The Volga shore in Samara is scattered with monuments and statues celebrating the mighty river or honouring famous figures, whose life paths for various reasons crossed the city. There’s, however, one monument in the embankement that clearly stands out from the rest – ‘’Barge haulers on the Volga’’ is not only beautifully made, but in one simple scene it captures as well the painful daily reality of those less fortunate inhabitants of the Russian Empire.
The original painting depicts 11 burlaks of varying ages hauling a vessel upstream of the Volga, an occupation reserved mainly for the poor farmers, the homeless and the exiles to Siberia who managed to return westwards. In the painting they’re mostly exhausted older men who appear defeated by life and resigned to their fate, except for the young boy in the middle, who is highlighted by the painter in brighter light; he is holding his head high, face turned in different direction than the remaining figures. In the background the viewer will notice as well a steam boat, which signals the arrival of the future and – most likely – a change of fate for the haulers. And indeed, more or less in this time barges were replaced by steam boats and hauling service was no longer required.
Riepin’s Summer by the Volga
The original work was inspired by the scenes witnessed by Riepin during the summer of 1870, which he spent in the village of Shiryayevo, situated about 25 km away from Samara. During that time he made preparatory sketches of the landscapes and of characters he would later immortalize in his famous painting. Notably, Ilya Riepin went through a lot of trouble trying to convince local people to pose for him due to the folkloristic belief that the subject would be robbed of his soul once the image has been put on canvas. Eventually, the painter succeeded in finding a few less superstitious models willing to do the job, among them a former priest, a soldier and a painter.
It’s worth mentioning that tourists can visit the house-museum in Shiryayevo where Riepin spent his Summer.
Like with many famous art works, also Riepin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga were not spared some controversy. First of all, there are minor inaccuracies in depicting the work of the haulers, such as the fact that they seldomely dragged the boat while stepping on even, soft sand, as shown by the painter. More often the shore was rough and covered with shrubs and stones, which made the job fairly tiring and uncomfortable. The work was also performed by children and women, and not only by men. Also, despite discomforts, hauling paid well and thanks to the wage earned during the season, i.e. when the river wasn’t frozen, burlaks could live comfortably throughout the rest of the year.
A more significant inaccuracy is the fact that by 1873, when the painting was completed, sailing boats were largely replaced by steamers and by then the work of barge haulers had pretty much disappeared, making the subject of Riepin’s masterpiece look slightly outdated. If you’re interested, here you’ll find more information.
Riepin’s burlaks on the Samara Embankment
The monument inspired by Riepin’s masterpiece helps to bring the barge haulers to life in today’s Samara. The viewer will see a painting frame filled with 11 men hauling the boat up the river stream. Refreshingly, the dynamic background is made up of the changing Volga landscape and of modern passenger boats and cargo ships that move without much haste behind the inclining figures. The barge haulers have been transferred to contemporary Samara and have become an integral part of the city’s panorama.
The brass copy of the famous realistic painting by Ilya Riepin is situated at the bottom of Leningradskaya Street (opposite of Coffee Bean cafe) and should be on the bucket list of any visitor to the city.
The late February gloom with volatile weather gradually transforming the once splendid winter landscape into a dirty slushy mess, doesn’t make it an obvious season for traveling around Russia. But since defying the obvious is part of human nature, we decided to take advantage of this year’s 4-day long holiday celebrating the Russian Armed Forces (the Defender of the Fatherland Day, 23rd February) and ventured southwest all the way to Volgograd, better known to most foreigners by its former name, Stalingrad.
The distance between Samara and Volgograd is about 810 km and we chose to do it in one go. We’re not new to driving long distances on sometimes challenging Russian roads and we wanted to allow more time to recover from the long ride and for some proper sightseeing once, hopefully, we reach our destination. Except for a few short stops at petrol stations scattered along the road, Saratov situated more or less half way between Samara and Volgograd was our only proper break.
