Behind the walls of this old city you'll find well-landscaped parks, a magnificent old cathedral, a smattering of museums and a youthful population breathing new life into this historic town. Its elegant music hall is the jewel of the town, and the regular concerts held here as well as its annual music festival keep Smolensk well connected to flourishing musical traditions of centuries past.
Set on the upper Dnepr River, 390km southwest of Moscow, Smolensk was first mentioned in 863 as the capital of the Slavic Krivichi tribes. The town's auspicious setting gave it early control over trade routes between Moscow and the west and between the Baltic and Black Seas - or in other words 'from the Varangians to the Greeks'. Smolensk became part of Kyivan Rus, but after being sacked by the Tatars in about 1237 it passed to Lithuania. Moscow captured Smolensk in 1340, Lithuania in 1408, Moscow again in 1514, Poland in 1611 after a 20-month siege, and Russia in 1654.
There was a big battle between the Russians and Napoleon's army outside Smolensk in 1812 and more heavy fighting in 1941 and 1943. In a sign of Soviet favour, much of the devastated centre 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 locally made flax products. Meanwhile, composer Mikhail Glinka, regarded as the founder of Russian art music, grew up near Smolensk and performed frequently in the Nobles' Hall, facing what is now the Glinka Garden. The statue of Glinka, installed in 1885, is surrounded by a fence with excerpts from his opera A Life for the Tsar wrought into the iron. Music aficionados will want to make the trip out to Glinka's family home, now a museum. Inquire at the Intourist office.