(Yes the title was inspired by a Zeppelin song.)
Last weekend, Tim, Emma, and I took a trip to Novosibirsk, the third-biggest city in Russia and the biggest by far in Siberia with 1.5 million people, a Metro, and a huge downtown area. Rather than stay in a hotel, we opted to use an online site where locals who are willing to host travelers can connect with said travelers. It was a great experience for us, since we got to really see the city rather than traipsing around aimlessly, speak Russian, and make new friends. Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk are only about 10-12 hours apart, depending on the train you take, and it’s a big enough city that there are скоро (skora, quick) trains that make about half the stops of a normal train on the Novosibirsk-Krasnoyarsk route.
Novosibirsk is a much newer city than Krasnoyarsk (only about 150 years old) and it is big enough that it attracts people from across Russia to live in. We met two girls from Ulan-Ude (on the far side of Baikal), a guy from Tatarstan (about 4-6 hours from Moscow; a Muslim area), a guy from Nigeria (black people are something of a novelty in Russia – there’s no racism against them, but Russians think they are fascinating), and another girl from a provincial town about 4 hours away. As such, Novosibirsk has a much more “hip,” up-to-date feeling. There are glass skyscrapers all over, the streets are relatively clean, and the Metro is very new (and, as opposed to WMATA, it runs on schedule). Novosibirsk is a business center, and our friends insisted that it was the capital of Siberia. We toured the city with them, visiting the parks, Lenin Square, the Opera and Ballet theater, and an American-style pizza restaurant that they were very excited to show us (it even had a mini Statue of Liberty in the window!). The bulk of our time in Novosibirsk, though, was spent at our hosts, Alex and Katya’s, dacha (summer house). We visited with them, enjoyed their huge garden and banya (Russian bath house), and made fresh шашлик (shashlik, an Armenian-style barbeque dish). Staying at the dacha was very relaxing – there was only 1 tap of cold running water, and we were able to just sit back and chat.
But what I noticed about Novosibirsk, rather than the blatant differences between it and Krasnoyarsk, was how similar they were, and how similar I would assume any city that survived the Soviet period would be. (Fun fact about Krasnoyarsk – during the Soviet period, it was a “closed city,” meaning nobody could get in or out without express authorization. This is probably why it’s still basically a living Soviet relic today.) Both cities have a Lenin Square with a huge statue of Lenin, an Opera and Ballet theater, a Коммунальный Мост (komunalnyy most, community bridge) in the same style, Lenin and Karl Marx streets, a WWII Heroes memorial, the same Soviet-style apartment buildings, and the same sort of police buildings. Clearly, the Soviet system was effective at making all the cities in it the same. It must’ve been a lot easier to manage cities when they were all the same – it just goes to prove the point that in a state-run system, people and cities are nothing but interchangeable parts. They’re all the same in essence, they just have a different function. Novosibirsk was intended to be a business center, which it still is today, while Krasnoyarsk was an industrial center. What it produced, I have no idea, but as Tim and Emma pointed out, its location in the south of Siberia, surrounded by mountains and on a major river, makes it the perfect location to hide something.
After перестройка (perestroyka, a sort of cultural openness) started to open Russia to the outside under Gorbachev, Novosibirsk grew into a more European city while Krasnoyarsk remained closed. People could enter and leave, but it was still an industrial capital, and to this day, Novosibirsk is a European-style business and shopping city while Krasnoyarsk is a dingy, Soviet, industrial city. Krasnoyarsk didn’t grow up the same way Novosibirsk did, but I can’t help but wonder, what if Krasnoyarsk hadn’t been a closed, industrial city? Would it be like Novosibirsk, or would it have stayed Soviet? I did enjoy Novosibirsk, but Krasnoyarsk certainly has more history and unique Russian flavor…
Lenin Square and the Opera and Ballet theater in Novosibirsk; Alex and Katya’s dacha; and Tim, Emma, and I at the Novosibirsk WWII heroes memorial.
Well, I guess this was my last post from Krasnoyarsk. That is so weird to say – it seems like I’ve finally figured out Russia and now it’s time to leave. So, tomorrow, on to Moscow, from there to New York, to Milwaukee, a week there, then at long last, home to DC. Can’t wait to see you all 🙂