Today’s 16th largest city of Russian Federation was founded around 1509 by tsar Fyodor Ivanovich on the ruins of the former Golden Horde city Ukek as a part of strategy to secure southeastern boundary of his state. Saratov officially received town status only in 1708 but it had grown rapidly over the next decades to eventually become one of the most prominent shipping ports along the Volga and the third largest city of Russia (1912). Strolling around present-day Saratov visitors will still see a few buildings reminiscent of the city’s long gone glory days, such as the Music Conservatory (the first provincial music conservatory after St Petersburg and Moscow), Drama Theatre (one of Russia’s oldest) or Radishchev Art Museum (the first major public art museum after Moscow and St Petersburg).
Since our visit was time constrained and the weather didn’t encourage any extracurricular sightseeing, we didn’t get to explore much but we also found some energy to pop by the Victory Park dedicated to the Second World War that offers some beautiful vistas over the city and the Volga. On our way back we had a chance to see a bit more of the river embankment and cross (by car) the famous Saratov Bridge that beautifully compliments the river panorama.
THE HERO CITY OF STALINGRAD
Most readers will immediately recognize Volgograd by its former name, Stalingrad (1925-1961), which the city is still allowed to use during various annual celebrations. Stalingrad is famous worldwide mainly because of what’s considered the largest (over 2.2 million personnel involved) and bloodiest battle in the history of warfare that took place in the city between 23 August 1942 and 2 February 1943, and arguably played a crucial role in stopping Nazi expansion eastward and in turning the course of the Second World War. With approximately 2 million casualties on both sides and much of the city reduced to rubble, Stalingrad payed a huge price for its bravery, and today’s Volgograd is to a large extent a monument to the courage of the city’s (and not only) population.
Monuments in Mamayev Kurgan.
No one can claim to have seen Volgograd without paying a visit to Mamayev Kurgan – the most prominent hill in the city filled with striking monuments commemorating the battle, which include the 82-meter tall statue of Mother Russia inciting citizens to join in the fight (the Motherland Calls). At the feet of this colossal figure (to date the tallest statue of a woman in the world) there’s a moving memorial space dedicated to the defenders of the city with their names inscribed on the walls and soldiers keeping watch of the eternal fire burning in their memory.
Among numerous tombstones scattered around the Mamayev Kurgan two seem to attract most attention among the visitors – one of them contains the remains of Vasily Zaytsev, a Soviet sniper who during the Battle of Stalingrad killed 225 Axis soldiers. The second tombstone belongs to Vasily Chuikhov, the lieutenant general of the Soviet Army and the Commander of the 62nd Army during the Battle of Stalingrad, who was buried here after his death in 1982.
Looking away from the hill towards the Volga there’s an outline of a football stadium that is being constructed for the 2018 World Cup, an uplifting sight and refreshing reminder that regardless of everything, life goes on.
Another obligatory stop in Volgograd includes the Memorial Complex situated by the Pavlov’s House that gives visitors an idea of the damage caused to the buildings during the battle. The Complex is situated about 3,5 km from the Mamayev Kurgan. We decided to get there by foot but, to be honest, for the most part it wasn’t a very pleasant walk – anyone familiar with the messy state of Russian footpaths caused by the melting snow will quickly understand why. However, once we got to the fairly quiet and dry Sovietskaya Street with elegant and eclectic buildings neatly lined up on both sides, the initial muddy nightmare turned into a truly delightful stroll.
For a ‘’local patriot’’ Volgograd’s Volga embankment doesn’t really compare to the one in Samara but it’s still a very pleasant space with plenty of greenery, fountains and monuments. The nearby area of Sovetskaya Street is also filled with decent restaurants and cafes (we tried Schastye Est and Custom Coffee, both were very good), theaters and shops. Like pretty much everywhere in Russia, there are lots of Lenin’s statues dotted around the city and a few Soviet-style buildings featuring Marx, Engels & co.
Most of the buildings in Old Sarepta were recently renovated but some of them, like this shoe repair point, still have aura of the past around them.
