Such an enjoyable performance in a beautiful opera house. And then we came out to snow!
What a fabulous day in Yekaterinburg, a day that will be remembered for many years to come, and a huge thank you to Valentina and her wonderful family.