The Bizarre Guide to Russia (Bizarre Magazine)

When most people think of Russia just a few images come to mind: vodka, mafia and
children getting caught in the crossfire between nutjob terrorists and government security
agents in their school. But beyond these surface impressions there’s a vast land for the
traveller to discover; not for the common tourist perhaps, but rather for the anti- tourist,
who shuns pretty postcard views and instead seeks out the pleasures of horror, bizarre
violence and the macabre wasteland...


Long ago, all the Slav tribes were one. However, as they headed West they settled in
different areas and split into different groups. Time passed and the Czechs, the
Westernmost tribe, grew mullets and drank a lot of beer. Their neighbours, the Poles
developed droopy moustaches and invented vodka. Meanwhile the Ukrainians evolved
the pig fat sandwich and after a thousand years of existence finally succeeded in
producing a Eurovision song contest winner.

But the Russians were marked out for a different, darker destiny. Conquered by Batu
Khan, grandson of Genghis, they spent three hundred years as the vassals of cruel
Asiatic overlords. During this time the Russians intermixed with their Tatar masters and a
unique fusion of Asian and European culture formed. Some hold this blend responsible
for Russia’s long traditions of brutal tyranny and bizarre violence. Whatever the
explanation, since that time the country’s history has been marked by periods of severe
oppression combined with bursts of genius followed by long periods of stagnation. The
country’s greatest advances have been made under its cruellest leaders- Ivan the
Terrible liked to fry people alive and killed his own son, but conquered the Tatars once
and for all and established contacts with the West. Peter the Great also killed his own son
and employed slave labour to build a city in a hideous bog, but he added Siberia to
Russia’s territory. And of course there’s Stalin who killed about 20 million of his own
citizens but also crushed the Nazis and created a nuclear superpower. All three of these
leaders are still greatly admired in Russia today.  



Moscow was founded in 847 by Yuri Dolgoruky (‘Long Arms’), so called because of his
penchant for grabbing other people’s territory and adding it to his own. Today it is the
largest city in Europe, with over 10 million residents. As for what you’ll want to see, well,
the Kremlin, the Kremlin, everybody says the Kremlin... but you can forget about that as it
just contains museums and offices for the president. Instead take the anti tourist route
and go straight to:

Torture central

Unlike in some former Eastern Bloc countries, the Russian secret police were never
abolished, reformed or even criticised much. They just changed their name to the FSB
and kept on truckin’.The secret police HQ at Lubyanka metro station is a grim building
that no-one is ever seen entering or leaving. There used to be cells in the basement
where Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s police chief and a serial rapist of young girls, tortured
confessions out of enemies of the people before they were shipped off to the prison
camps of Siberia. One of the neighbouring buildings houses a Museum of the Secret
Police that was originally intended to instruct KGB officers, but is now open to group
bookings from the public. Inside you cans see the history of Russian state repression
since the 14th century and portraits people who were tortured and shot in the 1930s.
Once you’re finished, pop into Detsky Mir, Russia’s biggest toy shop, which is
conveniently located next door.

A nice corpse

Adjacent to the Kremlin, Red Square contains the mausoleum which houses the remains
of Vladimir Illyich Lenin, Father of the Russian Revolution. Though apologists often seek
to dissociate him from the violence that followed, Lenin was in fact a keen enthusiast for
shooting priests and the first Gulags (prison camps), were set up on his watch. In fact,
Lenin hated the church so much he established the first soviet prison colony in the
Solovetsky Monastery in northern Russia. Today, however he is a brainless shell under
the ground, kept from rotting by a secret solution that was developed on pain of death by
soviet scientists in the early 1920s. Best of all, he’s free, though you have to get up early
to see him as the mausoleum’s doors close at 1. Recently burying the corpse was
discussed in the Russian parliament, but for now he’s still there, lying soft and pink and
pulpy in his comfy glass coffin, like some kind of alien larvae.

