Gagarin

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Gagarin
Population: 31,721
Main industries: chipboards and machinery
Mayor: Alexander Grinkevich (gagarin.admin@mail.ru)
Founded in 1719 by Peter the Great
Interesting fact: The town has a two-story house where in 1812 the famous General Kutuzov, who was victorious over Napoleon, stayed. It belonged to the merchant Tserevyetinov, and is still in use and in good condition.
Sister cities: Ratingen, Germany; Borisov, Krupki, Belorussia; Mozhaysk, Russia.
Helpful contacts: Mayor's Office +7 48135 36007. Novoye Taxi +7 48135 35858. Express Taxi +7 48135 32121, +7 48135 34747 (uses GPS for a fast response). Excursion Bureau (7a Ulitsa Gertsena; +7 48135 48817).

GAGARIN, Smolensk Region — On the 50th anniversary of the first manned spaceflight two years ago, many Russian TV channels focused their attention on this small town 180 kilometers west of Moscow that bears the famous cosmonaut's name.

Gagarin had been spruced up in honor of the event thanks to 150 million rubles ($4.7 million) from the federal budget, but for many TV viewers the real discovery was that such a place even exists.

The town, which suffered under the economic hardships that followed the break up of the Soviet Union, welcomed the financial support and interest. In the mid-1990s residents joked that it was easier to survive in open space than in Gagarin because at least work was available in the cosmos. But now, after some international investment, it is becoming a new economic hub of the Smolensk region.

Yury Gagarin was born in Klushino, a suburb of the municipality of Gzhatsk, which was renamed in honor of the world famous cosmonaut after his tragic death in 1968.

But the boy-faced hero lives on here, in metal and in memory. Galina Ivanova, 72, is a pensioner now. But in the 1960s she was a young teacher working in a village school near Gzhatsk.

"He came to see our school," she said. "We had been preparing for his arrival and were a little nervous. Our collective waited for the world-famous hero, but when he came, we saw just a nice young pilot in uniform. He looked like any of the boys from the village. He joked, drank tea with us and then he took us for a drive. He had just gotten his new Volga."

Naturally, there is a monument in the central square in honor of this brave man with a legendary smile. Erected in 1974, the statue is made of bronze and is a classic example of Soviet giganto-mania and hostility to organized religion: The graven image was set up right in front of the central church.

Major Businesses

Classen RUS (9 Promishleni Proyezd; +7 (48135) 3 48 16; info@classen.ru; classen.ru) A world leader in the production of laminated floorboards, it opened a logistics center in Gagarin thanks to foreign entrepreneur Maciej Górecki, who understood the benefits of the location. Classen Rus, through its logistics center in Gagarin, sells more than 7 million square meters of laminate per year.
Egger (1 Ezhvinsky Proyezd; +7 48135 79300; info-gag@egger.com; egger.com) This Austrian competitor to floorboard maker Classen took over the former Gagarinsky plywood plant in 2011, its second plant in Russia.
Saulit Engineering (saulit.ru) built Gagarinsky machine-building plant (12 Ulitsa Pervomaiskaya; +7 48135 43049). This plant manufactures rapidly erected modular buildings, different equipment for gas stations and stations themselves, and car washes, prefabricated metal houses. Products of this plant, which employs 568 people, are exported to the United States, France, Italy, Great Britain, and Netherlands.
Gagarinkonservmoloko (1 Ulitsa Molodyozhnaya; +7 (48135) 4-10-72) produces very good butter that is very popular with local residents, and powdered milk.
Gagarinsky Svetotehnicheskiy Zavod (73 Ulitsa Sovietskaya; +7 48135 43387; mail@gstz.ru) isn't a newcomer, but this plant producing special shockproof electric light bulbs had been blossoming lately, having increased its staff by 6 percent in 2012 to 194 workers.

Yury Gagarin is not the only well-known person from the eponymous town that is now home to 31,500 residents. Contemporary singer Nikolai Noskov is the second-most famous native son. Though he won the prestigious national music prize The Golden Gramophone four times and has performed with such celebrities as John Bon Jovi and the Scorpions, there are no monuments to him in Gagarin.

The history of the town is overshadowed by its proximity to Moscow, in the middle of the main battlefields of World War II.

Its 12,000 residents found themselves in a strategically important spot for Germany's planned conquest of Moscow. Battles raged across the whole area, and by the time Gzhatsk was liberated from German soldiers in 1943, the population was down to 1,000 people — most of whom were in a concentration camp on the outskirts of town.

The Soviets kept meticulous records of the destruction: 844 residential buildings, 842 other structures, nine factories, four schools and the local hospital were all annihilated.

Locals find it ironic that several German firms chose this town as a springboard for their commercial foray into the Russian market. Although Germans from sister city Ratingen often walk the streets of Gagarin, some xenophobic sentiment still exists among the older generation of residents.

But the spirit of the town, like that of the whole country, was unbreakable, and it was rejuvenated thanks to its hero son. Residents say its essence is in the name. Gagarin isn't just a geographic entity for them. It is the reincarnation of the famous son, the continuation of his short and bright life. Yuri Gagarin is alive here; he can be found everywhere.

But for Gagarintsi it is not just a personality cult. People see the man as a genuine example of bravery, diligence and real Russian character. Interviews with the pilot made after his flight portray a young fellow with a beautiful smile, kind and clever eyes, and a healthy degree of self consciousness, tempered by a good sense of humor.

All these traits apply to the town, too. It has a feel of youthful self-reliance, and the locals can be seen smiling in public, especially in the spring.

Although Gagarin isn't very modern, and has a sometimes provincial Soviet feel, its infrastructure is well developed. The number of large stores and traffic jams testify to burgeoning economic prosperity. Many new apartment buildings have been built, and there are more on the way.

Employment in Moscow is one reason Gagarin and the whole region are blossoming. But it's not the only source of wealth.

In addition to foreign floor board firms like Classen and Egger, Russian manufacturers have begun to invest here.

Meat processing and packing firm Ostankino is building a new plant that will create 650 jobs once completed. The Mustang Feed Technology Corporation built an agricultural products and animal feed plant in 2012 in Gagarin.

These domestic firms have latched on to the strategic benefit foreseen three centuries ago by Peter the Great. The visionary tsar saw the advantages of the location. In 1719 he issued an edict to set up a town on the banks of the Gzhat River, as an intermediary shipping point between the south and St. Petersburg. A monument to Peter stands tall in Gagarin's central square.

Panoramic photos of the settlement from the 19th century show the golden cupolas of churches and kempt streets, on which well-dressed townspeople leisurely walked. It was a real flower of imperial Russia that blossomed on the bank of the Gzhat River.

But with the descent of the Iron Curtain and a reduction in trade with Europe, the Soviets were unable to take advantage of the town's location, and it began to lose its status.

But now several foreign investors have rediscovered the value of the Russian emperor's wisdom. The have found it easier and cheaper to set up business in Gagarin, on the main road artery to Europe, than in Moscow.

For MT

Alexander Grinkevich,
Mayor

Q: How would you describe modern Gagarin?

A: Today, our town, with a population of 31,500, is the same as thousands of others in Russia. The problems are probably also similar. However, we try as hard as we can to make this place more attractive, cozy and comfortable. Many tourists have visited our town and its museums, and have experienced the atmosphere of the early years of the first conqueror of the universe.


Q: What is attractive in Gagarin now, beyond its glorious past?

A: A useful multifunctional administration center was created here to make all necessary payments and prepare different civil documents in one place. A large number of new residential buildings were built and the majority of old ones were updated. The Komsomolets concert hall got a new modern face lift.

Beautiful fountains were placed in the center of our town. Apart from that, the new high-technology Museum of the First Flight opened for visitors.

We take care of our youth. The house of creativity for children and youth "Zvyozdny" will soon become the special pride of both adult and little residents alike. The funds for its construction were found by President Vladimir Putin at the request of Patriarch Kirill. It is also planned to bring a new kindergarten here soon.

To increase our citizens' incomes, more than 3,000 jobs were created in recent years. Average salaries are 20,000 and even 25,000 rubles in Gagarin, while this figure is 17,500 rubles in the rest of the Smolensk region.


Q: What advantages will investors receive here?

A: We continue to work to be attractive for investments. The northwestern industrial zone, with electricity, running water, and good roads, was created in town. These areas are ready for development and can be occupied in a period of one month. The geographical location of our town makes it very profitable to organize manufacturing activity, and many famous companies have already understood the possible benefits.  

— Anton Filippov

What to see if you have two hours

The main places of interest are not far from the central square of the town and the Vostok hotel, named for Gagarin's space capsule. You just need to cross the bridge over the Gzhat River and you'll be on your way to the main sights of Gagarin.
Stop first at the Museum of the First Flight Into Space (12 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 48135-43902) to see why the history of Gagarin town is closely linked with Russian aerospace. Every March 9, on the birthday of Yury Gagarin, many cosmonauts come to tell local children about their experience in space and to hear a gala concert prepared by pupils and students. The museum is well equipped, with many unique exhibits and LCD monitors showing a video chronicle of cosmonauts' training and flights. Here, for example, you can learn that Alexei Leonov, the first man to go into open space from a spaceship, is also a talented painter.
A real altitude chamber will help you to imagine what cosmonauts saw and felt in training to stay in closed spaces for months. The first exhibit that you will see entering the museum is a genuine rocket engine. Beautiful souvenirs can be bought here too, from pins with Gagarin's smiling face to stationery with space symbols.
You should also visit the Local History Museum (7 Ulitsa Gertsena; +7 48135-34756), which reflects the soul of the town. Here you can see unique photos, artifacts and materials that reveal a great deal about the past of Gzhatsk. There are several photos showing the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp built under the German occupation during World War II. You even can see stuffed animals and birds that are typical for the rich woods of the Smolensk region, such as an elk, a wolf, a lynx, a wild boar, an owl and a hawk. Even the museum building itself is an exhibit, being situated in Blagoveshchensky Cathedral — the most beautiful cathedral in town. 

What to do if you have two days

If you have a few days to walk around Gagarin, stop by the Yury Gagarin memorial complex (74a Ulitsa Gagarina; +7 48135-41926), where you will be able to see the famous Volga-21 car owned by Yury Gagarin. Some older residents say that Gagarin liked to drive this car at a lightning-speed in the streets of the town.

The house where Gagarin lived when he was a child is located in front of the memorial complex. It's also a museum with interesting exhibits inside. Near this museum tourists can see a statue of Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina, Yury's mother. It is a bronze statue of a kind elderly Russian woman sitting on a bench waiting for her son. A bronze rendition of the family dog sits under the bench, looking sadly up at its mistress.

The Art Gallery at 9 Ulitsa Gertsena, near Blagoveshchensky Cathedral (+7 48135-42883). Here you will see works by various famous local painters, such as Vladimir Panin, or portraits of world-famous cosmonauts.

If you like active recreation, you can visit the Equestrian Sport Club (mobile phone:  +7 910-712-2751) and ride a horse for pleasure or you can work out in the Vostok Gym (Ulitsa Sovyetskaya; +7 48135-48290), also named after the space capsule.

Nightlife

You can pay a visit to the modern and well-equipped Kosmos 3D-cinema, which plays first run movies and has a cozy café on the first floor (35 Ulitsa Gagarina; +7 48135-36010).
Best (1 Promishlenny Proeyzd; +7 903-698-8511) is the main and the most popular nightclub in Gagarin. It has an excellent sound system, VIP rooms, a friendly atmosphere and a bar with a good variety of drinks and professional barmen. Various Russian pop stars and rappers sometimes perform here. There is also a cafe here.

For MT
Tomash Blada,
a citizen of Poland working in Gagarin as a translator in Polish and German

Q: How many years have you worked here?

A: I have been working in Gagarin for three years, but I have to go to Poland several times a year, because of my business. That's why I notice changes in the town's appearance more easily than other residents.


Q: What can you say about these changes?

A: This town is constantly developing. When I saw Gagarin for the first time it seemed gray and old to me. But now I see changes. Many new buildings appeared in the last three years. Roads became more civilized. They are already close to European ones, but not everywhere yet. I see many good cars in the streets; various shops have opened. Prices are still high, but, as I can see, this is a feature of Russian trade.


 — Anton Filippov

Where to eat

There are many cafes and restaurants in Gagarin. All have rather good and inexpensive food.
A three-course business lunch without alcohol consisting of a light vegetable salad, a bowl of soup (borscht or chicken soup), chicken Kiev with mashed potatoes and a dessert will cost about 150 rubles. The majority of places serve dinner too, but call ahead to confirm. Menus tend to be similar in all venues.
Cafe Vostok (58 Ulitsa Gagarina, in the Vostok hotel; +7 48135 41465) is famous for its potato pancakes with meat stuffing, which is usually served with tasty sour cream on top. The Caesar salad is also worth trying.
Restaurant Rus (5a Ulitsa 26 Bakinskikh Komissarov; +7 48135 43986) offers pool tables and VIP rooms.
The newest restaurant, Prestizh Yug (Pride of the South; 71b Ulitsa Sovyetskaya; +7 919-048-2226) is a quiet and calm place in the outskirts of town for pleasant rest after a hard day.
The bar and cafe Paris (3 Sovyetsky Pereulok) offers five different menus for business lunch and is most popular with Europeans working in Gagarin because of the quality-price ratio.

Where to stay

Vostok Hotel (58 Ulitsa Gagarina; +7 48135 -41465) ) on the main square is the only place where tourists can book cheap, cozy and well-equipped rooms. The hotel doesn't have its own website, however, and tourists can book rooms only over the phone. The cheapest single room, with TV and a fridge, costs 950 rubles per night. The most expensive room, with luxuries like an LCD TV, fridge, fan, hair dryer and even coffee maker, will set you back 2,500 rubles per night. There is also a good café on the ground floor.

A new hotel with 40 rooms in the center of the town (2a Ulitsa Lenina) is planned.

Conversation starters

You can easily break the ice with residents, especially if they are taxi drivers, by talking about bad roads. Roads have actually been improved over the last three years, but locals still enjoy the topic, mainly out of habit.
The second most popular subject is job opportunities, which seem to be growing faster than the number of potential workers.
High prices, whether for electricity or anything else, are always a hot topic. 

Other helpful tips

Announcements for the most important events in Gagarin are on the main page of the town's official website (gagarinadmin.ru). If you are interested in news of the surrounding district you should visit its website (rodinagagarina.ru), where you can also find the bus schedule.
A map of Gagarin can be bought at any newsstand near the railway station or in bookshops.

How to get there

By suburban commuter train: Moscow, Belorussky railway station to the station "Gagarin"; 310 rubles, several times a day; the journey takes three hours.
By car: Moscow-Minsk highway, 180 kilometers from Moscow, takes two and a half hours, but traffic jams are likely.