Week 4 in Russia: Yekaterinburg, Tula, Leo Tolstoy's Estate

Friday, June 26, 2015

My train from Kazan pulled into Yekaterinburg right on time at 12.37 pm last Saturday afternoon. Nevertheless, it was two hours later than I'd expected. I hadn't anticipated that the departure and arrival times written on my ticket would be according to Moscow time, rather than local. This wasn't an issue in Kazan, which is in the same time zone as Moscow, but created confusion for me regarding my arrival in Yekaterinburg, which is two hours ahead of Moscow. So, the arrival time written on my ticket was 10.37 am. They were right, of course. It was 10.37, in Moscow. 

The trip from Kazan had been pretty easy. We'd set off at around 8 pm (Moscow-time!) the previous evening and I was traveling in a sleeping compartment of four berths (called a kupeinii compartment), as opposed to going platskartny, which is an entire car of open-berth dormitory-style beds that can make you feel like you're riding in a mobile refugee camp.

Having fun on the train
Sharing my compartment was a young woman named Irina from Yekaterinburg, who'd been in Kazan the past five days on business. Irina was the one who gave me the 411 regarding our arrival time. I vaguely recalled having read something about this in a guidebook years ago, but as I'd never traveled by train outside of Moscow's time zone, I'd forgotten this information. Anyway, it's worth remembering--not that this would help me on my way back, but more on that later. 

Gathering around chess players in Yekaterinburg

Russian trains can be cozy places. Every car is staffed by a provodnitsa, a woman responsible for maintaining general order and providing help with small matters--ours lent me a fork, for example, when she noticed that I didn't have a good one to use with the food that I'd brought with me. At the end of the car is a metal container filled with boiling water, which comes in handy for tea or ramen noodles. 

The first time I ever took a train in Russia had been a very different experience. It was 1993, and my girlfiend at the time and I wanted to travel from Moscow to St. Petersburg. We'd stopped into an official ("Intourist") agency, only to be told that the tickets we wanted would cost several hundred dollars. As we stood outside trying to figure out what to do, a Russian person who'd overheard our conversation with the agent came up to us and advised that we go directly to the train station and buy our tickets there. We followed her advice, and stood for over two hours in line to geth the tickets, which ended up costing something like $15 apiece. The train, which was really clean and comfortable, was practically empty. 

Vysotskii Tower, Yekaterinburg

After our train arrived in Yekaterinburg on Saturday morning, Irina showed me how to get to the closest metro station, and from there I made it to the neighborhood where I'd be staying within ten minutes or so. Stepping out of the metro station, I asked a dude how to get to the street where I would be staying. He said that he was heading in the same direction and, introducing himself as Vlad, walked me to the building where I'd be staying. 

Good times in Yekaterinburg

Yekaterinburg is probably best known as the place where the Romanovs were held prisoner and eventually executed in 1918. It's also Boris Yeltin's hometown and the first major city to the east of what's considered the Europe-Asia border in Russia, the Ural Mountains. 


It's a cool enough place. I spent three full days in town, staying at an AirBnB placed owned by a lady named Valentina. Yekaterinburg isn't the most interesting city I've ever visited, but I'd been intrigued by it for some time. Mainly, I think I wanted to go beyond the Urals, however briefly, perhaps to just get a taste of some parts of Russia that I'd like to visit in the future. 

Imperial-era building, now a museum

One of the first places I visited in Yekaterinburg was the Church of the Blood, which was built, in the early 2000s, on the site where Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1918. At that time, the site had been occupied by a large house, where the Romanovs had been imprisoned. In the late 1970s, the home--called the Ipatiyev House--was razed, leaving an empty lot until the church was constructed at the beginning of this century. 

Mural depicting Victor Tsoi, born on June 21

Reading just about any account of the execution of the Romanovs is a pretty chilling experience. Some of the daughters had sewn jewelry into their clothes, which prolonged their agony because the jewels had protected them, somewhat, from the gunshot wounds. The kids were shot, stabbed, hacked up. On the day I visited there was some kind of ceremony going on. The sound of the chimes was really plaintive and beautiful.  

