The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

I took a trolleybus out to the delightful Riga Motor Museum.  This hosts a fine collection of historic vehicles, but most famous is their exhibit of classic Kremlin cars, acquired back when Latvia was still an SSR.

Their finest piece is probably the preserved wreckage of Leonid Brezhnev’s beloved Rolls Royce Silver Shadow.   (Apparently there was a sad lack of Rolls Royce repair shops in Soviet Moscow.)  Brezhnev had a passion for  high end cars, typically gifts from foreign governments, and for driving them at speed.  In 1980 he disastrously pranged the Rolls Royce.  The exhibit has a touching reconstruction, including an authentically equipped Soviet motorcycle cop and an authentically wooden-looking Brezhnev.

But my own favourite is Stalin’s pristine 1950 armoured ZiS-115S.  Complete with an inscrutable back seat passenger.

Stalin in ZiS-115S

Backseat Stalin

And isn’t that Andrei Gromyko exiting a ZIL?

Moscow’s Tretyakov Sculpture Garden (aka the Art Muzeon Sculpture Park) hosts a wide variety of modern sculptures, including a number of abandoned Soviet statues.  These statues appear to be consciously presented as debris from a past life – this doesn’t seem like an attempt to glorify the Soviet past, but merely to record it.  It is at GPS 55.7361,37.6090 outside the New Tretyakov gallery, just South of the giant Peter the Great statue. It’s well worth a visit if you care about Moscow’s Soviet past.

 Felix Dzerzhinsky StatueA striking and dramatic statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka (later the NKVD, then the KGB) on a high plinth with the KGB emblem at the front. This is the very statue that used to stand in front of the KGB headquarters in Lubyanka Square and which was dramatically toppled in August 1991.
A rare Brezhnev bust, looking characteristically blank.

A sad and defaced Stalin statue.

Stalin and Lenin busts, guarding giant Soviet insignia.

 

New Tretyakov Gallery

The New Tretyakov hosts many Soviet era paintings. A couple that caught my eye were:

“”Defence of Petrograd””, A. Deineka (1927).

The workers’ militia marches to the front. The injured return.

“A People’s Court”, S. B. Nikritin (1934).

A grim view of Soviet Power, showing a strange mixture of threat and fear. A very brave painting for 1934.

Astana’s Cosmonauts

Astana takes pride in being Kazakhstan’s visionary new capital. But in the older parts of town there are also many traces of the Soviet past.

Astana Cosmonauts

My favorite of these is a fine Soviet era mosaic outside the train station, showing a spectacled engineer and a waving cosmonaut.  A nice reminder of Kazakstan’s broader role in the USSR.

Welcome to the Land of the Cosmonauts!

For the Scots among you: Yes that does look like a Saltire on the foreground figure. I’m not quite sure what’s intended there: The Russian navy also uses a St Andrew’s cross, but they normally use a blue cross on a white background. Hmm.

When I was a lad, Vladivostok was impossibly exotic, remote and inaccessible.  It was a closed city, the home of the jealously guarded Soviet Pacific Fleet, inaccessible to regular Soviet citizens, let alone wicked foreigners.

Well, nowadays a standard Russian tourist visa will let you enter Vladivostok and you can wander at will around the city.  I had vaguely expected that the naval base would still be hidden away, discreetly veiled from touristic eyes.  But no!  Back in the day, there was no need to hide it, since the whole city was a closed area.   So today the remaining ships of the Russian Pacific Fleet sit quietly in the main harbor, visible to all.

I took the funicular up to Eagle’s Nest Hill, for a fine (albeit hazy) view of the Golden Horn harbor and various Russian warships.  I nervously took a few snaps.  Some part of me was still vaguely expecting the heavy hand of Soviet Power to drop on my shoulder.  Far from it: a random tourist taking snapshots in today’s Russia is not a big deal.  (And in the age of high resolution satellites, random tourist snaps are probably neither here nor there.)

For dessert, I wandered over to the the charming Vladivostok Fortress Museum.  As well as the fortress exhibits, this has many fine Soviet military toys outside and you are encouraged to clamber over the guns and even elevate or rotate the small ones.

Side note:  When I was in Karaganda (Kazakhstan) I had been puzzled to find a significant number of ethnic Koreans there, supposedly resettled there by Stalin.  Well, when the Tsars founded Vladivostok (“Lord of the East”) as their great Pacific base,  it was in an area settled by ethnic Koreans.  Much later, like other ethnic groups straddling the USSR’s frontiers, they were deemed a security risk by Stalin and exiled to the Kazakh steppes.

A Day in Transdniester

Now entering Transdniestre!

Transdniester Entry: Welcome to the USSR!

On my way from Chisinau to Odessa, I passed through Tiraspol, the capital of the strange territory of Transdniester (aka Transdniestr, or Transdnestr, or Transnistria, or Transdniestria).  This is a narrow slice of Moldova with an ethnic Russian majority.  Back when the USSR was dissolved, these good folk were alarmed to discover that Moldova was proposing to unite with Romania.  They could reluctantly accept being Moldovan, but the prospect of becoming Romanian was too much for them to bear, and they seceded.  A peace-keeping force was eventually dispatched, but, since no one seems particularly interested in resolving the dispute, the area remains one of Eastern Europe’s frozen conflicts.

