Yesterday morning, I returned from a two week trip to Ulyanovsk. I went in order to do research in local archives there. Of course, I also spent time catching up with friends. I even served as a tour guide for a few days. Anne-Marie has been traveling a bit around Russia and wanted to see the city that I’m always raving about, so we went together for the first few days.

The view from third class.

We left Moscow on a Monday night on the train. Anne-Marie and I ended up getting spots in platskart, or third class. I’ve never ridden in third class before, and she had never been on a sleeper train, so it was quite the adventure for both of us. Third class is an open train carriage with roughly 6 sleeping places grouped together. Like in kupe, or second class, there are four spots around a table, two upper and two lower. As there are no doors diving the spaces, there is more space along the walkways in third class, so there are two bunks that go along the windows. Anne-Marie got the upper bunk on the hallway, and I got my preferred lower bunk. Our neighbors on the ride to Ulyanovsk were fairly nice but weren’t talkative with us. They left us to our own devices.

The typical Russian train experience.

On another train adventure, Anne-Marie and I walked down almost the entire length of the train to check out the restaurant car. I had never been to one on a Russian train, and she was curious. The crossings between the train carriages were pretty scary at times, but we made it to the restaurant and back for a beer.

The restaurant car.

We arrived in Ulyanovsk on a Tuesday morning. We hopped in a cab to meet my friend Ira at a language school. Ira was incredibly generous and let the two of us stay with her, and then continued to let me stay with her the whole time. After a detour to the famous Shashlychnaya on Federatsiya, we dropped off our stuff in the apartment and got another set of keys made before I showed Anne-Marie around the major streets and sights of the center.

The best shashlyk. Period.

One of our stops was the Lenin Memorial Museum. Sometime since the summer of 2014, they redid some of the exhibits. We enjoyed the museum, but I was upset because my favorite exhibit is gone. My favorite item there was the giant socialist-realist carpet with Lenin, scientists, and farmers. I asked a woman working there where the carpet had gone. “I see you’ve been here before,” she stated. She then said that they had slightly changed the exhibit, and that’s just the way that it would be for a while.

The most beautiful carpet c. 2014.

Thankfully, the portrait of Brezhnev made out of various grains is still in place. It’s a small consolation.

Brezhnev in grainy glory.

The next day, we went to a series of other museums along Lenin and Tolstoy Streets. My former Russian teacher, her friend Olga, and the new Fulbrighter at the Politech went on the excursions with us. It was my fourth trip to the architecture museum, I think, and when we went inside my Russian teacher said that it was now my turn to give the tours. In Russian! So I complied and talked about the formation of the Simbirsk Kremlin by Bogdan Khitrovo on the banks of the Volga, then the edge of the Russian state.

Some of the other important food tours of Ulyanovsk included shawarma from Shawarman (the best shawarma in Russia!) and a donut from Donut Family.

Pure joy. Danila, you make some really good donuts!

On Thursday, we got up and headed to one of my favorite museums in the world, the Museum of Civil Aviation. It’s a moderately sized aviation museum on the outskirts of the city by the old airport. While it may not be huge, I think it’s the best aviation museum in the world because you can enter a few of the planes and sit in the cockpits. We had a ball wandering around the Tu-124.

You know you would want us to be your Captain and First Officer.

When we arrived, we were told that the Tu-144, the Soviet Concorde, was closed. After having fun, we went back to the office to ask how to take a bus back, as we had taken a taxi to get to the museum. A new man was sitting in the office and was curious about our accents. He got very excited when we said we were from the USA and Canada. He then made some jokes about maple syrup and silver dollars. I jokingly said I had American Marlboros, which I would trade to get into the Concorde. He said we could go into the Concorde anyway, but gladly took two cigarettes. As we were being let into the Concorde by the woman who sold us the tickets, she told us that the man was the director of the museum. After playing around inside the Concorde for a bit, we went back into the office where we had tea with the director and museum employees. The director is an incredibly friendly and generous man, who invited us back to the museum for a private tour with him.

With the wonderful director!

From the aviation museum, we got another meal at the shashlychnaya before heading to the Fire Museum. I had never been there before. The highlights of this particular museum are uniforms that you can try on as well as a cool 1938 GAZ-AA fire truck and a Ural motorcycle with sidecar that had been transformed into a fire vehicle.

Ural Motorcycle.

Sadly, the fun had to end, and Anne-Marie went back to Moscow on the train on Thursday night, while I began my work. On Friday morning, I went to work in the Archive of Modern History, or the former Communist Party Archive for Ulyanovsk. I had tried calling their phone number a few times so that I would not be showing up unannounced but no one answered. I went to the archive and saw the security guard inside and said that I had called and was trying to find out about receiving permission to work there. He told me to wait a second, got up, opened a door, and shouted, “The American is here!” From there I was introduced to the head of the reading room, who told me that the reading room was closed on Fridays and Mondays, but that I was welcome to work in them on those days anyway. She then introduced me to the director of the archive, with whom I chatted for a few minutes. She asked me about my topic and RGGU, because she graduated from the archive and history department there.

The building in the background is the archive.

In the reading room, the worker showed me a series of helpful books. She also give me a complete electronic folder of documents and photos about one particular street in the city, which was built by German POWs. The reading room itself was very comfortable, and it had plenty of outlets for computers. It also had really neat displays on the wall from the 1980s about representatives from Ulyanovsk going to various Communist Party Conferences in Moscow, such as the famed 20th Party Congress in which Khrushchev gave his “Secret Speech” that denounced Stalin and his cult.

