no recipe · on USSR / Russia

Russian Handmade Dolls

Russian Handmade Dolls

I remember making something with my hands – almost obligatory – every winter school break. I would then give these creations out to my family as new year gifts. For some reason when you’re a child you are never ashamed of even the clumsiest thing you make. Because anything made with your own hands gives such joy to your parents, you can hardly reproduce that with any other gift – however outrageously expensive it might be.

Russian Handmade Dolls

This time I waited almost till the last day of my winter break from work to indulge myself in some handicraft. I really enjoyed the process so quite recently I made another doll. The first one stayed with us as a gift to my Mom and the other one is already somewhere in Italy, on its way to the Veneto region.

Russian Handmade Dolls

My guide into the world of handmade dolls is this book by a talented Russian artist Yana Volkova (here’s her Instagram, her posts are partially in English). She was trained as fine art restorer and makes wonders with all those bits of cloth that in her hands get transformed into warm-coloured creations.

Handmade Dolls

I really love Yana’s sense of colour, her handicraft (not only dolls) always has this homey feel to it. I also believe she’s that kind of artist who puts their soul into work. And I think there’s something from the Russian North in her creations, in the materials and the choice of the colour scheme. By the way, she also organizes online workshops from time to time. It’s a pity none of her two books has been translated yet, though.

Russian Handmade Dolls

So, first, here’s my take on a doll called Severnaya Bereginya (literally, Northern Safeguard Deity) which is a true exercise in colour matching. It’s essentially a tightly rolled up linen (the head) that is sort of wrapped in layers of coloured cloth.

Russian Handmade Dolls

Yana insists that this doll is nowhere traditional, in fact it’s her own creation out of two kinds of northern dolls – a wooden treshchotka (ratchet) and a Komi people rag doll.

Russian Handmade Dolls

The game (or the challenge) of making this doll gets even more… intimate when you realize there’s a story behind every bit of cloth. Mother helped me choose the ‘rags’ for this rag-doll out of all those fabrics she once used in her sewing. What a lovely way to recycle stuff!

Russian Handmade Dolls

Here’s my Bereginya out on a walk on our snow-covered balcony:

Russian Handmade Dolls

Her kerchief is made from a real kerchief that I recall from my childhood. Mom or Grandma would tie it over an aching tooth or put on when we went to a forest on a hunt for mushrooms.

Russian Handmade Dolls

My Mom could also tell a story or two about other bits of her dress.

Russian Handmade Dolls

In the ideal world the doll’s face should be white but I didn’t have any white linen thick enough to hold its shape. It’s also very imperfectly rolled up (and the ‘dress’ pieces are not that straight) but I like the overall result.

Russian Handmade Dolls

I liked the blue fabric so I used it twice in the doll’s dress. By the way, the whole process of wrapping the doll’s head in cloth is such a … warm thing! As if you were caressing or protecting something small and dear with your hands. There’s definitely something special to handicraft!

Russian Handmade Dolls

I didn’t make this one though – but I just wanted to show you this addition to our clay toy ‘collection’, now standing next to the dolls we painted with my Mom in Kirov back in 2015. I got this toy from the Arkhangelsk region as a gift. It’s a troika, a trio of horses, one of the Russian symbols. The guy on the back is holding an accordion. And on that collar thing in front they surely have some loudly jingling bells.

Podorozhnitsa

This is the other doll from Yana Volkova’s book that I’ve made so far, a Podorozhnitsa, a sort of a charm that was given to a man (I mean, a male family member) travelling (far) from home, hiding it in the clothes. Its name comes from doroga, the road.

Podorozhnitsa

In her bag called uzelok (knot) she has a piece of a rusk so that the traveller she is supposed to guard fears no lack of food along his road. It is also supposed to have a coin (so that it steers him away from hardship) and a pinch of soil (so that he returns) but they wouldn’t fit into her uzelok anyway.

Podorozhnitsa

I’ve made the doll’s kerchief from a shirt.

Podorozhnitsa

Yana says protective charms are never made with a needle so the fabrics for this doll’s body and dress are just tied with a thick thread, no stitches involved. The Bereginya doll has only one element that was sewn – the arms. As another variant of this Podorozhnitsa doll Yana suggests giving her a baby instead of an uzelok, but that would be a different story.

