Ostashkov on the Seliger Lake
People sometimes think that the most beautiful, interesting and charming places are somewhere far from where they live. This is particularly true for Russians who for decades lived behind the iron curtain and are now enthusiastically exploring the outer world with almost childish wonder.
My 15 years of travelling experiences have convinced me that there are some really magnificent, marvelous, even mysterious spots close by.
I have lived a considerable part of my life on the Volga. And I’d been always dreaming of seeing where the greatest of Russian rivers starts, what it originates from. So I went to Ostashkov.
I was amazed at the town’s quiet, tranquil and measured life. In a local museum I studied a map of the town as it looked in 1902. The historic part hasn’t changed at all, even street names remain the same.
Ostashkov is one of very few Russian towns with a panoramic view that was formed by the middle of the 19th century. It’s a great place to make a movie based on Ostrovsky’s plays as you don’t have to build any scenery or create any entourages. Both are available, and lots of things have remained untouched. Not only the windows of houses but gates, too, are marvelously carved out of wood. Unlike big cities with their iron doors and gates, here in Ostashkov there are only wooden ones, even in the stores. They are so old that the thresholds are worn in the middle. Inside the stores you see stoves used to keep the buildings warm. Next to residential houses there are stacks of firewood and boats. Garages with boats in them are as common in Ostashkov are garages with cars are in Moscow.
The town is located on a peninsula surrounded by the Seliger lake. On its banks there are special wooden decks with wide tables on them. Housewives do their laundry there. I saw them and thought, it’s OK in July, but how can you do the washing or even rinsing in winter?
The oldest industry is the tannery. It has existed ever since the time when shoe-making was one of the town’s main forms of livelihood. It was first mentioned in records in the 17th century.
The Savins, who had their own large factory, were the most famous tanners. Ostashkov long boots, nicknamed ostashi, were in great demand in sea- and lake-side towns, especially in the Baltic area. A pair of ostashi boots is displayed in the local museum. It doesn’t differ much from those sold in the town’s stores. Tsar Alexander I visited the Savins. Engravings illustrating this fact are also kept in the museum.
The type of leather made in Ostashkov was called yuft. It was red, white and pale yellow in color. Yuft was valued for its softness, and was used for manufacturing suitcases, bags, cases, notebooks and luxurious items. In the 19th century, Ostashkov leather was sold in America, France, Italy, Germany and Britain. In 1812, the town’s tanners and shoemakers provided the Russian army with boots.
There are many stores supplying goods for tourism, hunting and fishing in the town. This is not surprising, because the lake is a paradise for those who like at least one of the pastimes.
The Seliger lake actually consists of a huge number of lakes. It’s strange that they all are called Seliger, too, while in fact they are a system of lakes connected with channels. The distinctive feature of the lake is the islands. There are 169 of them. The biggest island, Khachin, lies in the middle. On it there are also lakes. The name of this phenomenon is Seliger matryoshka.
For those who make it here, visiting the islands is a big attraction. Judging from the number of mushrooms, berries, animals and fish, only the Siberian taiga can be compared with the woods and waters of the Seliger. For the first time in my life I drank water from a spring in the woods. It was clean, clear, cold and tasty.
In the 17th-18th centuries, the lake was a fishing centre. Fresh, dried, salted, frozen fish were sold at fairs in Ostashkov and delivered to Tver, Moscow and other cities. Pike and perch from Seliger were served at the courts of the Tsar and the Patriarch.
Ostashkov is near the source of the Volga. You drive along a paved road, then through some woods and finally on to a dirt road through the fields. Best to arrive in the early morning when there is no one around, and the whole spot will belong to you.
The Volga starts from a tiny brook nourished by a spring. Above it there is a chapel on a wooden platform and a gate. Next to it there is a big stone with words written in a simple but solemn Russian. It says “Traveller! Turn your eyes on the Volga source. The cleanness and grandeur of the Russian lands rise here. Here is the source of the people’s soul. Preserve it. This stone was mounted on June 27, 1989. For those living now and for future children of Russia. Glance back while leaving”.
Reading about this stone sitting in an arm-chair at home or while watching a TV program, won’t touch you as much as when you are standing there, right next to it. The mystery of birth is not completely understood by people. It’s the same with this spot. The birth of the great river remains an exciting enigma. How, why does the brook not dry out and cease to exist? Of course I jumped over the Volga. My feelings towards the river were similar to those towards a baby – a mixture of tenderness and concern.
The Nilovo-Stolobensky monastery founded in the 16th century is something else you shouldn’t miss if you are in Seliger. If you climb up a bell tower you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the vastness of the lake below.
You can get to Ostashkov and the Seliger by bus, train or car from Moscow. It takes about six hours by car.