- By Howard Amos
- Jun. 05 2011 20:06
Mayor: Ivan Tsetsersky
Interesting Fact 1: Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, signed his abdication papers in 1917 while stranded in a train car at the Pskov station, where it had been diverted by strikes.
Interesting Fact 2: Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote an opera called “The Maid of Pskov,” which tells the story of Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s effort to subjugate the city.
Founded in: 903
Sister Cities: Vitebsk, Belarus; Perth, Scotland; Mianyiang, China; Таrtu, Estonia; Kuopio, Finland; Arles, France; the German cities of Gera and Neuss; the Latvian cities of Daugavpils and Valmiera; Nijmegen, the Netherlands; Bialystok, Poland; Norrtaelje, Sweden; Chernigov, Ukraine; Roanoke, Virginia, U.S.
PSKOV — Perched on Russia's western fringes, yet one of the country's most ancient cities, Pskov may lack industry but it combines a unique concentration of crumbling Orthodox churches with echoes of its proximity to Europe.
On the outskirts of the city an unremarkable, modern white building embodies one of those echoes. Built in 1991 with German financial support, the Center for Curative Pedagogics has for 20 years championed a pioneering educational approach to the upbringing of children with physical and mental disabilities, offering an alternative to warehousing them in state institutions.
But, on a first glance, such subtleties are not what strike the visitor. Rather it is the town's UNESCO world heritage center: the massive kremlin and its Trinity Cathedral towering over all approaching roads and the clusters of — usually dilapidated — onion domes that emerge around every other street corner.
Pskov's long history and its proximity to Europe are fodder for the town's tourism agencies: "Russia Starts Here!" is the slogan plastered, somewhat forlornly, across city buses.
The broad Velikaya River that eventually drains into the Gulf of Finland joins the Pskov River under the kremlin's walls. In the winter ice fishermen sit and skiers glide up and down — and in the summer riverside cafes open up.
On the opposite bank to downtown Pskov is the Mirozhsky Monastery whose 12th-century Greek frescoes, undergoing gradual restoration, are a beautiful illustration of Russia's cultural debt to Constantinople — and the town's hidden gem.
Pskov’s Cable Factory (3 Ulitsa Almaznaya; +7 8112-79-19-87;
One of the largest factories of its kind in Northwest Russia, Slavyanka (40 Rizhsky Prospekt; +7 8112-46-23-31;
Tracing its roots back to 1895, the Pskov Electrical Machine Building Plant (27 Oktyabrsky Prospekt; +7 8112-70-06-90;
But while the relics of past glories abound, they also serve to highlight contemporary problems — including acute demographic decline.
Though the city's population has remained static, the population of the region as a whole fell 11.5 percent — more than 700,000 people — between 2002 and 2010, putting it third, behind Magadan and Ingushetia, in a list of Russia's regions ranked according to demographic loss.
Heavy industry and big business have never had a significant presence in Pskov — they are more in evidence in Velikiye Luki, the region's second city — and this is made more true by closures after the fall of the Soviet Union, particularly in the defense industry. Nor, despite the city's proximity to the European Union, is there much international investment.
The surrounding countryside used to be famed for its flax production — but, in line with worldwide trends, the fields of blue flowers are now a rarity and the associated urban industries have disappeared. Traditional peasant clothes of flax and other intricate handmade pieces are a staple of Pskov museums.
Q: What’s it like to run a business in Pskov?
A: Pskov is a poor region. We have a very cost-orientated system of production, and we cannot raise salaries to where they should be. People aren’t terribly rich, so there isn’t a big demand for our products here. Cheaper Chinese products, though of inferior quality, have a negative impact.
Q: Does local government support you?
A: They help as they can. They don’t really have the authority or the means for this. We get some support at the federal level — we received some money several years ago. But at the local level, they don’t have anything to give, although they do place orders with us.
Q: What would you recommend seeing in Pskov?
A: There’s plenty of sites — our kremlin and the churches. In the region there are a lot of places to see. We have many monasteries and places of historical interest — Pushkin Hills, Pechory and so on. While there’s a wide choice of “old things,” there’s not much in the way of modern buildings.
— Howard Amos
Though Internet penetration runs at a relatively high level in the city and the region, business circles are traditionally difficult for outsiders to penetrate.
"The conditions for business in Pskov are exclusive and somewhat closed," said a source close to the region's governor. "The mentality is: 'It's our own swamp — we will deal with things ourselves.'"
But, he added, Governor Andrei Turchak —a former judo sparring partner of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who retains close ties to Moscow — has been trying to break down these barriers since his appointment in 2009. The city hosted delegations from Singaporean, Chinese and European companies in the first half of 2011, a "business incubator" for nurturing small and medium-sized businesses was set up in 2010 with an investment of 5.4 million rubles ($190,000) by the local government, and a development agency has been established.
The editor of the Pskovskaya Pravda newspaper, Alexander Mashkarin, said Turchak was more serious about implementing real change than previous governors. "Local society is spoiled by the fact that the government is not to be found 'above' but works in parallel," he said.