Before hitting the road, upon strong recommendation of a friend originally from Volgograd, we visited the Old Sarepta, a small village turned recently into an open-air museum complex situated some 30 km south of the city. We were warned that due to the tall buildings that popped out like mushrooms around the settlement over the last decades Old Sarepta is impossible to be found without a local guide but clear signposts starting on the main road (possibly a recent initiative) got us there without any trouble. Old Sarepta used to be populated by the Volga Germans who were invited to the area in mid 18th Century by tsaritsa Catherine II in an attempt to boost the crop production in this part of Russia and protect the southern borders from attacks by Kalmyks, Tatars and Kazakhs. Unlike the rest of the city, the village wasn’t affected by the war bombings and today visitors can admire the mostly renovated buildings that host a number of exhibitions attempting to shed some light on the lifestyle of Volga Germans in the area. The principal buildings include the museum, the library with collection of books in German language and the pharmacy and pharmacist’s house. Personally I found the pharmacy most interesting – it’s beautifully decorated with typical household objects from the 18th and 19th century and if you speak Russian, the very friendly guide will tell you all about the lifestyle of people in the area and about different types of local grass and herbs used for treatment of various conditions. The museum, on the other hand, contains a little shop with delicious local specialities including sweet watermelon preserve with cinnamon, traditional gingerbread, Kalmykian tea and excellent mustard produced from locally grown mustard seeds, which used to be the principle crop of the area and the mustard produced here was known throughout the Soviet bloc. Upon reflection, our only regret related to this trip is that we didn’t buy more of that watermelon preserve.
Winter in Russia is a serious matter. Between November and early January nothing cheers people more than a decent snowfall and some crisp weather, and nothing brings them down as much as the lack of it. I have to admit, it’s hard not to embrace this spirit – well, at least once you’ve got your proper winter clothing sorted. Cold weather can start as early as the end of October and may last till the end of March so it’s essential to find some enjoyable outdoor activity to shake off any potential signs of winter blues creeping in. Downhill and cross country skiing, ice skating, hockey, sledging, kitesurfing and dog sledding seem to be the favorite among Самарцы (inhabitants of Samara) but if you don’t own a husky, cannot ski, ice skate or are plain lazy – walks along the Volga are a good alternative.
Local people tend to complain that ”winters in Russia are not as they used to be” but they still are cold enough to freeze the Volga so that it’s possible to cross over the ice to the other bank or to one of the small islands on the river. The fearless Samara fishermen cross wherever they feel like but, in order not to turn this lovely walk into a scene straight from the movie ”Revenant”, it’s recommended to use one of the specially designated paths on the ice (you’ll easily spot them on the surface of the Volga), the resistance of which is regularly checked. Your efforts will be rewarded with beautiful panorama of Samara and some winter wonderland experience on the uninhabited islands. There’s no infrastructure on the other side, and in any case the outdoorsy Russians are typically self-sustainable, so you may want to bring some thermos and sandwiches as the whole hike, including visiting the island, may take up to 3.5hr (we started our walk from the brewery and crossed below the aviator/Glory Square).
Here are a few images taken during this year’s crossings.
This year’s autumn hasn’t been spoiling us – a couple of snowy weeks in late October and early November followed by a period of rather brisk weather with temperatures dropping to -11’C hasn’t encouraged many ventures away from the city. After a brief research, weary of road conditions in some parts of the region, we decided to go for the easier itinerary and headed to Vinnovka, a beautifully situated old church and recently constructed men’s monastery overlooking the Volga river.
It’s believed that the settlement was set up in 1650s by the runaway peasants from the central regions of Russia and newcomers from the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius. It is first mentioned in a document from 1671-1672, which describes the villages of Samara region belonging to the imperial family. In 1768 the whole of Samarskaya Luka (the Samara bend of the Volga) where the village is situated was sold by the Imperial Tresury to the Orlov brothers. In 1770 when it was owned by Alexei Orlov-Chesmensky local parishoners built in the village a small wooden church in honor of the icon of Our Lady of Kazan, thanks to which the settlement was upgraded to the status of a village and was now called Bogorodskoye-Vinnovka. After the death of Alexei, the village was inherited by his daughter Anna, who then sold it (1843) to a public institution who carried out property management of the imperial family. In 1839 a fire destroyed most of the village including the wooden church and the villagers organized a compulsory collection of money to finish the construcion of a stone church, which was started by countess Orlova before she sold the village. The construction of the church, which survived till today, was completed in 1851. The church played an active role in the life of the villagers, in 1867 a school run by priests was opened, but fell into disrepair after the collapse of the Russian Empire. During Soviet times the church was closed (1930) and the building was used for non-religious purposes such as grain and cattle storage.
