From the bell tower of the local Orthodox Church, the history of Serov and other towns in the Ural Mountains, is plain to see.
In the distance, you can see wisps of whitish-grey smoke emerging from factory pipes. “The Breath of the Urals,” the Soviets used to call them in their heyday. They're remnants of the region’s proud history of heavy industry, mining and metallurgy. In recent years, though, the area has struggled with high unemployment and low wages.
My guide up in the bell tower is the bell ringer, Anatolii Yakubyonik. He used to be a factory worker. Yakubyonik insists the town, like much of Russia, has seen hard times but is now on the rise again, under the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There was a period when things were falling apart, but slowly we're getting back on our feet,” Yakubyonik says. “Thank God Putin is our leader. He's a smart man — and tough, too.”
As for Putin’s recent move to annex Crimea, which sparked international condemnation, particularly in the US?
“America shouldn't stick its nose in there,” he says.
And yet everywhere I look, it seems Serov has its mind on America, or at least, American culture.
Outside the church in the town’s central square, local teens in hoodies take turns jumping a metal pipe on their skateboards. They say they've been following events in Ukraine, where they see “pluses and minuses.”
That’s a phrase these skateboarders use a lot. It’s a "plus" that Crimea's been reunited with Russia. It's a "minus" that Ukraine is falling apart. And it's definitely a minus — "bummer" may be the better word — if Russia is somehow cut off from the rest of the skate-thrashing world.
“I've got nothing against America,” one of the skateboarders says. “They’ve got some great skaters in the US. I don't know why these presidents can't get along. But now they're saying you might not be able to go to the US anymore. I just don't see the point in war.”
That’s true across town, too, at the recently opened Brooklyn Fusion Café, where it's burgers, sushi and good beer on the menu.
The cafe's owners, Andrey Zubkov and Alexander Rudnovsky, haven't actually spent in time in Brooklyn, though Andrey was in Manhattan briefly on his honeymoon. Still, the place captures its own sort of new Brooklyn hipster feel.
Andrey says they picked the name after deciding they wanted something foreign sounding. “Brooklyn just has that cool ring to it," he says.
But if this is a little piece of the US in Serov, it's more for hanging out than talking politics.
Alexander says while they hope for a peaceful solution to the tensions in Ukraine, their biggest concern is growing their business. “It’s not easy for young people to launch a small business in Russia,” he says. “Even if you have a great idea, everything in the system is designed to make you want to quit and forget about it.”
But not everyone here feels so warmly toward all things American.
I paid a visit to Nikolai Rogozin, a Soviet army veteran who comes off as a tough guy.
“I'll say for the record what I've been saying for a long time — Americans hate us,” Rogozin says.
Rogozin is a big fan of President Putin, whom he credits with stopping "fascists and thieves" from taking over Crimea and checking advances by NATO into Russia's sphere of influence. Give it a little time, Rogozin says; America's not as strong as it thinks and it may be Russia's sphere of influence that continues to grow.
“We sold Alaska to you for next to nothing. Maybe it's time we held a referendum there as well,” he says, like in Crimea, where people voted to return to the Russian fold. “Maybe [Alaskans] won't go for it right away, but give it a few years and they'll see Russia is wealthier than the US.”
You might get the impression that Rogozin doesn't care much for Americans. But that’s not true - he likes, well, one.
NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
In fact, he's loves Edward Snowden so much for leaking NSA operations that he published a poem offering him refuge in Serov. The final stanza reads:
And as a citizen of the world
I love him like my own brother!
And for him to live in safety
I will take him – adopt him as my son!
“I'd invite him here sometime, but I'm a little concerned America will launch rockets here,” Rogozin says, with a laugh. “Good thing I served in the Soviet rocketry batallions.”
Serov is a little bit like small towns everywhere. There's always that guy, the outsider, who see things differently.
Here, the guy going against the grain of town opinion is another Nikolai, and prefers not to be identified with his last name. He’s a retired lawyer who has written the occasional op-ed for the local newspaper. Nikolai argues that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is illegal — a tough position to take in Serov, he says.
“The things they say about me,” Nikolai says. “It's very hard to have your own opinion here.”
He notes that the constitution allows him to say whatever he wants. But if you’re against Putin, he adds, “it's up against the wall with you. They’ll find out your address and come for you.”
As we finish our interview, he knocks on the table three times and promises the FSB, Russia's secret services, will soon be paying him a visit.
It won't be the first time, he adds.
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