Going Underground

However the real anti tourist will derive the most pleasure from the time he spends
underground, in Moscow’s famed metro system. The Lonely Planet will direct you down
there to marvel at the mosaics and marble columns of these fantastical ‘palaces of the
proletariat’. But turn away from the decor and you will see that it’s down here, in these
tunnels beneath the city, that all the lost souls congregate: Kurskaya Station on the circle
line is the main spot where homeless children gather and beg for food or spare change.
Or take a seat in a carriage on the green ‘Zamoskvoretskaya’ line heading south and wait
for the veterans of Russia’s lost wars to come on, still in uniform but missing limbs and
eyes, to ask for your spare coppers. Then there are the victims of industrial accidents, the
begging grannies, the homeless tramps from out of town with nowhere to go, pants
sometimes sagging with their own shit. After all, isn’t it a bit false to visit a country just to
look at monuments and galleries? Surely the real goal is to find out how people live....


Between 1703 and 1917 Saint Petersburg, a city built by slave labour on a mosquito-
infested swamp, was the capital of Russia. Today it is famous for its beauty and the
Hermitage museum, which contains lots of works of art amassed by the Tsars while their
subjects lived in abject squalor. Also, Finns go there to take advantage of cheap beer and
the easy availability of prostitutes. However, the anti tourist will want to avoid all that and
head straight for:

Pickled Babies

Some people collect stamps, but Peter the Great, well he was different. In his youth he
visited a display of pickled freaks in an embalmer’s workshop in Amsterdam and after that,
he just couldn’t get them out of his head. So twenty years later he bought the whole
collection and had it transported to Russia where he put them on public display. Not
content with that he then issued an edict commanding his subjects to deliver their
‘monsters’ to him. This wasn’t entirely unusual in the 18th century as many European
monarchs had collections of weird dead things in jars. But Peter’s collection is one of the
few that has survived to this day and in the Kunstkamera museum in Saint Petersburg you
can see almost every imagineable malformation of the human body- from cyclops to
pinheads to Siamese twins to babies with vestigial twins hanging out of their bodies. In
Peter’s time there were even live exhibits, among them Foma Grigoriev, a dwarf with
lobster claws instead of hands. Just make sure you don’t eat your lunch before going in.

A Mass Grave

During World War II the Nazis imposed a blockade around Leningrad, as Saint Petersburg
was then known, for 500 days. 16 000 civillians were killed by air raids and 33000 were
wounded. However hunger claimed the largest number of victims, over 600 000. To stay
alive, some citizens resorted to cannibalism, and yet at the same time cultural life
continued. The zoo stayed open and the premiere of Shostakovich’s 7th symphony was
held in the city, though we will never know how many members of the audience were
digesting human meat as they listened to that thunderous piece of music. Today the
enormous Piskarovskoe Memorial Cemetery on the northern outskirts of the city provides
a sombre memorial to the dead. Nearly half a million skeletons are stored in mass graves,
with no names or markers, just long low mounds marked by stones bearing the year in
which the victims died. Visit in the summer and you might see something strange: the
cemetery is a popular spot for Russian wedding parties. So while you stand there musing
on man’s inhumanity to man, don’t be surprised if a laughing party of girls and boys start
giggling and posing for photos...

Skinhead Violence

Ordinary travel books focus on St Petersburg’s great art and literary traditions but
overlook the city’s reputation as one of Russia’s major centres of skinhead violence.
Foreign students, many of them from Africa, come to the northern capital at their peril, as
do immigrants from Central Asia. Saint Petersburg gained special notoriety in 2004 when
Khursheda Sultanova, a 9 year old girl from Tajikistan was stabbed 11 times by
skinheads. Prior to that, most attacks had been directed against adults. The Russian
police however, rarely recognise racist crimes and responded by implying her father was
a drug dealer. If you want a taste, just head out, alone, after dark to one of the working
class neighbourhoods that circle the city and ask for White Energy ( a group that
mistranslated its name from White Power) or the National Imperial Party of Russia, making
sure you avoid the syringes lying in the kids’ playparks and the alcoholics slumped in
doorways... or if you’re too scared, head to the Jewish cemetery and see the gravestones
daubed with swastikas.


