The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged Russia

Moscow’s Gulag Museum

Moscow Gulag MuseumMoscow’s Gulag History Museum has moved to a new, larger, building with new exhibits and a new narrative.

The building’s exterior is deliberately stark and austere, even forbidding. The interior exhibition space has been given a distinctly prison-like style. It is mostly one large multi-level hall, with many side rooms for specific topics.

Gulag Museum.2The Museum covers the history of the Gulag, describing the transition from the revolutionary optimism of 1917 to the harsh realities of the 1920s and 1930s, and then on through to Stalin’s death in 1953. There is a reasonable amount of English signage, although for some detailed topics there is only Russian. The exhibits start with a collection of cell doors and include various gulag artifacts and prisoner’s possessions. A side room shows videos (with English sub-titles) of now-elderly victims describing their arrests and trials.

Gulag Museum.3I had been concerned that as part of the move to new quarters the Museum’s messages might have been softened, as has happened at Perm. But, no, the signage is very clear and crisp in describing the use of the Gulag system not merely for common criminals but as an instrument of political repression. Unusually for today’s Russia, there is a willingness to confront some of the harsher realities of the Soviet past. For example, the description of the Great Purge of 1937-1938 speaks freely of 1.5 million arrests and 700,000 executions.

I spent a couple of hours wandering around, reading the signs, watching the videos, and reflecting.

If you are interested in Soviet history, or in the impact of the past on today’s Russia, it is definitely worth a visit.

Practicalities: Here’s a link to the Gulag Museum Website. The Museum is at 1st Samotechny per., 9, bld. 1, Moscow. The nearest metro is Dostoyevskaya.

Buddhist Elista

Elista PagodaI’m in Elista, in South-West Russia, Europe’s largest (only!) Buddhist city.  A Pagoda, a Golden Temple, stupas, a giant golden Buddha statue, assorted Buddhist art.   And amazingly few tourists.

Elista is home to the Kalmyks, a western arm of the Mongols, who settled in the plains North of the Caucasus in the 17th century.  They’ve had a complex history, including wholesale exile to Siberia under Stalin, and a subsequent slow return under Khruschev.  Since 1991 there has been a major revival of Tibetan Buddhism, including visits from the Dalai Lama.

The city has strange juxtapositions.  In many ways it feels like a typical, mundane, post-Soviet city, with decaying industry, drab Soviet apartment blocks, and rickety infrastructure.  But then suddenly there’s an unexpected Buddhist shrine.

Elista Golden TempleThe centerpiece is the Golden Temple, built in 2005, an extremely flamboyant structure, with concrete columns, elaborate decorations and much gold leaf.  Inside is a giant golden statue of the Buddha, complete with pink fingernails, and many Tibetan Buddhist murals.

Unfortunately, the temple comes across in some ways as an alien implant, using external designs and motifs, with no evidence of local Kalmyk influence on the art or construction. The Kalmyks had followed a branch of Tibetan Buddhism, but I suspect they must have developed their own styles and traditions. So I am curious as to how well this wholesale import of a pre-fabricated Buddhist tradition is being accepted by local society.

When I was there the temple was very quiet, with only an occasional worshiper.  There were a tiny handful of Russian tourists, but no other Westerners.

What more could you ask for?  A statue of Lenin?  Yes, he’s here too, lurking with a rather disapproving expression in the shadow of the Pagoda.

Elista Golden Buddha Elista Lenin
I came in by bus from Astrakhan (5 hours) and I’ll be heading out on another 5 hour bus ride to Stavropol. To help other travellers, here’s an image of the Elista bus timetable. But note that many services are marked “закрыт” (“cancelled”).

Russia-Azerbaijan Border

The Russian-Azerbaijan border used to be closed to foreigners. But a couple of recent postings over on the Lonely Planet forums had indicated that the Russian regulations have changed to allow non-CIS citizens to cross.  I was in the Caucasus, so I thought I would give it a try, starting from Derbent in Dagestan and going through to Baku. Here are some notes for anyone else taking that route.

