The city of Tula lies 193 kms south of Moscow. The city is proud of its past, celebrating its links with Lev Tolstoy. The main industry is small arms manufacture, but many people commute weekly to Moscow, where the salaries are considerably higher.
Tula’s Kremlin is similar to the Moscow Kremlin. Both are made of red brick, with jagged walls reminiscent of swallows' tails; both are likely to have been designed by the same Italian architects. But on entering the narrow gates of the Tula Kremlin tourists from Moscow are in for a surprise. While the Moscow Kremlin is full of churches, statues, ancient and contemporary palaces, Tula’s Kremlin is empty. It contains only two cathedrals, those of the Holy Epiphany and of the Assumption. The former houses the Museum of Guns; the latter is closed.
The hated Grey House
Maria sees the Kremlin twice a week: on Fridays, when she arrives from Moscow and on Sunday afternoons when she leaves for the capital. Maria graduated from the Law Department of Tula University but couldn’t find a job that paid more than 15,000 roubles a month. In Moscow, by contrast, she earns 35,000 - 40,000 roubles.
Maria lives in a one-room flat, which she rents jointly with a girlfriend. She has a fiancé in Tula but the wedding has been postponed indefinitely. Her boyfriend, an engineer with the Tula small arms factory, doesn’t want to work in Moscow.
Maria's coach leaves from Uprising Square, close to the Kremlin. Even closer is the Grey House, a huge administrative building. It was built in the 1970s in a place where once some nice old houses stood. But that's not why the inhabitants of Tula hate it. They hate it because they believe the Grey House is a refuge for corrupt officials.
Many people want to travel to Moscow on Sunday evenings. Maria stands in the queue looking at the Grey House and discussing with other passengers the news that the new governor of Tula, Vladimir Gruzdev, is planning to lay off more than two hundred officials.
“I bet they will sack the most honest ones,” Maria thinks. “It's a shame.”
It isn't the officials Maria feels sorry for. What she minds is that the sacked officials might seek work in Moscow and the queue for the coach will get even longer.
Guns, a flea and an army division
Tula has its own anthem. Its refrain lists the names of the streets of Tula: Trigger Street, Bayonet Street, Gunpowder Street and Bullet Street. These names are not there by chance. For three centuries Tula has produced most of Russia's weapons. Arms production in other Soviet cities may have been disguised by neutral names, such as the Instrument Works, but the former Imperial Factory in Tula has always been known as the Tula Small Arms Factory.
"For three centuries Tula produced most of Russia's weapons. Arms production in other Soviet cities may have been disguised by neutral names, such as the Instrument Works, but the former Imperial Factory in Tula has always been known as the Tula Small Arms Factory."
It was in Tula that the constructor Sergei Mosin created the three-barrelled shotgun in 1891. This rifle became Russia’s key weapon in World War I, the Civil War and World War II. Tula also produced hunters' guns, which were so popular that in the 20th century nearly every smooth-bore gun in Russia was known as a ‘tulka’.
Tula's most popular legend is not historical, but literary. In the middle of the 19th century writer Nikolai Leskov wrote Levsha, a story about a flea made of steel that a Russian Czar received as a gift from England, and about the Tula gunsmiths who made horseshoes for it. The main character, Master Levsha, forged the nails for the horseshoes. This story has no roots in folklore, but Tula has adopted its literary hero and recently erected a statue in his memory.
The locals' familiarity with guns saved the city in 1941. On 30 October General Guderian's tanks approached Tula. As no regular troops were at hand, for nearly two days the city was defended solely by local factory workers.
Tula's airborne division adds another touch to the city's military portrait. Thanks to this detachment every 2 August – Airforce Day – turns into an unpredictable city holiday. Former paratroopers roam the city waving flags, drinking vodka and recalling their heroic deeds. The police only interfere if major scuffles occur.
Samovars, gingerbread, Lev Tolstoy and a jungle in the city centre
The guns aren’t Tula's only claim to fame – there's also gingerbread, samovars and accordions. The musical instruments and samovars started out as a sideline produced by the gunsmiths but gradually turned into their main product. Gingerbread has no connection with weapons manufacture, but it was in Tula that its production began on an industrial scale. Over a century ago a piece of gingerbread from Tula weighing nearly a ton was shown at the Paris Exhibition.
Nowadays samovars and accordions are no longer made, but gingerbread is still being baked. Tula's patissiers have made several attempts to break their earlier record by making a gigantic gingerbread that would end up in the Guinness Book of Records.
Strangely enough the most popular figure in Tula, one of the most militarized cities in Russia, is Lev Tolstoy. The great writer and pacifist had many links with Tula: his country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, is only fourteen kilometres from the city; he held minor administrative positions in the city and attended court hearings in search of stories. Now the wall of every house in which Tolstoy had spent even an hour is graced with a plaque bearing his name and, in spite of the fact that Tolstoy fought the demon drink, his statue stands opposite Tula's main vodka factory.
"The Belousov Park is another amazing place. Pyotr Belousov, Tula's main sanitary inspector in the 19th century, decided to establish in his city something akin the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. He had a dump on the city's periphery covered in compost and planted with tens of thousands of birches, oaks and ashes. Currently three-quarters of the forest-park in the centre of Tula forms a forest community of animals and birds of the forest. It has its own foresters, just like a real forest.
“What's this jungle in the middle of the city?” asked the new governor Vladimir Gruzdev recently in surprise. The biologists in Tula are afraid that as a token of loyalty to the governor city administration officials will turn a unique city forest into a typical Soviet city park.
Drinking up the ‘Dudka’ and waiting for the ‘Gruzdevka’
Until recently one of the most popular brands of vodka in Tula was ‘Dudka’ (Pipe). The vodka shared its name with that of former governor, Vyacheslav Dudka. Some considered drinking vodka a sign of loyalty, while others regarded it as mockery.
These days ‘Dudka’ has become a much rarer sight on Tula's shop shelves. Dudka has been dismissed, more brutally than any other Russian regional leader. A governor's departure is usually preceded by protracted intrigue, behind-the-stage negotiations and secret pressures. Dudka, on the other hand, was fired the way you sack a seasonal labourer caught shoplifting.
Vladimir Gruzdev, appointed as Dudka's successor, is a former spy and businessman worth, according to Forbes Magazine, USD 950 million. In 2007, on board the bathyscaphe Mir-1, he descended to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, reaching 4,261 metres. Gruzdev is believed to have been the expedition's main sponsor.
"Vladimir Gruzdev, appointed as Dudka's successor, is a former spy and businessman ... worth, according to Forbes Magazine, USD 950 million."
While Gruzdev may have descended to the bottom of the ocean of his own free will, he is much less likely to have had any desire to become the Governor of Tula. But the ruling tandem made him an offer and he accepted.
‘Gruzdevka’ vodka is not available in Tula's shops just yet. The locals are drinking up their supplies of ‘Dudka’.
Sober and dangerous
Not all Tula dwellers drink vodka or other hard liquor. Some of the younger generation have embarked on their own anti-alcohol campaign whose aggressiveness surpasses Lev Tolstoy's prophecies and Soviet propaganda.
“Don’t drink hog-wash”. “Russian means sober”. “Be sober and dangerous!” “Only slaves drink”. Adverts for the city’s Beer Day, a fair in the centre of Tula, provoked slogans and appeals in response: “Get drunk on Beer Day and foul up Central Square!”
These slogans are not official propaganda. They are secretly daubed on to walls by Tula’s nationalist youth.
Roman is a student at Tula’s teacher training college. He is twenty years old. Every Sunday he comes to the city park to jog with his friends for five kilometres along the overgrown forest paths. This is followed by a joint workout. Roman and his friends are into ‘Slavic combat, a synthesis of the Soviet ‘sambo’ combat system and Eastern single combat.
Although Roman and his friends are not members of any clandestine nationalist organisation, they are willing to participate in the ‘battle for Russia’ should it ever take place. In Roman’s view Russia’s greatest enemies are the inhabitants of the North Caucasus and corrupt authorities.
“Two of my friends have already quit drinking,” he says. “And I won’t stop until all my friends have given up drink. Otherwise they will drink themselves to death within ten years. Russians must not drink.”
Not everyone in Tula has friends like Roman and drunks are a common sight on benches, streets and in courtyards. Drug abuse is also rife: used needles litter the streets.
Roman believes the authorities have a vested interest in these activities.
“Officials profit from the sales of vodka and they support the drugs mafia,” he claims. “If I were the new Governor I would jail 80% of the ‘Grey House’ residents.” Why not all of them? The cleaners and cafe workers are not to blame.
‘City of Childhood’ project
“Children spend too much time in front of computers instead of playing outside.” This was the slogan promoting the ‘City of Childhood’ project organized by Russian Duma deputy Dmitri Savelyev. Volunteer animateurs (educationalists, students, members of United Russia’s youth wing) come out to work in Tula’s squares and parks on several weekdays during the summer and every Saturday in the autumn.
All the students receive the same small fee but they don’t all treat their duties in the same way. Some drink beer, believing that children can play on their own. Alexei, by contrast, is so enthusiastic about his work that children won’t let their parents take them home as long as he is around in the playground.
“I like playing with children. Possibly because I still feel a bit like a child,” he says.
Alexei understands that, however he feels, he will have to take a grown-up decision. He has a gift for working with children, but teachers’ salaries are too meagre. That is why, although he studies at the teacher training college, Alexei has not yet decided where he will work.
"Strangely enough the most popular figure in Tula, one of the most militarized cities in Russia, is Lev Tolstoy. The great writer and pacifist had many links with Tula: his country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, is only fourteen kilometres from the city.... he held minor administrative positions in the city and attended court hearings in search of stories."
He follows the activities of the new Governor and has noted his recent initiative.
“Gruzdev has recently suggested that officials should be evicted from the Grey House and the building should be turned into an enormous kindergarten,” says Aleksei. “I would go and work there and help raise little kids. But only provided I got the same salary as an official does,” he adds.
Aleksei must be the kindest dreamer in Tula.