Podorozhnitsa

I’m contemplating on making yet another doll soon. There’s one of a grandpa, a dedushka, and several more that contain grains in their ‘base’ (body) which also has (had) a specific meaning to it in the pagan set of beliefs. I’m off to selecting the fabrics!

Podorozhnitsa

Yana Volkova‘s second book is titled Home and Family Guardians (Хранители дома и семьи), 2017.

Adding this post to the ‘On Russia / USSR‘ collection.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · St Petersburg

Wintry Icy St Petersburg

Wintry St Pete

Here’s some severe beauty of the frosty St Petersburg – before it all melted away. No ‘winter wonderland’ for this New Year’s eve, I’m afraid.

Wintry St Pete

An icy hello from the Ladoga lake which it sends to the city via Neva river once in a while.

Wintry St Pete

The ‘rotundas’ on the Palace Bridge are there as festive decorations.

Wintry St Pete

And a view back:

Wintry St Pete

The entire city looked like this that day: as if someone sprayed it all with fake snow.

Wintry St Pete

Oh, look, there’s sun in St Petersburg, hurry up before it’s gone!

Wintry St Pete

Icy sky hues:

Wintry St Pete

And a photo from a bit earlier – the illuminated Peter and Paul Fortress:

Wintry St Pete

Adding this post to the St Petersburg series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Back to 19th Century in Vitebsk, Chagall’s Birthplace

Vitebsk

I arrived in Vitebsk from Polotsk on board of a ‘business-class’ high-speed train in just 1.5 hours. Together with 3 babushkas who quite confidently enjoyed their ride. Vitebsk is Belarus’ second oldest city, founded by Princess of Kiev in 974 as the legend goes. Vitebsk is now more known as a birthplace of Marc Chagall whose figure haunts the city.

Vitebsk

Marc Chagall’s house is very close to the railway station so I headed there straight away. It was Monday and the museum was closed, so I just wandered a bit in the neighbourhood. It was all about small buildings, industrial sites and very few people.

Vitebsk

Not only the street with Chagall’s home is decorated with murals and his quotes – I spotted many of them all over the city. I’m not a fan and I really know little about him and his art but I think it somehow fits this city to have an artist who had such a connection to it. Chagall would go on painting his native Vitebsk up until his death.

Vitebsk

This quote about ‘homeland in his soul’ is right next to his house, and here it is:

Vitebsk

Same street:

Vitebsk

A nearby street:

Vitebsk

There were quite a few red brick houses in that district, only one of them completely ruined and graffiti-ed – but the rest faithfully serving their inhabitants.

Vitebsk

A local Beatles club where they throw dance parties and watch old movies. Was thinking of going there at first but that night they were having a party for ‘those above…’ which usually means a certain age which I don’t belong to yet.

Vitebsk

Can you spot a lamp in the left-hand window?

Vitebsk

Crossing the Western Dvina river towards the city center:

Vitebsk

In Vitebsk I could feel the winter is coming. After such a springtime day in Polotsk this came as an unpleasant surprise particularly because I was expecting a much finer day judging by the forecast. But the mist was so heavy in the first part of the day that when the sun finally did come out for a brief moment, I had to hurry up to retake most of the photos before it disappeared again.

Vitebsk

From the hill with the Assumption Cathedral one can enjoy the view over the city. The city which in its historical center one feels as if being suddenly transported to the Alexander Pushkin times, to the early 19th century!

Vitebsk

And those 1-2 storey buildings seem to be preserved in a pretty authentic state, not like in St Petersburg where quite a few of these were either upgraded with an extra floor or two, or ‘sank’ into the ground up to the balcony because the ‘cultural level’ grew fast.

Vitebsk

Judging by the plate, this house is here since late 18th century:

Vitebsk

I had my breakfast in the mid of the misty Vitebsk, accompanied by the pigeons:

Vitebsk

Can’t make out if this pigeon here is real or painted? 🙂

Vitebsk

I didn’t expect any museum to be open but turns out the other ‘museum’ of Chagall (or rather gallery – they call themselves Chagall’s Art Center) was working that Monday. They only had one floor of his drawings while at the second floor there were curious posters by Polish artist Ryszard Kaja.

Vitebsk

Then I came up to the Victory Square with this impressive 1970s monument.

Vitebsk

Just a few meters away is a street named after Chagall, with yet another of his quotes:

Vitebsk

And in the inner yard there’s this mural with the iconic ‘eternal student’ of the Soviet cinema – Alexander Demyanenko.

