One of the oldest cities in Russia – contemporary to Novgorod – Smolensk carries plenty of cultural history into the present day. Ancient walls, onion dome cathedrals and well-landscaped parks are strewn across the undulating hills of this mid-sized city. The highlight is the magnificent Assumption Cathedral.
But music lovers should consider visiting for the renowned Glinka Festival in June. Set on the upper Dnepr River, 360 km southwest of Moscow, Smolensk was first mentioned in 863 as the capital of Slavic Krivichi ethnic groups. The town's auspicious setting gave it early control over trade routes between
Moscow and the west and between the Baltic and Black Seas. By the late 1100's, Smolensk was one of the strongest principalities in Eastern Europe. It was then that the remarkable Svirskaya Church emerged. As Muscovy and Lithuania vied for power in the 13th century, the city was literally caught in the middle and invaded from both sides.
Battle with Napoleon
There was a big battle between the Russians and Napoleon's army outside Smolensk in 1812 (later immortalized in Tolstoy's War and Peace) and heavy fighting in 1941 and 1943. In a sign of Soviet favor, much of the devastated center was quickly rebuilt, often along original plans, resulting in the very complete feeling of the central area today. Long sections of the restored city walls boast fine towers reminiscent of the Moscow Kremlin.
Other areas of interest for the visitor include flax production and music. Smolensk was the regional hub of flax production during the Middle ages, and you can still find fine local flax products. Meanwhile, composer Mikhail Glinka, regarded as the founder of Russian art music, grew up near Smolensk and performed often in the Nobles' Hall, facing what is now the Glinka Garden. The statue of Glinka, installed in 1885, with a fence around it with excerpts from his opera "A life for the Tsar" wrought into the iron.
Orientation of Smolensk
Central Smolensk, surrounded by lengths of ancient wall, stands on a hill on the south bank of the Dnepr. The formal city center is pl Lenina with the Glinka Garden (Gorodskoy sad imeni Ml Glinki) on its south side and the House of Soviets, Glinka Concert Hall and Hotel Tsentralnaya on the north side. The train station and Kolkhoznaya pl, site of the main market, are north of the river. Ul Bolshaya Sovetskaya leads across the river and up the hill from Kolkhoznaya pl to the center.
Fortress Walls Smolensk
Built between 1596 and 1602, the impressive 6.5 km-long, 5.5 m-thick, 15 m-high walls had 38 towers. 17 are still standing. The pleasant Central Park of Culture and Rest (Tsentralny Park Kultury I Otdykha) backs onto a longish southwest side of the walls.
Overlooking the Spartak Stadium just outside the line of the walls on the west side of the park, the Korolevsky Bastion is a high earth rampart built by the Poles who captured Smolensk in 1611. It saw heavy fighting in 1654 and 1812. The park has a 26 m-high cast-iron monument to the 1812 defenders.
At the foot of the walls southeast of the Glinka Garden you'll find an eternal flame memorial to the dead of WWII and the graves of some of the Soviet soldiers who died in Smolensk's defense, plus another monument to the heroes of 1812. A WWII museum within the fortress walls nearby documents the invasion and widespread devastation. Behind the museum you will find tanks, artillery and a MiG fighter jet.
Assumption Cathedral in Smolensk
Smolensk's big green-and-white working Assumption Cathedral rides at the top of a flight of steps off ul Bolshaya Sovetskaya. A cathedral has stood here since 1101 but this one is from the late 17th and early 18th centuries. It's one of the earliest examples of the Russo-Greek revival in architecture after the more European orientated trends of Peter the Great's reign.
Topped by five domes, it has a spectacular gilded interior, which was partly damaged by fire during WWII. According to legend, Napoleon was so impressed that he set a guard to stop his own men from vandalizing the cathedral.
Immediately on your left as you enter, an icon of the Virgin is richly encrusted with pearls drawn from the Dnepr around Smolensk. Further on, a cluster of candles marks a supposedly wonder-working icon of the Virgin. This is a 16th century copy of the original, according to legend by St. Luke, which had been on this site since 1503 and was stolen in 1923.