View from the Vysotskii Tower

I stayed in Yekaterinburg until Tuesday morning, and then boarded a train to Moscow. It was a long trip--about 25 hours--and by the time it was over I was feeling pretty grimy. The fact that Yekaterinburg had been very humid, and that I'd boarded the train already soaked in sweat, didn't help. Although I managed to wash up a bit and change my clothes, I was still feeling pretty gross by the time we arrived. 

It hadn't been a bad trip, though. I'd shared a compartment with two middle-aged women who were heading to Moscow for a trade fair. We chatted for a bit, but mostly they kept to themselves. I read, wrote, and had a couple of beers in the train's restaurant car. Since June 21 is the birthday of Viktor Tsoi, the late frontman for the Soviet-era group Kino, I was hearing their music everywhere I went this week. In the restaurant car they were playing a bunch of Kino's songs, including "Films," in which I guy describes how his girlfriend is into movie stars, while he just likes to rock and roll. The refrain is always the same: it's unlikely that we'll be together for long. 

"I knew it would be bad--but not this soon"

Even after 25 hours or so on the train from Yekaterinburg to Moscow, I still had more traveling to do as Moscow wasn't my final destination. No--I was on my way to Tula, a few hours to the south. So, instead of heading for accommodation and a shower, I was riding the metro from Kazan station in Moscow, where my train from Yekaterinburg had arrived, to Kursk station, from which my train to Tula would depart. 

Getting into Kursk station, I headed upstairs to the waiting room and got online. I figured this would be the easiest way to check the schedule, as I hadn't yet bought a ticket for Tula. Scrolling down through the Russian train company's website, I saw there was one train leaving for Tula at 10.30. I checked the clock on my computer--it was 8 o'clock in the morning, so I still had a couple of hours at my disposal. I worked for a little while longer, made contact with my host in Tula, checked some emails, and then got up to go purchase my ticket. When my turn in line finally came, I asked the lady for the ticket I wanted and she'd said it had already departed. "But it's only 8.45," I said. "The train doesn't leave until 10.30." "Young man," she responded (I liked hearing this part), it is now 10.45--look!" She showed me her watch. My computer was still on Yekaterinburg time. 

Somewhere, Kool Moe Dee was shaking his head sadly. I still didn't know what time it was. 

Moscow Minute

Bell tower, Moscow Kremlin


There are worse things in life than having a few extra hours to kill in Moscow. I bought a ticket for the next Tula-bound train --at 3 pm--and put my backpack in the left-luggage room. Then I had breakfast and headed off to see the Kremlin, something I hadn't done in more than ten years, since the time I spent a month living in Moscow back when I was a graduate student in 2004.  

Still dressed for train travel
in front of Annunciation Cathedral

It was a gorgeous afternoon--sunny and warm but without the suffocating humidity that had enveloped Yekaterinburg the previous few days. Suddenly I didn't feel at all like someone who'd been traveling for over a day, and who still had a way to go. Indeed, I'd slept well on the train, had eaten a nice breakfast of blinny, or Russian crepes, and the breeze in Moscow felt almost as refreshing--emphasis on 'almost'--as a shower. Times being what they were, as they say, I had to make due with what was available to me. If I couldn't take a real shower, I'd have to make due with a virtual one. 

Moscow River, from inside Kremlin Walls

Visiting Lev Nikolayevich

Soon enough I was back at the Kursk train station boarding my ride down to Tula.

On the way down to Tula

Why Tula? To go to Yasnaia Poliana, of course. It's the estate of Leo Tolstoy, located about 30 minutes by bus from downtown Tula. Long before I became interested in Turkic-Muslim populations in the Russian Empire, I was fascinated by Russia itself. Having graduated from college in 1991, Russia and Eastern Europe were the places that I was most interested in during my college years. I still remember heading down to the dépanneur one morning in August and seeing the headline of the Montreal Gazette in bold font saying the Gorbachev had been overthrown in a coup. The Soviet Union, and by extension the former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe, struck me as utterly fascinating. 

Tolstoy's residence on the estate

I had ended up in Turkey only by accident. Well, it wasn't a total accident, but still--my original idea had been to teach English in someplace like Prague or Budapest after college. This was the "New Europe," after all. But, during the course of a four-month trip after college, I was offered a job in Turkey and the rest, as they say, is history. Or at least my personal variant thereof. Nevertheless, I would eventually find a Russian teacher in Istanbul--for the first time in my life I studied a foreign language just for fun, rather than due to a specifically practical reason. 

Yasnaia Poliana

I hadn't read any Tolstoy until I'd started living in Istanbul in September of 1992. By that time I'd become a full-fledged Russophile, listening to Radio Moscow's English-language services through a cheap little shortwave radio I'd bought in the electronics district in Istanbul. And then, I started dating an Irishwoman who had a thing for Russian writers. She introduced me to Tolstoy, and had copies of both Anna Karenina and War and Peace on her bookshelf. These two books--with their short chapters--were perfect reading for someone who regularly commuted between Europe and Asia, spending many hours per week traveling by boat, bus, and shared taxi. 

Back in high school, I'd taken a class called "Humanities" that had exposed us all to, I think, two or three chapters of Anna Karenina. What a waste of time. As a seventeen year old, I was much too young to appreciate this book, what little I'd read of it. But then, riding various forms of public transportation between the continents in Istanbul, I quickly fell in love with Tolstoy's style. When the Irishwoman and I eventually traveled together to Russia in August of 1993, one of the first places we set out to see was Tolstoy's winter home in Moscow. But we'd never made it to Yasnaia Poliana. 

Marker of home where Tolstoy was born


Actually it's kind of crazy that it's taken me this long to get here--nearly 22 years after my first trip to Russia. But back when I was in graduate school, I was hanging out mostly where the Muslims were, in places like Kazan or Ufa. Tula wasn't really on my radar. 

Path leading in and out of estate



But hey, that's one of the nice things, for an assistant professor, about finishing one's book. You get to do stuff like travel to places where you aren't doing archival research or presenting at a conference. It's a nice feeling. So I took the bus this morning from Tula out to Yasnaia Poliana. The conductress on the bus was friendly, but told me she wasn't sure where Tolstoy's estate was. Still, she said that she was pretty certain that it was after the town of Yasnaia Poliana. Then, she found some other passengers who were going to a hospital located on the same road as Tolstoy's estate, and she hooked me up with them.

I walked up the path with Larissa Ivanovna and Dmitri (patronymic not revealed) after we descended from the bus, answering the usual questions about who I am and why I speak "such excellent Russian." My Russian, of course, is not excellent, especially when I compare it to the Turkic languages that I know, but still. I love speaking Russian so much, and it's always been so hard for me to feel comfortable with it, that I take immense pleasure in learning to speak it better. And that was kind of one of the points of doing this trip--speaking to people like Irina, Vlad, Valentina, Larissa Ivanovna and the others, even if much of the conversation just repeats itself from one time to the other. Having been out of Russia for five years, I was feeling shaky about my speaking skills not so long ago. Even though I'd never stopped reading archival material and scholarly literature in Russian, I was feeling unsure of myself when it came to speaking. Now I feel much more self-confident, and I think my conversational skills are now similar to what they were in the early 2000s, when I was spending several months a year, on average, in various Russian-speaking environments. 

Tolstoy's unmarked grave, Yasnaia Poliana

After taking a 90-minute tour of the estate's buildings with a group of about 10 other people, I set out to explore the grounds on my own. Toward the end of my wanderings I headed out to Tolstoy's grave, which is unmarked and alone in the forest about a fifteen minute walk from the house that he lived in. As stupid as this might sound, I thanked him for the various ways he'd shaped my life. When I was in my 20s, I saw--for better or for worse--so many of my relationships, especially people I loved, in terms of his writing. And whereas my interest in Russia back when I was a university student had mainly been focused on politics and international relations, Tolstoy and the other Russian writers that I read when I was in Istanbul (a lot of Dostoyevskii and a fair bit of Chekhov's short stories) had not only introduced me somewhat to Russian culture, but also had kept me company during a time that could have otherwise been quite lonely in some respects. Frankly, if it hadn't been for Tolstoy, I wonder if I would have even pursued Russia, and the Russian language, to the extent that I did in Istanbul.

I wonder if I'd even be in Russia today.

More photos from this week can be found in a photo album that I've put up in the Borderlands Lounge

Order your copy of Turks Across Empires at the OUP website or on Amazon

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