Political Turmoil: Sobering thoughts on a Trans-Siberian Rail Passage

Quaint Russian villages

Looking out the window of my compartment I see lovely dachas, those traditional wooden homes, nestled in virgin snow, with reassuring pilasters of smoke ascending from their chimneys. I try to visualize how simple and pure life must have been in these small villages back in the first half of the last century, the political turmoil notwithstanding. Perhaps a grandma preparing some delicious borscht, young lovers surreptitiously slinking for a fleeting rendezvous, kids indulging in kissel (creamy dessert made with berries) or the old man brewing his fermented drink called rye kvass.

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A Russian Village

The people I have met so far are friendly and seemingly unguarded, yet they, the older ones in particular, still appear to walk a very delicate line between obeying the diktats of the ubiquitous State and those of their innate conscience. There is a long history that must have deeply affected the psyche, just like what the slavery in America did to the African-Americans. Unable to influence their own fate under the Soviet Union’s cradle-to‐grave security apparatus, these simple folks were destined to become witness to the tragedy of their times.

Leningrad and the Bolshevik Revolution

The 1917 revolutionary activities in Leningrad would result in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia. The subsequent Bolshevik revolution would eventually dispose the Tsar and his family for a rendezvous with the commissars of a firing squad in the city I would be heading to next.

There may perhaps have been some perspicacity in Marx’s philosophy that his proposed system was better than capitalism, a system based on the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. Forlornly, Lenin’s interpretation of Marx’s accepted wisdom changed nothing in this patch of the woods. Though the industry seems to have prospered in such areas as powder metallurgy, aircraft and rocket engines, even so, my guide Olga still makes a pittance $250 a month slaving away at the old Dobryanka power station and tries to make both ends meet by moonlighting as a guide on weekends. Here, it seems that morally irrelevant differences amongst ordinary folks still influence life chances.

The timber mafia has the same DNA, yet they live a very divergent lifestyle. The exercise of political power is still fashioned not by their common raison d’être but by personal influence and private wealth, icons of which I have seen on abundant display in Moscow and St Petersburg. I am saddened to observe the dichotomy that whilst these honest, hardworking and wonderful country folks are so full of life on the outside, yet their lives are burdened with a sense of despair on the inside, as if though providence unreservedly forsake them. I continue my journey to Yekaterinburg (formerly, Sverdlovsk) where I plan to take advantage of the rather long stop the train makes to meet a trusted friend.

Yekaterinburg: Francis Gary Powers

Growing up in Pakistan and being from a military family, I was already familiar at a young age with the fateful flight of the American U‐2 spy plane flown by Francis Gary Powers on a secret CIA espionage mission during the cold war. The aircraft had taken off from Badaber base near Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1960 and was shot down by the Russians. I knew it went down in Russia, but it would be many years later that I would learn about the location. Well, it was right here over the Yekaterinburg region that I am traversing through! The Americans had believed till then that the Russians did not have a jet or a rocket that could reach an altitude of over 70,000 feet, but the Russian S-75 missile that hit the plane surprised them.

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U-2 Spy Plane

Gary was unable to activate the plane’s self-destruct mechanism before ejecting. As he came down by parachute he elected to get rid of the poison laced injection pin (in a silver dollar coin) with which he was supposed to commit suicide! He was promptly captured by the Russians, interrogated for several months during which Gary confessed to his role in the espionage and was made to offer a public apology. Espionage being a ‘grave crime’ under Russian law, he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Yekaterinburg: Tsar Nicholas II and Family

Yekaterinburg is the fourth largest city in Russia. It was founded by the first Emperor of Russia, Peter the Great, and has the unsavory distinction for being the city where the last Emperor of Russia and his family were executed.

Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Empress Alexandra and all his children (Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei) were arrested and confined to the basement of a building called Ipatiev House. The windows were sealed shut and covered with newspapers. A very small ventilation window was allowed to remain open as the only source of air. The servants and sentries were ordered to address the Romanovs only by their first names to humiliate them. The guard commandant and his aides had complete access to all rooms in the house at any time, and the family was required to ring a bell whenever they needed to use the bathroom.