One of the major government-backed drives in the city is the development of a tourism industry, amid a widespread belief that Pskov's historical legacy, which has accumulated over more than 1,000 years, could be a big earner.
Pskov's heraldic symbol — a snow leopard on a blue background beneath a cloud from which a hand is protruding — hints at another aspect of the town's history through big cat associations with ferocity: its military traditions.
Q: Why should investors come to Pskov?
A: On what does investment depend? It depends on the region’s political system — and ours is fundamentally stable, meaning there is a guarantee that business will receive support. If an investor puts up more than 2 million rubles, then their project receives benefits like tax breaks. If the project is worth 100 million rubles or more, then the regional administration personally designates specialists to assist with the project.
Q: How does Pskov’s “frontier” location impact the city?
A: The geographical position of Pskov very strongly influences our economic development. We are situated 300 kilometers from St. Petersburg, 300 kilometers from Tallinn, 300 kilometers from Riga and 300 kilometers from Vitebsk — and 50 kilometers from us is the border with the European Union. Of course, we use these attributes.
Q: What sectors should businessmen wanting to invest in Pskov consider?
A: The logistics sector is a priority because of where our town is located. Another is the folk crafts industry. A third is tourism — that’s the hotel business, the restaurant business and things connected with transportation. The construction industry is — like in any town — also very promising.
Q: How does Pskov differ from other Russian cities?
A: Pskov is one of the most ancient Russian cities and one of the Orthodox centers of Russia. In the 16th century there were more than 120 stone churches, while today 34 active churches remain for a population of about 200,000. Another peculiarity of Pskov is that it is fortunate in terms of the environment. We do not have any heavy or chemical industry that pollutes the environment.
— Howard Amos
As Russia's major defensive outpost on its Western border, the city was involved in 123 wars between 1116 and 1709 — and has only been occupied twice, in 1918 and the 1940s. Its system of fortifications includes nine-kilometer walls, 37 towers and 14 gates.
Today, Pskov is famous for its 76th Airborne Division, which suffered heavy casualties during the wars in Chechnya, in particular when positions at Ulus-Kert were overrun by Chechen fighters in thick fog at the cost of 84 Pskov lives. A film glorifying their exploits, "Breakthrough," was made in 2006. The unit also saw action in South Ossetia and Georgia in 2008.
On a May 2011 trip to Pskov, his first in 11 years, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin laid flowers at the city's monument to those killed at Ulus-Kert. "I am sure," Putin said, "that Pskov will show itself again."
What to see if you have two hours
The kremlin is the inevitable first stop for anyone visiting the city. Towering over the central square and home to the enormous Trinity Cathedral that rises 72 meters from foundation to cupolas — it is an impressive reminder that Pskov was a frontier city, built for defense. Today's Trinity Cathedral, with its famous iconostasis, was completed in 1699 and is the fourth church to be built on the site — the first was of wood and, according to tradition, commissioned by Princess Olga of Kiev Rus, one of the first "early Russians" to be baptized into Orthodox Christianity.
After visiting the kremlin, wander along the banks of the Velikaya and over the bridge (or, in the winter, across the ice) to the UNESCO world heritage site Mirozhsky Monastery (2 Mirozhskaya Naberezhnaya; +7 8112-44-64-06;
What to do if you have two days
If you have a free morning or afternoon in Pskov, you could do worse than walking through the park that winds along by the Pskov River, and then explore the quiet area sandwiched between the river and Oktyabarsky Prospekt, containing the city's greatest concentration of medieval churches.
The Pskov State Historical, Architectural and Artistic Museum (7 Ulitsa Nekrasova; +7 8112-66-25-17;
Many visitors to Pskov use the city as a base for visiting some of the famous sites in its vicinity. The most renowned of these are: Mikhailovskoye (21 Novorzhevskaya, Puskinskiye Gory; +7 8114-62-23-21), the country estate of Alexander Pushkin and where he is buried; the Orthodox Lavra in the town of Pechory (close to the Estonian border) with its clusters of gold onion domes and holy caves; and Old Izborsk (30 kilometers west of Pskov;
Q: What is unique about Pskov’s history?
A: Throughout Russian history, there were two towns where slavery never existed: Novgorod and Pskov. Only Pskov encircled almost all of its suburbs with fortified walls. You have to understand that Pskov was a European capital in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries when it was counted among the 10 biggest cities on the continent. When 25,000 people lived in London, 40,000 people lived in Pskov.
The essence of a parliamentary democracy existed in Pskov and Novgorod — and nowhere else in Russia. Although you should not idealize that period of history, it is impossible not to admit that Pskov had a chance to develop like the rest of Europe.
Q: Why happened after this “Pskovian democracy” was snuffed out?
A: Pskov in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was saved by its desolation. It was a small and economically uninteresting town. Therefore it was preserved culturally. History did a fantastic somersault — a European capital turned into a dead-end district town in the Russian state. The city’s architectural legacy survived because of this.
