Type the name of any country into Google Maps and the tool will render it in the center of the right-hand two thirds of your screen, likely with a red stroke tracing the international border (a sidebar with photos, quick facts and links covers the left-hand third of the screen). The only exception: Russia. As far as I can tell, this is the only country that appears with the familiar red, tear drop-shaped marker stabbed into its territory.
It made some sense for the largest country in the world, whose 17 million square kilometers far surpass Canada’s 10, to be an exception. At first, I thought the point is the country’s geographic center. But I was wrong: that honor belongs to of the Lake Vivi, some 768 kilometers northeast of the marker, where a large monument and cross indicate the spot. I got curious. What’s going on here?
Zoom in on the point beneath the marker and every step of the way you get closer to the answer. Toggle between the map and the satellite, Earth view. You will find yourself in a densely forested area near the border of Krasnoyarsk Krai and Irkutsk Oblast, administrative units. The nearest settlements are Strelka-Chunya, a cluster of buildings 135 kilometers west; Teteya, a mysterious blank spot in a river bend 87 kilometers southeast; and Yerbogachen, the nearest town with an airstrip, sitting 147 kilometers east on the bank of the Nizhnaya Tungusska River, which in the Google Earth view the river is covered in ice floes like a kaleidoscope. Lake Baikal is 692 kilometers south-southeast; the closest big cities, Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk, are 938 kilometers southwest and 1,030 kilometers south, respectively. The marker shows the literal middle of nowhere.
Zooming in you will discover that, while Google Earth creates its seamless satellite view from a quilt of photographs superimposed on each other, not all pieces are rendered with the same resolution. Whereas in Yerbogachen you can see tire ruts in the snow, just west of the town the clear image reaches a blurry border and the view transitions into a fuzzy one. The marker is in that part. All you can tell is that you are, indeed, deep in the woods, at a place accessible only on foot or from the air.
The marker points at Ostria L’Aragosta, a restaurant taking its name from the Italian word for lobster. Zoom in one last time and the marker jumps to a point just east.
Welcome to Pirogi, Russia!
Pirogi, too, is a restaurant in Google Maps. Just north of it is the Vozrozhdeniye (rebirth) Hotel. How are two restaurants and a hotel located in the taiga? The likely answer is, they aren’t. The hotel’s website is of the eponymous establishment near Moscow. The restaurant reviews on Google aren’t helpful either; if the hotel is any indication, they refer to some other places anyway.
The most likely answer: Pirogi, Russia, is an Easter egg. Google engineers have a well-documented reputation for inserting jokes into their tools. Google Maps is famous for advising users to jet-ski across the Pacific Ocean; the Street View Pegman changes into a Lego figure in Legoland or a Loch Ness monster by the Scottish lake. To say that Pirogi, a quintessential Eastern European dish, is the center of Russia, a one-time Evil Empire, is the kind of nerd humor you’d expect from employees of a company that used to purport to not be evil.
Still, I have an overwhelming urge to go there. Travel stories have been based on much less.