Only in 2003 the restoration of the church was started and men’s monastery was built in the village.
Out and about Vinnovka
Vinnovka is located only a few kilometers from the city center as the crow flies but the lack of bridge connecting the city with the other bank of the Volga makes it necessary to travel all the way to Tolyatti and cross the river there. This makes the trip significantly longer but nevertheless enjoyable. The village is made up mainly of traditional old wooden houses and recently constructed villas, the latter probably belonging to some wealthier locals from Samara and Tolyatti who were attracted by the peacefulness of the location and beautiful vistas over the Volga. The monastery consists of two churches (both open to visitors; women should remember about modest clothing and a headscarf), fraternal housing, hotel, a library and a small museum available to visit with a guide on Saturdays and Sundays. Apart from visiting the monastery you can have a stroll on the small beach nearby and go to see the ruins of the Saint Nicholas church from 1714 in the neighboring village of Ossinovka (you’ll see it by the road when arriving in Vinnovka).
On the way back to Samara stop on the beach near Krasnaya Glinka (coming from Samara towards Tolyatti on the left side of the road you’ll see a little wooden house with restaurant Zolotaya Rybka, turn left there and drive through the little bridge and continue till the end. If the road is muddy, leave the car and just walk, it takes only 5 minutes).
It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Leningradskaya is to Samara what Las Ramblas are to Barcelona or Carnaby Street to London. This charming street is the heart of the city where both locals and tourists meet to stroll any time of the year and day among an eclectic array of shops, restaurants, fountains and an occasional souvenir stand. The pedestrian bit of Leningradskaya is just over 1km long and makes for a pleasant walk from the monument of Vladimir Vysotsky, the famous Russian poet, songwriter and actor, all the way down to Gorky’s street and the Volga embankment. After years of relative disarray, Leningradskaya was recently renovated and it’s one of a few places in Samara where visitors are able to admire buildings from the 19th and 20th century in their full glory.
A bit of history
Walking along present-day Leningradskaya Street it’s difficult to imagine that less than two hundred years ago this was still the very fringe of the city, with nothing much beyond this point. Instead of Leningradskaya there was a ravine extending from today’s Azimut hotel (Tanuki restaurant) all the way down to the Volga River where residents threw their rubbish and waste. During the times of Samara fortress (constructed in 1586) this ravine served as additional field fortifications around town. The street in those days held various names including Prolomnaya, translating loosely as Ditch Street, and Sennaya, i.e. Hay Street.
Only after 1856, when the local market was moved from today’s Revolution Square to what is now called Guberskiy Market, the ravine was filled up and local merchants started moving into the area and replaced the shabby wooden houses with their impressive mansions. As was common in those days, the upper floors of merchant houses served as residential area whereas the ground floor was reserved for luxury mercantile activity.
By the end of the 19th century the street was renamed Panskaya, which translates roughly as Grandiose Street, and became the main shopping street of the city. During Russian Revolution the street changed names another couple of times but on the 8th July 1926 it was finally called Leningradskaya and has been so ever since.
During the rest of the 20th century Leningradskaya remained the main shopping street of Samara but crucial maintenance works were neglected and the street fell into disrepair. Fortunately in 2002 a resolution was passed to eliminate a clothing market and restore the historical appearance of the street, which unsurprisingly met with resistance from the market sellers. This greatly slowed down the reconstruction works and only in 2011 the part of the street from Kuibyshev Street to Galationovskaya was opened.
No. 49 – Sidorov’s house, a well preserved three-storey merchant mansion designed in style art nouveau by the architect G. Moshkov.
No. 34 – the house of Konstantin Pavlovich Golovkin, a local merchant, artist, ethnographer, archaeologist, cultural activist and amateur photographer. He founded a Samara school of landscape painting and was an initiator of the Art Department by the Samara Public Museum. In 1918, fearing reprisals, he fled to Irkutsk with his family. During that year he travelled to Manchuria and Japan where he collected oriental archeological and ethnographic artwork, which he donated to the Samara Public Museum. The mansion was listed as the house of cultural heritage of local significance.
There are plenty of museums in Samara and in the future I’ll try to cover most if not all of them but this very first museum-related entry I’d like to dedicate to the one closest to my heart, Modernist Style Museum. It’s not the biggest, it’s not the oldest but it certainly is one of the finest and liveliest institutions of this kind in the city. This relatively new addition to Samara’s culture scene is situated on the corner of Frunze and Krasnoarmeyskaya Street and occupies a modern style villa constructed in the beginning of the last century by a member of one among the city’s largest grain merchant clans and a respected philanthropist, Alexander Gieorgievich Kurlin, for his wife, Alexandra Pavlovna.
Some historic background
This impressive building was designed by a renowned local architect Aleksander Ustinovich Zelenko and was one of the first modern villas in the city.
As was the case with most such houses in the former Soviet Union, the turbulent history left many scars on the building. In 1914, shortly before eruption of the Civil War (1917 – 1922), Kurlin died of a heart attack after suffering years of mental illness that made him unfit to work. In 1918 during Revolt of a Czechoslovak Legion the Czechoslovak army’s counterintelligence took over the building and according to memoirs, kept prisoners and organized executions in the basement; there are still some bullet holes and graffiti made by prisoners visible on the cellar walls. That same year Aleksandra Kurlina escaped to Moscow to never return to Samara.
After a few relatively uneventful years when the villa served, among many other functions, as a kindergarten, in 1941 during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union when all of the diplomatic missions were transferred to Kuibyshev (as the city had been known between 1935-1991), the Swedish Embassy was moved into the building and remained there till summer 1943. Later the building was used for various purposes including a local history museum. Finally, in 1995 by decree of Boris Yeltsin, the former President of the Russian Federation, it was awarded the status of historical and cultural monument of federal significance. This move facilitated the intense reconstruction works in the villa, which started in 2008 and lasted over 4 years. The building has been officially opened on the 25th of December 2012 and has housed the museum of modernist style ever since.
Zelenko implemented in the villa all basic pillars of art nouveau style with intricate curved line patterns of winding asymmetrical lines, which are clearly visible in the shape of the building as well as at the entrance door, around window frames and in the butterfly shape of the main gate. He used as well a new material, color-glazed tile, to decorate the exterior of the building. The interior has been organized according to centric layout with all rooms (living room, dining room, pantry, study, boudoir and a small living room) on the first floor surrounding the central hall, with a similar layout on the second floor, only scaled down. In total there are 22 rooms in the building. Each of the rooms located on the first floor was decorated in a different style – some, like the living room with large windows overlooking Frunze street, were aimed to bring balance with the outside world, others, as the dining room, were meant to offer more intimacy. My favorite room in the building is Kurlina’s boudoir with impressive stained windows with floral motives.
Modernist Style Museum
Years of neglect had a large impact on the building, which means that most of the artwork and decorative features on display weren’t in the house during Kurlins’ times. However, a massive effort has been put to bring the mansion back to its prime condition and give visitors a taste of the early 20th century local elite’s lifestyle. Today the mansion is filled with fine artwork including paintings, statues and unique hand-made imported furniture from the late 19th and early 20th century , some period clothing and small collection of Kurlin’s family photos. Interestingly, in the office room visitors will find the sole item that belonged to Aleksander Kurlin – the personal seal made of quartz. This was the only thing from the villa that his wife took with her to Moscow and which she passed on to her neighbor (nb the daughter of the last governor of Odessa) from a communal apartment that she occupied after leaving Samara not long before her death in 1970. In 1990 the seal was donated to the Alabin Samara Regional Museum.
