Yekaterinburg (sometimes spelled Ekaterinburg but ALWAYS pronounced Yeh-katerinburg) is the tournament’s most easterly host city, lying 1,667km and 28 hours by train away from Moscow. Many cities claim to be a place “where East meets West” but Yekaterinburg, physically straddling the geographic boundary of Europe and Asia, has a better claim to this than most.
It’s insulation from Russia’s western frontier means that Yekaterinburg’s past is less torrid than that of other host cities. Indeed, the Second World War saw growth rather than destruction, as hundreds of factories in Southern Russia and Ukraine were disassembled, transported piece by piece to the Urals, and reassembled in Yekaterinburg. This added to the city’s already rich industrial capability, turning it into a powerhouse.
The end of the Romanovs
Tragedy has not quite escaped the city however, for this was the site of the murder of the Imperial Family on July 17, 1918. With the Bolsheviks triumphant in the October Revolution of the previous year, Tsar Nicholas II and his family were sent into internal exile in Yekaterinburg.
The Bolshevik leadership panicked as the Czechoslovak legion (part of the White Army in the Russian Civil War) closed in on the city, believing that they had been sent to the rescue. As a result the order was given to Yakov Yurovsky to murder the entire Romanov family.
The Tsar, along with his wife, son and daughters were executed in Ipatiev House, where they had been imprisoned. The bodies were stripped, mutilated and buried in secret near the city. It took most of the century to find and identify the bodies. The Bolshevik campaign of misinformation in the years following the murderous episode has succeeded to this day in obfuscating who gave the regicidal order.
Those interested in the savage end to the Tsarist era can visit the nearby pit of Ganina Yama, where their bodies were unceremoniously dumped. Unfortunately they can no longer visit Ipatiev House, where the Imperial Family spent their last days and where the execution took place; that was destroyed in 1977 under the supervision of a certain Boris Yeltsin, then a Soviet apparatchik in the city.
Modern-day Yekaterinburg has diversified away from the reliance on industry that defined it during the Soviet era, when the city was known as Sverdlovsk. It is now the fourth largest city in Russia and has become an important strategic node in Vladimir Putin’s vision of the country as a Eurasian superpower.
It’s position at the nexus of Europe and Asia saw it host the first two meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2008 and 2009. Yekaterinburg’s ambition is further highlighted by its determination to hold the World EXPO: having failed in its 2020 bid, it has persevered and now seeks to host the event in 2025.
Preparations for the both the EXPO bid and World Cup have seen the demolition of one of the city’s most famous landmarks – over 200m tall, the construction of the Yekaterinburg TV Tower had been put on hold after funds ran out in 1990. Since then it had been used as an illegal BASE jumping site but was destroyed in a spectacular controlled explosion this March.
Yekaterinburg has invested heavily in transport infrastructure in recent years to take advantage of its geographic position. On May 14, Dmitry Medvedev signed a government order to build a new high-speed railway connecting the city to nearby Chelyabinsk. In the long term it is hoped that this will be a key plank in the Moscow – Astana – Beijing railway.
Ural Airlines, the city’s local airline, has also seen huge growth over the last five years, now becoming the 4th largest Russian airline as both domestic and international demand soars. It is one of the few major Russian companies not centred in Moscow and has contributed to a rising self confidence in the city.
An independent streak
This self-confidence was manifested during the Soviet period by the distinctive “Ural Rock” music that emanated from here. Bands such as Nautilus Pampilius and Agatha Christie became famous for their lyrics attacking the Soviet regime.
Yekaterinburg was also the city in which the aforementioned Boris Yeltsin made his name before moving on to Moscow to shake the Soviet Union to its foundations. The Boris Yeltsin centre, recently the target of an arson attack, is testament to the mark he made on the city, and Russian politics at large.
Yeltsin may have found an emulator in outgoing Yekaterinburg mayor Yevgeny Roizman, a vocal Putin-critic. Roizman, a prominent member of the Russian opposition, was essentially forced out of his post by a law abolishing mayoral elections – in other words, the Kremlin picks the mayor. He was one of the few directly elected officials in Russia and a symbol of the city’s unwillingness to strictly follow the Moscow’s line.
Brushed under the carpet
The departure of the mayor is unlikely to sour the party at the World Cup however, Yekaterinburg is determined to show that it is a venue capable of welcoming the world. Teams from across five different continents will play in the 45,000 capacity Yekaterinburg Arena, which will become home to FC Ural after the tournament. Fans from such diverse parts of the world as Mexico, Senegal and Japan can also congregate in the fan zone, located in Mayakovsky Central Park.
Fan tip: Slightly to the West of the city is the physical frontier between Europe and Asia. There are daily tours to the Europe-Asia border monument from the train station. According to legend Tsar Alexander II uncorked a bottle of wine here in 1837. This means that, yes, Yekaterinburg is technically an Asian city – though few locals will admit that.
Read Before Coming:
Last Days of the Romanovs, Helen Rappaport