The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Khojand (aka Khujand) is a sleepy industrial town in Northern Tajikistan. In an earlier age it was Leninabad. And in an even earlier one, it was Alexandria-the-Furthest.

Yes, Big Alex was here, pursuing a Scythian army. In 329 b.c. he re-founded the existing city as Alexandria Eschate (“Alexandria the Farthest”) on the Jaxartes River. Unfortunately there isn’t much surviving from his visit.

There are the remains of a medieval mudbrick fortress, which is probably the latest descendent of fortresses on the same site from Alexander’s time. Nowadays there is a small Tajikistan army post on top, presumably a leftover from the Tajik civil war.
The Soviets left a giant polished metal statue of Lenin, which LonelyPlanet assures us is “the largest Lenin statue in all of Central Asia”. It’s on the North bank of the river and is a suitably impressive sight against the Tien Shan mountains.

Another Soviet relic

The Regional Museum is housed in a splendid building, modeled on a Medieval Castle. The basement rooms are beautifully decorated with heroic classical scenes in inlaid marble showing Alexander and other Gods. Unfortunately, the actual exhibits are relatively prosaic.

The following day I took a long-distance taxi over the long bumpy road from Khojand to Dushanbe. This is slowly being rebuilt by a Chinese construction team, but right now many sections are in extremely bad shape, especially on the Northern half. The section over the 11,500ft Shakhristan pass is basically a dirt track with many pot holes, cut into the side of steep slopes. The taxi driver, who appeared to know the road well, was veering from side to side to avoid the worst of them, while driving quite briskly, on the edge of long sheer drops. After some good road, we then took another long windy pot holed dirt road over the Anzob pass. I had been expecting us to use the Anzob tunnel, but I guess that is closed right now. We did see about a dozen short avalanche shelters being built over the main road. (We needed to detour around them.)

This disaster of a road is the only link between the (relatively) industrialized North of Tajikistan and the more agrarian South. Seeing the road helped me understand why the Northern factions were unable to intervene effectively in the civil war, which was mainly fought in the South around Dushanbe.

Of course, Big Alex led an army over that same route, long before there was any kind of paved road. Those Macedonians were a tough bunch.

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.