Staraya Russa

Dostoevsky's House-Museum

Staraya Russa (Russian: Ста́рая Ру́сса, STAH-rah-yuh ROOH-suh) is a small, historic town in the centre of Novgorod Oblast, long famous domestically for its balneologic mineral waters resort, but much more famous among international travellers as Dostoyevsky's summer retreat, and the basis for the fictional town of Skotoprigonievsk in The Brothers Karamazov.

Understand

Staraya Russa is one of the oldest cities in Russia, founded in the tenth century as one of the principal cities of the then-powerful and wealthy trading nation of the Novgorod Republic. It gained greatly in prestige with the establishment of the Monastery of the Transfiguration in the twelfth century. Its salt works made it the regional leader in salt and brine production, driving its economy, and leading to the growth of the town to nearly 5,000 inhabitants by the fifteenth century, when it was incorporated along with Novgorod into the Princedom of Muscovy.

Owing to its northwestern location, Staraya Russa has seen many battles. Well after its wooden walls had been burnt down and later replaced by stone fortifications, the town fought bloody battles against Swedish invaders for centuries, but the most devastating years of its history would come after the reign of Ivan the Terrible, during the Russian Time of Troubles in the early seventeenth century. Until the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty, the surrounding area was under the control of armed gangs and brigands, and the once-important city dwindled to a mere 38 people. Over time Staraya Russa recovered, but its fate as a town on the invasion route would come back to haunt it one last time in the twentieth century, when Hitler's forces invaded during WWII and virtually levelled the historic town.

Despite the destruction throughout the years, though, many old wooden houses (including the Dostoevsky residence) and several important churches remain intact, and other institutions, like the balneologic resort, have been rebuilt. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the town's population is shrinking (along with the rest of rural Russia), and feels a sleepy backwater—actually, a great change of pace for travellers who have been spending most of their time in Saint Petersburg or Moscow. The residential areas near the rivers are quite peaceful, the locals are friendly and laid-back, and there is a lot to see with all the Dostoevsky sights. Better still, despite the Dostoevsky connection, the place is pretty much devoid of any international travellers outside of the high tourist season in summer, so you'll have the place to yourself.

Get in

Transport connections to Staraya Russa are somewhat limited. The city is best visited as a side trip from Novgorod, or as a detour/stopover on the way from Moscow (or Valday) to Pskov or Novgorod.

By train

From Moscow (nine-ten hours) or Pskov (three and half hours) you can take the MoscowPskov route, although this service is generally limited to one train per day, with trains running overnight. A daily local train connects to nearest hubs: Bologoye (via Valday) on the MoscowSaint Petersburg line and Dno on the KievSaint Petersburg line.

By bus

Buses run hourly from Novgorod, with the trip taking about two hours. Even if coming from Moscow, this is a good way to avoid the hassle of limited train service and to see another incredible historical destination on the same trip. From Saint Petersburg, you can take one of six direct buses reaching Staraya Russa in six hours. Note that many of the buses terminate in neighbouring towns, e.g., Kholm, Parfino, Volot, and will have their names specified as the main destination.

By car

From Novgorod, follow the A116 to Shimsk, then P51 to Staraya Russa (96km).

From Moscow, follow the M9 to Rzhev and take the turn for Selizharovo. Continue on the P87 to Ostashkov, then local roads to Demyansk, and then to Staraya Russa. Alternatively, follow the M10, pass Valday, and continue left along the P48 to Demyansk and Staraya Russa. Both routes are about 600km and involve unpredictable road conditions in Novgorod Oblast, although the second track is believed to be more safe and reliable.

Get around

While it is not a tiny town, it's still possible to get around everywhere via walking. Hailing a "cab" is a good way to speed things up if, say, you want to get back quickly to the bus back to Novgorod. A taxi from Dostoevsky's House-Museum would run only about RUB50. From the train/bus station, you can take buses 1, 4, 6, or 11 to the centre, but given how slow the buses run, it's probably quicker to walk.

See and Do

Dostoevsky's own place of worship at Saint George's Church

If you are spending just a half day in town, focus on the main Dostoevsky sights—above all the house museum, with a stop by St. George church and a stroll along the river—and pay the Monastery of the Transfiguration a visit. If you have a bit more time, perhaps take a tour through the Cultural Centre, and consider wandering over towards the Balneologic Resort to acquaint yourself with the very Russian/Soviet tradition of mineral water sanitoria. If the weather is OK, Staraya Russa is also just a really nice place to walk around. If you aim to simply walk by the various churches, you could spend several hours on a nice amble about the town.

Ecclesiastical buildings

Cathedral of the Resurrection

Buy

The Monastery of the Transfiguration

Groceries

Eat

There are several cheap cafés/cafeterias in the town, none of which are terribly tasty, but all of which will fill you up in a pinch. The best restaurant in town is inside Hotel Polist, and is actually quite a good option, with large portions of good Russian food at provincial prices (mains will run RUB250-400). Outside the hotel, Café Il'men' is the local favourite, and is not a bad choice of watering hole.

Budget

Charming, in spite of its poor state of repair: Mina Muchenik Church

Mid-range

Drink

Muravyovsky Fountain in its current incarnation

In general, the best bar in town is either a public park or a stroll along the river. But if you are cold or otherwise want to drink in greater luxury, head over to the lobby bar at the hotel or to Cafe Il'men'.

Sleep

Besides of these 2 options there are lots of offers from Staraya Russa's citizens who are willing to let their flats (RUB500-1000). Look for such advertisements in Internet or ask for this once arrived.

Go next

Staraya Russa is the one real off-the-beaten-path gem anywhere nearby, so the next stop should likely be to a bigger destination like Pskov to the west, Novgorod to the north (Novgorod is a can't miss and should definitely be paired with any trip to Staraya Russa, if you haven't already been), or even Valday to the east. By way of contrast, going south brings you to an even more secluded, very hard-to-reach, but still tempting sight of Rdeisky Nature Reserve, a huge bog with a nice lake and a dilapidated monastery in the middle.

This article is significantly based on work which can be found at The Russian Wikivoyage. A list of authors can be found here.
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