Museums in Smolensk
The pink firmer Church of Trinity Monastery now houses a small Flax Museum. Historically, flax production has been one of Smolensk's main industries as the moderate climate sustains soil ideal for growing flax. Exhibits here are sparse, but you'll get an idea of how the process works. Walk around the back to find the entrance. To get a souvenir of the distinctive local style, visit the unsigned flax shop near the Central Park of Culture and Rest.
|Address||7 Ulitsa Tenishevoi, Smolensk, Russia|
Smolensk's History museum doubles as a fine-arts museum, displaying a hodgepodge of 18th- and 19th century portraiture and 13th – century iconography and graffiti, along with the battle maps and Soviet paraphernalia. Particularly interesting are the fragments from the 1812 war, including a French uniform from one of Napoleon's soldiers.
The town's Art Gallery, south of the fortress walls, has paintings by famous artists such as Rerikh and Ivanov, a good sampling of socialist realism, 14th – to 18th century icons and works by Smolensk artists patronized by Princess Maria Tenisheva.
The Konenkov Sculpture Museum contains playful woodwork by Sergei Konenkov. Lenin seems to be captured in the midst of a ballet maneuver. The museum also has steel, bronze and aluminum works from some of the other noted artists who hail from Smolensk.
The one- room Museum of Russian Vodka gives visitors a brief overview of the drink's colorful history. Fifteen-minute guided tours (in English and Russian) end at the makeshift bar where you can buy a glass (or better yet a bottle) of some noteworthy Smolenskiy brands. There's a good restaurant next door.
Flyonovo Outside Smolensk
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries top Russian art and music names such as Stravinsky, Chaliapin, Vrubel and Serov visited the Flyonovo estate of singer Princess Maria Tenisheva, near Talashkino, 15 kilometers southeast of Smolensk on the Roslavl road.
They joined in applied art workshops, which the princess organized for her peasants. They also helped in building projects. The most striking result is the dramatic, almost psychedelic murals and mosaics on the brick Holy Spirit Church – particularly the one of Christ over the entrance.
Much of the painting is by well-known landscape painter Rerikh. One house called Teremok decorated with ornate peasant-style carving, is now a folk art museum. A second building has art produced in the workshop and some old sepia photos of the artists who gathered here. The colorful, L-shaped wood objects are distaffs, a tool used in spinning (it holds the fibers not yet spun). Distaff in Russian is prialka.
Take bus 104 or 130 from Smolensk's bus station to Talashkino, from where it's a pleasant 15 minute walk to the estate. You can also catch a marshrutka to Talashkino from pl Smirnova.
Travel to Smolensk
Smolensk is on the Moscow- Minsk- Warsaw railway with several daily trains to/from Minsk (four hours) and Brest (8 hours), as well as regular trains to Warsaw (nine hours), Prague (24 hours) and Berlin (41 hours). Among the departures from Moscow (platskartny/kupe, 5.5 hours), a convenient day trains departs at 2.13pm
International rail tickets are for sale from window 12 at the train station.
From June to August on even-numbered days of the week, there is a train to Oryol (platskartny/kupe, six hours). Throughout the year, an elektrichka departs from Bryansk (5 hours) at 5.18 pm, every day except Monday and Wednesday. From Bryansk there are hourly buses to Oryol.
Smolensk's bus station is south of the train station, reached by a footbridge. Heading north, there are two daily buses to Pskov (eight to ten), departing at 8.50 am and 9.00 pm. Going south, there are five daily buses to Bryansk (5.5 hours); the 9.30 am bus continues to Oryol (8 hours). Services to Moscow (6 hours) leave at least hourly from both the bus station and outside the train station.
From the train station, you can take the bus or tram to the center of town. Many buses and trams stop in front of the station. Choose one that stops by the green structure to the right beyond the car park. Some buses stop at the bus station, across the footbridge from the train station. Marshrutka 41 from the train station is also handy route into town. Taxis are available.