40km away from the natural boundary between Europe and Asia, at the foot of the Ural Mountains, stands the city of Yekaterinburg, neuralgic and cultural centre of the region, with a flourishing economy born of its powerful metallurgical industry. One of the main stops of the Trans-Siberian, it is an open city with modern glass skyscrapers towering over the classic 18thC structures, the plastered brick houses and the soviet buildings.
To contemporary history buffs the name will ring a bell – it was here that the imperial family was captured during the Revolution, and then executed on July 17th 1918. It is precisely with the Tsars that the history of Yekaterinburg began, with Peter I’s commission to build a huge iron factory to exploit the mineral richness of the Urals. Following this directive, historian Vasily Tatischev and engineer Georg Wilhem de Gennin founded the city in 1723, in a strategic location surrounded by forests, mineral deposits and two rivers –fluvial transport routes essential in the middle of the impassable taiga. They named it in honour of Empress Catherine I, although it would be Catherine II the one to upscale it into a city worthy of the title when she ordered that the Siberian Route, one of the main communication arteries of the country, had to pass through it. Today, 6 highways and 7 railway lines converge at the capital of the Sverdlóvskaya Óblast province, the third logistic hub of the country, with an international airport. The province is rich in natural resources, especially metals like iron, copper, platinum and gold – at the city of Berezovsky we find the oldest gold mine in Russia, still operational – but also minerals, marble and coal. Sverdlóvskaya Óblast was already the backbone of the Russian industry in the 18thC and 19thC and today it represents 45% of the industrial production of the country.
So, not surprisingly, Yekaterinburg (Екатеринбу́рг) is still a financial centre, transformed after the fall of the heavy industry at the end of the USSR into a logistics and business hub. It hosts the headquarters of Uralmash, the heavy machine production facility.
With 1,5M inhabitants it is, also, one of Russia’s cultural centres, with more than 50 museums and 24 theatres, including a ballet, an opera house and an auditorium. It is home to one of the best universities in the country with more than 200.000 students. It is also an important sports centre, residence to 137 Olympic medal winners. The first national ski championship was held here in 1957 and it was one of the venues for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It is home to a hockey team, a women’s basketball team, a football team, a futsal team and a world renowned boxing and martial arts facility.
This was a flash trip, one of those unexpected gifts of life, that took us to discover this part of Russia (always an appealing visit) and an amazing street music festival, Ural Music Night.
One of the most defining features of the city is the Gorodskói Prud, an artificial lake formed by a dam built in 1723 for industrial purposes on the Iset River, where Lenin Avenue meets Istorichesky square. This is an open pedestrian area with a park, several sculptures and the Water Tower, built in 1886, now a part of the city’s history museum.
Standing at the shore of the lake we’ll find the stunning Sevastyanov House, a manor with a very colourful and eclectic green, white and red facade, built in 1860 by a metal tycoon – Nikolai Sevastyanov, who amassed a fortune delivering products during the Crimean War. Rebuilt in 2008 it is now the official residence of the Russian president in the city and one of its most iconic buildings. Just in front of it, overlooking the waters and the city skyline reflected on them, there are two gorgeous iron wrought gazebos.
A 10-minute walk from here will take us to the Church on Blood, built on the spot where the house of engineer Nikolai Ipatiev stood in 1918, when the members of the Romanov imperial family were apprehended, locked, shot and bayoneted to their gruesome death here. The house was demolished in the 70s to avoid being turned into a mausoleum in memory of the Tsars but during the Perestroika the site started to attract a growing number of pilgrims up to the point that, by the end of the 90s, a decision was made into building a church, in Russian style, with golden domes. They named it the Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land – you just have to love it.
It is one of the many churches (plus a cathedral) in the city. Just in front of the Sevastianov House, across Lenin Avenue, we find the little chapel of Saint Catherine, patron saint of miners, build in 1998 to mark the 275th anniversary of Yekaterinburg.
For the best view of the city we need to climb to the top of the Vysotsky tower, one of the highest skyscrapers in Russia, with 198m. The building pays homage to Vladimir Vysotsky, a Russian poet, actor and singer, and from the deck on the 52nd floor it offers a 360º view over the whole city, the Iset river and the artificial lake. From here we can truly appreciate this is a city of open spaces, not at all crammed, with plenty of trees and green. One surprising detail though: do not expect to see huge mountains around you even though this is the Urals capital. The city, at a mere 273m of altitude, was strategically planned at the lowest and most accessible point of this 2500km range that acts as a natural wall between continents. And the highest peak in the range, the Narodnaia (1895m), is 900km north of here.
At 1905 square, also in Lenin Avenue, near the river, we find the city hall, a constructivist building from the 1930s renewed with a touch of soviet Neoclassicism in the 40s. The tower, with the distinctive red star crowing it, was added during the 50s.
