After travelling eastbound for four hours from Moscow on the Lastochka, a recorded announcements informs you that “the train is now arriving in the Hero City of Smolensk” and you have reached a lesser known, but incredibly interesting destination.
Hero City (Russian: город-герой, gorod-geroy) is a Soviet honorary title awarded for outstanding heroism during World War II (the Eastern Front was known in the former Soviet Union as The Great Patriotic War). It was awarded to twelve cities of the Soviet Union. Smolensk was actually the last city (along with Murmansk, in the far North) to have this honour bestowed upon it, on the 6th of May, 1985 .
Unfortunately, Smolensk had already suffered many times before WWII. Being on the road that links Moscow with Europe, it had already been conquered and ransacked by Napoleon when he invaded Russia in 1812. In fact pretty much the only time when Smolensk avoided destruction was when the enemy of Russia came from the East: it was spared by the Mongol armies in 1240, but it had to pay tribute to the Golden Horde, gradually becoming a pawn in the long struggle between Lithuania and the Grand Duchy of Moscow. In the following centuries a series of battle resulted in the city becoming part of Russia, then Lithuania, then Poland, then Russia again. All that for a number of times.
In spite of all that, a lot of historical sights remain well preserved to this day. The most visible of them is, of course the fortified wall that surrounds the centre of town. Today well over 50% of it remains standing and generally in good conditions. You can even climb the wall from one of the many towers and have a leisurely walk on it. Just bear in mind that there are no protection preventing you from falling from the wall itself, should you ever slip.
In most places, like the one pictured above, the former moat (now dry) creates a sort of “buffer zone” between the wall and the city (that has since outgrown its historical centre). This results in the possibility of having a walk, basically downtown, but without seeing any modern structure at all. This means that what you see when walking along the wall is the exact same view that people had two or three centuries ago. And to me that is a pretty special feeling.
Smolensk is among the oldest Russian cities. The first recorded mention of the city was 863 AD, two years after the founding of Kievan Rus’. In September 2013, it widely celebrated the 1,150th anniversary, with funds spent on different construction and renovation projects in the city, among which large sections of the wall and its towers. Inside one of them today you can visit a small, but interesting museum, which, as soon as I manage, will be the subject of a new post!
Would you like to discover lesser known cities and places in Russia? To get to know local history and culture while having an English (and Italian, French, Spanish and German!) speaking guide with you? Do get in touch and we’ll be happy to organise an unforgettable tour for you!