Smolensk Oblast begins about 100 kilometers West of Moscow and borders Belarus to the west. Novgorod Oblast (region) covers 49,500 square kilometers (19,200 square miles), is home to about 950,000 people and has a population density of 20 people per square kilometer. Smolensk Oblast is where you can find the Gnyozdovo Viking Age Archaeological Center, ancient Orthodox churches and monasteries, pilgrimage sites and aristocratic estates. The main river of the region is the Dnieper. Website: Smolensky Terem Information Center for Culture and Tourism of Smolensk / visit-smolensk.ru

Among the popular tourist sights om the region are Smolensk Fortress, the Vyazma Kremlin, Smolenskoye Poozerye National Park and places associated with Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. The first mention of Smolensk was found in records for the year 863. At that it was already a relatively populous fortified town. In 892, Prince Oleg annexed Smolensk into the Old Russian state. Beginning in 1514, it territories were absorbed by the Moscow principality.

Famous people from from Smolenk include Grigory Potemkin (the creator of the Black Sea Fleet, and friend of Catherine the Great), Sergeant Mikhail Egorov (the man who raised the Banner of Victory over defeated Berlin in May 1945), the composer Mikhail Glinka, the famous Soviet artists Yuri Nikulin and Anatoly Papanov and of course Yuri Gagarin.. Militarily, Smolensk played a key role guarding the western frontier and protecting or at least down advances towards Moscow. Smolensk was at the center of the battles of 1812 and 1941.

Getting There: Despite the fact, that in Smolensk two airports, air travel is no longer active — both airports are closed. The train journey from Moscow takes about four hours and costs about 1000 rubles for a seat. takes more than 15 hours to travel from St. Petersburg and the cost of ticket is also 1000 rubles for a seat. A bus from Moscow takes 5-7 hours and cost 1100 rubles. By car, the distance is almost 400 kilometers and takes six hours of driving mostly on the M1- E30 highway

Sights Related to Yuri Gagarin — the First Man in Space

Gagarin (formerly Gzhatsk, 130 kilometers west of Moscow) is named after Yuri Gagarin — the first man in space. Here and in nearby Klushino — Gagarin’s home town and museums, exhibitions and houses relataed to space travel and Gagarin. These are the First Space Flight museum in Gagarin and the Family House-Museum Gagarin, House-Museum JA School Years Gagarina, House-Museum of the Parents of Gagarin, the Cosmonaut House, and Museum of "Games of Yuri Gagarin". These are run by the Museum Association and its possile to but a ticket to visit all of them.

First Space Flight Museum (in Gagarin ) is an exposition with an assembled of objects related to the first flight in space "First Flight" was opened in 2011. At the entrance visitors are welcomed by am Ivan the Terrible robot that will tell about the museum and answer questions. The museum also houses a real Sikhote-Alin meteorite; multi-ton engine for the"Vostok" RD-108 rocket; the desk and documents of famed rocket designer Sergei Korolev; flight simulators; control panels; and a rocket chair. The SBC-48 pressure chamber was used in preparations for space flight, The interactive system “Earth — Space” the shows Gagarin’s flight path. Yuri Gagarin’s original house is also located in the Gagarin: The house-museum of parents YA Gagarin was the last place in Gzhatsk visited Gagarin before his death. Not far from the house in a glass pavilion is his "Volga".

Gagarin and Klushino host a variety of events related to Gagarin and space travel. Addresses of the museums:
House Museum of childhood YA Gagarin Klushino:. Gagarin District, Klushino street. Gagarin, 42.
House-Museum Gagarin school years: Gagarin Str. Gagarina, d. 69
The house-museum parents YA Gagarin: Gagarin Str. . Gagarin, 74
House cosmonauts: Gagarin Str. Gagarin, 74a.
The first flight of the Museum: Gagarin Str. Lenina 12.
The interactive exhibition "cottage-tea": Gagarin Str. Gagarina, d. 78

Yuri Gagarin Sights in His Hometown of Klushino

House-Museum of Yuri Gagarin (15 kilometers north of Gagarin) is the house of Gagarin’s parents located in the small village of Klushino, where the legendary Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was born there and spent his childhood. The real family thatched-roof farmhouse where the Garagin family lived was lost, but an exact copy was built on the place its. The decoration and furnished have been recreated. The personal belongings of the owners are stored here. There are letters and photographs, there are icons in the house, a sewing machine belonging to Gagarin’s the mother and a loom. The original house is located in the Gagarin:

In the courtyard, there is a dugout bunker, in which the Gagarin family took refuge during World War II when the village attacked was occupied by Nazis. Nearby is a well Gagarin reportedly used. Drinking water from it is supposed to bring luck. Many honored cosmonauts and tourist have done. This tradition was reportedly started by Alexei Leonov, a Soviet cosmonaut and close friend of Gagarin.

