The imposing kremlins, soaring cathedrals and cultural treasures of cities such as Veliky Novgorod, Pskov and Smolensk bear stunning testament to golden eras. Budding writers flock to the area’s wealth of literary estates – Staraya Russa, Spasskoe-Lutovinovo, Yasnaya Polyana and Pushkin’s ancestral home, Mikhailovskoe – with high hopes there’s something in the water; and character-filled smaller towns such as Yelets and Oryol are photogenic throwbacks to prerevolutionary Russia. Even the tiny, far-flung village of Stary Izborsk – a stone’s throw from the Estonian border – claims a distinguished heritage: it’s home to the oldest stone fortress in Russia.
Places to Visit in Western European Russia
This late 19th-century estate is where Leo Tolstoy wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as well being the place he was born, lived most of his life and is buried. A long birch-lined avenue leads from the entrance to the whitewashed, modestly proportioned Tolstoy House, where the great writer lived and worked. The rooms have been kept just as they were at the time of his death in 1910, with his writing desk and the bizarre child-sized chair he worked in, as well as books and furniture.
You need to join a guided tour to enter the house. Tours are in Russian and there are no English captions in the house, but it will allow you to take a look at the displays. For an English-language guided visit to the estate and surrounds, contact Yasnaya Polyana Tour Office in Tula (R5000 for up to 10 people, R5500 on weekends).
On the estate grounds close to Tolstoy House is the Kuzminsky House, an imaginatively designed exhibition covering Tolstoy’s inspirations from 1851 to 1869, when he finished War and Peace. A short walk into the estate’s shady forest is Tolstoy’s grave. The actual grave is unmarked – as per the author’s request – though signs point the way (in English).
Dominating the skyline is this huge green-and-white working cathedral topped by five silver domes. A church has stood here since 1101; this one was built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Even more splendid within, its spectacular gilded and icon-encrusted interior so impressed Napoleon that, according to legend, he set a guard to stop his own men from vandalising the cathedral.
Immediately on your left as you enter, look for a small framed icon of the Virgin, 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, said to be by St Luke, which had been on this site since 1103 and was stolen in 1923.
Cathedral of St Sophia
This is the oldest church in Russia (finished in 1050) and one of the country’s oldest stone buildings. It’s the kremlin’s focal point and you couldn’t miss it if you tried – its golden dome positively glows. St Sophia houses many icons dating from the 14th century, but none are as important as that of Novgorod’s patron saint, Our Lady of the Sign, which, the story goes, miraculously saved the city from destruction in 1170 after being struck by an arrow.
The cathedral’s domes were probably added during the 14th century – they are perhaps the first example of this most Russian of architectural details. The west doors, dating from the 12th century, have tiny cast-bronze biblical scenes and portraits of the artists.
Pskov National Museum of History, Architecture & Art
As you can guess from its name, this museum, spread over several buildings, includes history and art exhibitions. The architecture bit comes from the museum’s key sight outside – the Pogankin Chambers (Поганкины палаты), the fortress-like house and treasury of a 17th-century merchant. Art from local churches, many of which have closed, has been collected here. The museum offers a rare chance to thoroughly examine one particular style of iconography at close range. There are no English captions, but audio guides (R200) are available.
The maze of galleries in the chambers holds 14th-to-18th-century pottery, weaving and weaponry, including the original 15th-century sword of one of Pskov’s princes. Equally impressive is the huge collection of silver artefacts, including beautifully crafted baroque-style bible covers. The largest, a 25kg beast, was originally housed at Pskov’s Trinity Cathedral.
Equally worthwhile is the art gallery, with works spanning the 18th to 20th centuries, including paintings by Nikitin, Tropinin and Zhukovsky, plus representations from the Russian avant-garde, including a couple of Petrov-Vodkins.
The 2nd floor in the main building houses the war collection, with photos and artefacts from WWII and more recent conflicts.
Follow us and you will find more about top attractions in Northern European Russia in our next article.