As any Russian will tell you, Moscow and Saint Petersburg are not Russia. Yet few tourists
venture beyond these two cities, and with good reason: the distances are enormous, the
cities are bleak, the food is terrible and the hotels are grim. But if you’re an anti tourist
that won’t stop you. In fact, there are mysterious pleasures to be had in a rotting hotel,
with cockroaches crawling over you as you struggle to sleep on a rock hard mattress...
and if you have the time and the energy, one of the strangest places you can visit is:

Chess City

Few people realise that Russia is a federal republic consisting of many different
nationalities with different religions. For example, the southern desert republic of Kalmykia
is home to the descendants of a tribe of Buddhist Mongols who got stranded in Europe
three hundred years ago. Today 150 000 of them remain, living alongside 150 000
Russians and Ukrainians in an area the size of Scotland. The ‘president’ of Kalmykia,
Kirsan Ilumzhinov, is a chess fanatic who claims to have been abducted by aliens. In fact,
Ilumzhinov loves chess so much he built a city dedicated to it in the desert. Chess City
contains several streets lined with nice modern houses and a four storey high ‘Palace of
Chess’ full of chess tables and photographs of Grand Masters, from Mikhail Tal to Garry
Kasparov. However nobody lives there and the palace is pretty much abandoned. But
straight- to- video action movie star Chuck Norris visited once, and there’s a photograph
to prove it.

Animal Sacrifice

The Mari, another little known ethnic group, are also of great interest to the anti- tourist.
Related to Finns, they are the last pagans in Europe. That is to say, they are not hippies
in dresses but real pagans, who never converted to Christianity. In the villages of this
republic there are sacred groves where the people pray to their various gods, and several
times a year perform sacrifices. Usually they sacrifice small animals, such as rabbits,
torturing them slowly to let the gods know how much pain they themselves are in. But
once every five years they gather together and kill a horse, while saying prayers for the
whole world. Russians fear the Mari due to their powerful magic, which they believe is
always evil. The Mari deny this and say their magic is good. There are, however, several
sects, and not all of them pray to Osh Kech Yuma, the good god. Some also seek help
from Keremet, their Satan...

Serial Killer Heaven

Meanwhile, in the south of Russia, Rostov- on- Don gained international fame in the early
90s as the home of Andrei Chikatilo, the Soviet Union’s first serial killer. Between 1978
and 1990 Chikatilo killed at least 52 women and children, often cutting out their tongues,
removing testicles and wombs and occasionally eating body parts.  After a long search full
of blunders where Chikatilo himself was picked up by the police only to be released
several times, he was finally captured, tried (in a cage) convicted and shot in the back of
the head. In the years following Chikatilo’s execution the region surrounding Rostov- on-
Don gained some notoriety as several more psychotic sadists turned up, among them
Roman Burtsev, who killed at least 6 children and Vladimir Bukhankin, who killed 8
women. There was a brief quiet spell in the late 90s but that appears to be ending and
Rostov- on- Don is regaining its title as serial killer capital of Russia as in November of
2005 a woman and her two sons were arrested for kidnapping a man and eating his
entrails... Important: do not confuse Rostov- on- Don with plain Rostov, which is a boring
town containing some churches and a Kremlin.


If you plan on heading into Asian Russia, one thing you must never do is take the Trans-
Siberian railway. Only naive foreigners do this. It is rather like being locked in a coffin for
two weeks, while outside your window endless flat plains roll slowly past. So if you’re going
to visit the gangster graveyard in Yekaterinburg, you really ought to fly. Fortunately not all
planes flying to the regions crash, so you stand at least a 50% chance of surviving.

