From Russia With Love: Hip-Hop, Homosexuality & More
It’s incredible how much societal observation you can do in just one day in a foreign city. I wasn’t sure I’d get enough material for a decent article during my whirlwind trip to Ekaterinburg last week, but Boris Yeltsin’s hometown didn’t let me down.
With a population of roughly 1.5 million, Ekaterinburg is a two-hour flight from Russia’s capital, Moscow. The first thing you notice when landing in winter is how beautiful the snow coating the city is. Here it sparkles, unlike New York City, where the flakes are covered with grime and dirt as soon as they fall to the ground. It almost doesn’t look real and is quite possibly the prettiest thing I’ve seen. The second thing you notice are the fur coats. Russian women do not play when it comes to their sable/mink game! Floor-length, luxurious coats with matching headpieces. They whip them out as soon as the plane lands, ready for the -15 degree Celsius temperatures to greet them as soon as they step out. (Another style element is stiletto boots, which they miraculously wear with ease as they trudge through the aforementioned pretty snow).
Thanks to DJ Miss Saigon being a headliner at the Boris Yelsin memorial concert we’re in town for, from the moment we arrive in Ekaterinburg we’re treated as VIPs. There’s great distinction between rich and poor in Russia and after experiencing how the other half live (we had a sports car waiting for us right underneath the airplane, as an example) I can only imagine how tough life is for the have-nots, like the elderly beggars we saw outside the city’s famous (and eerily named) Church-on-the-Blood (I’m pictured standing in front of it above, rocking my Psyberia jacket), there for hours in freezing conditions asking visitors for change.
Our personal attendant Alex and driver Constantin (Consta, for short) are both our unwitting guides to the ways of Ekaterinburg society. Of course my first conversation with them is about hip-hop. Here in Russia, underground rap and 90s favorites still rule. Alex, a 21-year-old aspiring MC himself, name checks Afu Ra, De La Soul, MF Doom and of course, Wu Tang Clan as his favorites (“Wu Tang is the best,” he says excitedly. “I hear Raekwon is coming here soon”). When asked about current icons like Lil Wayne, he scrunches his baby face up and replies, “I don’t like Lil Wayne. I don’t like his style. It’s not interesting; there’s nothing special about it.” (Later on, Alex will show me his rhyme book where the opening line to his first song is “Cash rules everything around me,” written in Russian.)
Alex showing me his rhyme book
We joke around with the guys as we check into our hotel lobby, which at all times of the day seems to be filled with grim-faced people puffing endlessly on cigarettes. Alex tells us pretty much everyone in Russia smokes, with many starting as young as 11, 12 years old (as he did). Laughing at the various stereotypes surrounding their culture, Consta adds, “You probably thought you might also see bears walking down the street here, no?” (Myths not unlike kangaroos for us back home in Australia). “I’ve only ever seen them at the zoo; there are no bears to be seen here!”
Speaking of Australia, Consta and I bond over our mutual love for boxing and especially his hero Kostya Tszyu (born in Serov, his hometown) who now holds dual Russian/Australian citizenship. Consta also shares his knowledge of Russia’s expansive territory, sharing that a city like Vladivostok (a port city on the Pacific Ocean) is at least a one-week train ride from Ekaterinburg. “Our trains are not so modern, as in America,” he says. He tells us about Yakutsk, the “coldest city on Earth,” where people live in temperatures that can drop down to the mind-boggling -55 degrees Celsius. “I don’t know how people live there!” says Consta, shaking his head.
The conversation turns to the subject of race as we drive through the city’s main street, headed to sound check for the night’s show. There’s a small Chinese and Tajik (from neighboring country Tajikistan) minority in Ekaterinburg but it’s rare to see anything other than native Russians. Consta says if people in Ekaterinburg ever saw a black person living amongst them, “they’d go a little crazy, simply because it’s impossible to see one!” Our guides are adamant though that Russia is enduring of other cultures. “There are over 100 nationalities in Russia. We’re very accepting of everyone,” says Consta.
Everyone except the gay and lesbian community, apparently. One striking observation in my short time in Ekaterinburg is the pervading homophobia locals seemingly have no issues with. According to Consta, “Russians are not accepting of ‘gay’. If you’re a man, you’re strong. If you’re a woman, you’re soft. Our society is not ready for changes like this; perhaps in Moscow they accept a little more, but not much.” Alex chimes in, adding quite seriously, “I’m afraid of them!”
Old and new: a carriage (missing its horse) parked on one of Ekaterinburg’s main streets
Our talks remain serious as we turn to one of Russia’s favorite subjects—politics. “I’m sure [Vladimir] Putin will be president again,” Alex observes sagely, with Consta in agreeance. “[Dmitry] Medvedev (formerly Putin’s Chief of Presidential Staff) has been president for almost four years and I don’t think he’ll get the next four. Putin, Medvedev; it’s all the same anyway. They are driving the machine the same way.”
The concert goes off without a hitch and its host, Boris Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana Yumasheva, talks to the audience at length about her father’s legacy as the first president of the country. The audience is at times loudly patriotic and at others, revealing in their silence. They often look as confused as I do, and I’m a first-time guest.
Russia has had such a colorful history and is truly a fascinating study in old meets new. Of course one full day spent in a city like Ekaterinburg doesn’t give me anthropological license for concrete study, but I certainly noticed key elements to a society in constant transformation.
Do svidaniya (till next time), Russia. Thanks for the hospitality and of course, the smoothest-tasting vodka I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying.