Astrakhan: Russian Silk Road City
Among the crumbling walls and soaring cathedrals of this Russian city, Ray Nayler fi nds a collection of fantastic architecture and a spirited, multicultural population determined to build a brighter future.
Text and photos by Ray Nayler
Inside the walls of the Astrakhan Kremlin, brides wander the main square with their grooms. Young men lug enormous video cameras on their shoulders, recording for posterity as women daintily lift their billowing white skirts clear of the dusty pavement. It is Friday afternoon, and in the setting early-winter sun the main square of the Kremlin is a swirling parade of wedding parties. In front of the Kremlin gates, beribboned Mercedes fight for position with Ladas and Zhigulis. Laughter echoes off the walls of the cathedral and the main bell tower as the brides pose with their grooms in front of the Ascension Cathedral, or sit in the white pool of their dresses before the fading Kremlin flowers and smile for a succession of cameras. Here the cobblestones are new and the whitewashed walls are fresh enough to seem almost without history. The Ascension Cathedral, built by masters from Yaroslavl, rises in Baroque-infl uenced magnifi cence, along with the main bell-tower, whose long shadow darkens the approach to the Kremlin gates.
Further into the Kremlin’s enclosure, the new cobblestones give way to packed earth and broken brick. The restoration is far from fi nished, and the laughter of brides fades away, replaced by the calling of winter crows and the silence of decay. The whitewash is gouged away from the bricks of the old Kremlin walls, and graffiti covers many of the buildings. Broken pieces of brick and shattered glass litter the ground.
This juxtaposition of rebirth and neglect seems to define modern Astrakhan, where beautifully restored sections of the town, freshly revealed from under a skin of scaffolding, rise next to blocks of wooden houses sagging, quite literally, into the soft ground of the Volga banks. Restored palaces sit gracefully next to boardedup, stooped brick mansions, and graceful imperial archways give glimpses of courtyards smothered in hanging laundry, wasteground and piles of scrap-metal.
Scaffolding is everywhere downtown as building after building is restored to grandeur. As I wander the city’s streets, I am awed by the range of its architecture—Moderne ironwork balconies writhe like living things, vegetal designs dance around window-frames, lions leer down from cornices and scrollwork corbels decorate every corner. The city’s side-streets are a chaotic display of architectural styles from local vernacular to exotic buildings stamped with the architectural imprints of the near east and Persia. All of this architectural wealth is a result of Astrakhan’s status, beginning in the 17th century, as a major trading center and the Russian gate to the Orient, when these streets were full of merchants from Persia Armenia, Khiva and Bokhara.
Even today, if any city in the Russian Federation can truly be called multicultural, it must be Astrakhan, with a population almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, its streets a mix of Russians and Tatars, Kazakhs and Kalmyks, Chechens and Armenians. Firmly within the borders of the Russian Federation, it still seems a city on the edge of empires.
Few cities I have traveled in seem so desperate to tell their story. From the whitewashed walls of its Kremlin and its dilapidated wooden buildings to the faces of its citizens, the city of Astrakhan bleeds history. Situated on the Volga delta, with a population of around half a million people, Astrakhan has been prey like few other Russian cities to the shifting tides of empire. Once a capitol of the Golden Horde, the name Astrakhan began to appear in texts as Xacitarxan in the 13th Century. Tamerlane razed the city to the ground in 1395, but it was reborn as an important city along the Northern branches of the Silk Road and the capitol, between 1459 and 1556, of the Astrakhan Khanate. In 1556, the expansionist Ivan the Terrible smashed the Astrakhan Khanate and the Medieval settlement of Astrakhan, and rebuilt the city with a Kremlin twelve miles downstream from the original location, on a hill overlooking the Volga. The Kremlin was built with bricks pillaged from the original site of the city, and the Russian towers are still studded with bricks colored with the distinctive blue glaze of Bokhara and Samarkand, a living memorial to conquest and dominance. On the walls of one of the cathedrals, an Orthodox cross is defi antly constructed of these Muslim tiles.