Derbent Citadel

Derbent Citadel

I originally planned to take a bus or a shared taxi. In Derbent, the long distance buses leave from the South Bus Station. The timetable there lists a Baku bus, leaving Derbent at 11:20 and getting into Baku at 16:40. Hurrah! But when I tried to buy a ticket, all I got was headshakes. When I went back to look at the timetable, people indicated I shouldn’t pay any attention to it. The ticket office ladies were trying to be helpful and seemed to be saying that I needed to take a taxi to the border. Hmm. It looks as through the bus may not be running at the moment for some reason. And I couldn’t find any signs of shared taxis.

I did find a taxi driver willing to go to the border. But then we ran into the problem of there being several crossing points and which one did I want?  I thought it would be easiest to take the major M29 route, which runs across the Samur River to the Azerbaijan town of Samur.  But in the end I left it to the taxi driver. For some reason he didn’t seem to want to try the M29 crossing and near the border he cut across from the M29 through minor dirt roads to try a crossing near the Russian town of Filya.  At that crossing the Russian immigration officer made it clear I couldn’t cross there, but redirected us towards the Yalama crossing.

[Afterwards I learned that the M29 road crossing often suffers severe delays and I think my taxi driver was trying to help me by taking me to a faster crossing.  It wasn’t clear to me whether or not cars were being allowed across at Yalama, so if you have a car it may be safest to stick with the M29 route.]

Along the way we got stopped a couple of times at police checkpoints. At one, I was taken aside and my passport very carefully scrutinized. Then there was some rubbing of thumb and fingers together and significant smiles. It was clear that a small gift was expected. But I gave a very polite “no” and after a repeated try and slightly disappointed looks this was accepted with good grace.

Baku Flame Towers

Baku Flame Towers

At Yalama I was able to get through without major difficulties. My passport and visas did get an unusual degree of scrutiny on both sides and the Azeri officer in particular looked at almost every pixel. He even wanted to see my US Green Card, but I think that was mostly just curiosity. After exiting on the Azerbaijan side I found plenty of people offering “taxi?” and after a quick break, I chose one and we leapt off at full Azeri racing speed to Baku.

I left Derbent around 8:00am. It was about one hour from Derbent to the border, about an hour total to cross the border and then a little under 3 hours to Baku. Plus some lost time at the failed crossing point.

I speak only a few words of Russian and I have lousy haggling skills, so I paid 1300 Rubles for the taxi to the border and another 2500 Rubles for the taxi to Baku. A skilled Russian speaking haggler could probably do much better.

Makhachkala to Derbent: I had got to Derbent from Makhachkala by a marshrutka from Makhachala’s South Bus Station. It took 2 hours and 170 rubles.  Marshrutkas seem to depart quite frequently, at least every half hour. At Derbent I got dropped off at the central bus station. This seems to be only for local traffic (the long distance buses use the South bus station) and the staff there denied all knowledge of a place called Baku.

Safety: Dagestan has safety issues at the moment and there are regular ugly incidents between Islamic insurgents and the police. I recommend reading up carefully on current status before visiting. The situation is ugly, but the militants don’t seem to be targeting the general population, let alone random travellers. I saw a fair amount of security in the government area around Lenin Square in Makhachkala, but less elsewhere, and very little in Derbent. I felt quite safe walking around both cities, although I realize that can be misleading.   People I met were all friendly and helpful.  (But please do not try to go wandering alone in the back country!)

Samara: Stalin Bunker

I am in Samara, where I have successfully infiltrated the Stalin Bunker.

The bunker was build in great secrecy and in great haste in 1941, when Moscow was in danger and Kuibyshev (aka Samara) was the fallback Soviet capital.  But Moscow survived and Stalin chose to stay in the city even during its most dangerous moments, so the bunker was never actually used in anger.

The bunker entrance is hidden behind an innocuous steel door. You then head down 8 flights of stairs, mounted in an armored steel cylinder, to reach the top of the bunker proper. The bunker then occupies seven levels, with the “Stalin” level at the very bottom, 190 steps from the surface.

The current decor is a modern restoration of what the long ago Stalin headquarters might have looked like.  There is a large formal conference room, with a giant war map.  Opposite is a mid-sized office, with a giant “Stalin Desk”.  All ready for the great man, should he suddenly reappear on the scene.

