- By Natalya Krainova
- Apr. 15 2012 00:00
Main industries: machine building, food production, jewelry production, light industry, construction materials, printing
Mayor: Alexander Danilyuk
Founded in 863
Interesting fact: Smolensk has one of the three longest fortress walls in the world (6,500 meters), along with the Great Wall of China (4,500 to 6,700 kilometers by different accounts) and the Walls of Constantinople (5,630 meters).
Sister cities: Vitebsk, Belarus; Targovishte, Bulgaria; Tulle, France; Hagen, Germany; Kutno, Poland; Warsaw’s Ursynow district, Poland; Zhytomyr, Ukraine.
Nikolai Kazantsev, head of the city administration’s directorate for investments (+7 4812-32-66-30; firstname.lastname@example.org;
Dmitry Raikov, head of the city administration’s directorate for consumer market and development of entrepreneurship (+7 4812-38-08-68; email@example.com;
Smolensk Chamber of Trade and Industry president Vladimir Arkhipenkov (+7 4812-38-01-67;
SMOLENSK — Smolensk's role in history as a battleground for invading armies may come as no surprise to the first-time visitor.
The city — despite its gorgeous ancient churches and picturesque location atop seven hills and along the Dnepr River — can resemble something of a battlefield even today.
Municipal workers rarely clean the roads and sidewalks, residents complain. The streets, which twist and turn and roll as they navigate the seven hills, are filled with cracks and potholes because of irregular repair work.
In early spring and late fall, the roads are particularly chaotic. Slippery and slushy, they threaten to soak the feet of anyone not astute enough to be wearing rain boots — which, incidentally, are not warm enough to handle the cold weather.
Asked to identify Smolensk's biggest problem, residents readily point to the roads.
"The state of roads is awful! They are not cleaned at all!" said a cashier at the press kiosk at the train station. "It is really shameful when tourists visit us."
She was echoed by local residents waiting for their bus near the train station.
Another disappointment for residents is the poor maintenance of Smolensk's historical landmarks, including crumbling old buildings covered with graffiti and piles of garbage left by teenagers and the homeless inside the towers of what's left of an ancient fortress wall that surrounded the city. Residents also are irritated by irregular garbage pickups that can leave trash canisters overflowing with stinking refuse.
But pride still runs deep in this city located about 60 kilometers from the border with Belarus, and residents hope that the 1,150th anniversary celebrations in 2013 will lead to significant improvements. Indeed, City Hall plans to repair roads and old buildings in connection with the anniversary, according to plans published on its website.
During a visit in late March, however, no repair works were visible in downtown Smolensk apart from a fenced-off Dnepr embankment on an empty street on the outskirts of the city center.
Bahus (4 Karachevsky Pereulok; +7 4812 27-15-49 ext. 130, Vladimir Anufriyev, deputy general director;
Kristall (2 Ulitsa Shkadova; +7 4812-20-01-00;
Osram (9a Industrialnaya Ulitsa; + 7 4812-310-225;
Smolensk traces its origins back to commerce, not war. Legend has it that the city is situated on a trade route used by the Vikings and Greeks and was founded at the place where the traders dragged their ships from the Western Dvina River to the Dnepr.
Local residents caulked their ships with resin, which in Russian is pronounced "smola," and the city's name was derived from this word.
Smolensk saw its first major battle in 882 when Russian Prince Oleg captured it and made it part of Kievan Rus.
From 1127 to 1243, Smolensk served as the capital of the Great Princedom of Smolensk, one of the strongest Russian princedoms. At the turn of the 13th century, it boasted more stone churches than any other Russian city, and two built in the 12th century remain in good condition today — the Church of Archangel Mikhail and the Church of Saints Peter and Paul.
Smolensk was seized by a Lithuanian prince in the 14th century and then conquered, in 1514, by the Great Moscow Princedom. In 1611, after a 20-month siege, it was invaded by Poland and became part of the Rzech Pospolita. But Russia snatched it back in 1654 and subsequently built the Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral on Sobornaya Gora (Cathedral Hill) to commemorate the city's heroic resistance against Poland.
Q: Why should an investor set up a business in Smolensk?
À: Smolensk is a very promising city in terms of developing tourism. This is one of the most ancient of Russian cities, and, thanks to its location, it is convenient for both Europeans and Russians to visit. Another promising field is logistics.
Q: What are you doing to attract investors?
A: We have several programs on our website. [MT: The programs include developing tourism, small and midsized businesses and international relations to boost investment appeal.]
Q: What places would you recommend visiting in Smolensk?
A: The Uspensky Cathedral, the fortress wall and the city’s historical center, as well as the restaurants Smolenskaya Krepost and Hagen and the hotels Novy and Smolensk.
— Natalya Krainova
In 1812, much of the city was destroyed during two weeks of fierce fighting with Napoleon as he withdrew troops from Moscow. A 1912 monument in Heroes' Memorial Garden commemorates the battle with a depiction of two eagles perched on a rock and a warrior with a sword climbing up the rock.
War returned when Nazi forces invaded the city on their march to Moscow, located 380 kilometers to the northeast. The fighting in Smolensk and the surrounding region lasted from July to September 1941, delaying Adolf Hitler's army by 2 1/2 months in its quest to reach the Russian capital.
Despite its history of war, Smolensk is better known today for an activity that goes back to its roots — commerce. The city is often referred to as the capital of Russian diamonds, and Kristall, a major producer of diamonds in Europe and the biggest in Russia, is based here.
What to see if you have two hours
Take a 10-minute taxi or bus ride from the train station to the Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral (5 Ulitsa Sobornaya Gora;
The church's interior occupies 2,000 square meters, and its gilded iconostasis stretches 31 meters high. The main sacred relics of the church are a 16th-century shroud of Christ and two icons credited with miraculous powers — Our Lady of Smolensk and Serafim Sarovsky and a wooden cross supposedly made by prominent 19th-century artist Viktor Vasnetsov.
The icon of Our Lady of Smolensk is a copy of one of Russia's most revered Orthodox relics. The original was supposedly painted by the apostle Luke during the lifetime of Jesus' mother. In 1101, Russian Prince Vladimir Monomakh brought the icon to Smolensk and built the first Uspensky Cathedral on the site of the current one to honor the icon. The first cathedral was mostly destroyed during the siege of Smolensk by Poland in 1609-11 and was dismantled in the 1670s. The original icon disappeared in 1943 when the city was liberated from the Nazis.
Q: When and why did you come to work in Smolensk?
À: The board of Osram decided to send me as a technical director to OAO OSRAM (formerly OAO SVET) in Smolensk on April 1, 2004.
Q: How do you like it here, and how has your attitude changed with time?
À: The changes have been dramatic over time. I had only visited Moscow once, in 2001 as a tourist for several days, and had no idea what it was like to work here. The information you get in the Western European media is not very positive about Russia and produces fear. They give the impression that there is only corruption, crime and bad living conditions. So at first I was very suspicious about everybody and everything.
But this picture is wrong. Sure, people were mainly unfriendly at the beginning and there is corruption. But the main problems that I have had to deal with are different. Everything is fixed, everything is regulated, and there is a lot of suspicion about company management. There is a feeling that everything is done for only one purpose — to cheat normal people. By learning the history of Russia, I have gotten a different picture. People’s behavior is only a reaction to the centuries of Russian history.
What is most important is that if you are accepted by the people, they will follow you wherever you go and you can rely 100 percent on them. Maybe it sounds strange, but I love Russia and its people. Anyway, bad people and bad situations can happen anywhere in the world.
Q: What impression do you have of your Russian colleagues? Do they differ in their attitude toward business from Europeans?
À: They do differ, but I must say I’ve been astonished by their abilities. Russians find a solution for every problem — maybe a “primitive” one, but a solution. Also, specialists received a very good education in Soviet times, and it is surprising how precisely they can produce things on old equipment if they want to, if they accept that it is necessary to do so.
One of the differences between Russians and, for example, Germans is that Russians will not contradict you. They are used to following orders, even if the orders are obviously nonsense. Everybody is afraid about the possible consequences if they contradict you. But if you can convince them that there won’t be any negative consequences, they will give you a lot of ideas for improvement.
Q: What is the secret of establishing good relations with Russian colleagues?
À: Trust and honesty. Never lie to them. Tell the truth. Everybody deserves to be treated with respect. I want the same for me from my colleagues. Also, respect Russian traditions and the way Russians live. Stop telling people that everything is better elsewhere.
Q: What places would you recommend seeing here?
À: There’s a lot of places to recommend: the Uspensky Cathedral, Fortress Wall, Talashkino and unfortunately also the memorial in Katyn, 20 kilometers outside Smolensk.
— Natalya Krainova
After exiting the Uspensky Cathedral, cross the road and turn right to the nearest crossroad, then turn left and walk a couple of blocks along the fortress wall to the Museum of Russian Vodka (4 Studencheskaya Ulitsa; + 7 4812-32-76-90;
The same building houses the restaurant, Smolenskaya Krepost (see Where to Eat).
What to do if you have two days
One of the main local sights is the village of Flyonovo, located 18 kilometers south of Smolensk, with the 19th-century buildings of a former agricultural school and a former library for peasant children founded and managed in the late 19th and the early 20th century by Princess Maria Tenisheva, a prominent local patron.
The library was designed by painter Sergei Malyutin in the early 20th century as a teremok — a small palace from Russian fairy tales. With the lower part built of bricks and the upper part of logs, the library is decorated with animals and patterns made from woodcarvings and brightly colored paint.
The former school and library now belong to a museum complex that also includes the early 20th-century Church of the Holy Spirit with the Holy Image of the Savior Not Made by Hands. A large mosaic above the entrance was designed by prominent painter Nicholas Roerich.