House of Cosmonauts (near the House-Museum of Yuri Gagarin) is located in a three-story building built in 1983 partly as a house for Yuri Gagarin's mother, and partly as a hotel for cosmonauts who came to pay tribute to first cosmonaut in the other. Anna Timofeevna, Gagarin’s mother, lived in this house for a few months. In 1989, the building became a museum: the interior of the house was reconstructed but Timofeevna's living room remained untouched. The historical-biographical exhibition "The Word of the Son", tells about the life and exploits of Yuri Gagarin covering Gagarin's birth, childhood, school years, life, step-by-step preparation for the first flight and the flight itself.

Tourist programs can be organized such as Tea Party in the Gagarin Family House, Lunch in the Gagarin Family House — in the living room of the House of Cosmonauts by prior arrangement:. The events introduce the traditions of the family. Yuri Gagarin's niece, Tamara Dmitrievna Filatova, sometimes participates in them. You can also buy literature about space, the first flight and about Yuri Gagarin himself, as well as souvenirs, at the House of Cosmonauts.

Tickets to above museum range from 200 to 500 rubles. Every year the towns of Gagarin and

Smolensk City

Smolensk (400 kilometers west of Moscow) is a city of 500,000 founded on the upper Dnieper River where Vikings established a trading post at a site where traders did an overland potage trip from a river in the north that led to the Baltic Sea. It was also the site of many battles between Russians, Poles and Lithuanians and fierce fighting in the Napoleonic wars and World War II. Website: visit-smolensk.ru

Smolensk is known best for its “miraculous” icon, diamond-cutting factory and vodka distilleries. In the 1990s it experienced more than its share of organized crime violence and contract killings. Mutilated bodied were routinely found in the Dnieper River. Things were cleaned up somewhat when a former KGB agent became the regional governor.

Despite all the fighting Smolensk experienced it has many old buildings and churches. The architectural ensemble of the Cathedral Hill dates mainly to the middle of the 18th century. The construction of the modern Assumption Cathedral lasted a total of about 100 years and was finally completed in 1772. A two-tiered bell tower was built at the northwest corner of the cathedral between 1766 and 1772. There's an adjoining outbuilding for the clock at the eastern wall of the belltower. The clock was made in 1791 by the Smolensk master V. Sokolov. Other places of interest are the Flax Exhibition, SS Peter & Paul Church, Archangel Micheal Church and the Konenkov Sculpture Museum.

Sights in the Smolensk area include Flyonovo (10 miles south of Smolensk), an estate owned by a princess who hosted visitors such as Stravinsky, Vrubel and Serov and hired an army of artist serfs to build wonderful folk-art-decorated building around her estate.

Smolensk Fortress Wall

Smolensk Fortress Wall (in Smolensk is one the main attractions of the Smolensk the region. The imposing 3.5-kilometer-long. 5.5-meter thick, 15-meter-high walls around Smolensk Fortress and feature 17 of the original 38 towers. The first walls here were made of wood and length of the stone walls used to be 6.5 kilometers, but are now less than half that size.

The defense wall of Smolensk was built during the reign of tsars Feodor Ioannovich and Boris Godunov in 1596-1602. Smolensk had a very important strategic position for the Moscow kingdom. For a long time first the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth wanted to capture it. Both tsars realized how important it was to defend the town.

The Russian architect Feodor Kon started the construction of the fortress in 1596. In a very short time, Smolensk was encircled by a defense wall fortified with thirty-eight towers. The construction of the defense walls was mostly completed in 1602 during the reign of Boris Godunov.

The total length of the Smolensk defense wall together with the towers was about 6.5 kilometers. The walls were 13 to 19 meters high and up to six meters thick. The walls and towers are castellated. On the outside they are made of large baked bricks, and the inside used stoned backing, bonded with lime mortar. The base of the walls is fortified with cut white stone.

Inside the walls passages and ammunition rooms were created. A system of galleries was established under the walls in order to prevent tunnel building and undermining. The walls had roofs of wood.

To the north the fortress was naturally protected by the Dnepr river, to the west and to the wast — by deep ravines, the Churilovskiy and Chertov trenches. To the south of the Smolensk fortress was a plain, so the towers were closer to each other and there was a trench along the wall. The average distance between the walls was 158 meters. Nine out of thirty-eight towers had an entrance gate. The largest number of gates was located in the northern towers on the banks of Dnepr. On the eastern side were the Avraamievskie and Elenskie gates, and on the Southern side, the Molokhovskie and Kopytenskie gates. There were no gates on the western side of the wall, which faced the border between Russia and Lithuania.

