AMY ADAMS hunts down the Russian mafia in Yekaterinburg and discovers a trail of violence weaving through the history of the last city in Europe.
Down a dark sidestreet in Yekaterinburg, a small restaurant is making up for every smoking ban across the world. As my eyes get used to the thick, grey air I can see four tables, one of them occupied. Then a door at the far end of the room opens and further culprits are revealed within. In the time it takes me to finish a Baltika beer, three smartly-dressed, serious-looking men leave the chamber, shutting the door firmly behind them each time. It’s not much to go on, but I’m convinced I’ve stumbled on the Russian Mafia HQ.
Yekaterinburg, dubbed the third capital of Russia, hit the headlines in the early ’90s when the world woke up to the city’s escalating gang warfare (the city was closed to foreigners during the Soviet period until 1991 due to the secrecy surrounding its defence industries). After the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent breakdown in law and order, mob culture spread like well-dressed wildfire, culminating in unprecedented violence with drive-by shootings a regular occurrence. Now the death toll has dropped, authorities claim the situation’s under control and any Mafia den you happen upon is likely to be a figment of your imagination. But in a city famed for its bloody history, from the Romanov assassinations to Gulag camps, this won’t stop you looking over your shoulder.
After being open to visitors for 15 years tourists are now trickling in, most climbing off the Trans-Siberian railway to use the city as a base for activities like dogsledding, ice fishing, trekking in the Ural mountains and posing for photos while straddling the Asia/Europe border 40km away. Those who do, discover a city in transition. Aware of its key place in Russian history, and therefore tourism, the people of Yekaterinburg are slowly tugging open the heavy curtains, wiping off a thick layer of dust and acknowledging its past – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Founded in 1723 by Peter the Great, the mineral-rich city has long been a centre for mining industry and defence production(as discovered when a missile brought down a US spy plane in 1960. The pilot survived and remnants of the U2 are on display at the Military History Museum). But the city is notorious for the assassination of the Romanov Royal Family. In March 1917, in the face of a Communist revolution, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. He was captured by the Red Army before he could flee and placed under house arrest with the rest of his family in Yekaterinburg. On July 16, 1918 Nicholas II, his wife, their five children and servants were herded to the basement of their home and shot by the Bolsheviks, presumably to prevent the dynasty ever returning to power. Their bodies were thrown down a disused mineshaft at Ganya’s Pit, now a pilgrimage site where you’ll find the new Monastery of the Holy Martyrs.
Sixty years later, rumours circulated about the location of the bodies, and Boris Yeltsin, then the Mayor of Yekaterinburg was ordered by the Kremlin to bulldoze the Ipatiev House (used, perversely, as a Museum of the Revolution) to hide the evidence. In 1991 the hearsay reached the Western media and Yeltsin was forced to exhume the bodies. They were identified as the last Tsar and his family, though missing bones have long fuelled stories that two of the children survived, like that told in the 1956 film Anastasia.
With the truth out, the evocatively named Cathedral-on-the-Blood was hurriedly completed and opened in 2003 on the site of the Ipatiev House.
It took two years to build but was scheduled for five,” says my city guide, Marianne. “It’s a miracle in Russia when something’s built faster than planned.”
Downstairs is a small chapel with monuments to Nicholas II and his family, all of whom have been declared saints by the Russian Orthodox Church. There’s also a moving collection of memorabilia (Alexei’s toy, a letter written by Nicholas), portraits and a photo of the room where they were shot which shows the bullet holes in the walls. Spookily, the crypt is built to the exact measurements of this room. In front of the cathedral is a sculpture showing the family descending the stairs to their deaths, a contrast to the endless stream of frolicking wedding parties arriving.
A similarly disturbing cover-up occurred just outside the city. According to Seva, my dogsledding guide, men working on the New Moscow road uncovered human bones just outside the city in 1983. When they informed authorities they were told to keep quiet but word got out and those still searching for loved ones gone missing during Stalin’s reign of terror, began sticking photographs on trees lining the road. Eventually the ad hoc memorial became an embarrassment, the site was excavated and the bodies unearthed and identified. It had been a Gulag (concentration camp) in the 1930s, for those too weak to be sent to Siberia and the Far East. In 1995 a memorial complex was opened, dedicated to the victims of Stalin’s repression.
Even in winter, with snow covering most of the vast memorial, there are visitors placing flowers by the plaques of 18,500 names. It’s a sombre experience, particularly when minutes earlier we’d been prancing around the Europe-Asia Obelisk swapping bamboo hats for tri-corner felt numbers. On the opposite side of the road is the Shirokorechinskaya cemetery, nicknamed the Mafia cemetery as the final resting place of many a deceased gangster.
“It’s interesting because they’re Mafiosa graves,” Marianne says, “but they’re still just graves.” Like most locals, she struggles to understand the site as a tourist attraction but now the Yekaterinburg Guide Centre has included it on their tours, it’s official. After all, these are not just graves, they’re towering monuments to fallen comrades. As is the custom in Russian cemeteries, the tombstones have benches and tables before them so family and friends can toast the departed. With the mobsters’ graves it must be like sitting before a mountain, as the black, marble monoliths rise up, engraved with a likeness of their buried loved one. On the most impressive, 34-year-old Mikhail Kuchin poses in a sharp suit, his hand nonchalantly dangling the keys to his Mercedes.
Like the Cathedral-on-the-Blood and the memorial to victims of repression the tombstones are a fitting tribute to this latest chapter in the bloody history of Yekaterinburg. Back in town, the waitress tells me that the mysterious room at the back of the restaurant is, in fact, an extension of the restaurant. I can eat there if I want. To prying questions at least, it seems this chapter is now closed too.”