The church has never held services because Roerich violated Orthodox rules on church construction and the church refused to bless it. While the church is currently closed for reconstruction, it offers an impressive view from the outside.
Inside the Teremok, which is the library's official name, visitors can examine woodcarvings made by Tenisheva's students and designed by prominent painters from the turn of the 20th century, including Roerich, Ilya Repin and Mikhail Vrubel.
Inside the former school, you can see a replica of a classroom from Tenisheva's time, old children's clothes, photographs of students and teachers, and original school documents, including progress records and essays by Tenisheva's students.
Thanks to Tenisheva's husband, Vyacheslav Tenishev, a major industrialist of the time, the works of Tenisheva's students were exhibited in Paris in the early 20th century, said Rimma Kovalyova, a museum worker. "Everyone knew Talashkino in Paris. They didn't even have to indicate it was in Russia," she said, referring to a neighboring village where Tenisheva and her husband lived in a mansion.
During World War II, the Nazi army took away about 5,500 student works that Tenisheva had donated to the Smolensk Art Gallery.
To get to Flyonovo, go to the bus station near the main train station and from platform No. 1, take bus No. 130 to Flyonovo or No. 104 to Talashkino. Follow the road signs to get to the museum complex. A one-way bus ride is 28 rubles ($1), while a museum ticket costs 35 rubles now, and 50 rubles from May 1.
A center of attraction for tourists is the Katyn memorial, 15 kilometers west of Smolensk (rural settlement of Katyn, east of the village Kozyi Gory; + 7 4812 48-51-82;
The city has no shortage of evening entertainment, starting with its three theaters: the Smolensk State Drama Theater (4 Ploshchad Lenina; + 7 4812-38-45-01;
Q: Why was Kristall established in Smolensk?
A: The Soviet government ordered the construction of the diamond production factory in Smolensk on June 6, 1961. Two local leaders managed to convince the government that it would be expedient to build the factory here for three reasons. First, Smolensk at the time had only two factories and not enough jobs for its workforce. Second, Smolensk has a convenient geographical location on the Moscow railroad and Moscow-Brest highway, with access to European diamond-trading markets. Finally, the factory did not use a lot of electricity, which was important given the lack of electricity in those years.
Q: Who supplies your diamonds?
A: Our main supplier is Alrosa, and it is responsible for about two-thirds of our raw diamonds. We have worked with these diamonds from Sakha for about 50 years and do not plan to end this tradition. The rest of our diamonds come from Nizhne-Lenskoye, which buys them on the secondary market.
Q: What is your sales volume, and where are your diamonds sold?
A: Total sales volume reached about $570 million last year. The bulk of production is sold on the international market, while the share of the domestic market amounted for less than 1 percent last year.
Q: Are your diamonds popular in Smolensk?
A: Of course our diamonds are popular in Smolensk, where people are proud of our work. But the size of local incomes and the relatively small size of the city mean that many of our diamonds are sold in bigger cities.
Even so, tourists come specifically to Smolensk to visit our factory and our Smolensk diamond stores. We also sell diamonds online. But the bulk of our domestic sales are in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Q: Which parts of the local economy would Kristall like to see developed?
A: We would like a more developed infrastructure: good roads, a large hotel chain, entertainment centers and landscaped grounds in the historic sites of our ancient city. This would attract many tourists to Smolensk.
— Natalya Krainova
The Smolensk Regional Philharmonic Hall/Glinka Concert Hall (3 Ulitsa Glinki; + 7 4812-38-29-84;
Where to eat
Smolenskaya Krepost (4 Studencheskaya Ulitsa; +7 4812-32-76-90; 381-382;
Apart from a wide range of home-brewed beer, the three-story beer restaurant Hagen (73 Ulitsa Nikolayeva; +7 4812-619-615, 619-616;
While the first two establishments are popular with tourists and the local elite, regular residents favor the cheaper fast-food joints Russky Dvor and Mandarinovy Gus, both serve traditional Russian fare. Cafe Russky Dvor (the Glinka/Blonye Garden;
Cafe Mandarinovy Gus (7 Ulitsa Oktyabrskoi Revolyutsii; +7 (4812) 38-41-72;
Where to stay
Hotel Novy (26 Ulitsa Gubenko; +7 4812-272-273;
Smolenskhotel (hyphenless, as spelled on the hotel's website) (2/1 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 4812-38-36-04;
How to get there
The only way to fly to Smolensk is by private plane because the Smolensk North Airport (the South Airport no longer functions) does not handle commercial flights.
The airport, four kilometers north of the city, is a former military base and has handled private flights since 2009.
A 6 1/2 hour one-way trip by train from Moscow's Belorussky Station will cost from 850 rubles ($30) for economy class and 1,920 rubles ($70) for a place in a compartment car. The most convenient train leaves at 11:54 p.m. daily and arrives in Smolensk at 6:35 a.m. It allows you to sleep most of the night and not to waste a day on the train.