The Bunker authorities make heavy play on the Stalin name, although he probably never actually visited. The authorities also carefully preserve a distinctly Stalinist style towards visitors.  They only admit pre-arranged groups and do not allow individuals.  It is possible to pay for of an entire group of 20, but you still need to book in advance and since the bunker authorities don’t have an email or speak English, you typically need to work through a tour agency (more below).

I was lucky enough to arrive as a group of fourteen young students and their teacher were about to enter.  I was initially given head-shakes and my entrance fee turned away.  But after a bit, after there were some discussions in Russian, I was deemed harmless and allowed to tag along with the student group.  This meant I needed to wait patiently through several very thorough lectures in Russian on the history of the bunker, but that was a small price to pay to get into a tour.

On the way out, make sure to admire the modern Stalin-themed stained glass window near the entrance.

Practicalities: The bunker is at 57 Ul. Frunze (53.196710, 50.098201), under the Academy of Culture. It has its own separate entrance around the back. Nominal hours are 11-1 and 2-3, Mon-Fri.

Stalin Bunker Plan

Stalin Bunker 1 Stalin Bunker 2

Stalin Bunker conference roomStalin Bunker OfficeStalin Bunker Stained Glass

I emailed three tour agencies to try to arrange a visit (Samara Tour, Y-RA, Samara InTour) without success. Eventually I reached a company “holiday-tours@mail.ru” who were willing to set up a tour for me, but at the group rate of 5000 Rubles, which seemed a little stiff.

The best bet is probably to try to join on to an existing tour. There seemed to be groups going through roughly hourly, on the hour, when I was there. It seems that if they are under the group size limit (which I think is 20 people) and you seem harmless, they may let you tag along. I paid 80 Rubles for my visit, but I may have lucked into a student discount.

Magitogorsk
I’m in fabled Magnitogorsk, Stalin’s Steeltown USSR. The steel plant is truly vast, running for miles along the Asian bank of the Ural River. Some parts are old and decrepit looking, others appear sparkling and ultra-modern. On a snowy day like today, the plant is covered with a pall of smoke and steam, as hot smokestack gases hit the icy air.

This was the mighty steel works that Stalin decreed should exploit the ores of the Magnetic Mountain, safely behind the Urals, far from any invader. In its heyday it was a symbol of Soviet industrialization, a vast new plant built from scratch in the middle of nowhere at enormous human cost. For detailed histories see Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, John Scott’s Behind the Urals, and Kotkin’s Steeltown USSR.

Lonely Planet is mostly silent on Magnitogorsk, so here are a few pointers for your visit:

Urals to the Front in Victory Park (53.407248,58.992398) is a giant WWII monument showing a steelworker handing an enormous sword to a Soviet soldier. The monument is on the European bank of the Ural River and provides a good view over to the Steelworks on the Asian side.

The Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Kombine Museum at Pushkin Prospkt 19 (53.394086,59.061326) (8-12 + 1-5) covers the history of the plant construction, its WWII contributions, and its more modern history. There are some small dioramas and a giant scale model of today’s steelworks. But pride of place is taken by several large models of the latest ultra-modern sections of the plant, with animated equipment and with moving lights or metal foil representing moving steel.

The fine Local Lore Museum at Ul. Soviet Army 51-A (53.392004,58.988903) is dedicated to the city’s history, from the Kazakh and Tsarist periods, through the crash industrialization era, and into the Soviet glory years. This includes a fine selection of Soviet posters exhorting steelworkers to new heroism.

There is also a small City History Museum at Ul. Soviet 145/3 (53.39584,58.963577) but that is mostly a subset of the MMK and Local Lore museums and can be skipped.

Two smaller monuments are the Tent Monument at 53.426009, 58.997673 commemorating the incredibly harsh initial living conditions in tents on the frozen steppes; and a Socialist Realism statue of a Heroic Steelworker at 53.437145, 58.981434, in front of the train station.

There is a hilltop viewpoint at 53.385607, 59.055632 at the south end of Ul. Kirova, which provides good vistas over the factory area.

The symbolic Factory Gates at 53.41524,59.05416 feature a blackened but resolute Lenin fronting a series of bas-reliefs of striving steelworkers.  The statue of Stalin used to stand here.

