THE BLOG
06/11/2013 08:46 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 10:52 GMT

Expo 2020 Recognition Is Latest Step in Renewal of Russia's Yekaterinburg

At the end of this month in Paris, one of four cities will be chosen to be the Capital of Expo 2020. The cities vying for this honour are Sao Paulo, Dubai, Izmir and Yekaterinburg and this is the final countdown to impress the 167 member voters.

Whoever wins, it will be the first time that Brazil, the Middle East, Turkey or Russia have hosted the exhibition after its inception in London in 1951. For the competing cities, it is an Olympics-like opportunity to present itself to the world, but unlike the Olympics, the winner has six months, not three weeks, to showcase its particular qualities.

Of the four cities, Sao Paulo, Dubai and Izmir are relatively well-known quantities and have global reputations, but Russia's Yekaterinburg is probably as dark a horse as it can be when it comes to winning the nomination.

But with a little scrutiny and research, it's clear that while Yekaterinburg is the most unknown of the nominees, it is by far the most interesting and one that may cause an upset when the final result is made known.

The city is known as the capital of the Urals and is Russia's fourth-largest city with nearly 1.5 million people. Founded in the early 17th Century, has always been an industrial city and an important staging post between Eurasia and Asia.

Nearly 900 miles south of Moscow, the city is certain to be one of the 2018 FIFA World Cup venues that Russia is hosting and in 2009 was the venue for the BRIC summit.

Now a major hub on the Trans-Siberian Express railway, in the 18th Century it was European's biggest metallurgical producer and became the Russian Army's major manufacturer of armaments, as well as producer of military equipment and tanks in World War II.

But it is the morning of July 17th, 1918 that the city is most famous for. This was the infamous sate when Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks, heralding the Russian Revolution later that year and the end of the Romanovs' reign over Russia.

Like other major cities, Yekaterinburg was renamed during the years of Soviet Rule and from 1926 until 1991 it was called Sverdlovsk after a local communist leader Jakob Sverdlov.

That 1991 date when the city's name that reverted to Yekaterinburg that is also important, because until then the it was a 'closed city' for foreigners because of its military cluster and surrounding military areas.

The ensuing three decades have seen huge change for the city as it has emerged from the benighted Soviet years to become one that defines the face of how Russia has changed in this time. It would make a remarkable transformation for the city if it was to be the Capital of Expo 2020, but not an undeserved one.

The reasons for its metamorphosis are manifold and it hasn't been without problems. Russian leader Boris Yeltsin was born in the city and he earmarked Yekaterinburg, or Sverdlovsk as it was known at the time, to be the reserve capital for the Russian Federation if Moscow became too hot for his government to handle during the 1991 coup.

Subsequently, the collapse of the Russian Empire gave way to a vacuum that saw Mafiosi gangs grapple for power in the city. Yekaterinburg became the murder capital of Russia as assassination, bombings between 1992 and 1994 when there was little on offer on young men other than to join a gang.

The city even has a number of 'gangster graves' in two main cemeteries, where huge, lurid and tasteless headstones commemorate the leaders of the mafia who terrorised the city in those years.

Fortunately, the city recovered from this trauma and the Presidency of Vladimir Putin put an end to these wars. Mafia leaders went straight, set up legitimate businesses and the city is now as sophisticated as any other Western metropolis.

Cafe society is blooming here, not least because of the 16 universities and academia that are based in the city. Whether it is students of mining, economics or technology, the city attracts young people from all around the Urals.

Yekaterinburg has also benefited hugely from state-funded art and culture projects. While the better-known cities of St Petersburg and Moscow are known for their sumptuous cultural lives of ballet, museums and art, the city is popular among artists seeking an alternative to metropoli.

Whether Yekaterinburg becomes the Capital of Expo 2020 when the decision is made on November remains a very close call, its emergence as an international city after the 74 years in the Soviet darkness is extraordinary.

While the name of the city may not exactly trip off the tongue, Yekaterinburg in the future may be a name that we will all be familiar with.