There’s this catchy Brazilian song that a Kazak covered and retitled “the boy who wants to go to Tambov.” It’s pretty famous. I am not that boy, but I did want to go to Tambov. It is a small Russian town known for its black soil, tasty potatoes and mafia. It turns out there is a tourist souvenir that shows this curious boy on one side, with a bruised and battered version on the back, beneath which it says, “the boy that left tambov.” Duly warned, my strategy for learning about the mafia was a trip to the local cemetery to see what kind of tombstones the Russian mobsters pick out. I did not expect to find an ostrich farm nearby.

I arrived in Tambov before sunrise. An eight hour night train due south from Moscow left me at the beginning of International Street, which I followed past the concentrated gaze of the Lenin statue and headed toward the nearest cup of tea.

Nothing is open on Sunday morning in Tambov except church, where I quickly headed to warm my hands. I pushed through the heavy wooden doors and walked into the sound of dozens of singing people. I stayed until the grey dawn outside turning into a grey day.

Beside the church complex is one of the three large new bell-towers that are being built throughout the city. In a town known as “the city of churches” in tourist brochures, they are only the latest religious buildings to be built although.


Here’s a photo of one tower I was told needed to be renovated while still under construction (it began leaning). The status commemorates a girl who fought in World War II. When she was only sixteen, she was captured and killed when she refused to give up any information. Today its a common spot to find strolling lovers. The statue is one of many that dot Tambov. There is something very imperial, or Soviet, or simply foreign to me about decorating small towns with statues of every famous resident. A famous writer, a famous scientist, a famous worker, each surveying their native city. “What have you done lately?” they seem to ask from decades before… and Tambov has definitely retained some of this Soviet literalism:

"Learn! Learn! Learn! - Lenin"

"Learn! Learn! Learn! - Lenin"

But there’s whimsy too. Here’s a king who gave up everything to marry a peasant:

And my personal favorite – The Tambov Man, or rather the Tambov “Mujik,” a work for a hardy, simple peasant:


The most abstract monument is also the most recent - a memorial to “all victims of atomic catastrophes” – erected on the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl:


After my stroll along the waterfront I took a mini-bus to the cemetery, where I had to the good fortune to meet Alexei, one of the groundskeepers:


He gave me a tour of graves and the Church, first pointing out graves of car accidents and some famous residents. There was a founder of a world class dance group as well as an area of Soviet air force heroes.

And then he mentioned the “holy alley,” but didn’t want to discuss it. I learned later that it was a sarcastic name for a lane of graves where the respected citizens are buried alongside the notorious, rich ones. It’s a strange cemetery, filled with moments of eerie beauty in one place:


And other tombstone telling a different story:


Locals tell me this grave is spat upon and tell stories about the man buried here. He was an important member of the mafia and a neighbor told me about how his children asked him to buy them a giraffe in 1990s, a time when many people in Tambov were starving. His son, buried next to him, is also the subject of many rumors.

Visitors came and went and for good reason I decided to be on my way. The groundskeeper jokingly mentioned some other local attractions I should take in while in Tambov… like the rabbit farm next to the cemetery. Don’t have to tell me twice.

I was told it was down a winding little road past a large, flimsy box of a building that housed a tombstones cutting factory. I walked down the path toward an even larger, even more hollow looking building. There were pyramids of tires rising from ditches in the black soil. I approached cautiously, thinking about dogs.

Then I saw a peacock. Then an ostrich. Then several ostriches. I met them all, along with dozens of pheasants and quills, on the way to the rabbit farm. I was expecting a depressing little fur operation, but it was nothing of the sort.

“It’s a passion for me,” said Marguerita Alexandranya, who first thought I was a tire deliveryman, but didn’t hesitate to drop everything and take me on a full tour of the compound when I explained my profession. “My husband deals with the rubber and I maintain the farm. We don’t make profit really, but it’s a bit of a dream come true for me.”

The farm – more of a zoo really – began with rabbits about a decade ago. Raised for sale, meat and fur, there are now thousands of rabbits here, packed in heated cages in the winter and allowed to roam in the warmer months. The place didn’t smell great, but the rabbits didn’t appear miserable, kept in cages by family with mothers and babies cuddled in furry mounds. I’m sure the rabbits wouldn’t mind a run here and there, but being such delicious prey, I doubt they’d last long: