1996-2019: 23 Years in Yekaterinburg

Our two weeks inYekaterinburg was for me like being back in a dream. It’s not the first time I’ve been back, it’s actually the third, but it’s been a long time. Last time I was here was in 2003–16 years ago.

Thanks to my good friend Nikolai who graciously acted as my family’s personal guide and chauffer, I was able to see more of the town than I had really ever seen before, as well as several places outside of the city.

Nikolai and Ashley

As I have gotten older, friendships and relationships mean more to me than they used to. I reinforced many old friendships on this trip.

When I lived here in the 90’s, I knew that if I stopped by a friend’s place unannounced, I would receive a sincere and heartfelt welcome and would be treated to something from the kitchen even when the pantry and the fridge were very bare.

The people are still just as genuinely welcoming as they were a few decades ago.

Last Sunday evening, with no concrete plans, I decided to try to find a friend I hadn’t seen or talked to all these years. Nikolai drove me to the area, and by some miracle, without an address, and in a sea of identical buildings, we found hers.

A man in the parking lot happened to know her apartment number, so I rang it from the locked entry door to the building.

“Natasha, this is Jess Anderson from America, do you remember me?”

“Of course, of course! Let me get cleaned up a little, but come on up!”

And we sat in the kitchen and drank tea and talked about the old times.

Natasha and I

For someone who finds entertaining guests sometimes awkward, I am impressed by and grateful for the way Russians genuinely enjoy giving up their plans and giving so much to make their guests feel welcome.

Irina and her husband Aleksei.  I knew Irina years ago and after meeting at church, she invited us (without having planned on it) over. As soon as we got there, Aleksei set to work to make lunch for us, making sure everyone had something they liked to eat and giving us a box of chocolates in addition.

He thought it was so funny, that he, the Russian, has an iPhone, while I, the American, have a Huawei.
My kids around the table “as guests” at Irina and Aleksei’s
Since our flight out of Russia left at 3 am, my good friend Galina kept us entertained at her house until the wee hours when we left for the airport. Her Mom baked us a goodbye cake with edible decorations specially chosen for the kids.

Here are some more pictures and experiences from around the city.

The Opera Theater at dusk
Afghanistan war memorial (USSR’s war, not America’s)
Memorial to Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, outside the relatively new Yeltsin Center.
I was here when he was president, but certainly did not understand much about the politics of the fall of communism or about Boris Yeltsin. After visiting the museum about his life, I really want to read a biography about him
Turns out that for kids (and maybe their dad, too), the local pets are more interesting than some of the historical sites
Just outside of the city is the geographic location of the line that separates Europe and Asia. We’ve got one foot in Europe and the other in Asia
Making friends with the locals–Nolan and Kolya’s son, Stepan
I’m always up for sampling the regional McDonald’s cuisine–in this case, a McShrimp Roll.
The locals were pretty sure I’d lost my mind as they sat around and tsk’ed while wearing their winter clothes. The water was pretty icy, but I think it’s unlikely that “my kidneys will catch cold” as the locals warned me. I figured I’d better take a dip while I had the chance–it might be a while before I can swim in the Ural Mountain region again.
View from a mine tailing pile near a small town outside the city.
Nolan strutting his stuff

After two weeks in Yekaterinburg, all three of my kids were ready to live (yes live, not leave) there.

It was very hard to say goodbye to old friends.

And now, a few thoughts on life in the Ural Mountain region.

Although many areas appear to be flourishing with abundant, new, attractive high rise apartment buildings, if you head to the areas of town away from the center, old, Soviet buildings still predominate
This is me in front of a concrete panel, five-story apartment building where I used to live.  Most of these were built in the fifties and sixties under the Soviet leader Khrustev, and the buildings are often referred to as “Khrusyevki”

A friend of mine who lived in Yekaterinburg during the same period I did asked me how much things had changed in the city since we were here more than two decades ago.

The answer, like Russia itself, is a little complicated. But the short answer is, not all that much.

I’m not sure why that’s surprising, I would say the same for the city I grew up in–I don’t think it’s changed that much either.

In some ways, the city has changed and in some ways life here has changed, but in a bigger sense, very little has changed with either.

We arrived here just 5 years after the collapse of communism. I want to say that this was a real transition time for Russia, but that implies that real, meaningful changes were taking place and I’m not sure that’s true.

The truth is that the political and socioeconomic scaffolding that provided stability for every day life in the Soviet Union, even if that life was a dreary and suppressed one, was taken away.

The social influence of the West came pouring in. Control of the rich natural resources of Russia and of factory production were divvied out to a relative few (the oligarchs), organized crime ran rampant, and most people’s real standard of living dropped.

As I heard over and over again during that time period, “Under communism, we had money, but there was nothing to buy, the stores were all empty. Now we have capitalism and the stores are full of anything you could want, but we don’t have money.”

Political cartoon from the 70’s. The caption reads: Where? There.
The man is carrying a bag filled with canned peas, and one filled with sweet and condensed milk. The woman is carrying rolls and rolls of toilet paper. Under the Communists, goods were scarce and if you found a place to buy something, anything really, you bought as much as you could. You never knew when or where you would see it again.

Some things have changed since the nineties. Life is a little more stable. Visible crime has been greatly reduced. The abundance of large shopping centers, new high rise apartment buildings, and traffic jams at all hours of the day (when previously I only knew one person with a car) all attest to some improvement in economic circumstances.

But the economic improvements don’t trickle down as much to the majority of people who live modestly from paycheck to paycheck on $300 to $1000 a month (even accountants, doctors, lawyers, and school teachers).

Just like in the 90’s, lots of the areas away from the center still have many small, modest stores built into a residential building. Although in the central regions of town, these small, specialized stores are being pushed out by large supermarkets and latge goods stores.
Small dairy product store on the left, and dental office on the right.
These small, steel kiosks used to be everywhere and sell everything from liquor to socks, often from the same small space.  I bet that in the 90’s at least half of all sales in food and other daily necessities came through these little kiosks. You don’t see them as much near the city center, but there are still plenty around the edges of the city.
Soviet era mosaic on the wall of a medical clinic.
Lenin still has a strong presence throughout the city.
This image is Lenin is referred to as “The Kind Grandfather”, based on appearance and not fond memories of the leader.
Small, street side market of the type that was ubiquitous in the 90’s
Motorcycles with sidecars are still pretty common in small towns. I even saw them used on icy roads in winter temperatures of 20 below.
Although cars are much more common than they were 25 years ago, many people still rely on paid public transport. Although the trolley cars and electric buses look a little run down, it seems to be a fairly efficient system.

Political changes since the 90’s have curtailed personal and social freedoms and for many hope for improvement in economic conditions may even be a little more bleak than before.

Life is hard everywhere, but I look at Russia and wish it was just a little easier there for the people I know there.

Bridge supports decorated with artsy graffiti.

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