Ticket to the main exhibition, which includes all of the rooms on the ground floor, costs 80 RUB for adults. Unfortunately, almost all of the explanations are in Russian with some short descriptions of items on display in English. The museum offers as well audio guides (for now in Russian only) and language guided tours around the villa (free of charge but in Russian only). If you don’t speak Russian, don’t be put off and go to see the museum anyway – it’s worth visiting even if only to admire the rich decorations and art nouveau items on display. The museum hosts as well regular talks, music events and temporary exhibitions – currently it’s a collection of original period clothing from the collection of famous Russian fashion historian and collector a a popular TV personality, Alexander Vasilyev.
Autumn air in Russia is infused with the scent of mushrooms. You can feel them in the city’s countless market squares and on the streets scattered with local vendors trying to make a few extra Rubles by selling their morning harvest of slippery jacks, penny buns or saffron milk caps, which local forests are so rich in. Mushroom foraging is Russian national sport – it’s almost impossible to find a person in Samara who hasn’t been on a porcini quest at least once during the season, and they’d better have a good excuse. After I was told that this year due to mild October temperatures combined with above average rainfall there’s an exceptional abundance of mushrooms in the Oblast (i.e. region) I set off on a trip to Buzuluk Pinewood National Park, the largest woodland of high pine trees in the world, to fill my own basket.
Some raw facts
Buzuluk Pinewood National Park consists mainly of relict pine and mixed pine-deciduous forest crops. It is situated at the border of two climatic zones: steppe and forest-steppe, and its surface area exceeds 1000 sq. km. Approximately half of the forestland is situated in Samara Oblast and half of it lies within Orenburg Oblast. The woodland was officially made into a national park only in 2007 but the grove has been a forestry management area since early 1800s. In addition to its diverse flora with plethora of mushrooms and other edible delights, the national park is a habitat to 55 mammal species such as wolves, foxes, badgers, ferrets, minks, weasels and moose. Bird species include white-tailed eagle, peregrine falcon, great bustard, little bustard, sociable plover and Russian muskrat.
The road leading to the park from Samara is of a decent quality and only after you actually reach the park’s borders it turns into a dirt road. On a dry day it is still perfectly drivable, even without a 4×4 vehicle. Shortly before entering the park there are a couple of small picturesque villages with well-kept colorful wooden houses designed in regional style. There are plenty of such elaborately decorated wooden houses in Samara Oblast but sadly due to time and money consuming maintenance work many of them have fallen into disrepair. By continuing deeper into the park you’ll see a few rather eerie looking deserted human settlements, which may prompt some flashbacks from the Blair Witch Project movie. I’m not sure what they are but, I assume, the villages were abandoned after the area was turned into a National Park and commercial logging and oil drilling was temporarily suspended forcing people to look for employment elsewhere.
Oil exploration and woodland protection
Volga region is rich in petroleum and you’ll see plenty of oil wells when traveling around the oblast. There are 164 well sites in the park, many of them in extremely poor shape – an effect of irresponsible exploitation during Soviet times – which has put the surrounding woodland in great danger of fires. Last spring a local company won the tender for the right to use subsoil resources for exploration and production of raw hydrocarbons within the park area and has made the improvement of well sites and protection of surrounding forest their key priority. This is an important development because since 2010 more than 10% of park trees have died due desiccation and insect pests’ activity caused by extreme weather including hurricane and draught.
This easy day trip out of Samara will reward you for the effort with pleasant hikes, perfectly fresh air and the most dazzling forest vistas. For different reasons any season is a good time to visit but I’d recommend going there during autumn when leaves in the deciduous part of the forest take on any imaginable shade from the color spectrum. The wild abundance of mushrooms (confirmed!) is definitely an additional bonus. If you decided to go there on a wet day make sure you choose an appropriate car, the dirt road seemed solid when dry but it might get a bit mushy after rainfall. Take some food and drinks – there aren’t many pitstop opportunities in the area.