There are lots of dead people’s heads in Yekaterinburg. Huge, clunky reconstructions of once famous craniums. Most of these heads have nothing to do with Yekaterinburg. A thousand miles east of Moscow, it’s a sad city trying to be something it’s not. This dearth of culture was guaranteed from the start. Peter the Great built St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg simultaneously, the former to be a stunning capital of culture, the latter to be a grimy industrial power house. He succeeded on both accounts.
The Pushkin statue here has an uncharacteristically empty, lifeless expression. It’s as if he’s making the point that he’s here in sculptural form but not in spirit. Is there any spirit here? Or just a lot of coal and useful minerals? Tsar Nicholas II was sent here to die with his wife and children. They were murdered in a basement and then thrown down a well.
One statue that does actually belong here is that of Boris Yeltsin. The elegant, upright marble form seems to be a mocking dig at the clumsy buffoon who was invariably hunched by his insatiable alcoholism. He served here as governor before becoming the first “democratically” elected President of Russia. “Boris Yeltsin”- his name sounds like the blundering jiving of a joyous cretin, and his dancing has indeed been compared to my own arrhythmic flailing.
In light of Putin’s steely authoritarianism it’s difficult to imagine that Russia was once run by such a moron, but his drinking literally brought Russia to its knees. He resigned a year after leading the Russian economy to bankruptcy. His finest moments include a Presidential trip to Washington on which he was found crunk in his underwear outside the White House trying to hail a cab to get a pizza. He once smashed the Kyrgyz President on the head with a spoon hoping to make music.
Clumsiness, a brazen lack of taste and misplaced endeavour sum this city up. The centre piece is a huge artificial pond. Hemmed in by grey concrete walls, its greeny-black depths seem to suck the life from the surrounding scenery. In the murky shallows I saw a baby bottle and a vodka bottle lying side by side. Huge grey skyscrapers sprout around it like poisonous toad stools. Their matte texture seems to absorb sunlight and offer up darkness in return. The heavy haze that hangs over the city permits, at best, only a vague impression of sunlight.
Although Yekaterinburg is brutally ugly the drainpipes are beautiful. The city council seem to blow most of their budget on them, just as the railways blow most of theirs on ornamental cup holders. The drainpipe mouths are as big as the plastic lampshades dogs wear after operations. They are finely wrought into elaborate patterns, whilst the spouts protrude a full three feet from the building, spraying luxurious, inconvenient arcs into the walkways.
Yekaterinburg is a key transit point in the Afghanistan-Europe heroin supply chain. Heroin kills 30,000 people a year in Russia, more than a third of the global total. This city is awash with used needles. They are strewn across grass verges and form ad-hoc heaps in disused doorways. I saw some children playing with a dog on a verge that was so liberally scattered with syringes of various shapes, sizes and colours that it looked like an art installation. I tried to warn them but they didn’t understand.
Russia has among the fastest growing rates of HIV infection in the world. In 2011 over 100,000 people died from AIDS related illnesses in Russia compared to 500 in the UK. This is hardly surprising when methadone treatment is illegal and there is no state-run needle exchange programme. As I reach old-age and my cynicism mushrooms, I realise this dual lack of compassion and common sense has always defined Russian governance and perhaps always will.
Yekaterinburg is the home of krokodil, a home-made opiate cooked up from codeine tablets, red phosphorous and petrol. It literally eats junkies alive, rotting their organs and turning their flesh green. Their skin starts to peel off and they die within a year. There are so many people wondering around off their nut in this city, but not in the way we have all come to know and love.
(Check out the Vice documentary: http://youtu.be/JsUH8llvTZo)
When I was sitting by the river, a krok-head scrambled up the embankment and asked me for a cigarette. I had none.
“Well how about some money?” he asked.
“Foreigner!! Faggot!!” he screamed, baring a few black teeth “Fuck off!”
Sympathy, fear, rage and repulsion mingled in a heady emotional cocktail that froze me to my bench.
“Hell hath no fury like a krok-head’s scorn,” I said to myself mournfully. I stared at the empty river bank for a few minutes before shaking my head and saying, “sticks and stones” many times. This made me feel much better.
It is easy to understand why people take drugs in a city like this. It is easy to understand why people take drugs in any city (feels real nice), but it is especially easy to understand it in this city for there seems to be no other pleasure on offer.