Vitebsk

Ah yes, I forgot to mention that I couldn’t resist the temptation to enter into a real relic from the past that you can hardly find in Russia now – Univermag (“universal store”), the central department store of Vitebsk with – literally – rows of clocks, kitchen utensils and crystalware, and flocks of very serious-looking customers. I was enjoying it immensely but just couldn’t take photos as nobody else would understand – they were enjoying it in a slightly different way 🙂

Vitebsk

Later, in my attempt to find nice postcards, sweet buns (for some reason I was sure I would find them) and some gostintsy (souvenirs) I also wandered way into the faceless districts with all kinds of Soviet houses from various epochs.Ah yes, I also saw this picturesque heap right in front of the local police station in the center:

Vitebsk

And then suddenly there was sun! So I hurried back.

Vitebsk

Oh those balconies!

Vitebsk

The center of Vitebsk is lovely although really small.

Vitebsk

As in many small European cities, if you have ‘too much’ time you end up making circles round the same place:

Vitebsk

Above – ex-town hall, now a local history museum which was unfortunately closed. Below – yet another baroque cathedral, looking pretty much like the St Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk – though less elegant.

Vitebsk
All of a sudden there was this nice evening:

Vitebsk

It’s a pity the sun was about to set.

Vitebsk

The pail and the kettle are there for a reason – they attract people to a local art gallery.

Vitebsk

A glance back at the Assumption Cathedral and the Vitba river which gave its name to the city.

Vitebsk

Trying to get rid of the remaining Belorussian rubles, I visited quite a few of shops in the railway station district. As a result, I brought back gostintsy – some of the goods that Belarus is famous for (at least, in Russia): potato chips (made with salt and sunflower oil, no preservatives), cheese, sausages, sweets and beauty products. Belarus is also providing us with textile, bed linen and… tractors :). By the way I did find some postcards in the end, three of them were particularly interesting, depicting the best known trademarks of Belarus – tractor, condensed milk and a huge truck.

Gostintsy

Belarus products for us I suppose mean something like ‘traditional quality for less money’. And theirs is quite an established brand in Russia, we have many outlets selling their dairy and meat products all over the country. Pictured above – bitter chocolate (which was a little bit too much with 90% cocoa) and that panforte or gingerbread they seem to be particularly fond of and that I sampled already in Smolensk. Pictured below: potato chips and condensed milk in a traditional blue can.

Gostintsy

It’s not my first time in Belarus, as my father’s mother was born and lived there. I was in Minsk, Baranovichi and Orsha. But this time the journey was a solitary one and I had more time (and more occasions) to think of this country from a traveller’s point of view. So, my overall impression of Belarus and its people:

From what I’ve seen, Belorussians are open and uncomplicated. Family is very important to them, relatives seem to be closer to each other – at least in terms of sharing thoughts, problems, i.e. living a more communal life. As a whole, it looks as if the nation has been (or is being?) calmed down and reassured by the state and habituated to a good steady moderately-consumerist life. Although they are not wealthy, they are not demanding either. Yes, I saw quite a few drunk people, some of them were openly drinking vodka in the morning enjoying the view over the river right in the center of the city. It is obvious that the level of income is pretty low but these guys are not used to luxury – and their notion of it might be quite ridiculous from a European point of view. By the way, November 7th, commemorating the October revolution, is still a national holiday in Belarus while in Russia it has been replaced with the amorphous ‘Unity Day’ on November 4th.

I came back home in a formerly trendy but now rather run down Zvyazda (or Zvezda, Star) Minsk – St Petersburg train, through the Art Nouveau gates of my city – Vitebsky Railway Station. Now its name makes more geographical sense to me than it did before!

This post goes to the Belarus section of my Travel series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Relaxed in Polotsk, the Oldest City of Belarus

Polotsk

After a somewhat grayish walk in Smolensk, a sudden journey into spring in Polotsk, Belarus, was like transporting myself to a whole new world. I arrived in Polotsk very early taking a night train called Dvina that looked very old-fashioned with its branded blue curtains and thick linen. The hostel where I stayed was one of the best in terms of quality and price, very close to the railway station and at the same time in a walking distance from the center. Well, Polotsk is no metropolis but it’s Belarus’ oldest city.

Polotsk

My first photos in Polotsk were that of a red-brick house which might have been painted over once. I found it in a backyard of a street full of low-rise buildings on my way to the center. While descending to the Western Dvina river, a heard a church service (it was Sunday) in this early 20th century church. There was such a crowd of people there I couldn’t get in and so took a photo of the sky instead:

Polotsk

Then, following the Francysk Skaryna avenue (the nation’s first printer who printed the Bible in Old Belorussian in early 16th century) I came across this Soviet era relic, indicating that this very residential house is officially a House of Exemplary Sanitary Order and High Household Culture (rough translation).  See, they didn’t paint it over, so I guess it is still true!

Polotsk

And then I left the avenue and started walking along the river. It was such a fine morning, looking more like spring than anything else! I saw a lady carrying twigs probably for some handicraft and a couple of dog people.

Polotsk

Warm sun:

Polotsk

An angler:

Polotsk

Village:

Polotsk

I could hear cock crowing somewhere on the other side of Dvina. And there was this cat enjoying the sun together with me.

Polotsk

Moving closer to the center:

Polotsk

Polotsk is celebrating its 1155 years this year. Wow. And it’s not that it was founded in 862, it’s just that it was mentioned in the chronicles under this year. Some archaeological findings say it was there already in the 8th century.

Polotsk

Now Polotsk is a mixture of a village and a low-rise town, with specimens of many eras, which I really liked. Don’t expect much from it though, it’s small though sprawling quite extensively (no wonder here as most of its buildings are one or two-story).

Polotsk

A huge abandoned ‘palace’:

Polotsk

I was a bit mislead by the name of the street running behind this building, called Castle Street. The only thing left from the Castle times is this mound that they used to built a stadium in the 60s.

Polotsk
The Polotsk University is also an example of recycling – it now occupies an ex Jesuit College.

Polotsk

And here’s one of the most beautiful sights of Polotsk – the hill with the St Sophia Cathedral:

Polotsk

The cathedral was first built in the 11th century, then demolished and rebuilt in baroque style in the 18th century. It’s elegant, carefully measured in every detail and architecturally interesting from any angle, it seems.

Polotsk

It also reflects the sun and serves as a sort of a lighthouse or a mirror with its facade turned to the river.

Polotsk

Of course the original 11th century cathedral looked nowhere close to this one, instead it resembled the St Sophia Cathedrals of Kiev and Novgorod the Great – round and Byzantine-like. The stones that remain from the early church are now on display at the base of the walls:

Polotsk
A very touristy point:

Polotsk

And here’s a part I liked a lot – a bridge hanging over the Polota river – which actually gave the city its name.

Polotsk

Here’s what you find across the river:

Polotsk
A true village:

Polotsk

With the signs of civilization:

Polotsk
Looking from the hill over the city lying below:

Polotsk

As I realized I had seen almost everything in the city center by that moment, I decided to walk to the convent founded by Euphrosyne of Polotsk, one of the most loved saints of Belarus and one of  the country’s patron saints too. She was a daughter of a noble family but ran away from it all and became a nun, copying books and helping the poor.

Polotsk

The convent is located outside of the city but you can reach it on foot taking a rather dusty road.

Polotsk

The monastery was full of people and the smell of freshly baked buns was coming from a local bakery.

Polotsk

This small church above is actually the one that is still preserved from the Euphrosyne times, i.e. the 12th century. It was later restyled (which is a bit misleading) but the frescoes ones sees inside give away the long history of the place. Here is the church’s shadow on the late 19th century neo-Byzantine cathedral.

Polotsk

Outside of the monastery, one of the most photographed spots 🙂

Polotsk
Yes, this is Polotsk too, where else would you find Vegas and Pharaoh in one place:

Polotsk

Coming back to the hostel, I passed by the 1952 railway station:

Polotsk

And then peeped in the local market which is a stone’s throw away from my hostel:

Polotsk

An array of handmade stockings:

Polotsk

A boy’s corner:

Polotsk

And an apple corner:

Polotsk

After a short rest for lunch at the hostel I continued my walk in the city.

Polotsk

The central hotel called Dvina in the pompous Stalinist style:

Polotsk

Did you know that the geographical center of Europe is in Polotsk? It’s of course contested by other places but why not Polotsk.