20 minutes by foot from the city hall we find the football stadium, the Yekaterinburg Arena, completely renewed for the FIFA World Cup 2018. They kept the Neoclassic Stalinist façade from 1957 and rebuilt the interior from scratch, doubling its capacity to 45.000 seats. It’s home to the FC Ural, one of the oldest teams in Russia, founded by the workers of the heavy machinery plant Uralmash.
The Russian Copper Company Martial Arts Academy organizes boxing tournaments for all categories and in spite of being only a few years old it is already an institution attracting names like Mike Tyson, Roy Jones Jr., Nikita Mikhalkov, Mikhail Porechenkov, Mikhail Galustyan o Alexander Revva to the fights. Yes, I admit it is an unusual visit, but it is not every day you get the chance to try the world boxing champion belt.
Yekaterinburg was the birthplace of Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation (1991-1999) and the man responsible for changing the communist economy of the country to a market one. The Presidential Centre Boris Yeltsin not only bears his name but hosts a museum about him as well. The main exhibition “Seven Days Which Changed Russia” is a depiction of the 90s, a decade that saw the birth of a new country and the modern Russian democracy, a time of uncertainty, sure, but also of hope in the future.
The Centre is located next to the Iset tower, one of the highest skyscrapers of the city, at the shores of the homonymous river in a district that grew outside the walls during the 18thC. It was a place of artisans and merchants until the 20thC, where the elites moved in. Now is the business centre where architecture from three different centuries lives together. It is 1km away from the city centre, following the river.
It was next to our hotel, the Hyatt Regency Iekaterinburg, which offers an amazing view from the swimming pool on the 19th floor – or if you are lucky enough to get a room on the top floors, which I wasn’t.
The Sverdlóvskaya Óblast province
In Berezovsky we find the oldest gold mine in Russia and the oldest working mine in the world, still active since they found a quartz seam in 1745. From the quartz, pyrite is extracted, and from pyrite gold is separated. These gold reserves were vital to the Russian empire.
It is a really interesting visit and it starts with a practical (and interactive) demonstration of how to extract alluvial gold, that you separate from the river’s sand. The first ever Gold Rush in the world took place here, even before California. We try our luck but we can only find some pyrite, which we get to keep (to remind us not to try to be gold diggers ever). 650 kilograms of gold are still extracted manually every year, 500 mm of gold for each cubic metre of alluvial soil. But the Ural Mountains hide deposits of assorted minerals; only in the Berezovsky mine 150 different minerals can be found. Here is where crocoite, the source for chrome, was discovered in 1761.
This is just one of the things we learn in the small and curious Interpretation Centre, which welcomes us with a huge (and awesome) mural from the Soviet Era at the entrance. The museum displays the story of the mine with an exhibition of objects and tools related to mining, and it shows the extremely tough work conditions of miners (among them prisoners sentenced to hard labour – a Russian mine would actually be the ultimate definition of hard labour). The last part of the visit takes us underground, and we get down to an old gallery – dark, cold and humid, where prisoners worked in chains, and I cannot help but wonder about innocent ones wrongly sentenced here and the unfairness of life in general. The museum is in the middle of a traditional Russian village, with wooden houses with a little front garden, used for growing vegetables for what I can see. It makes for an interesting walk.
Our next stop is the city of Verkhnyaya Pyshma to visit the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company Military Equipment Museum. It is one of the biggest military and technical collections in the country (the largest private one). There are around 400 exhibits in more than 7000m2 including vehicles, military insignia, weapons and uniforms ranging from the 18thC to the present day. The outdoors area holds a large collection of tanks, vehicles and aircrafts (both Soviet and foreign). Many of these tanks were actually made in the Urals factories.
Inside the building we find Soviet tanks, artillery tractors from WWII, armoured vehicles (some of which I can’t help but notice bear a certain resemblance to Daleks), motorcycles, field kitchens (these caught my attention as I had not seen any before), firearms, uniforms, medals, memorabilia and documents.
You cannot miss the photo opportunities in the spots designed specifically for that. You can even dress up with thick coats and WW helmets and pose with a real gun.
Ural Music Night
Once a year, every July, when summer is getting comfortable in the Urals, the days are longer and the nights are a bit warmer, the whole city of Yekaterinburg throws a hell of a party. With 80 musical stages and concerts of all music genres playing around the city – squares, roofs, bars, the stairways of a theatre, the basement of a palace, libraries, parks and even the balconies of the Opera House. The Ural Music Night festival gathers thousands of people of all ages and sensitivities from all around the province who wander the lively streets from concert to concert to enjoy musicians from all over the world until dawn. The main streets are closed to transit, and it is a pleasure to walk around the city among the locals and be part of this cultural event, a truly amazing experience.
As I already said, it was a flash trip to Yekaterinburg and its surroundings, but we enjoyed every minute of it, and we left with the feeling of wanting to come back and exploring the Urals a bit more. I guess you could say we like heavy metal.