Tiraspol Lenin

Tiraspol Lenin

Transdniester itself is now a wonderful throwback to the grand old days of the USSR, with a hammer-and-sickle on the flag and coinage, a commemorative WWII Red Army tank, and a dashing statue of Lenin outside the Presidential Palace.  At the train station the young lady at the left luggage desk seemed resolutely convinced that if she only spoke Russian loudly enough then eventually I would understand her.

Transdniester’s economy is reputed to flourish on what can be most kindly called the “grey market” and its unelected government does not welcome outside interest.  As a result, it seems to be content to remain unrecognized.  Its de facto foreign policy seems to be to avoid being noticed.   Life is profitable for the elite, and being unrecognized and unknown avoids many troublesome inquiries.

Entering Transdniester was easy, but it turned out (by accident or design) I had not received the right entry stamps on my forms.  So when I came to exit, two cheerful immigration officers with very limited English took me into their office and explained that there was “problem” with my forms.  I was told that I should “go back” to get this fixed.  Yes, right.  I politely declined.

So then we got to the crunch.  It appeared a small gift would facilitate matters:

  • Guard (meaningfully): “Present!”
  • Me (politely):  “No.”
  • Guard (emphatically): “Present!”
  • Me (politely but vigorously):  “No!”

The guard then fidgeted with stuff on his desk.  After a minute I realized he was fingering a pair of handcuffs in what I think was supposed to be an intimidating way.  But alas, I’m afraid he wasn’t very convincing.  After a further short pause, he realized I wasn’t buying it, reluctantly gave up on me as a bad job, handed back my passport and let me leave.  (Sigh.  These wicked foreigners just have no respect for local traditions!)

I admit that I was fortified by my reading of Transdniester’s foreign policy (to not be noticed).  The border guards may hope for gifts, but I suspect they would be in deep trouble if they actually caused any significant incidents with foreign nationals.

Zoroastrian Yazd

The city of Yazd is the main remaining Zoroastrian center in Iran.  Zoroastrianism is (along with Christianity and Judaism) one of the three recognized and protected religious minorities under the Islamic Republic’s constitution.  So worship and pilgrimages are officially  tolerated, although probably not exactly encouraged.

ZoroastrianTower of Silence

"Tower of Silence" near Yazd

I hired a car and guide for the trip out to the Zoroastrian shrine at Chak Chak.  We stopped first at one of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence atop a steep hill near Yazd.  The Zoroastrian religion forbids the polluting of the pure elements (especially water, earth and fire) with a corpse.  So both cremation and earth burial were disavowed.  Instead, bodies were exposed to be devoured by vultures in these “towers of silence”.  This is an odd inversion of the normal Christian or Muslim customs: the emphasis is not on preventing disturbance to the body, but rather on preventing the body disturbing the elements.

The tower was much lower and flatter than I expected.  It is really a circular wall, around 15-20 feet high,  around a raised platform.  This example is about 180 years old.  According to my guide, after the bodies had been devoured by vultures, the bones were collected in a central hole and then periodically dissolved by nitric acid.  It is now disused: the modern practice is to perform burials in concrete lined tombs.

Road to Chak ChakThe Chak Chak site is about 73 km from Yazd and is revered as a miraculous place of refuge for the pious daughter of the last of the Zoroastrian Persian Kings.  In 640 AD the Princess and a few retainers were fleeing in despair from the Arab invaders, across the Iranian desert.  According to the tale, they were close to death from thirst when the Princess tapped her staff on a rock and miraculously a tiny drip-drip of water appeared.  That drip-drip, in Persian “chak chak”, gives the name to the site.

The Chak Chak  ShrineThe site is on the side of a forbidding craggy mountain, a long drive from Yazd across an arid gravelly desert.  The mountain side looks entirely dry and desolate. I can well imagine that after emerging from the desert, the discovery of an entirely unexpected tiny spring, literally only drips, may have well seemed like a miracle to the pious.

The shrine, at the top of many steep steps, is covered by a fairly recent dome and protected by a modern stone wall and stout bronze doors.  Tree trunks grow sideways out of the wall in front of the entrance.  Inside, there is still a drip-drip of water, now being caught in silver bowls.  It is a small site, but it is both simple and charming.  The shrine is the target for annual pilgrimages each June and various Zoroastrian communities have built their own hostels near the site, to shelter their pilgrims.

Yazd Zoroastrian AteshgahBack in Yazd, I visited the Zoroastrian Ateshga, or fire temple.  The current building dates from only 1934, but the holy flame is reputedly the continuation of a flame that has been kept burning since 470 AD.  The flame burns in an urn in a separate room, and we may only view it through a protective glass window.  To complement the fire, there is a large water pool in front of the temple.

Zoroastrian Holy Flame, YazdSigns on the walls carefully explain to visitors that Zoroaster preached monotheism, and they emphasize similarities with Judaism/Christianity/Islam.  We are assured that Zoroastrians do not “worship”  fire, but merely use it as a convenient focus for worshiping Ahura Mazda, the universal god.  (Well chosen messages for friendly co-existence in an Islamic Republic.)