Gangster Graveyard

In the 90s, Yekaterinburg was the scene of a bloody mafia war between two romantically
named gangs Centralny (‘town centre’) and Uralmash (the name of a local metals plant).
The struggle for control of the region led to many shootings and bombings, and as a
result, the cemetery in north of the city is today an interesting monument to the period of
‘bandit capitalism’. Take a stroll through the forest of shiny black tombstones and marvel
at the crassness of the Russian mobster. Many of the monoliths display full body portraits
of flatheaded goons in tracksuits, wearing gold chains and dangling the keys to their
Mercedes from their hands. But Russia has since moved on and it’s possible now, among
these monuments to violent morons, to feel a strange nostalgia for a time that was
simpler, if not happier, when people practically had to step over corpses on the way to
work in the mornings.

Dead Mammoths

Russia is so huge that there are some areas where nobody goes, ever. In the 1970s
soviet explorers found a family who had been living in the depths of a forest since the
18th century, didn’t know there had been a revolution, and spoke in an archaic form of
Russian. Also out there are corpses of mammoths frozen in ice. Periodically these are
discovered, thawed and brought back to Saint Petersburg for study. The most famous
mammoth was found in the Arctic circle at the start of the 20th century. He was so fresh
that when he was thawed dogs ate his head, and rumours circulated in Moscow in the
1920s that some well connected communist functionary had also chowed down on a
mammoth steak. Today his mummified corpse (complete with erection) is on display in the
Zoological Museum in Saint Petersburg, handily located next to the Kunstkamera. But if
you’re feeling adventurous, why not head out to Siberia and look for one yourself? Start
on the river Lena where the last one was found, though of course, you might freeze to
death instead...

The Red and the Black

No trip to Russia is complete without contemplating prison. In a country where nearly 1
million of the citizens are incarcerated and some statisticians claim that  25 % of male
population have been in jail, among them many leading political and business figures, it’s
unquestionably a profound influence on society. Why, there are whole cities that began
life as prison camps! Prisons are divided into two types- black and red. Black are those
where the inmates are in charge, and the prison is run according to ‘Thieves’ Law’. Red
are those where the administration rules. Though the black may be brutal, the red are
generally considered worse. The worst prisons are in the Far East and Arctic Circle.
Krasnokamensk (‘Red stone’) is a radioactive zone near China where Russia’s once-
richest man Mikhail Khodorkovsky is currently serving an 8 year sentence for tax evasion .
Now he is being rehabilitated and acquiring valuable new skills, such as learning how to
sew, while trying to avoid the attentions of psychotic predatory homosexuals and the
contraction of tuberculosis (10% of Russia’s prisoners have TB). Many of Russia’s own
citizens consider the rules of the jail to be as valid outside prison walls as within. For your
information, these are: don’t ask anyone for anything, trust no-one, and fear no-one.


At the end of this tour however, you may feel somewhat darkened by this immersion in
Russia’s grim yet fascinating reality. You may need salvation. Fortunately for you, Jesus
lives in Siberia, in the southern Krasnoyarsk region to be precise. Well, maybe not Jesus,
but his reincarnation at least, Vissarion Christ. Vissarion is an ex- traffic policeman who in
1991 realised he was the Messiah. Now he lives on top of a mountain surrounded by 5000
followers who inhabit over a hundred villages, where they eat vegetables, weave baskets,
and wait for the end of the world, which Vissaron assures us is imminent. All you need do
to join is sell everything and give it to the Church and they will build you a wooden house
where you can live.

So there you have it. The largest country on Earth summed up in 3000 words. So if you’re
contemplating a holiday that’s a bit different next year, throw away your Lonely Planet and
take this guide instead. It will open your eyes to a world of darkness and grotesque drama
you thought only existed in your most secret, macabre dreams...
Bizarre Magazine