During construction, the architects had in their minds not only the significance of the fortress but also it aesthetics. Initially the walls were whitewashed. The square tower had decorative pilaster-strips, the arrow loops on the walls and the towers had frames, and the main entrance gates were decorated with pilasters with graded belts of white stone. During its history, the Smolensk defense wall has survived three assaults: during the Russian-Polish wars in the 17th century, including a 20-month long siege in 1609-1611, and a two-day long assault by Napoleon's army in 1812. Nobody has managed to take the Smolensk fortress by assault.

Today the walls of the Smolensk fortress are only partially preserved. Only 17 out of 38 towers are left. The total length of the walls is 3.5 kilometers. Among defensive constructions of the Smolensk fortress, the Royal bastion in the Lopatinsky Garden in particular stands out. It was built by the Poles after they captured the Smolensk fortress in 1611. The earthen pentagonal construction was built on the site of three blown up towers.

Museum of Russian Vodka

The museum "Russian vodka" in Smolensk is located in Pyatnitskaya Tower of the Smolensk fortress wall. However, this is not entirely true. This tower with the "Water Gate" was blown up in 1722, and in the 19th century in its place was built the church. Initially it was a prison church, and then, over time, he became the home church of the city almshouse.

As time went on. In 2003, this building turned its attention JSC "Bacchus" - Smolensk manufacturing plant of alcohol and alcoholic beverages, which decided to establish in our city a unique private museum of "Russian vodka". Ancient artifacts that represent the way of formation and development history of alcoholic beverages in Russia, the new museum has kindly shared "Smolensk Museum-Reserve."

It has a history of alcohol or one thousand years, but the exact time and place of the invention of vodka is still unknown. The first reference to Russian "fire water", considered typical Russian drink, dates to 1386. The first documented production of alcoholic beverages in the Smolensk region is in the 17th century. By the beginning of the 20th century there functioned already 72 vodka distilleries. When production numbers climbed above million bottles a year the state began imposing production restrictions..

In the museum "Russian vodka" you will find a lot of documents that tell the story of the establishment of distillery business, not only in Smolensk, but throughout Russia. Here you will see exhibits that illustrate the process of production of alcoholic beverages from Chugunkov to sheep skin moonshine. Vintage glasses, buckets, large bottles for alcohol and hundreds of bottles of alcohol from the 19th-21st centuries are display. There are also reproductions of the "Green the Dragon" and documents telling about the anti-alcohol campaign conducted by Russia and the Soviet Union state in different periods of history.

Katyn Forest Massace

Katyn Forest (20 kilometers west of Smolensk and 40 kilometers east of the Belarus border) is where 6,000 Polish officers were shot in the back of head in April 1940 by NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) officers and buried in mass graves. The massacre took place in area of the forest between the villages of Gnezdovo and Katyn. Citizens of the Soviet Union were also executed and buried there.

In April 1943, in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk in the Soviet Union, occupying German troops discovered eight large graves containing the remains of thousands of the Polish Army officers and intellectual leaders who had been interned at the prisoner-of-war camp at Kozielsk. Bodies of the prisoners who had been housed at Ostashkov and Starobielsk were discovered near Piatykhatky and Mednoye, respectively. Collectively, these murders are known as the Katyn Forest Massacre. [Source: holocaustresearchproject.org]

On September 1, 1939, a week after Nazi German and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact, German armies invaded Poland. At dawn of September 17, 1939, when Poland was hard pressed by fighting off German aggressors, the Red Army crossed the Polish frontier in considerable force – ostensibly, ‘to take all measures to extricate the Polish people from the unfortunate war into which they were dragged by their unwise leaders and to enable them to lead a peaceful life.’

During the next days the closeness of the collaboration between Germany and Russia became apparent. Poland was formally partitioned on 28 September and, in the hope of ending the bitter fighting, a manifesto was issued by the Russian General Timoschenko exhorting the soldiers of the Polish army to turn upon their officers and surrender. In return for laying down their arms, all Polish prisoners of war were guaranteed complete freedom of movement and it was promised they would be permitted to make their way to Rumania and Hungary en route for France, where they could continue to fight the Germans. This promise was not kept. Polish NCO’s with technical qualifications and all officers were deported from Poland to Russia and accommodated in three main camps — Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov — in the Soviet Union. . Kozelsk is situated some 250 kilometers south-east of Smolensk on the site of a former monastery. It accommodated about 5,000 persons at the end of November 1939 and held four generals, and one rear-admiral; approximately 100 colonels and lieutenant –colonels; 300 majors, 1,000 captains, 2,500 1st and 2nd lieutenants and more than 500 officer cadets: 200 air force and 50 naval officers.

