Orenburg impressions, 15 years later

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Igor Khramov (Игор Храмов, Chramow – German spelling) organized a trip to Orenburg, Russia in 2007 to commemorate what would have been Alexander Schmorell’s 90th birthday. It was a pretty select group of people who came, the group was under 20 people, but among the attendees were people like the well-known German actor Alexander Held (who played Robert Mohr in Sophie Scholl: The Final Days and Walter Hewel in Downfall), the writer and journalist Ulrich Chaussy, Alexander Schmorell’s friend Nikolai Hamazaspian, and Metropolitan (then Archbishop) +Mark of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR).

The trip happened because of a book, namely his second book about Alexander Schmorell (Alexander Schmorell – Gestapo-Verhörprotokolle – Februar-März 1943 – RGWA I36IK-I-8808). The first was really a biography, the second a bilingual (German/Russian) edition of all the files the Gestapo collected on Alexander in his interviews and such. The book shows that it was published in 2005, but I don’t think it was actually available until 2006. By this time, I was no longer living in Germany, and while the book would have been somewhat difficult to obtain there, getting it in the US was much, much harder. I contacted people at the MiR-Verein in Munich, and they passed my information to Igor himself, and in the ensuing exchanges of email, we figured out how I could get the book and how he could get paid for it, but he also asked me if I would be interested in going to Russia for Alexander Schmorell’s birthday. I replied that I was.

Several weeks passed, and I received the book on 13 July 2006 – the anniversary of St. Alexander’s execution. Take from that what you will. In any case, I didn’t hear back from Igor or his people in Orenburg for a long time, so long that for a bit there, I figured I probably wouldn’t hear back from them.

However, as the date got closer, I heard from them again, and we worked on paperwork to get my visa to enter Russia. The visa lasted for a month, and so before going to Orenburg, I spent a few days in Moscow. As much as I have been a Russia “geek”, it’s still the one and only time I’ve been there.

The difference between Moscow and Orenburg is like night and day. Moscow is humongous, and built on a scale unlike anything else I’ve experienced; it’s as if the whole point of the city is to make a person feel tiny.

Orenburg, on the other hand, had around 600,000 people when I went there, and when I told a Russian professor I knew that I was hoping to go to Orenburg, he kind of chuckled, and said that it’s like a Russian saying that they want to visit America to see Billings, Montana. Not that there’s anything wrong with Billings, Montana, but it’s certainly not at the top of most foreigners’ “top ten places to go in the US”.

I’ve written before on my old website about the substance of the trip there. I do hope to get that reposted, but at the moment, I don’t have the time to set up a website again. For now, though, I wanted to share some of the more amorphous impressions of the place and the trip.

The first thing is that I have never, ever been in a place that felt so “middle of nowhere” than when travelling around outside of Orenburg. I have even lived in sparsely populated places in the US, but this is a whole different level of lonesomeness. At least when one travels across someplace like Montana, even if one doesn’t see people, there’s plenty of evidence of them, such as roads and houses. Here, the signs are much, much fewer.

Outside Orenburg Russia 2007
Lake outside of Orenburg Russia 2007

Having spent a good deal of time in Europe, I’m not surprised or shocked by old things, but there was a different sort of feel to it here. Certainly, there are some very old things that are left, but there almost was a feel as if stepping back to the 1940s or early 1950s in some sense.

tempo coffee Orenburg
An older building in decent shape – I love that the the coffee shop there “In Tempo” touts itself as being for punctual people!
Municipal building in Orenburg Russia, 2007
A municipal building with a courtyard in front.
Orenburg history Museum
History museum

I should mention here that we watched a video about the famous Orenburg shawls and how they are made here. There was also the opportunity to buy one, and already the next day I was kicking myself (metaphorically) that I didn’t do that. The documentary we watched was French, and possibly done by the channel Arte. One of the things that the video really drove home was how remote Orenburg is and how incredibly harsh and long the winters are – the shawls take a lot of effort to create, but when one who isn’t in town might be stuck at home for weeks at a time, it seems like a decent way to do something productive with that time. This is a video I found on YouTube, if anyone is interested. The crazy thing about these is that they are full-sized and incredibly warm. At the same time, they are incredibly delicate, and, if done right, can be pulled through a ring that one wears on one’s finger (hence the name “wedding band shawl”)

Some pre-revolutionary houses

Orenburg 2007 houses
Oh, the history and weather these houses have seen!

View from my hotel room:

Orenburg 2007 hotel view
Church of St. John the Apostle on the far left.

Then there was the ultra-modern:

Orenburg theater

In Russia, there is no mistaking an Orthodox Church for anything else. They certainly have their own distinct architecture to begin with, but when you add shining onion domes on each one, they are instantly recognizable. (One thing that I noticed here and in Moscow is that even if a church was only beginning restoration, the onion domes were often already fixed up so that from a distance one couldn’t tell how badly in disrepair it was.) This here is a Lutheran church – Orenburg once had a sizeable German population, but they were dispersed and the churches were closed down. The building looks very German, but especially by Russian standards, does not look like a church.