On Saturday morning, I woke up early and walked off to my friend Natasha’s apartment to get into a taxi to the bus station with her. We took a long distance marshrutka to Tolyatti, with Alex, who is the Fulbright ETA from the Ulyanovsk State University (the Lehigh to the Lafayette of the Ulyanovsk State Technical University). I’ve wanted to go to Tolyatti for a long time, and mentioned it to Natasha when she told me that she was going there to visit her boyfriend, who is from there. She said that it could easily be arranged for us to travel there. My interest in Tolyatti is that it is the location of AvtoVAZ, the Russian car company that makes the Lada. It was built in the late 1960s with the help of the Italians and the Fiat Corporation. The infamous Lada Zhiguli is really a modified Fiat 124.

We rode in the marshrutka quite comfortably. We got out for a quick stop when we got to Dmitrovgrad, the second largest city in the Ulyanovsk Oblast. We took a photo together there and almost got run over in the process. After more hours of riding, and passing some Kolkhozy and Sovkhozy, we got to Tolyatti, where Natasha’s boyfriend Sasha met us with his car.

He took us to the main overlook of the Volga river and told us that Tolyatti was originally called Stavropol-Na-Volge, of Stavropol on the Volga. Two important things happened to the city in recent times. The first was the construction of the Kuybyshev Dam and Reservoir in the 1950s. This caused the city to be completed moved. The reservoir ended up flooding the old city completely. Thus, Tolyatti is a completely new and Soviet city. Sasha said that when the water level is really low, you can walk along the banks of the Volga and find remnants of the old buildings or grave stones from the cemetery. The other major change to the city was the construction of AvtoVAZ in 1964. Due to the project, the city was renamed Tolyatti in honor of Palmiro Togliatti, who was the leader of the Italian Communist Party from the late 1920s until his death in 1964.

Scenic view of the Volga from Tolyatti.

From the visa on the Volga, we headed in the city to grab some shawarma at the best stand there. Then, we took a drive along the massive AvtoVAZ factory before going to the museum. Sadly, we couldn’t go on a tour of the factory because they didn’t allow foreigners in. The museum for the factory was pretty cool, though. And part of the museum with the concept cars was basically on an extension of the factory floor. You could hear them assembling stuff on the other side of the wall.

The AvtoVAZ Museum.

After the AvtoVAZ museum, we went to a giant military museum and wandered around fields of tanks, troops carriers, trucks, and missile launchers. They even have a submarine on display, which was sadly closed on the day we were there. There is also a second area at the museum that has a number of military and civilian trains, including one from America. It was pretty cool to climb around on an armored military train. Yet again, I was living out some of my Goldeneye fantasies.

Armored trains are cool.

From the military museum, we picked up Sasha’s best friend and went to a Serbian burger restaurant that’s a chain in Tolyatti. Then, we went to a shooting range. Sasha has a shotgun, and we shot clay targets. It was the first time that I’ve been clay shooting. I’m pretty decent at hitting standing targets, but it is a bit of a challenge to hit moving targets. After shooting, we rode back to Ulyanovsk in Sasha’s car.

This is my boom stick.

I spent most of my second week in Ulyanovsk catching up with friends, people at the Politech, and working on my research. On Monday, I got up and headed to the archive. The woman who works in the reading room was clearly bored, so she had looked through all of the folders I had requested and had marked off which pages talked about the POWs. She also handed me a few other files about the construction of the automotive factory, which she thought might have some things of use for me. She was indeed correct.

For some reason, fate is always kind to me in Ulyanovsk. When I was in the reading room, a man overheard me talking with the reading room attendant. He asked if he had correctly heard that I’m researching German POWs. I said that was indeed the topic of my research and he introduced himself. He’s a former journalist, who now writes local histories. Many of his books are based on recollections of older citizens from the city. During the lunch break, he took me to a historical institute in the city, which houses his personal collection of files. He had a complete folder just on the monument to the dead German POWs that is in the cemetery in the north of Ulyanovsk. I was ecstatic. I knew about the monument and researching it was one of the goals of my trip. It was like divine intervention. The folder had news clippings that covered the contest to create the design of the monument as well as information about opening ceremonies.

The memorial c. summer 2014.

I also had a productive meeting with the former head of the UAZ Museum, who gave me a number of articles about when some POWs took a trip back to Ulyanovsk again in 1994. She also helped me set up a meeting at the 33rd Gymnasium, where I met with current and former students and a history teacher there. The teacher invited me to tea with the students, and two former students gave a presentation on their research. They had spent 3 years working on a project on German POWs in Ulyanovsk as their major course work for high school. I had read a cropped version of their report in a publication from an Ulyanovsk history conference.

Making new friends at the school.

I also spent a few days working in the main library in the city, where I found a number of useful newspaper articles as well as an interesting lack of publications about the POW memorial in one of the two local papers.

Having enjoyed my trip to the aviation museum, I contacted the director and asked if I could come with the new Fulbrighter for a tour with him. He gladly accepted, so I went to the museum again last Sunday with Katie, Ira, and two new acquaintances from South Africa. We all wandered around the planes like children and had a blast. As we were with the director, we got to go into two planes that are usually off limits in addition to the Tu-124 and the Tu-144. We got to tour the Tu-104, which was specially outfitted to ferry Soviet military officers. The seats were all fancy, and there was even a special bedroom cabin it in. We also got to enter the An-14, known as the “Little Bee.”

The whole group on the Tu-144.

On Tuesday night, I headed back to the train with a heavy heart. I hate leaving my adoptive Russian home. Ulyanovsk truly is my favorite Russian city. I’ll be trying to find a way to get back even for just a handful of days before flying back to America in July.

Slight consolation: shashlyk on the train.

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