Practicalities: I stayed at the very pleasant Hotel Laguna at 9 Ul. Naberegnaya, which includes an indoor water park and a good sushi restaurant. I’d recommend Coffee House at 37 Pr. Lenina as a relaxing place to gorge on lattes, cakes and muffins.

Urals to FrontMMK MuseumMagnitogorsk Local Lore Museum

Magnitogorsk Tent Monument Magnitogorsk Steelworker Statue

Magnitogorsk Lenin

(Lattes, muffins, sushi and water slides. What would Stalin think?)

There are frequent buses (5 hrs) to and from Chelyabinsk. The main bus station (outside the train station) is a little confusing. There seem to be three competing bus companies, each with its own ticket office. They overlap on routes, but have separate schedules and separate departure areas. On departure make sure to check with one of the ticket controllers that you are waiting in the right place, and don’t just trust the signs!

I mostly used the tram network to get around. Here’s a route map. Tram 4 runs from Ul Leningradsky on the West side across the Ural and past the MMK Museum.

The city has a reputation as being heavily polluted, but I didn’t notice any particular problems in my short visit. Rather to my surprise, given the rather alarming appearance of the steel plant, the air at ground level seemed fresh and clean.

Moscow: Bunker 42

Bunker 42 is an authentic Soviet era nuclear bunker in Moscow, now open as a museum. It is extremely cool.

The main tunnels provided 7000 sq meters of space, 65 meters under Moscow’s Taganskaya Hill. You enter through a fake building on the surface, which provides four meters of protective concrete around the bunker entrance. The deep tunnels are further shielded with a meter of concrete and four inches of steel. It was built in the 1950s and was an active Soviet nuclear-era installation, functioning as a hardened command and communication center for the Moscow military leadership. A prototype of the bunker design was tested at Semipalatinsk and after various domestic animals inside survived a large nearby nuclear blast, the design was approved for Moscow.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the bunker was kept on high alert with 650 military staff in full lock-down for ten days. Ten days that might have changed the world…

The tour starts by descending the 288 stairs from the entrance to the main bunker core. Then we watched a short introductory film, explaining the nuclear arms race from a Russian/Soviet perspective and describing the motivation for the bunker. It was very interesting to hear that alternative perspective, where the Soviet Union is at risk, but the Cuban Missile Crisis still a potential catastrophe for both sides. It was also interesting to hear our guide’s overtly pro-Soviet perspective, including such phrases as “… until our country was destroyed in 1991 …”.

The bunker occupies four giant tunnels, which are cross-linked and also have service connections into the Moscow Metro system. In most places the tunnels are split into two stories, but there are occasional full double-height sections. Unlike the Stalin bunker, this feels like a real hardened war bunker, full of steel and concrete. It’s great!

The canteen and living areas have been converted into a modern restaurant and conference center for special events.  (The perfect place for a wedding!)

As part of the museum, they have a pair of missile silo control panels, imported from a real Soviet ICBM site. Once again I managed to get one of the command chairs as we simulated a launch. The procedure is a little more complicated than at the Titan silo. We had to each simultaneously turn a control key, then enter the launch codes, then each of us simultaneously push a button and turn a key. Unlike the Titan silo, the Soviet crews had the launch codes in a safe and could in theory launch independently. It was fascinating to emulate a Soviet launch, though a little less spooky than doing it in a real missile silo.

IMG_1099IMG_1107IMG_1110IMG_1135IMG_1119

Practicalities

IMG_1151The bunker entrance is at 55.741701, 37.649088 at Building 11, 5-y Kotelnicheskiy Pereulok. The nearest metro is Taganskaya. The bunker entrance is a little hard to spot. Look for a side entrance on the South of 5th Kotelnicheskiy Lane with a barrier gate and then about ten meters in a steel gate with a large Soviet star. That’s it!

You need to book in advance. A place on an English language tour costs 1300 Rubles. Our group had twelve people, which I think is their maximum. The tour lasts 90 minutes. The Bunker-42 website is www.bunker42.com and their contact email is cwm@bunker42.com.

For the film, our group was offered the choice of a 30 minute English language film, or an 18 minute Russian film with English subtitles. We opted for the shorter film, as that would give us more time actually touring the bunker. This turned out to be an unexpectedly good choice, as we got to see the Russian/Soviet perspective on the nuclear arms race.