Today has been a very full day of tours and conversation. My hosts from EACA have been extremely thoughtful in showing me the elements of the city they feel are important. Not many Western tourists come to Ekaterinburg which was a closed city to the west, especially Americans, until fairly recently. And in spite of the language barriers, my hosts were always considerate to bring along at least one person – a student, staff member or faculty, who could manage translations.

Art from the Urals
The first part of the day was spent at the Fine Arts Museum where I was most interested in art from the region. I will be visiting St. Petersburg later where the international reputation for their art collections is renowned. But this museum contained some very special collections from Ekaterinburg and Russia, in general, that were excellent for someone like me to become at least a little more familiar with art of the region. An interesting note is that it is also in one of the oldest buildings in the city, with a portion of the building dating back to the 18th C.

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[sidenote here: as I write this Halle Berry is rattling off in a Russian-dubbed version of Cat woman playing on the TV. Good thing I know the plot!]

Chills and Awe

After lunch, my guides changed to another group from the academy who would give me a tour of Constructivist Soviet-era architecture. Ekaterinburg is a gem for its collection of still-standing early and mid-century buildings reflecting the aesthetic of the period. Much of it has been destroyed since Perestroika in other parts of Russia. But my passionate new friends saw this as an affront to an historic period of design. And I can’t help but agree that there is merit in keeping these, at least some of the more definitive examples.

As we walked around, our driver parked not far behind us, the weather challenged even Michigan’s old standby motto (“If you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes.”). At first, it started out cold and rainy, followed by sunshine, followed by a sleet/snow pellet storm, followed by more sunshine, and then another brief appearance of the snow pellets. All in the space of a few hours. The dark clouds would sweep through the region quickly and be gone before you could settle into a nice pot of tea or coffee.

In the meantime, my well-informed guides took me from place to place – Cheka City – a planned community that is going through some stages of redevelopment, and which demonstrates an almost quaint Soviet aesthetic.

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At one end of the square is a building now used as a hotel, but was a former officers housing, built in the shape of a sickle.

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But the one building that really created chills and spawned a heartfelt dialogue between my guide, Misha, and myself was a Soviet-era military office building that had additions of neo-classical touches done in a constructivist interpretation. In the center of an open area out front was a sort of memorial display to WWII and the cold war that followed. A small missile, a tank, and a couple of transport vehicles filled the space, while behind them were granite walls that featured round seals with the hammer and sickle.

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Standing there, I couldn’t help but recall how cold relations had been between our two nations, and how much that the children of my generation had been taught to fear that symbol. Yet standing next to me was a young man, nearly half my age, a product of the post-Perestroika generation, who looked upon this symbol, and the buildings they adorned as simply historical buildings to be admired for their spare aesthetic and an old promise of a new world order. I stood there staring at this symbol behind the military evidence of an era, as we swapped family stories, comparing the histories written by our respective countries and families. I couldn’t help but think that this was why I was supposed to be here… to have this conversation.

The Dance Lesson

Next to this building was another – the Academic Theatre, a name he said meant that it was used for traditional performance work, not that it was associated with any university.

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We entered this building which still featured much of its original interior, including dramatic paintings featuring Lenin, Trotsky and others. The upper mezzanine level had a beautiful curved hall with classical columns which had been blocked off by benches with a sign that very clearly indicated that there would be dance lessons there. And sure enough,a young couple of probably only about 8-10 years old practiced a tango on the granite floors as their dance master provided stern instruction. When they finished their lesson, we made our way quickly across the space to view a painting of Trotsky on the other stairwell. But as the music began again, this time it was a waltz and the new couple of child dancers made their way gracefully around the dramatic space, their dance master instructing them to respond to the emotion of the music. Remembering the stories my grandmother told of her childhood dance lessons, I admit to choking back a tear as I watched the children dance.

You can watch them, too, and view other photos from this travel journey by visiting the Flickr set I posted here.

Enjoy!

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