Polotsk

(Spot the traditional kerchiefs in the background)

Polotsk

Midpoint of Europe or nit, Polotsk is wonderfully provincial and decadent.

Polotsk

Zoom in: they put new plastic windows in this tattered house:

Polotsk

A mural on the same street telling the story of Polotsk, located on the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks.

Polotsk

My next stop (I was already making yet another circle around the city) was at the local history museum. And a very dusty local history museum it is, housed in a recycled late 19th century Lutheran church. By the way, one of city’s museums (that of natural history) is located in a former water tower.

Polotsk

Miraculously I was not the only visitor of this museum that day. There was one exhibition I particularly liked – although it seems it was even dustier than the rest – representing a traditional wooden house interior. I also paid to see a room they opened for me dedicated to the 100 years of the revolution only to find some (dusty) Soviet exhibits once removed from the museum’s permanent exhibition and now nonchalantly restored.

Polotsk

And yes, although they speak Russian there – never heard anyone speaking Belorussian throughout my journey – it turns out they use their official language in social ads, on state billboards and… on tags in museums 🙂 No English either. Had to ‘secretly’ overhear the excursion (obviously in Russian) and did my best to understand the Belorussian. Having inhaled quite a mass of dust, I continued my walk towards the cathedral when I realized they were having an organ concert that day. Too late, all the tickets were sold and so I just relaxed in the rays of the setting sun.

Polotsk

Such a fine day!

Polotsk

Western Dvina:

Polotsk

Creamy facade of the St Sophia Cathedral:

Polotsk

So, Polotsk did pass my test: it’s small, there are old buildings all over it, a river (even two) and hilly places, a local history museum, a market, postcards (which I failed to buy as I didn’t have Belorussian rubles yet – and by the way after the denomination they do look very much like euro, both coins and notes, see here), there’s a nice hostel to stay overnight and also a natural reserve nearby which I wish I could visit. Like Smolensk, Polotsk had its fine moments, used to belong to various nations, was occupied during the Second World War and is now a tourist attraction. But unlike Smolensk it has a much more humane face, so to speak (at least they don’t fine you for crossing the street in the wrong place). Or was it – again – just the weather? 🙂

This post goes to my Travel series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · St Petersburg

Bolsheohtinsky aka Peter the Great Bridge

Bolsheohtinsky Bridge

This summer inspired by the excursion to the Vitebsky railway station where we learned quite a bit about the technologies of the early 20th century, I made a walk in the center of the city up to the Bolsheokhtinsky aka Peter the Great Bridge. It belongs to the same period and uses the same construction method which at that time was considered quite revolutionary.

Bolsheohtinsky Bridge

On my way to the Bridge there were a few unavoidable stops as you just can’t resist pulling your camera out and making some photos. Above – a neo-baroque late 19th century green eye-catcher that looks pretty well in a combination with a brightly painted red ex-gymnasium building just a few meters away from it. And here’s a late Art Nouveau building (or rather ‘Northern Modern’ as it is called in Russia) that I used to pass by every day heading towards one of my jobs. It is in a very poor state now but it was supposed to look like a fortress or a castle, with its impressive walls and stonework at the ground floor level.

Bolsheohtinsky Bridge

Built in 1911-12 this residential house still preserves its original windows and judging from the photographs taken in its inner courtyard and inside it has not yet lost some of those details that would help create the Medieval atmosphere around it.

Bolsheohtinsky Bridge

St Pete’s backstage:

Bolsheohtinsky Bridge

And now on to the Bridge that connected a – then – suburb Okhta (hence the first name) with the center of the city. As with a couple of other bridges in St Petersburg (like Troitsky linking the center to the Petrogradskaya side) its construction was not at all desired by those who provided transport services from one side of Neva river to the other. Those who did want the bridge to be built were the people who had to embark on a boat in order to commute.

