As I walked away from the taxi outside of the Yekaterinburg train station, I felt my hope slipping away. My main reason for stopping in the city on my Trans-Siberian journey was to visit Ganina Yama, the monastery that now stands on the site where the bodies of the last Russian tsar Nicholas II and his family were dumped into a mine shaft after they were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
I arrived in Yekaterinburg on a Tuesday morning and carefully made plans to visit Ganina Yama on Wednesday. The owner of the hostel where I was staying gave me meticulous instructions about where and when to catch the bus that ran there six times a day so it seemed pretty easy.
Until I stood at the bus stop for over thirty minutes and no bus ever arrived.
I gave up, figuring I could still give it another shot on Thursday as my train didn’t leave until 9:00 p.m. I returned to the hostel, told Ekaterina what happened and she promised to look into it.
As it turned out, the buses weren’t running to Ganina Yama at that time. Ekaterina explained to me that the only way I would be able to make the trip would be to hire a taxi. She said it should cost about 400 rubles one way, plus about 3 rubles per minute of waiting time. Assuming I spent half an hour there, this would come out to about 890 rubles (just under $30).
With this information in hand, and feeling confident in my ability to negotiate in Russian, I headed to the train station, where I knew I could find official taxis. I approached the first one I saw and made my request – to which he quoted me 1500 rubles (about $50) one way. I nicely explained that no, I knew it shouldn’t cost that much but he would not relent. Thinking perhaps I misunderstood and he actually meant 1500 round trip plus waiting time, I tried to clarify but I was not happy with the response. Realizing that he would not budge, I slammed the door shut and walked away.
Not seeing any other taxis in the immediate vicinity, I started walking around to the front of the train station, hoping to find someone a little more reasonable.
What I discovered was even better.
I saw a sign advertising 3-hour excursions to Ganina Yama.
A young guy stood near the sign with a bullhorn – clearly trying to drum up some business. He saw me checking out the sign and approached me, telling me the next excursion would leave in about 40 minutes (1:00 p.m.) and it cost 500 rubles. Yep, that’s right. Less than $20 for a guided tour there and back while the taxi driver wanted to swindle me out of $50.
It took me all of about five seconds to say yes, at which point he ushered me into a nearby van and handed me a brochure explaining all about Ganina Yama in Russian.
I sat there patiently, happy to be in a semi-warm van than standing outside, until just before 1:00, wondering if I was going to be the only passenger and, if so, would the excursion still run for just 500 rubles.
To my great relief, just before we were scheduled to depart, a group of college students fresh off a train from Krasnoyarsk hopped on board. As they did, the excursion leader announced to them that they had a “foreigner” on the excursion as well and asked if any of them spoke English. As they looked at me shyly, I offered up that I spoke some Russian and soon they were peppering me with questions.
We reached Ganina Yama about forty minutes later and went our separate ways to explore the grounds of the monastery. I visited each of the wooden chapels and walked along the bridge surrounding the former mine shaft where the Romanov family’s bodies were discarded.
Then I made my way to a far side of the site where a long display of photographs was erected. Ekaterina had told me not to miss this.
And to my surprise, I found myself getting a little teary.
I have read countless books about Russian history and specifically about the murder of the Romanov family. While it always seemed sad to me, it also seemed distant. It wasn’t something that took place in my country or in my lifetime. And it wasn’t something that seemed to rise to the same level of emotional impact as the Holocaust or the attacks of September 11.
Not to mention that Nicholas II was far from a perfect leader and certainly was not overly popular. His reign began with over 1300 people being killed in a stampede at his coronation festival and things went downhill from there as Russia descended into revolution and economic collapse under his watch.
At the same time, by most accounts I have read, Nicholas may have been naïve, ill-informed and unaccepting of some of the realities of the revolution going on around him, but there is little indication that he was evil-minded.
He was no Ivan the Terrible or Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein.
And even if he was, does that justify killing him and his entire family, including five children, in cold blood?
Not only was Nicholas shot multiple times in the chest, his daughters were shot at multiple times, then stabbed with bayonets before finally being shot in the head.
I walked slowly by the black and white pictures of Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra, and their children, Anastasia, Tatiana, Olga, Maria and Alexei. Some photographs were formal family portraits, but many were more casual, impromptu shots taken as the children played and they simply enjoyed being together. They looked just like any other family. They just had the misfortune of being born into the Romanov family.
After I reached the end of the display and wiped a couple tears from my eyes, I headed toward the entrance to Ganina Yama. There, my feelings of solemnness were interrupted by a state of panic as the van that drove me to the monastery was nowhere in sight – and neither was the group of students. I went back and forth between being certain I had been abandoned and being fairly confident that I must have just gotten the time wrong because the van couldn’t possibly leave without me.
Finally, after about twenty minutes of me frantically pacing around the parking lot, I saw the students heading toward me, smiles on their faces, and, of course, cigarettes in hand. If the visit to the monastery affected them anywhere close to the way it did me, they didn’t show it.
Rather, they cheerfully invited me for tea and then joked and teased each other as we waited for the van to finally arrive.
An hour later, I was back in Yekaterinburg, standing in front of the Church of the Blood, built on the spot where the Ipatiev House once stood – the basement of which was the site of the murder of the Romanov family.
My time in the city was drawing to a close, my mission in stopping there fulfilled.
The day had been an emotional rollercoaster.
The frustration and disappointment of thinking I wouldn’t make it to Ganina Yama.
The relief and excitement when I found an excursion to take me there.
The melancholy feeling of actually visiting the site.
The panic when I thought I was stranded.
The relief (again) when I realized I wasn’t.
And, finally, a feeling of satisfaction that everything worked out in the end