As Russian regions go, Sverdlovsk Oblast’s history is one of the grimmest.
At the fall of the Russian empire almost a century ago, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife and five children were briefly imprisoned in Yekaterinburg, the region’s capital, before being summarily executed there alongside members of their household staff. During the Soviet period, the city and the surrounding Ural Mountains became home to more than 150 gulag prison camps. An estimated 150,000 prisoners worked at the camps when they were set up in the late 1940s.
These days Yekaterinburg has largely moved beyond its dark history. The runner-up to host World Expo 2020 (it was beaten last week by Dubai), the city received a facelift ahead of the bid and its economy is humming nicely. There are luxury boutiques (Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Gucci) and new construction everywhere. The state-of-the-art airport puts that of rival St Petersburg to shame.
Despite the progress, some of the city’s darker legacies are hard to shake. At the $130-a-night Richmond Hotel outside the centre, the inn’s management are fully prepared for the worst and have included in every guest’s room a strange set of instructions entitled: “Rules for the capture of hostages by terrorists”.
What follows is a list of 11 dire yet upbeat recommendations. For example, rule three: “You can ask them for basic questions like – toilet, drinking, eating. In case of failure, do not mind, you can try again later.”
Rule four: “In any case you do not have to threaten terrorists, [with] phrases such as ‘You will still all be killed’, ‘Soon comes your end’. This could cause psychological disruption and the worst consequences.”
Do not humiliate the terrorists. Do not take weapons thrown by the terrorists. “Often the terrorists hide among the hostages. Therefore all [are] suspected.”
The Urals people are not without their optimism, so the list ends positively. “Always remember, if you are ready calmly and confidently to resist to the misfortune, it will never HAPPEN to you.”
A good night’s sleep guaranteed for all.
It is often said that Moscow is not Russia. And Yekaterinburg is certainly not Sverdlovsk Oblast. Drive an hour outside the city and you are surrounded by kilometres of uninhabited taiga forest with only the rare truck stop. Drive four to six hours outside the city (depending on the snow) and you are in Krasnoturyinsk.
The birthplace of Alexander Popov, the radio pioneer, Krasnoturyinsk is also home to the region’s biggest aluminium plants. Or at least it was. Founded in 1945, the Bogoslovsky plant is soon to shut down aluminium production altogether – a blow for a town that counted the factory as its main employer.
Last week the town celebrated its 69th birthday. And in many ways Krasnoturyinsk remains stuck in a different time. A large statue of Lenin stands in front of the aluminium plant’s headquarters. Soviet-style propaganda posters celebrating Krasnoturyinsk’s workers still line the plant and town, proclaiming that: “The metallurgist is our pride and glory!”
While the slogans remain, the city can no longer keep up. Russia’s rail company stopped its Yekaterinburg-Krasnoturyinsk route a few months ago. The tram service has been reduced from two lines to one.
With job cuts approaching, some factory employees are being given a choice. They can take a redundancy package that includes seven months salary and a significant portion of their consumer debt being forgiven; they can relocate to other plants that are hiring further east in Siberia; or they can wait it out, hoping that their jobs will be around for at least another year and that the city’s plans for a new industrial park will bring life back into Krasnoturyinsk.
It is a grim picture. But local authorities have two remedies to reduce the pain. One is a new outdoor ice rink, a significant development in a town where locals gamely gather in temperatures of minus 20C to watch ice-hockey matches. The second is free wireless internet.
Not content to offer it just at restaurants or cafés, authorities say free WiFi will soon be found everywhere from the new ice rink to the last remaining tram line.
Even outside Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovsk Oblast is full of surprises.