Q: How do you view plans to transform Pskov into a tourist destination?
A: The mantra that the town will be saved by tourism leads to, in my understanding, illegal things. I know the quality of Russian architects today and the ambitions of builders who never construct buildings of two floors but of 10. I have a feeling that it is better to do nothing than what they are doing at the moment. The authorities are prepared to give investors everything. It’s pure business — there is no cultural motivation. At stake is the architectural and cultural legacy of Pskov.
— Howard Amos
What to do with the kids
If the kids are not keen on seeing yet another medieval church, in the summer rowing boats and pedalos can be hired from the banks of the Velikaya and in the winter the local authorities pay for the construction of an ice palace on the western edge of the city.
Bowling is also available at Super and R-16 (see Nightlife) and there is a small swimming pool and spa at the Oasis Health Club (7A Ulitsa Rokossovskogo; +7 8112-58-05-05;
If it's working, the 32-meter-high Ferris wheel located in the town's park, which ribbon-like follows the old city walls, offers nice views. If the weather is good, though, you can do no better than take the kids out of the city to one of the region's thousands of clean, freshwater lakes.
The place to be seen in Pskov — the city's answer to Moscow's Pushkin Cafe — is the Heliopark Old Estate Hotel's Rublev bar (4 Verkhny-Begovaya Ulitsa; +7 8112-79-45-45;
If your thing is the latest in Russian pop, you could swing by the nightclubs Super (56 Oktyabrsky Prospekt; +7 8112-79-45-45,
Unexpectedly for such a small city, Pskov has its own dynamic underground scene in Tir (52 Ulitsa Sverdlova; +7 8112-62-10-54;
More traditional nights out in Pskov can be had at the city's crumbling — but atmospheric — concert hall (24 Ulitsa Nekrasova; +7 8112-66-89-20;
Where to eat
Though no culinary paradise, Pskov offers a few places for a pleasant meal. The Aristocrat restaurant attached to the Heliopark Old Estate Hotel (see Where to stay) gives you the opportunity to rub shoulders with the elite as well as a good dinner at Moscow prices.
Q: What kind of children do you work with?
A: The children who come to our center were formerly considered “unteachable,” and parents who refused to hand them over to the care of the state received no help in raising them. We offer them an education. If these children lived within the state system of social protection, they would not be educated routinely. We can have 40 children at any one time — all of whom study for 12 years, until they turn 18.
Q: How was the center founded?
A: The center was founded by an agreement between Pskov City Hall and the Evangelical Church of the German town of Wassenberg. Construction of the center was paid for by the German side to the tune of about 700,000 marks ($421,000). In 2011, 80 percent of the center’s financial support is shouldered by the regional administration. The other 20 percent comes from charitable donations.
Q: Why was Pskov chosen as the center’s site?
A: In 1991, a delegation from Germany came to Pskov within the framework of a reconciliation mission marking the 50th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. The center rose out of that mission.
— Howard Amos
Another reliable spot frequented by local businessmen is the Old Tallinn (54 Rizhsky Prospekt, +7 8112-72-41-58,
If you are looking for somewhere a bit further afield, the Pleskov Hotel (Pyochky village, Pechorsky district; 8921-506-0358,
Where to stay
Given the city's tourist ambitions, accommodation options in Pskov are likely to become more varied over the coming months and years. Meanwhile, the huge hotel being built in a concrete mockery of a medieval style, overlooking the Velikaya and opposite the kremlin, is somewhat typical. Construction began in Soviet times — and the completion date has been continually pushed back. The authorities are currently promising that it will finally open in 2012.
The top of the range option in Pskov is the Heliopark Old Estate Hotel (4 Verkhny-Begovaya Ulitsa; +7 8112-79-45-45;
Listings of private apartments available for anything from one night to a week can be found in local papers, but beware of the "real estate mafia": There may be lots of different telephone numbers, but that doesn't mean you won't be passed back to the same one or two people who control all the properties.
Any praise of their architectural heritage will go down well with Pskov residents. You could throw in for good measure your awareness that Sergei Eisenstein's historical epic, "Alexander Nevsky," opens in Pskov. If you want to display knowledge of current affairs, you can mention the devastating fire that all but destroyed two towers of the kremlin and made national news in 2010, how the new governor is getting on two years into his term — or that Putin made a rare visit in May 2011. Otherwise, perennial conversation topics in any small Russian provincial city include the terrible state of the roads and the causes and consequences of people leaving for bigger cities.
How to get there
Pskovavia airline offers daily, two-hour flights on propeller-driven An-26 planes between Moscow's Domodedovo Airport and Pskov's Kresty Airport (+7 8112-62-04-68;
Two night trains make the 850-kilometer, 13-hour trip to Pskov daily from Moscow's Leningradsky Station (leaving at 5:25 p.m. and 6:35 p.m.). Return tickets cost from 2,000 rubles.