What comes to your mind when you hear the word Tankograd? A beautiful tropical paradise? Glass and steel skyskrapers? Maybe a palm tree lined street saturated by a warm and clear sky? If any of these pictures came to your mind then see a doctor immediately, as it is proof that you are crazy. The picture that should jump to your mind is of a grey, concrete, soot covered city full of tanks. And you would be correct.
Tankograd, the World War II name for the city of Chelyabinsk, is a city of over one million poor souls in the South of Russia near the border with Kazakhstan. It has all your normal Communist attractions such as giant Lenin statues, a massive paved parade ground, et cetra so we will skip descriptions. If you seen them once you know them all.
This is the real Russia. Forget Moscow and St.Petersburg. If you want the full Russian experience you must come here. There is no Kremlin, no beautiful canal, no Red Square, no impressively absurd building at all. What they have, and have in spades, are tanks. The main park has a giant display of tanks that you can touch and climb on. So for a little boy it might be the dream city.
Let me enlighten you with my personal experience of this fabulous city. I went there because I like to travel beyond the normal and sanitized tourist destinations, and also because of a lady I had met in Turkey. And by met I mean I swam into her after coming up from a dive in Cleopatra’s pool.
I arrived on an old Russia planefrom Moscow. A TU-124 I believe. Anyway, it was something from another time and space. I have flown on old planes before, DC-8 and 707, but this Russian plane was in a league of its own. The airport was also impressive in how bad and disgusting it was. But onto the city itself. It was cold but by no means freezing. A Russian summer most likely. The sky was grey which was amazingly was also the color of the city. My friend put me up in an extra flat of hers a little ways outside the center. So my first day I was left alone as she worked 9-5.
I have always enjoyed walking around cities and set of exploring. Ten seconds after locking the door to the flat I was attacked by two men in the stairwell. They had probably heard me speaking English and were waiting for me. A nice old lady decided to watch. I guess attacks happen so often there that it was considered entertainment and there was no need to call the police. I am a decent fighter so I was able to hold my own and only suffered a torn shirt. My friend apologized profusely and moved me into a kind of dorm near the University. From here on out my judgement of Chelyabinsk may have been biased from the bad experience.
The area around the University is quite nice, and in the park behind the University I made a friend. After chatting for a while she found out that I was a firefighter and took me on a walk to see her father who was working that day at a nearby fire station. We had a simple conversation about the job with her translating and he gave me a whole Russian firefighters uniform, including stereotypical hat. I never saw my friend after that but I was glad to learn that she immigrated to the USA. She was smart and hated Russia.
I had quite a few other interesting experiences. Such as taking a gulp of what I thought was strawberry juice only to have it be beet juice. Most disgusting surprise ever! Riding on a tram with a hole rusted through the bottom so I could watch the pavement cruise by under my feet. Seeing a goat walk itself through the city center. Riding on a ferris wheel in the park that was covered in rust and missing a couple of the bolts meant to hold it together. Maybe I am the only one to find these things interesting. The Russians that were around me sure didn’t seem to find anything amiss.
And then there are the tanks. There is not much to describe here. There are tank statues everywhere. The pictures will show better than any description I can give. Perhaps I should give Chelyabinsk a second chance since we started off on the wrong foot, but since I have no desire to ever return to Russia I doubt it will happen. Plus, nearby is the city of Ekaterinburg, which is beautiful and interesting. But that is for another story.