In the first days of April 1940, the final clearing of all three camps began simultaneously. About 400 of the 15,000 prisoners were transported to a new camp at Pavlishchef Bor and it is from these survivors that the Polish military authorities later were given the fullest information about living conditions in the camps. But from their comrades who had shared these conditions no further word was ever heard. Their silence was final and absolute.

The Hill of Goats rises in the Katyn forest through which the River Dniepr flows, and had long been known locally as a place of execution for those who opposed or in some way displeased the Stalinist government. In March and April 1941, Sealed railway wagons had then arrived daily in Smolensk and had been shunted into screened sidings at Gniezdovo station. The occupants had been hustled into ‘Black Ravens’ – prison motor coaches corresponding to the English Black Maria – and driven under strong Soviet Secret State Police escort along the main road towards Vitebsk, stopping when they reached Katyn Forest.

Witnesses, in March 1941, saw ordinary prisoners from Smolensk being driven to the Hill of Goats in open trucks carrying pickaxes and spades ‘to dig big deep trenches.’ Late in February 1943, the Germans under Lieutenant Voss went to the Hill of Goats – also with pickaxes and spades. A peasant named Kisslev, who lived in the forest, indicated where they should start to dig. It was seen at once that the mounds were not in character with the rest of the terrain and that the young fir trees on top of the graves were of a growth to prove to botanists the exact date of their transplantation to this place – April 1940.

Digging began, and during the next few days several score of bodies were exhumed. All of them had been shot in the back of the neck and in a great many cases their hands had been tied behind their backs. The way in which the ropes were knotted and tied was as revealing as the fir trees. In the course of their search the Germans also found the bodies of Soviet civilians, both men and women, who had been executed long before 1940. Their hands were tied with identical ropes and in an identical way. Utterly conclusive were the documents found on the bodies. They proved beyond any shadow of doubt that these were the missing officers from Kozelsk. At the Nuremburg War Crimes trial, the murder of the Poles at Katyn was mentioned in the indictment of Hermann Goring and others. It was decided by the victorious Allies that the issue should be avoided and the crime at Katyn was never probed.

State Memorial Complex Katyn

State Katyn Memorial Complex (20 kilometers west of Smolenk) was opened in July 28, 2000. The first international monument to the victims of Stalin's tyranny in Russia, it was created by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and the Council for the Protection of Memory, Struggle and Martyrdom of the Republic of Poland. The complex consists of two parts: the territory on which the inhabitants of Smolensk region are buried, and the war cemetery, where the Polish prisoners of war are buried. In the Russian part there are remains of more than 6000 Soviet citizens executed in prisons and cellars of NKVD of Smolensk, the second part is the Polish cemetery where the representatives of the highest command of Poland executed in 1940 are buried.

In 2017 the new museum and exhibition center was opened, which houses the exposition “Russia and Poland. 20th century. Pages of History”, telling about the history of Russian-Polish relations in the 20th-early 21st centuries. Memorial “Katyn” is a complex of ritual and architectural and artistic buildings. All the visitors of the Memorial pass through the Pavilion of the main entrance, made in the form of two burial mounds connected by glass gates. According to the architects plan, they symbolize the fragile line between the present and the past.

Behind the gate begins the alley leading to the First ritual ground, where there is a memorial plaque to 500 Soviet prisoners of war who were killed by Nazis in May 1943. Nearby there is a museum reconstruction of the “Gulag on Wheels” — in such cars repressed citizens were transported to the places of detention. The Russian part of the Memorial is opened by a ten-meter high Orthodox cross. The perimeter of each of the nine graves of victims of political repressions is framed by an irregularly shaped fence. As the exact number of buried people is unknown, bridges were erected to protect the peace of the dead. In the Polish military cemetery, the remains of Polish officers are buried in six large mass graves, and in individual graves — the ashes of Generals B. Bogatyrevich and M. Smaravinsky. The altar group, consisting of the altar table, the walls with the names of prisoners and the Catholic cross, serves as an open-air temple.

The Russian and Polish parts are united by the Memory Alley, which ends with a gate behind which the so-called “Valley of Death” begins. In 2018, a sculptural composition was unveiled in the Death Valley, which included a monument to the Shootings and the Wall of Memory, on which the people of the Smolensk region who were sentenced to death were commemorated. At the entrance to the complex there is a souvenir shop with a wide range of souvenirs and printed materials, including its own editions: “The Herald of the Katyn Memorial”, collections of memoirs “Roads of Memory”, various booklets.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website russiatourism.ru ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in September 2020

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