I arrived in Novosibirsk at daft o’clock this morning, when I managed to do my first ichat with the family (the train’s connections are slow, periodic and expensive – which also explains why these articles come out in a bit of a burst). Wonderful, not least the remarkably good “line” – no one else on it at 3am!
Novosibirsk is not on everyone’s itinerary, as it is essentially a modern construct (built initially to house the Trans Siberian Railway workers building a bridge over the huge River Ob) that grew as a result of the railway (“build it and they will come” – are you listening HS2?) that benefitted from the huge relocation of industry eastwards during the Second World War. Thus it is drab and lacking in the delicate architecture in other, older towns. However, as an essentially Soviet construct I was keen to see what had come of it and its surrounding areas. In particular I wanted to go to Akademgorodok (literally “Geeksville”) which had been established in Soviet times to further scientific research and to bring on the brightest young pupils. It is laid out very logically, with neatly intersectioned streets – think Milton Keynes but with quadratic equations. Much of the commentary now is focussed on how such utopian dreams are in ruins, another casualty of history. It doesn’t feel like it when I made the 20km trip to visit. In fact, it felt a bit like the West Coast of the States, full of people for whom a T shirt is the height of taste and whose supreme brainpower is matched only by their complete lack of empathy for the problems of those with only average grey matter. I saw loads of people with trousers too short (a clear sign of genius) and even one man sporting a Rasputin beard and full ski goggles. From the guidebooks I had been led to expect utopian decay, but I was immersed in a real community, even with its own farmers market.
Which brings me onto them and their history. The people of Novosibirsk seem unapologetic about the past (their statue of Lenin stands proudly still in the main square – see the picture), and indeed they acted as if nothing had changed in the last 30 years – they are proud of their history and whilst they would probably acknowledge a few episodes of over doing it, their world is defined by the Great Patriotic War, and so would point to the extraordinary changes their society went through that helped to defeat the Nazis, changes that would not have been possible without the nihilistic fervour of the revolution and the five year plans, an offshoot of which is the Akademgorodok. Over a pint at the local Irish Pub (phew – civilisation) it struck me how much such utopian change has been smeared on age old Russian culture – it was never really communism, more commune-ism, something the Russians have been comfortable with for eons and continue to revolve around. Plus ca change.