A year ago, I stumbled on a photograph of the Eiffel Tower on the internet. Only, this wasn’t the seductive view you’d recognise from souvenir postcards of Paris. This monument was flanked by farms and allotments. In place of manicured trees, there were hay bales. The chic Parisian rooftops, meanwhile, were replaced by low-slung wooden homes.
The Eiffel Tower in the photo lies over 4,500 km east of Paris, in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region. Parizh, which takes its name from the Russian spelling of the French capital, is a small village of approximately 1,700 residents. It is situated two and a half hours from Magnitogorsk, and a five hour drive from the Kazakhstani border. I’ve always been drawn to paradoxes — things that aren’t quite what they seem. So, wanting to know more about how Russia’s Parisians live, this past June, I left St Petersburg and took a two-week trip to Parizh.
The village might be named after Paris, but its long straight streets reminded me of St Petersburg. At first, I barely saw anyone because of the heat. This past summer had been ridiculously hot, ruining this year’s harvest and forcing locals indoors. On the central Sovetskaya Street, which you could call the Champs-Élysées of Parizh, I stop by a store called Svetlana. At 45 metres high, the Eiffel Tower, towering above me, is hard to miss. I spot a small flock of geese hiding in the shade. I join them, so as not to burn in the sun, and scouted out my surroundings.
The Eiffel Tower is, in fact, a telephone mast. It was built in 2005 to replicate the famous French monument, and is a sixth of its size. The town authorities even sent one of their men to Paris to study its design. He returned eagerly saying, “Yes, it’s possible to repeat it.” Today, travellers regularly stop at the town to take a photo of its main attraction. As I stand at the base of the spire, I hear someone calling to me. “Hey, pal, can you take a photo of me with the tower? Portrait mode please. Make sure you fit the geese into the shot, yeah?”
Another stranger asks me to take their photo — a souvenir. I hear them say: “you’re not in Paris every day”.
In the evening, I head out for a walk. At around 8pm, the cows and geese trudge back from their pastures, passing in front of the Eiffel Tower. On the road, I spot the traces of horse hooves imprinted in the asphalt. Then, when I least expect it, the Eiffel Tower lights up the sky and begins to sparkle. For a second, I don’t know where I am. It’s a truly surreal moment.
After work, locals gather in the evening at a place called Khutarok, to grab a few pints, smoke on the porch, and share stories from their day. I’m told to try tan — a drink made with coffee liqueur, ice cream, and milk — and the fresh kolbasa.
The Parisiens of Russia are made up of an ethnic community called the Nagaybaki, who are the descendents of Tatars. The town was given its name in 1843, in tribute to the Nagaybaki Cossacks who fought in the Russian army against Napoleonic France between 1812-1815. It wasn’t until 2000, however, that the government recognised the Nagaybaks as a separate ethnic group (prior to this, they were listed as Tatars in their documents). The locals I spoke to were proud of this recognition and didn’t hesitate to drop it into conversation, beaming, “we are Nagaybaks!”
I speak to a local man, Valeriy, who recalls a time during his military service when his peers heard he was from Paris and howled with laughter. Of course, without the internet, back then there was no way of checking if there really was a Paris in the Chelyabinsk region. Like his three brothers, Valeriy served in the military and returned home to Parizh for his retirement, where he now spends his time making Eiffel Tower miniatures out of metal. “Where you are born, that’s where you’re needed,” he tells me.
These days, young people leave Parizh immediately after graduating school, to work in nearby Magnitogorsk or continue their studies in other large cities. The situation is neither new nor unique — it’s an inevitability in Russia. One of the locals I speak to tells me that the town’s last high school graduation ceremony consisted of just eight people.
The Eiffel Tower is a hangout spot for the teenagers. They bring their bikes and show off their tricks. They vape, pick berries and dream of metropolises. The girls dance. “I’d love to study IT in Magnitogorsk, but it’s not possible for me right now,” Stepan tells me. “Typically, me and my girlfriend go to the Eiffel Tower each evening. Sometimes, there are even parties there, which end up in someone’s yard. But I’m not partying much these days. I have to get up at 5:00 to work in the fields. If you don’t turn up on time, they will find someone to replace you.”
The next day, some of Stepan’s young peers go to the local river to fish. One guy has a whole bag of carp, and can barely contain his excitement. A truck stops at the side of the road. A driver comes out to ask if he could buy some for his cats. The boys refuse. This is their reward. Elsewhere, kids chase kittens into the foliage. They can run all day, in spite of the heat.
The Eiffel Tower can be seen from every corner of Parizh. I like to think that it is a metaphor for a desire to break out of routine, to create something extraordinary: a reminder to dream big. For passing travellers, who have always wanted to see Paris, it’s a small dream come true.