The Ancient City of Pskov: ‘Russia Starts Here!’
Published: June 8, 2011 (Issue # 1659)
Howard Amos / The St. Petersburg Times
The Kremlin is an impressive reminder that Pskov was once a frontier city.
PSKOV —Perched on Russia’s western fringes, yet one of the country’s most ancient cities, Pskov may lack industry but it combines a unique concentration of crumbling Orthodox churches with echoes of its proximity to Europe.
On the outskirts of the city, an unremarkable, modern white building embodies one of those echoes. Built in 1991 with German financial support, the Center for Curative Pedagogics has for 20 years championed a pioneering educational approach to the upbringing of children with physical and mental disabilities, offering an alternative to warehousing them in state institutions.
But, on a first glance, such subtleties are not what strike the visitor. Rather it is the town’s UNESCO world heritage center: The massive kremlin and its Trinity Cathedral towering over all approaching roads and the clusters of — usually dilapidated — onion domes that emerge around every other street corner.
Pskov’s long history and its proximity to Europe are fodder for the town’s tourism agencies: “Russia Starts Here!” is the slogan plastered, somewhat forlornly, across city buses.
The broad Velikaya River that eventually drains into the Gulf of Finland joins the Pskov River under the kremlin’s walls. In the winter ice fishermen sit and skiers glide up and down — and in the summer riverside cafes open up.
On the opposite bank to downtown Pskov is the Mirozhsky Monastery whose 12th-century Greek frescoes, undergoing gradual restoration, are a beautiful illustration of Russia’s cultural debt to Constantinople — and the town’s hidden gem.
But while the relics of past glories abound, they also serve to highlight contemporary problems — including acute demographic decline.
Though the city’s population has remained static, the population of the region as a whole fell 11.5 percent — more than 700,000 people — between 2002 and 2010, putting it third, behind Magadan and Ingushetia, in a list of Russia’s regions ranked according to demographic loss.
Heavy industry and big business have never had a significant presence in Pskov — they are more in evidence in Velikiye Luki, the region’s second city — and this is made more true by closures after the fall of the Soviet Union, particularly in the defense industry. Nor, despite the city’s proximity to the European Union, is there much international investment.
The surrounding countryside used to be famed for its flax production — but, in line with worldwide trends, the fields of blue flowers are now a rarity and the associated urban industries have disappeared. Traditional peasant clothes of flax and other intricate handmade pieces are a staple of Pskov museums.
Though Internet penetration runs at a relatively high level in the city and the region, business circles are traditionally difficult for outsiders to penetrate.
“The conditions for business in Pskov are exclusive and somewhat closed,” said a source close to the region’s governor. “The mentality is: ‘It’s our own swamp — we will deal with things ourselves.’”
But, he added, Governor Andrei Turchak —a former judo sparring partner of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who retains close ties to Moscow — has been trying to break down these barriers since his appointment in 2009. The city hosted delegations from Singaporean, Chinese and European companies in the first half of 2011, a “business incubator” for nurturing small and medium-sized businesses was set up in 2010 with an investment of 5.4 million rubles ($190,000) by the local government, and a development agency has been established.
The editor of the Pskovskaya Pravda newspaper, Alexander Mashkarin, said Turchak was more serious about implementing real change than previous governors. “Local society is spoiled by the fact that the government is not to be found ‘above’ but works in parallel,” he said.
One of the major government-backed drives in the city is the development of a tourism industry, amid a widespread belief that Pskov’s historical legacy, which has accumulated over more than 1,000 years, could be a big earner.
Pskov’s heraldic symbol — a snow leopard on a blue background beneath a cloud from which a hand is protruding — hints at another aspect of the town’s history through big cat associations with ferocity: its military traditions.
As Russia’s major defensive outpost on its Western border, the city was involved in 123 wars between 1116 and 1709 — and has only been occupied twice, in 1918 and the 1940s. Its system of fortifications includes nine-kilometer walls, 37 towers and 14 gates.
Today, Pskov is famous for its 76th Airborne Division, which suffered heavy casualties during the wars in Chechnya, in particular when positions at Ulus-Kert were overrun by Chechen fighters in thick fog at the cost of 84 Pskov lives. A film glorifying their exploits, “Breakthrough,” was made in 2006. The unit also saw action in South Ossetia and Georgia in 2008.
On a May 2011 trip to Pskov, his first in 11 years, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin laid flowers at the city’s monument to those killed at Ulus-Kert. “I am sure,” Putin said, “that Pskov will show itself again.”
What to see if you have two hours
The kremlin is the inevitable first stop for anyone visiting the city. Towering over the central square and home to the enormous Trinity Cathedral that rises 72 meters from foundation to cupolas — it is an impressive reminder that Pskov was a frontier city, built for defense. Today’s Trinity Cathedral, with its famous iconostasis, was completed in 1699 and is the fourth church to be built on the site — the first was of wood and, according to tradition, commissioned by Princess Olga of Kiev Rus, one of the first “early Russians” to be baptized into Orthodox Christianity.
Howard Amos / The St. Petersburg Times
After visiting the Kremlin, wander along the banks of the Velikaya and over the bridge (or ice) to the Mirozhsky Monastery.