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Ipatiev House, Yekatrinburg
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Romanov family (L to R) Olga, Maria, Nicholas II, Alexandra Fyodorovna, Anastasia, Alexei, and Tatiana

The Execution

On July 17, 1918, around midnight, the Romanovs were commanded into a small semi-basement room, and the orders to execute them were read out. A truck pulled up and parked just outside the basement room, engine running to muffle the sound of gunshots, and the execution squad, equipped with about 14 handguns arrived and promptly started shooting. Tsar Nicholas was first to fall dead after three bullets pierced his upper chest. Next was Empress Alexandra, and then the Grand Duchess Olga, just as they attempted to bless themselves. A bullet aimed at Maria’s head missed the target and she was badly injured.

Utter chaos followed as the room got filled with deafening gunshots, caustic smoke of burnt gunpowder and dust, and no one could see anything in the darkness; the sentries weren’t even sure if everyone was dead. Some doors and windows had to be opened to scatter the smoke. As the sentries held back firing and waited for the smoke to abate, they could hear moans and whimpers. They tried their gun butts and bayonets on the injured children to snuff life out of them, but that wasn’t working with efficacy, which meant that the children had to be disposed by still more gunshots. This time an entire magazine of a Browning gun aimed more precisely at the children’s heads was emptied to dispatch them to their maker. The execution lasted about 20 minutes and approximately 70 bullets were fired.

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Basement of Ipatiev House where Tsar Nicolas II and his family were executed.

God’s Finest Creation

We Homo sapiens are deemed ‘Ashraf al Makhlooqat’ – God’s finest creation. Although humans can be caring, kind, philanthropic and just, however, they also can be the basest of all beings! As the bodies of the Romanov family were being removed, two of the executioners lifted up Empress Alexandra’s skirt and fingered her genitals, as one of them sniggered that “he could now die in peace, having squeezed the royal cunt”. Some ‘Ashraf al Makhlooqat’! Animals do kill animals for food, but they don’t defile dead beings and to my knowledge, no creature in the history of animal kingdom has ever been documented to desecrate the genitals of a dead animal! The bodies of the Romanov family were then taken to the Koptyaki forest where they were stripped and mutilated before dumping them in an unused mine shaft.

I should mention that the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, happens to be the grandnephew of Empress Alexandra as well as the great-great grandson of Tsar Nicholas I, and so there is a Romanov connection there. Try saying Prince Philip Romanov or Prince Charles Romanov – regal sounding, eh!

The Ipatiev House building where the brutal massacres took place was demolished in 1977 and a couple of decades later a Russian Orthodox Church was built on its site called ‘The Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land’ – quite a mouthful of a name!

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Church of All Saints, Yekaterinburg

Yekaterinburg: a man Called Boris and more political turmoil

Yekaterinburg also happens to be the old stomping grounds of an interesting character who spent several years in the city, including his time attending the Ural Polytechnic Institute. He was the interminably inebriated and extraordinarily incompetent man credited with widespread corruption and economic ruin of his country, and whose shock therapy for fixing his nation’s melancholy included ordering tanks to blast his opponents huddled up in the parliament building.

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Yeltsin’s shock therapy – shelling of Russian parliament

This dubious character who brought his country to the brink of civil war, a modern day Bolshevik revolution as it were, was none other than the former Russian President, Boris Yeltsin! The one redeeming thing about Boris was that he at least described the killings of Tsar Nicolas II and his family as one of the most shameful pages in Russian history and wrote in his memoirs that “sooner or later we will be ashamed of this piece of barbarism”.

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Click here for more of Nasser Tufail’s musings: From Siberia with Love

Sober Thoughts

Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the US where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies in Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and MBA. After working in the field of aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM in various engineering and management positions, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence, Data analytics/mining and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain

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