Much ado about names along the Trans-Siberian

Ekaterinberg is located just east of where Asia meets Europe. If one is alert and quick enough, as I was, one can see from the train window the marker on the geographical line where Asia meets Europe, 22 km west of Ekaterinberg and 1,777 km east of Moscow.

 (Daily Times, 14 August 2014)

Our train’s next stop in Siberia was Ekaterinberg, named after Catherine the Great (renamed Sverdlovsk during Soviet times). The fourth largest city in Russia, it is located just east of where Asia meets Europe. If one is alert and quick enough, as I was, one can see from the train window the marker on the geographical line where Asia meets Europe, 22 km west of Ekaterinberg and 1,777 km east of Moscow.

It was here, in Ekaterinberg, on the morning of July 17, 1918, that the deposed, captive Tsar Nicholas II was executed by the Bolsheviks along with his wife, four daughters, only son, personal physician and a couple of personal staff who had been imprisoned with the royal family.

Ipatiev House, where the executions were carried out, was demolished by the Soviets in 1977 as it was becoming a place of pilgrimage for many Russians. The Communist rulers couldn’t have imagined that, in less than three decades, at its site would stand the Church on the Blood, for pilgrims to converge in even greater numbers.

Our next stop was Perm, situated by the mighty Kama River.  The city was renamed Molotov from 1940 to 1957 after Vyacheslav Molotov, a close associate and henchman of Joseph Stalin. Molotov cocktails, the crude petrol bombs popular with angry, violent demonstrators the world over, carry his name for better or worse.

Our next stop, just under a thousand kilometres from Moscow, is remarkable for the fact that it retains its Soviet-era name. Originally called Vyatka, this city of half a million people was renamed Kirov in 1934 after the assassination of Sergei Kirov, a prominent leader of the Soviet Communist Party and head of the Leningrad Party organization.

It is generally believed that Kirov’s assassination was carried out at the behest of Joseph Stalin, who resented his popularity and saw him as a potential threat. Whatever the truth, Stalin used the assassination of Kirov to launch a series of purges which decimated the higher echelons of the party, including the execution of its most prominent leaders.

It is a measure of Kirov’s popularity, however, that Stalin named a city after him. Even more so that the name change wasn’t reversed, while even Leningrad has regained its pre-Soviet name of St Petersburg. Stalingrad reverted to Volgograd long ago, in 1961, after Stalin was officially denounced by his successors, though not to its original name of Tsaritsyn.

About 500 km to the south-southwest of Kirov and Perm, respectively, are two contiguous Muslim regions of Russia, Tataristan and Bashkorostan. The Republic of Tatarstan, whose capital is Kazan, has a population of just under four million, of whom 55% are estimated to be Muslim. Ufa is the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan, also known as Bashkiria, which has a population of just over one million.

Nearly 40% of the people of Bashkiria are Muslim. The other Muslim constituent parts of the Russian Federation are in the northern Caucasus, namely, Daghestan (population of 3 million, 83% Muslim), Chechnya (1.3 m, 95% Muslim), and Ingushetia (1/2 m, 95% Muslim).

As I have mentioned in a previous column, around Lake Baikal to the east of Irkutsk in the Republic of Buryatia, which has a population of around one million, the indigenous Buryats (about 30% of the population) practice Tibetan Buddhism and Shamanism. But Buryatia is not the only ‘Buddhist homeland’ in Russia. There is also the Republic of Kalmykia, on the shores of the Caspian Sea to the north of Daghestan, with a population of just under 300,000. Kalmykia is the only Buddhist region in Europe (Buryatia falls in Asian Russia).

Like the Chechens, the Kalmyks were deported en masse by Stalin for alleged collaboration with Germany during the Second World War, but were allowed to return in 1957, only to find much of their land settled by Russians. However, Kalmyks still constitute 57% of the population and a majority of them practice Tibetan Buddhism.

There is even a ‘Jewish homeland’ in Russia, the so-called Jewish Autonomous Area, which is situated in the Russian Far East, bordering China. Established in 1934, its Jewish population peaked in 1948 at around 30,000, about one-quarter of the Autonomous Area’s population.

The name may be a misnomer, for the Jews here now number fewer than four thousand, concentrated in the administrative capital Birobidzhan and the nearby village of Valdgeym. According to a recent official census, only 312 of them speak Hebrew and 97 speak Yiddish. After the collapse of the USSR in 1990, over a million Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel. They now constitute a large political bloc in Israel. 

After two more stops, at Nizhni Novgorod (formerly Gorky) and Vladimir, our train arrived at Moscow’s Yaroslavsky station on the third morning. I bade farewell to an elderly lady with a proud demeanour who sat in a separate cabin but had been in the train with us from Irkutsk. A doctor herself and the wife of a geology professor, she was visiting her daughter in Moscow, as she does every year. I didn’t consider it prudent to ask her if it was the fear of flying or the cost that compels her to endure three nights in the train in both directions every year.

At the station to receive us was our Moscow guide. I have already mentioned that our Mongolian guide in Ulan Baatar was an extremely amiable woman and our Russian guide in Irkutsk was a thorough gentleman. I should add here that the guide in Beijing, a young Chinese woman, was courteous but a bit quiet and aloof. But the one in Moscow was stern to the point of being rude. If one asked a question which had already been dealt with by her while one had veered off to take a photo, the questioner was rudely reminded of the need to stay close and listen. 

On two occasions the guide asked people who did not form part of our group, but were momentarily seen to be listening in to her talk, not be “freeloaders” and to move away. During my many independent trips I have often listened in to other group guides, without being told off. I wondered whether she was not more suited for the job of a train attendant on the Trans-Siberian rather than a tour guide in Moscow. Or whether she was just a relic of the Soviet era, when everyone on any kind of official duty was expected to be stern. Call it trickle-down officialdom, if you will!

By Razi Azmi


This entry was posted in Travelogues. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Much ado about names along the Trans-Siberian

  1. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Respected Razi Sahib, Thank you for the fine educational journey.

  2. Shahid Siraj says:

    Dear Razi Sahib,

    Very informative, especially about a region few Pakistanis have ever had a chance to visit. I would like it to be more subjective, more on a personal level, comparing the present Russia and its society with the Russia of Soviet Union era you had a unique experience of visiting during the 70’s.

  3. Javed Agha says:

    Very informative. In a short article, I have learnt so much, especially the names of the towns, I had never heard about. Never knew there were some Muslim and Buddhist states under these names. You have described the past and present in a very nice manner. Thanks for updating me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *