Kaliningrad city centre

After a month of excitement, the 2018 FIFA World Cup is over with nothing but great memories to keep us company. THISDAY Photo Editor Abiodun Ajala travelled to several Russian cities during the course of the competition and presents pictures from Moscow, St Petersburg, Kaliningrad and Volgograd, with words from Demola Ojo…

The life of a journalist sometimes has elements of a James Bond movie: you get a call, sometimes out of the blue, with a mission (an event to be covered, an interview with a personality, a destination to be experienced and described) and little time to prepare.

You must be ready to be deployed immediately, in some cases to locations you wouldn’t ordinarily consider going to, while making the best of resources – and contacts – at your disposal.

On other occasions, the mission is one undertaken by self, to help shed light, inform and sometimes, entertain.

Unlike Bond in the Cold War thriller From Russia with Love, whose closest contact to Russia was in the form of a beautiful clerk seeking defection from the Soviet Consulate in Turkey, Mr Abiodun Ajala was in Russia, taking shots and capturing images, with his camera.

The mission: to discover, and make an attempt at relaying what is being observed and experienced, and in the process, help reshape old perceptions, change preconceived notions, debunk existing stereotypes and perhaps, help in shaping a new reality.

The pictures open a window to a new world, from a known and trusted source, not drawn from the internet but from someone with a relatable background.

For many Nigerians who – to a large extent – grew up shaped by Western education and values, Russia (or in its extended form, the Soviet Union) is the antithesis to America; communism as against capitalism, closed rather than open, cold instead of warm.

Many Nigerians grew up watching movies where Russians where the villains to the American or British hero, like Bond.

It meant that this mission, more than any other, had a lot more riding on it. Thousands, including the one undertaking the mission, may never see things the same way again.

Behind every shot is a story and history that goes back centuries at locations that have witnessed events with global consequences.

Like Kaliningrad, the venue which hosted Nigeria’s opening World Cup match against eventual finalists, Croatia. It’s a Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. A city with Prussian (German) roots from as far back as the 1200s.

Kaliningrad was heavily damaged during World War II and its population fled or was removed by force when it became a Russian city.

An East Prussian provincial capital known as Königsberg, it was renamed Kaliningrad in 1946 after the death of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, Mikhail Kalinin, one of the original Bolsheviks. The city’s language of administration was changed from German to Russian.

The city was rebuilt, and as the westernmost territory of the USSR, became a strategically important area during the Cold War. Because of its strategic importance, Kaliningrad was closed to foreign visitors.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kaliningrad Oblast (Oblast is a state or province in a federal structure) became an exclave, geographically separated from the rest of Russia.

This isolation from the rest of Russia became even more pronounced politically when Poland and Lithuania became members of NATO and subsequently the European Union in 2004. All military and civilian land links between the region and the rest of Russia have to pass through members of NATO and the EU.

Special travel arrangements for the territory’s inhabitants have been made through the Facilitated Transit Document (FTD) and Facilitated Rail Transit Document (FRTD). For others, a Schengen visa is needed. Alternatively, you fly in, like Mr Ajala did.

While in the 1990s many Soviet-era city names commemorating Communist leaders were changed (for example Leningrad reverting to St Petersburg), Kaliningrad remains named as it was.

Volgograd (Stalingrad)

Volgograd formerly Tsaritsyn from 1589 to 1925, and Stalingrad (named after Joseph Stalin from 1925–1961) is an important industrial city in Russia and venue of the largest and bloodiest battle in the history of warfare.

The Battle of Stalingrad had the greatest casualty figures of any single battle in the history of warfare (estimates are between 1,250,000 and 1,798,619). The battle became a titanic struggle between Hitler and Stalin as both saw it of great propaganda value, each keenly aware of the name of the city.

In 1961, Nikita Khrushchev’s administration changed the name of the city to Volgograd (Volga City after the Volga River) as part of his program of de-Stalinization following Stalin’s death, as he was trying to reduce the “cult of personality”. This action was and remains somewhat controversial, given Stalingrad’s importance as a symbol of resistance during the war.

The Nigerian football team was victorious in its battle against Iceland in this city, and Mr Ajala was on hand to capture images.

Multiple Hour Train Rides

Russia is the largest country in the world by area, covering more than one-eighth of the Earth’s inhabited land area and spans eleven time zones, with a population of 144 million.

From northwest to southeast, Russia shares land borders with Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland (both with Kaliningrad Oblast), Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and North Korea.

It means travelling from one city to another takes hours, but thankfully, Russia has a well-developed and world acclaimed rail system as Ajala confirmed on his approximately 10-hour trip from the St Petersburg subway to the Moscow Metro.

Due to the city’s unique geology, the St Petersburg subway is one of the deepest metro systems in the world and the deepest by the average depth of all the stations.

The system’s deepest station, Admiralteyskaya, is 86 metres below ground. Serving about two million passengers daily, it is also the 19th busiest metro system in the world.

As one of the modern cities of Russia, as well as its cultural capital, St Petersburg is home to some of the largest art museums in the world.

Its importance to Russia can only be equaled by Moscow, the largest city (both by population and by area) entirely on the European continent. Moscow is also one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world according to the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index.

The Moscow Metro is one of the deepest underground rapid transit systems in the world, the fourth-largest, and largest outside Asia in terms of passenger numbers, and the busiest in Europe. It is recognised as one of the city’s landmarks due to the rich architecture of its 200 stations.

Following the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Vladimir Lenin, fearing possible foreign invasion, moved the capital of Russia from St Petersburg back to Moscow. The Kremlin once again became the seat of power and the political centre of the new state.

However, this precipitated a serious housing crisis, solved by the construction of high-rise apartments. There are over 11,000 of these standardised and prefabricated apartment blocks, housing the majority of Moscow’s population, and jostling with Seoul (in South Korea) for the title of city with the most high-rise buildings in the world.