Travel to the Past: Ekaterinburg

Helen Rappaport visits the town on the Russian-Siberian border that has become a focus for Romanov pilgrimage.

In 1924 the American dancer Isadora Duncan, down on her luck and past her best, undertook a tour of the Russian provinces. Finding herself in the city of Ekaterinburg in western Siberia, she sent an impassioned plea to her sister to get her out of there. ‘You have no idea what a living nightmare is until you see this town,’ Duncan wrote. ‘Perhaps the killing here of a certain family in a cellar has cast a sort of Edgar Allen Poe gloom over the place – or perhaps it was always like that. The melancholy church bells ring every hour, fearful to hear.’

Yet Ekaterinburg had been renowned as an oasis of civilization to travellers passing through Siberia from Vladivostok on the Pacific coast or Harbin and Shanghai in China. Established as a frontier town in 1723 by Peter the Great and named after his second wife, Ekaterinburg became a smelting works for the vast iron reserves of the Urals, and rapidly grew in importance – economically, scientifically and culturally. Soon it was home to the Imperial Mint and enjoyed a reputation for its broad boulevards and parks, its theatres and opera house and its neoclassical Palladian mansions owned by platinum millionaires. Not least of its fame was Ekaterinburg’s lapidary works, where the precious and semi-precious stones mined in the Urals were cut, providing the raw materials for the spectacular designs of court jewellers and craftsmen such as Karl Fabergé.

But Ekaterinburg took on a darker side, the major stopping-off point for thousands of political exiles and convicts. These were force-marched in chains for thousands of miles along the Trakt – the old post road to Manchuria – and their eventual place of imprisonment. Pausing outside Ekaterinburg to look their last on Russia, prisoners would carve their initials on an old obelisk – a last plaintive reminder of their soon-to-be-forgotten lives.

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