Lutheran Church Orenburg
Lutheran Church in Orenburg

In between, there’s an awful lot of the awful Soviet-style block concrete, and I didn’t even bother photographing it because it is so awful and ugly and it’s everywhere in the former USSR. It’s not even that much different than some of the stuff in Germany, but it probably was of lower quality to begin with, and isn’t taken care of the way that Germans do, so it just looks ugly and sad.

flags in Orenburg
Flags everywhere – what do they think this is, the US?

There were also a lot of statues

Orenburg - Pushkin
Tchakov - Orenburg
Valery Chkalov, test pilot

The statue of Valery Chkalov is huge, and dominates the plaza on the European side of the bridge across the Ural river into Asia. One might wonder why someone who never lived in the city would have such a huge statue, but Orenburg was actually renamed for Chkalov for a short time (1938-1957).

in Asia - Orenburg 2007
Looking at the Chkalov statue from the Asian side of the Ural River in Orenburg – there’s so much space here that there’s actually a lift that can bring people across.
Asia post - Orenburg 2007
Going into Asia
Europe post - Orenburg 2007
Europe post – notice the Orenburg coat of arms atop both posts
Lenin - Orenburg 2007
Lenin was still hanging out. I wouldn’t be surprised if, instead of being toppled, he’s been sold to a US college campus! (I kid, I kid!)

I got more pictures of statues, but I’m not entirely sure of who they all are. I think there was a statue of Yuri Gagarin somewhere – as he lived in the city for awhile during the time he was learning to fly – but all I see here is a plaque commemorating a street named in his honor.

Gagarin plaque - Orenburg 2007

One of the very interesting aspects was the influence having Archbishop +Mark there had on the itinerary. He was one of the people whose schedules varied some from the rest of the group, but because he was there, there was a particular awareness of the role that Orthodoxy played in the actions of Alexander Schmorell. It was known at this point that he would be glorified as a saint, but exactly when was unknown at this point, I believe.

Archbishop Mark Orenburg 2007
Archbishop +Mark meeting Alexander Held on the steps of the State Institute of Management – Orenburg.
management institute - Orenburg 2007
State Institute of Management – Orenburg. Don’t look too closely at the concrete that the sign helps hide!
St. Nicholas Cathedral Orenburg 2007
The Sunday crowd – St. Nicholas Cathedral

This took place mere months after the reunification of the Moscow Patriarchate and ROCOR, so having Archbishop +Mark here was a pretty big deal, and something that many people would have thought impossible had this even been a year earlier. Notice there is someone with a professional video camera up front.

Inside St. Nicholas Cathedral Orenburg 2007
Archbishop +Mark presiding

I believe the following was taken at the State Institute of Management. The Weisse Rose Stiftung has “travelling” exhibitions, and most of the things here were their standard boards, with Russian translation, but being that this was Orenburg, there was some special, unique things here as well. Unfortunately, this shot is somewhat blurry, but Igor Khramov’s two books are part of the display here, as are some photographs, and I believe that at least one of them is Erich Schmorell. (I know that Igor arranged for Alexander’s sister Natalia to come to Orenburg at least once, so it stands to figure that Erich probably also came, as I believe Igor worked more closely with Erich than Natalia.)

White Rose Orenburg 2007
August Schmorell - Orenburg 2007
A panel made for the Orenburg audience that isn’t a part of the normal display. It deals with Karl August Schmorell, who left Germany as a young man to find his fortune in Russia. I believe the lower panel shows where his shop was, though it (as well as the home Alexander lived in as a baby) are all gone.

Then again, Alexander Schmorell isn’t the only person from Orenburg to have been glorified as a saint. St. Makary (Kvitkin) was as well.

St. Makary Kvitkin Orenburg

This trip was incredibly well planned and incredibly special in a lot of ways. It was amazing to be with a group of people who all respected the memory of Alexander Schmorell so much as to make this trip. There were a couple of us from the US, most from Germany, but there was one gentleman who had flown from South Africa to be a part of this. Fantastic people, and the opportunity to get to meet Nikolai Hamazaspian was something that I will treasure forever.

I took the train back to Moscow – 26 hours! I had half a day or so in Moscow before flying back to Germany, and what should happen but that a number of the people from the trip were taking that same flight. If I remember correctly, we landed in Munich somewhere between 10pm and midnight. It was amazing that a couple of the men really went out of their way to make sure my ride showed up so that I wouldn’t be stranded at the airport for the night.

Orenburg train 2007
Back in Moscow, the last reminder of the Orenburg adventure.
dore canto 31 white rose

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