Beginning at a Journey's End

by Kenneth Rayman on October 12, 2019
Reaching the end of your path is a wonderful feeling, but the path never truly ends. Instead, it morphs and becomes part of a larger whole once your original “destination” is reached. Traveling to Ekaterinburg gave me that chance to fulfill the original goal of visiting Russia in 2017, while making the first “professional” step in what that trip had turned into. Ekaterinburg may be “just another town” to an ordinary American tourist, but my host Lena was told to expect no ordinary American in me, by the Center for Citizens Initiatives. Rather than overload Lena when I arrived, I sent a quick hello with a part of my “elevator pitch,” including my article on the Romanov “romantic tragedy.” She responded graciously that she was intrigued to meet me after reading it. This trip would provide personal closure while also being the first official “business” of my writing career.

I was met in the Koltsovo Airport by my hosts, Nikolai, Giorgi, and Lena from the local Rotary Club, all from a variety of local businesses. They greeted me with hugs as we literally broke bread together in the airport as a sign of friendship. I would be totally in the moment riding in the car with Nikolai and Lena, taking a few pictures of my entry into the city, but mindful of the task at hand as a citizen diplomat with the CCI, and my own desire to tell their true narrative. I wanted to know them and their city, just as they did me, as well as the history I’d come in search of.

Instead of staying at the hotel after the day of travel from Moscow, Nikolai offered to take me around the city and explore. Lena, though, reminded me as she left for home, that Nikolai didn’t speak any English. I figured my phone would be enough to translate when the Russian I did know was not enough. This was an error in judgement, as my phone was at 32% battery life, a challenge which required both of us to be creative in how we communicated. I first asked to see the monument to Yakov Sverdlov and took pictures as we talked about how I knew of him and the monument. Nikolai, like Lena, was intrigued that I knew about him at all but shocked at what I knew. I said I had heard that Sverdlov had been the one who gave the order to execute the Romanov family in 1918. Nikolai replied, “No, it was totally Lenin, not Sverdlov.” I clarified that I hadn’t learned through official records. Rather, it had been presented through what I researched as a ‘silent’ order from Lenin, passed through Sverdlov to keep Lenin’s hands clean.

Nikolai took me to dinner after walking the Iset River embankment, telling me about the city square, the old weir dam in the square and taking pictures of me with Peter the Great’s bust, the Fathers of the City monument, and in front of the Presidential Residence. Nikolai challenged me to stop relying on my phone so much as my phone died. He told me what to say to the waitress when my Russian was wrong, and we laughed at how I’d been taught to say the wrong thing. When asked if the food tasted good, I essentially answered, “the taste doesn’t need anything else.” Nikolai told me some words in English are the same in Russian, "just to say, 'super,' or 'good'," though I eventually learned to say it, “vkoosna.” Asking how many brothers and sisters I had, I told him very simply, “Tr'i. Odin brat i dve sestr'y.” Then came the challenge, whether I was the oldest, but I only knew how to tell him I was the baby of the family, “Nyet, ya rebenok” Handing me his phone he wondered the age difference and I began to panic. When I asked to borrow his phone for the translator, Nikolai responded, “Nyet,” with a look that spoke, “Cmon, I know you know how to say it; you’re speaking better than I expected you to, just think a moment.” He was telling me to think with what I knew and, after a moment, I remembered that I knew my numbers. “Ah! Ya tridt'sat' tr'i let, Ahna sorok dev'jat',” as he smiled with an approving nod. 

Giorgi, the next day, was my “historical” guide. Our first stop was the Church on Blood, completed in 2003, built on the spot of the Ipatiev House where the Romanov family were held captive and executed on July 17, 1918. Listening to Giorgi tell me about the church, I marveled at how I was at the doorstep of where ‘my’ Russia started, which by now Giorgi knew all about. The first floor was dedicated to the lost family and their servants, murdered alongside, with pictures along the columns intertwined with icons of other saints. Further into the chamber a small dark staircase led to a platform at a shrine with a concrete slab shrouded in red light, below this exact spot was the cellar where the last ruling Romanov family were killed. Though agnostic, I recognize that spirituality is not exclusive to religion and believe that the shrine had a spiritual impact, as I eerily smelled dry blood while on the platform. After viewing the ornate chapel above, I returned to the portraits of the family downstairs. Bowing my head, I gave silent reflection at each one before we left to the countryside, where the family were taken later that July night. At Ganina Yama, I couldn’t take my eyes off the now grassy depression in the ground, having yet another spiritual experience, where the family was initially left to be forgotten. I felt immense gratitude at the closure that I received with these visits and for the culture’s willingness to share something so “personal” about their story with me. I would offer yet another moment at the bronze busts of Nicholas and Alexandra as well as the childrens' statue at Ganina Yama.

As a diplomat hosted by the Rotary, I met with a variety of people throughout the local community. With Ekaterinburg being a former military industrial complex, manufacturing is still a key sector in the city. I met the current Rotary President, Denis, at his metal fabrication factory and strangely felt at home almost immediately. Touring the grounds with Denis and his assistant Yana, I thought back to all the tours I’d been on of my dad’s manufacturing plant. I later told him at the Rotary meeting that it brought back memories for me of my dad's plant, how I enjoyed the computer work I helped my dad with, and how even if I didn’t understand the business itself, I felt connected to it through my old memories. The last community member I visited, though, impacted me the most, both as a writer and a person. I only knew that I was meeting with a local charity, but to find out it was the Special Olympics committee was a joy for me and, it turned out, them too. The committee directors spoke with me at length about the programs they offer to help the students and the athletes of the region thrive and about the availability to receive these services and assistance. I was also told that the Special Olympics delegation from the Sverdlovsk Oblast was the most successful throughout the districts that make up the Russian national delegation. I expressed my appreciation for the clarification on disability resources I tried to research on my own with no luck, disclosing my own disability and some of what I faced growing up. This shocked them to finally notice my spastic left arm and to hear my success at finding a calling as a writer and working towards it. They asked if they could read the article I wrote dealing with disability, shifting the mindset to a much more healthier one, and how I frame my view of “success.” They told me that such an article could do wonders for their students to see how to truly refocus themselves to not let a disability define them. I happily said I would send the article feeling like I’d made my first real professional connection, as a writer, through nothing more than genuine authenticity.

In four days, I had come to the end of one journey, a journey that started my obsession with a far off history and people, and came away with stories about modern day life, culture, the adaptation to a new world since 1991, and personal connections that I can spread the message about in person, digitally, and in print. I feel even more connected to Ekaterinburg now, as it’s become more than just it’s history within my story, as they, themselves, spoke the narrative they want the world to know beyond what their city is know for.