Ivan the Terrible’s new city on the Volga saw a series of sieges: from Ottoman troops, who retreated in disorder in 1569, to Stenka Razin, whose Cossacks held the city for a brief and blood-soaked year from 1670-1671 during his abortive and chaotic rebellion against the Czar. Astrakhan was, for centuries, a nearly lawless bordertown, surrounded by the mostly nomadic Tatars and Kalmyks of the Volga Delta. Early in the 18th Century, Peter the Great established a shipyard here and used the city as a base for his hostilities with Persia, and as the base for Russian expeditions into Central Asia, which would, centuries later, result in the destruction of the khanates of Khiva and Bukhara, and the capture of Central Asia for the Czar up to the present-day border of Afghanistan. In the meantime, the Persians managed to sack the city in 1719, and it was also the base of several minor rebellions against the Czar in the early 18th Century: the capital city of a volatile region with constantly shifting alliances.
The plane on the way into Astrakhan is fi lled with men in camouflage jackets, leaf-patterned caps, and new-looking boots. At the Astrakhan Airport they wait in line for their guns, and then make their way to private buses. Our taxi driver explains to me, as he takes me into the city, that there are now hundreds of sites in the Volga delta that have been bought up by firms in Moscow, where the Russian Nouveaux-Riche can come to shoot waterfowl and drink with potential business partners during a hunting season that ranges from the late spring, when the Volga delta is choked with lotus blossoms, through October and November, when the Russian cold begins to set in, even this far south.
“They take everything from us,” the driver complains, in a lament all too familiar in the regions of Russia. “These rich people from Moscow have come down here and bought all of the old hunting camps. Everything is closed to us now. We don’t even own our own land. And all of the money goes straight back to Moscow.”
Over the days I spend in Astrakhan, the complaints of taxi drivers become a constant counterpoint to the development that I see in the city. The drivers lament the failures of the educational system, the potholes in the roads and the chaos apparent on the streets. Many of them talk about how much better things were under the Soviet Union. It seems apparent, though, that the neglect overtaking many of the city’s districts did not begin recently. This has always been a city on the edge, a place of margins and change that is tied not only to the Russian economy but to the region as a whole.
Outside of the resurgent city center, we pass a district full of wooden houses, their frames weather-buckled and skewed by snow and heat. There are gaps where houses have burned to the ground, and lots strewn with trash and wasted cars. However, the most striking thing about this poorest of districts is how many of the houses have lace curtains in the windows, potted plants, freshly painted sills. Amid apparent chaos and decay, there is warmth and life.
This is a city that has seen devastating fires, sieges and revolutions. In 1830, cholera swept away much of its population. In World War Two it was filled with refugees and menaced by Fascist bombs. I doubt that the discomforts of economic uncertainty will do much to dent this city’s spirit. Like much of Russia, Astrakhan’s greatest strength appears to be endurance. The citizens of Astrakhan may complain about how things are today. They may, in fact, have always complained. This is, after all, a city with a history of rebellion. However, they never miss an opportunity to school newcomers in the city’s rich history, and their pride is apparent in every word.
Where to Stay: While in Astrakhan we stayed at the Azimut Astrakhan, a semi-remodeled Soviet tower hotel not far from the center of town, with comfortable rooms and views of the Volga. The restaurant on the fi rst fl oor was surprisingly good, as was the breakfast. Rooms range in price, with deluxe rooms easily costing upwards of 3000 rubles.
Ulitsa Kremlevskaya 4,
Tel +7 (8512) 22-99 12,
Getting There: S7 Airlines operates daily fl ights from Moscow.
Tel 8 (800) 200-0007 (in Russia)
+7 (495) 777-9999 (In Moscow)
Where to Eat: Take your pick. East of the Kremlin, the winding streets of the old town are full of cafes, restaurants and casinos, many of high quality.
What to See: A wander around the streets in the city center will allow you to take in most of the sites. Start at the Astrakhan Kremlin with its impressive architectural array of Yaroslavl-style cathedrals, including the Uspenskiy Cathedral (1710). Stop by the Astrakhan Historical and Architectural Museum, which features an extensive display of weapons of the Scythian and Sarmatian periods, as well as the bones of a 150 thousand year-old mammoth.
15 Sovetskaya St.
Tel: +7 (8512) 22-7875.