After visiting the kremlin, wander along the banks of the Velikaya and over the bridge (or, in the winter, across the ice) to the UNESCO world heritage site Mirozhsky Monastery (2 Mirozhskaya Naberezhnaya; +7 8112-44-64-06; Mirozhsky-monastery.ru). Modest from the outside, inside the monastery’s compound you are likely to encounter monks going about their daily business: chopping wood or tending to the orchard. The diminutive black-domed church, however, hides beautiful 12th-century Byzantine frescoes — an attendant will open up the church for you once you have bought your ticket.
What to do if you have two days
If you have a free morning or afternoon in Pskov, you could do worse than walking through the park that winds along by the Pskov River, and then explore the quiet area sandwiched between the river and Oktyabarsky Prospekt, containing the city’s greatest concentration of medieval churches.
The Pskov State Historical, Architectural and Artistic Museum (7 Ulitsa Nekrasova; +7 8112-66-25-17; Museum.pskov.ru) is based in an old merchant’s house — Pogankin Palata — and is well worth a visit as it provides a historical and cultural context for the city and the region.
Many visitors to Pskov use the city as a base for visiting some of the famous sites in its vicinity. The most renowned of these are: Mikhailovskoye (21 Novorzhevskaya, Puskinskiye Gory; +7 8114-62-23-21), the country estate of Alexander Pushkin and where he is buried; the Orthodox Lavra in the town of Pechory (close to the Estonian border) with its clusters of gold onion domes and holy caves; and Old Izborsk (30 kilometers west of Pskov; Museum-izborsk.ru) where there is a 14th-century fortress on one side of a beautiful valley, ancient churches, holy springs and a large lake.
Where to eat
Though no culinary paradise, Pskov offers a few places for a pleasant meal. The Aristocrat restaurant attached to the Heliopark Old Estate Hotel (see Where to stay) gives you the opportunity to rub shoulders with the elite as well as a good dinner at Moscow prices.
Another reliable spot frequented by local businessmen is the Old Tallinn (54 Rizhsky Prospekt, +7 8112-72-41-58, Caferp.ru), which serves Estonian and Latvian food alongside traditional Russian dishes with occasional live music in the evening. Chocolate Cafe (17 Fabricius Ulitsa; +7 8112-72-73-83; Caferp.ru) is a good place for a break from sightseeing, with breakfasts and lunches on offer and a mixed European-Russian menu.
If you are looking for somewhere a bit further afield, the Pleskov Hotel (Pyochky village, Pechorsky district; 8921-506-0358, Otelpleskov.ru), located 25 kilometers outside town, occupies an idyllic location by the edge of the large Pskov Lake and has a well-regarded restaurant that could make for a tranquil — or romantic — evening meal.
Where to stay
Given the city’s tourist ambitions, accommodation options in Pskov are likely to become more varied over the coming months and years. Meanwhile, the huge hotel being built in a concrete mockery of a medieval style, overlooking the Velikaya and opposite the kremlin, is somewhat typical. Construction began in Soviet times — and the completion date has been continually pushed back. The authorities are currently promising that it will finally open in 2012.
The top of the range option in Pskov is the Heliopark Old Estate Hotel (4 Verkhny-Begovaya Ulitsa; +7 8112-79-45-45; Heliopark.ru) — giving you easy access to the city’s most elite bar (see Nightlife). Prices for a double start at 4,550 rubles ($160) and go up to 13,300 rubles ($470) for the presidential suite. The hotel includes a spa and can arrange excursions to sites outside the town. Other more soulless but cheaper and still reliable spots include the large Rizhskaya (25 Rizhsky Prospekt; +7 8112-56-22-23; Rijskaya.ru) and Olginskaya (4 Ulitsa Paromenskaya; +7 8112-57-08-88; Sotstour.ru), which looks across the Velikaya River toward the kremlin. More intimate is the Golden Bank Hotel (2 Sovetskaya Naberezhnaya Ulitsa; +7 8112-62-78-77) by the Pskov River and — often literally — in the kremlin’s shadow.
Listings of private apartments available for anything from one night to a week can be found in local papers, but beware of the “real estate mafia”: There may be lots of different telephone numbers, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be passed back to the same one or two people who control all the properties.
Any praise of their architectural heritage will go down well with Pskov residents. You could throw in for good measure your awareness that Sergei Eisenstein’s historical epic, “Alexander Nevsky,” opens in Pskov. If you want to display knowledge of current affairs, you can mention the devastating fire that all but destroyed two towers of the kremlin and made national news in 2010, how the new governor is getting on two years into his term — or that Putin made a rare visit in May 2011. Otherwise, perennial conversation topics in any small Russian provincial city include the terrible state of the roads and the causes and consequences of people leaving for bigger cities.
How to get there
There are daily trains and buses to Pskov from St. Petersburg. Buses leave from the city bus station (36 Naberezhnaya Obvodnogo Kanala, tel: 766 5777), and there is also a Eurolines bus service from Baltiisky Railway Station (120 Naberezhnaya Obvodnogo Kanala, tel: 457 2859). There are two trains a day to Pskov, which leave from Vitebsky Railway Station (52 Zagorodny Prospekt, tel: