Siberia Pt. 2: Re-purposed Soviet rocket production, granite pillars, and slowing down in Krasnoyarsk



By coincidence my Couchsurfing host from Krasnoyarsk was in Irkutsk for a scientific conference, so I met with him at his friend’s place in Irkutsk before we hopped an overnight train to Krasnoyarsk. It was a nice change of pace to get in a sprawling discussion with him and his friend covering everything from comparative immigration policies to management styles in the United States and Russia.

My host, Vasilii (same name as my host in Irkutsk), worked doing physics research as a post-grad in the Krasnoyarsk Technical University and was bubbling with enthusiasm about his work investigating antiferromagnetic properties of various compounds. He actually took me to his lab and showed me around since I was curious.

The large cities in Siberia have separate areas a good distance from the center called akademgorodok, or academic city, which serve as dedicated university teaching and research areas. This is presumably to allow academics the tranquility of living in a more rural setting but still within reach of urban resources. The physics institute that held Vasilii’s lab was in the Krasnoyarsk akademgorodok, and was filled with assorted Soviet-era devices and contraptions with functions I couldn’t begin to guess at, and a few newer pieces of equipment they had bought from the United States and Germany including a container for super-cooled helium.

They showed me how they refill liquid nitrogen for experiments, significantly different than how we went about it in my lab in the US; they actually produced the liquid nitrogen on location within walking distance. The room full of equipment was re-purposed for research since it used to serve as a mobile production facility in making rocket fuel and preparing rockets in the Soviet days.

Since Vasilii was going to be occupied with lab work, he asked a friend, Sergey, to show me around downtown Krasnoyarsk. Sergey was in his last part of dentistry training, and quite bright considering he was a finalist for a Fulbright scholarship and awaiting word on the results. After Vasilii lent me his bike and ride around the surrounding hills I headed toward the center of town to meet Sergey. The downtown area was quite nice and calm with the first few days of the Siberian spring warming things up from the winter.

Sergey was pretty critical of the political situation in Russia and eager to vent about it, as most Russians I met are, and concluded that the largest problem is incompetent leaders in the corporate and government leadership that are unable to effectively manage. He said the ones that are really good and shake up the system too much are put in jail or taken out of power, and that this tendency stemmed from years of Soviet top-down command. Since many of the current leaders grew up in that era, they were a bit stuck in their management style. He seemed eager to get involved and make some change, but was exasperated at the uphill climb that would have to be undertaken.

There were three dramatic theaters in the area and Sergey suggested I check one out, but only one had a show on the day I was available. It was completely in Russian, but Sergey helped translate and keep me informed of the general plot, and at $7 for the ticket I wasn’t really concerned about being a little confused at times. Overall it was about two men who pretended to be a rich ladies’ long-lost nieces trying to rekindle the relationship with her to get a cut of the will. To pull it off they had to crossdress, so the drag show aspect of the show was pretty entertaining despite my lack of understanding rudimentary Russian.

Krasnoyarsk was said to not be particularly exciting, but it was known for its granite pillars called “stolby” just outside the city that are popular with rock climbers. In fact, a whole social movement has sprung up around them known as “stolbyism” which encourages spending time out of the city in the nature surrounding the stolby, and the really hardcore climbers don’t even use ropes or safety equipment to climb.

Approaching the park you are presented with a memorial to the climbers that had died in the area, with blank spaces intentionally left to remind those climbers feeling a little too confident. I hiked the 20 km loop with Sergey through the most popular stolby to and went up a few of them that didn’t really require any skill. The view of the surrounding hills was sweeping, but limited due to light rain and clouds. The snow was still quite deep in the area, and if I stepped a bit too far from the worn path my leg would go in about waist-high.

By the time I returned to Krasnoyarsk to meet Vasilii to go horse riding, my shoes were soaked. Vasilii’s ex-wife owned a few horses and gave us a discounted price to ride for while, and we took off toward some hills not far from where his laboratory was located. By this time it was evening but still warm with a light jacket, and the sun peeking through the birch-pine forest as we rode would have been enough to clear even the most anxious of minds. The guidebooks, and even my beloved Wikitravel, claimed Kasnoyarsk wasn’t really the most exciting place to visit, but my time there was great. However, I was already anticipating my visit to Novosibirsk since I had been in contact with researchers that were going to show me the result of 50 years of a unique and on-going scientific experiment: domesticated foxes.

Random observations: it seems like vodka’s popularity in Russia is declining, being replaced by beer and other spirits. The Russians that I have met do not drink particularly much, and are acutely aware of how people from foreign countries judge their alcohol consumption. There is still blatant public consumption of alcohol though, and seeing a father carrying his baby on the bus while downing a bottle of beer wasn’t an odd sight. In light of the popularity of beer, there are beer stores on every other corner that dispense pretty delicious beer into plastic bottles at a per liter price of about $1-2. Unrelated to alcohol, I am finding it rare that people hang the Russian flag outside their business or homes, and are really only seen on government buildings. I suppose this reflects the palpable lack of confidence in the country among the citizenry.

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