Western European Russia
This ancient, Arcadian region showcases Mother Russia at her most fertile: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and nothing less than the modern country itself were all born here. It’s a lofty legacy and nowhere does Western European Russia (Западно – Европейская Россия) let you forget it. 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.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Western European Russia.
Within the kremlin walls is this must-see museum that houses three strikingly comprehensive exhibitions covering the history of Veliky Novgorod, Russian woodcarving and Russian icons. The latter contains one of the world's largest collections of icons, with around 260 pieces placed in chronological order, allowing you to appreciate the progression of skills and techniques through the centuries. The English audio guide (R200) is recommended if you want to get the most out of a visit.
The Unesco-protected, nonworking Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour is the highlight of the Mirozhsky Monastery. Its 12th-century frescos are considered to be one of the most complete representations of the biblical narrative to have survived the Mongols. The Byzantine-style frescos have been partially restored after centuries of damage from flooding, whitewashing and scrubbing; 80% of what you see today is original.
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.
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.
On the west bank of the Volkhov River, and surrounded by a pleasant wooded park, the kremlin is one of Russia’s oldest. Originally called the Detinets (and still often referred to as such), the fortification dates to the 9th century, and was rebuilt with brick in the 14th century; this still stands today. The complex is worth seeing with a guide; arrange one through the tourist office. You can walk part of the kremlin walls for views over the complex and the city.
Surrounded by beautiful countryside, Spasskoe-Lutovinovo, 65km north of Oryol, is the family estate of Ivan Turgenev (1818–83), where the 19th-century novelist completed most of his novels, including his famous book, Fathers and Sons. The main house contains some original furniture, artworks collected by the writer, books and personal items. There’s an icon hanging in Turgenev’s study that was given to the family by Ivan the Terrible, and the chessboard is set ready to play (Turgenev was a masterful player).
Russia’s most beloved poet, Alexander Pushkin, lived several years at his family estate, Mikhailovskoe, near the small town of Pushkinskie Gory (Пушкинские Горы; Pushkin Hills), 120km south of Pskov. The family first came to the area in the late 1700s, when Pushkin’s great-grandfather Abram Hannibal was given the land by Empress Elizabeth. The family house was destroyed during WWII and has since been rebuilt. The surrounding 20-hectare park includes servants’ quarters, orchards, cute bridges and a wooden windmill.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, illustrious artists and musicians, including Stravinsky, Chaliapin, Vrubel and Serov, visited Flyonovo, the pretty riverside estate of art lover Princess Maria Tenisheva, near Talashkino, 18km southeast of Smolensk. The visitors joined in applied-art workshops, which the princess organised for her peasants, and helped in building projects. The most striking result is the almost psychedelic decoration on the exterior of the brick Holy Spirit Church (Церковь Святого Духа), particularly the mural of Christ over the entrance designed by well-known landscape painter Rerikh.
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.