Bolsheohtinsky Bridge

With its tons of metal all over the place Bolsheohtinsky Bridge does look pretty powerful and at the same time – so effortless in how it stretches from one side to the other in just three spans. The most often used adjective when describing this bridge in Russian is ‘azhurny‘, laced. The lighthouse-like towers hide the mechanisms that draws the central span inside them – and thanks to them this bridge resembles London’s Tower Bridge built in the late 19th century. Ironically Bolsheohtinsky Bridge did impersonate the famous bridge over Thames in the 1983 Sherlock Holmes series, the best by the way, – see how they turned Thames into Neva… or vice versa here :). This element here looks very Northern Modern, as if someone like Art Nouveau guru Robert Metlzer created this metal curve:

Bolsheohtinsky Bridge

The project that won the competition was developed and then fine-tuned by engineers, including Vladimir Apyshkov who created one of the Art Nouveau jewels, Chagin’s mansion, now a dental clinic. The legend has it that one of the clenches was made of pure gold but since all of the clenches are of the same colour – and there are more than a million of them – nobody has found it yet. Another interesting fact is that the bridge was constructed so well that it required some renovation only as late as 1970s. And yes, the second name of the bridge, which was abolished during the Soviet era, comes from the fact that it was laid down in 1909, exactly 200 years after Peter the Great won the Poltava battle, one of the decisive moments in the war with Sweden. The bridge opened to traffic in 1911.

Bolsheohtinsky Bridge

This photo is taken from the Okhta side of the Neva river. It has been so heavily Soviet-style urbanized that for me – probably yet – it doesn’t really seem attractive. Okhta, a right-had tributary of Neva, gave its name to the settlement that used to be a carpenters’ village from the early 18th century. It later grew into one of those industrial suburbs surrounding the city, with many factories and a shipyard. But it also became the place where the rest of the city would get its milk and dairy from – the full-bodied Okhta women would come to various districts of St Petersburg selling their fresh produce and thus making their living.

Adding this post to the St Petersburg series.

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · St Petersburg

Winter Has Come

Winter Has Come

Winter has come. I would argue that this year it came on December 1st when I happened to cross the Neva going from Vasilyevsky to Petrogradsky island on an errand. November was uncommonly snowless and as the tradition goes, we were completely unprepared for the snow on the first day of calendar winter here in St Petersburg. Technically, that was not the first snow the city has experienced this season but it was the

Winter Has Come

Snow turns the city into an absolutely different place. As if by some true magic the streets, the embankments and the parks change their obviously outdated soaking wet garments into pristine white cloaks. The entire city is seized with this cold crystal-clear estrangement. You feel like walking on your toes not to disturb its sleep.

Winter Has Come

Well, hello winter!

Last year winter came in November abruptly burying us under snow and cutting off at least several weeks of late autumn. Hey and three years ago I celebrated the first snow with melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cookies already in October!

G.

architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Delinquent in Smolensk, A City on the Border

Smolensk

A super slow train took me to Smolensk overnight and well into the next day. The day was not a particularly fine one in terms of weather. But that of course was not the reason why I was delinquent in Smolensk. Let me keep the suspense for a little bit more till we get to that point while travelling across the city. For some time now I have been meaning to visit this city on the border with Belarus, one of the oldest in Russia and constantly popping up here and there in the tormented Russian history. First mentioned in the chronicles in the year of 863, it did not preserve much since that time, as you can imagine.

Smolensk

However, Smolensk does have a certain frontier atmosphere, testifying of all the various influences it has experienced throughout the years (Lithuania, Poland…). Its position on the Dnieper river, an important waterway of the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks, has brought wealth and fame but also attracted too much attention from those who craved to get hold of both.

Smolensk

The first sight you catch when you arrive (not counting the railway station itself) are the two oldest churches of the city, Peter and Paul (12th century! on the left in the photo above and below) and St Barbara (16th; to the right), standing almost side by side and pretty far off the center and the walls of the fortress surrounding it. Just like Novgorod the Great, the Tatar-Mongol yoke did not destroy Smolensk (although Napoleon and Hitler were more successful) and so it boasts some of those pre-Mongol churches hardly to be found anywhere else in Russia.

Smolensk
After a short pause at a very Spartan motel (see below) I put my hat on together with the hood to make it across the Dnieper river. Dnieper has always been in my mind going side by side Ukraine and Kiev in particular. But then some Russians are not sure if Smolensk is in their city either… So, to cut this long story short, Dnieper takes its source in the Smolensk region and then flows across Belarus and Ukraine into the Black Sea. And here it is in its very beginning:

Smolensk

Just noticed the crazy bushes along the Dnieper river embankment that recklessly decide to blossom in snowy hazy November. And here’s a part of the renovated fortification wall that used to surround a really vast chunk of the city. I took this wall as a guideline for my itinerary throughout Smolensk and so followed it from the North clockwise.

Smolensk

The walls were constructed by the same architect who created those of the so called White Town in Moscow earlier in the 16th century. Only this time Fedor Kon’ thought bigger and taller, with much more towers, thus creating a real fortress around the town (which it really is compared to smaller Moscow Kremlin)

Smolensk

And here’s the weirdest part of the north wall – the classicist Dnieper Gates flanked by two bell towers on both sides, literally growing from the 16th century wall. The gates now house a church school.

Smolensk

It looks like this from the other side:

Smolensk

Following the northern wall clockwise I came to this hilly part of Smolensk looking pretty much like a village, with a typical rural shop where you can normally find almost everything you need.

Smolensk

Smolensk Village

Smolensk

View over the Sobornaya Gorka, a hill with the Assumption Cathedral. Right underneath me was a man lying apparently breathless and / or drunk beyond repair. On a deserted street below a couple was waiting for the emergency car to come. I didn’t see what happened next.

Smolensk

Out of 38 original towers only 17 have survived; this one is in the South-East part of the wall:

Smolensk

And here you can illegally climb the ruined stairs and get a view over both sides of the wall – illegally, too. But no one cares.

Smolensk

Avraamiev Monastery (founded in early 13th century, rebuilt in stone in the 18th)

Smolensk

Moving further – Nikolskaya tower

Smolensk

With a drive-through arch:

Smolensk

And a gorgeously Soviet store selling sports goods and clothes. By the time they realized it was time to renew the shop window design, it has suddenly come back into fashion again (the black & white posters are there for a very very long time):

Smolensk

Some Stalinist architecture, ship-shape:

Smolensk

A door leading into a 1930s Gosbank (State Bank) building – still used as a bank premises:

Smolensk

One of the most recognizable buildings in Smolensk – the 1930s constructivist ‘House with Lions’ as it is known here. What a combination! A lady waited patiently while I was taking this photo and then entered – too fast for me to follow in her steps and see what Smolensk avantgarde looks like.

Smolensk

Moving along a rather long Kommunisticheskaya (Communist) Street, which changed names at least 6 times across the centuries, including Bolshaya Dvoryanskaya (Nobleman) vs Bolshaya Proletarskaya (Proletarian), Sotsialisticheskaya (Socialist) and Stalina (Stalin). That street was not the lucky one for me – as we will see later. This is a local arts school in a neo-Russian style red brick building:

Smolensk

An early 17th century Gromovaya (Thunder) Tower and a monument to Fedor Kon’, the architect.

Smolensk

Moving further along the South-Western wall:

Smolensk

And looking back:

Smolensk

When I realized I’d seen most of the sights located in the center, I decided to move back and explore the old merchant mansions along Bolshaya Sovetskaya. Little did I know that after passing along this Fine Arts Museum on the same Kommunisticheskaya street I would get too distracted by a Stalinist building on the right and a neo-Russian on the left plus a 16th century wall lurking somewhere over there that I would nonchalantly cross the street where it was not supposed to and… bump into a policeman. So here we go, my first fine and about 20 minutes of the precious daylight wasted while another policeman was taking down my name etc and telling me stories about St Petersburg – veeeery slowly. No, they were not impressed that I was a tourist from another city and the fact that it was a state holiday did not make them drop the whole thing either. Delinquent!

Smolensk

Did you know that if you pay your fine within a short period in Russia (and you can make it online too) you only pay 50% of it? Well, I did 🙂

Smolensk

The 17-18th century Assumption Cathedral, all gold inside. My last shot in Smolensk after which I crossed Dnieper once again to the railway station district to wait for my late night train that would take me across the border to Belarus. I didn’t manage to sample anything particularly remarkable in Smolensk (only gobbled down something quite similar to panforte – but it was imported from Minsk), nor did I get any postcards. No local market either. Hm, seems like Smolensk did not pass my test! Or was it just the weather with wind and snow right into my face?

Not recommended in Smolensk: The city has a very scarce selection of accommodation options. So much so that you either end up in an overpriced ‘euro-standard’ hotel or in a very dilapidated motel-like place (which I did). Unless you have your train to catch the same night (and IN the night too), do not choose Mini-Hotel na Avtovokzale. It is very convenient for those travelling by train or bus but definitely to be avoided if you care about your own self.

This post goes to my Travel series.

G.