There's a sense of quirk in Ekaterinburg that is entirely unexpected. Coming in here the only association one had was the grim, grisly end of the Romanovs. The city, built to tap into the vast mineral resources in Siberia, changed its name to Sverdlov to break with the Czarist past but country and city reverted to their old names in the 1990s.
You'd expect a gritty, industrial town, lined perhaps with factories and workshops. They possibly do exist, and there is homage to them in city-centre installations, but there is charm, too, and the ability to surprise. This is, after all, the hometown of Boris Yeltsin, who stood on a tank and crushed an attempted coup. So there is spirit.
You can see it in the famous keyboard installation by the river. Created in 2005 by the artist Anatoly Vyatkin, it comprises 104 concrete computer keys on 30:1 scale, covering 64 square metres. Each key weighs around 80 kg -- a couple were stolen and had to be replaced -- and the space bar close to 500 kg. No one seems to know quite why it was built, which adds to its curiosity value. A modern-day Stonehenge perhaps.
It's now one of the city landmarks, prominent in every guide book. Jumping on the keyboards is supposed to be the thing; one version is to jump on W-I-S-H, make your wish and press Enter. I did not, thankfully, see anyone jump on "Delete".
It's also the venue of an annual gathering of IT professionals and engineers. They meet on Sysadmin Day, which is the last Friday in July. (Note to HR: That's the day we give thanks to the guys we curse for the rest of the year.) But they don't just meet; that would be too boring. They have sports events incorporating elements of their work: One involves grabbing the mouse by the tail and throwing it as far as possible, like a hammer throw without the hammer; another is throwing the mouse, with tail snipped off or bundled around it, it into a basket that's actually a hard disk shell. Also, lifting a box of used HDDs. And you thought techies had no sense of fun. (I know several journalists who, at some point in the day, especially on tour, want to throw their laptop as far as possible. But that is entirely unrelated to any sense of fun.)
Right next to it is the Beatles Tribute, a wall with graffiti, sketches and a cutout of the Fabs c.1964. There are lots of messages, from the upbeat "Life is worth living" to the plaintive "Pray for the world" to the alarming "Destroy the system". It's not much of a display but it should be remembered how music has always been seen here as a sign of potential rebellion and much of western music was banned.
The reasons could be anything: One list I saw of "Not recommended music" in the Soviet era had Village People listed under Violence, Madness and the B-52s under "Punk, Violence" (did anyone actually listen to them before applying these labels) and Julio Iglesias under "Neofascism". (For better or worse, he's back on the PA systems here.) Tina Turner's crime is unambiguous: "Sex". Donna Summer doesn't go that far, she gets away with "Eroticism". I need a Pink Floyd fan here to explain why they were labelled under "Interfering the foreign policy of USSR (Afghanistan)". You get the picture.
a fantastic Soviet list of banned Western music, along with reasons for the ban. Who knew AC/DC was "neofascist" or that Pink Floyd engaged in "distortion of Soviet policy"? (h/t @ColdWarPod) pic.twitter.com/2AS26C0eVr— Seva (@SevaUT) 5 June 2018
In fact the ban on almost all non-Soviet music led people to come up with their own creative ways of bootlegging, such as using discarded X-Ray plates to actually make pirated records called, subtly, "Bone music". But that's a story for another day.
I walked in to the Museum of Architecture and Design looking for clues to what sparked this creativity in Ekaterinburg but all I saw was an exhibition titled: "Seven Days of Sports Contest - Formation of the Capital of Constructivism". Even sadder, that was the only bit in English; everything else in the exhibition was in Russian. I did find a person there who spoke English and showed her pictures of what I'd seen in the past couple of days, including the star-shaped bench I mention in an earlier piece. Her eyes lit up when she saw that but alas there was no further information passed on.
But the day was not without its sad moments, reflective of where we are today (in a philosophical sense, not in terms of time zones). Four years ago, during a wonderful World Cup in Brazil, we were robbed in Buenos Aires -- it was non-physical, all done with smiles and several squirts of foul-smelling liquid, but it has made me wary of every stranger who asks for directions or interacts in any way.
So yesterday there were two young girls at the Beatles monument and when they saw me taking pictures they offered to take one of me with my camera. First instinct was to say yes, but I said no. The girls were a bit surprised, and asked why, and I made up a line about wanting a frame without me in it. They walked off, still flummoxed.
Later, near the stadium, a young boy and girl, both in their teens, stopped me. The boy said he wanted to practise his English on me, and we started chatting. My guard was up, and as we spoke I saw the girl move behind me. I couldn't turn around without making it obvious, so I just reached back and kept a hand on my backpack. It all went off well, the boy will hopefully fulfil his dream of studying abroad. But it left me feeling bad, so, to anyone who gets a brush-off from me, well, you know why. It's nothing personal. Blame it on Buenos Aires.