Staraya Russa (Russian: Ста́рая Ру́сса, STAH-rah-yuh ROOH-suh)  is a small, historic town in the center of Novgorod Oblast, long famous domestically for its balneological mineral waters resort, but much more famous among international travelers as Dostoevsky's summer retreat, and the basis for the fictional town of Skotoprigonievsk in The Brothers Karamazov.
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 of 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 leveled 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 balneological 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 travelers 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 travelers outside of the high tourist season in summer, so you'll have the place to yourself.
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.
From Moscow (or Pskov) you can take the Moscow–Pskov route, although this service is generally limited to one train per day, with trains running overnight. A daily local train connects to nearest hubs: Bologoe (via Valday) on the Moscow–Saint Petersburg line and Dno on the Kiev–Saint Petersburg line.
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 neighboring towns, e.g., Kholm, Parfino, Volot, and will have their names specified as the main destination.
From Novgorod, follow the A116 to Shimsk, then P51 to Staraya Russa (96 km).
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 600 km and involve unpredictable road conditions in Novgorod Oblast, although the second track is believed to be more safe and reliable.
While 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 50 rubles. From the train/bus station, you can take buses 1, 4, 6, or 11 to the center, but given how slow the buses run, it's probably quicker to walk.
See and Do
Dostoevsky's own place of worship at St. 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 Center, and consider wandering over towards the Balneological 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.
- Dostoevsky Cultural Center (Научно-культурный центр Ф.М.Достоевского), nab. Dostoevskovo, 8, ☎ +7 816 52 37-285. Tu-F, Su 10:00-18:00. This neat little neoclassical building has small temporary exhibits on the life and works of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, but the main reason to come is if you are interested in having a local guide take you around the town's literary sites (in Russian). 70 rubles; tours ~300 rubles.
- Dostoevsky's House Museum (Дом-музей Ф.М.Достоевского), nab. Dostoevskovo, 42/2, ☎ +7 816 52 51-477. 10:00-18:00 daily. The Dostoevsky family spent their summers in the healthy country climate of Staraya Russa from 1872 through 1914—well past the writer's death in 1881. His time here saw some of his most prolific work, most importantly his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. The large, green, wooden dacha on the riverbank is today a carefully curated shrine to the great nineteenth century writer, having survived the revolutions and wars of the twentieth century unscathed. The first floor hosts exhibits, while the second floor is arranged and recreated in the same way as the Dostoevsky family kept it. 70 rubles.
- Grushenka's House (Дом Грушеньки), nab. Glebova, 25. Grushenka's house, as depicted in The Brothers Karamazov, was based on this pretty 1850s-era house. Privately owned.
- Living Bridge (Живой мост), (across the Polist River). If you hear locals talking about "the living bridge," don't expect anything too necromantic—the name is a holdover from the bridge's earlier incarnation as a pontoon bridge with a lively "sway."
- Museum of the Northwest Front (Музей северо-западного фронта), ul. Volodarskovo, 25, ☎ +7 816 52 35-285, . M,W-F 10:00-18:00, Su 09:00-17:00. A modest military history museum with exhibits on the history of the Russian Northwest Front during WWII. 70 rubles.
- Staraya Russa Balneological Resort (Курорт Старая Русса), ul. Mineral'naya, 62, ☎ +7 816 52 31-603, . While today foreigners come to Staraya Russa because of Dostoevsky, and Dostoevsky alone, the town was for hundreds of years known for its balneological resort, where ailing Russians would come and avail themselves of the mineral water and mud treatments. The buildings and sculptures throughout the park are for the most part pretty unremarkable, whereas the so-called Muravyovsky Fountain merits a visit. This big fountain at the center of the complex is built atop a natural mineral water spring, and for most of its history was covered by a rather marvelous metal pavilion, with covered galleries, adorned with wooden carvings, running from the fountain to the hotel and to the wooden theater. Sadly, the complex was almost completely destroyed in WWII. In the early 1980s, the government made a half-hearted attempt to erect a new metal dome over the fountain, but the salt in the air corroded the metal and quickly brought it down. Today, the fountain is a shell of its once majestic stature—even the flow has been reduced to reduce saltwater damage to nearby trees. But you can still sample its waters from the Drinking Pavilion behind it—chilled or hot like it came out of the ground.
Cathedral of the Resurrection
- Cathedral of the Resurrection (Воскресенский собор), ul. Resurrection, 1 (at the meeting of the Polist and Porusya Rivers). This monumental cathedral was built close to the end of the seventeenth century. It looks quite impressive from a distance on its grand location, but there is no pressing need to get up close with a camera.
- Mina Muchenik Church (Церковь Великомученика Мины), ul. Georgievskaya, 44. Despite both the later reconstructions and its current dilapidated state, this is a wonderfully preserved little fourteenth century church. According to legend, Swedish invaders, having destroyed much of the town, came to the church seeking a night's refuge from the elements, but upon entering the church went blind. The blinded soldiers were sent back to Sweden as evidence of miracles and general strangeness going on in the Russian territories they were occupying.
- Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Savior (Спасо-Преображенский монастырь), Frunze Square, ☎ +7 816 52 35-666, . M,W-F 10:00-18:00, Sa-Su 09:00-17:00. The monastery includes the beautiful Cathedral of the Transfiguration (1442), the Church of the Nativity (early seventeenth century) and Sretensky Church (early seventeenth century), all having charming wooden domes. Closed following the Bolshevik Revolution, it is today managed by the Museum of Local History, which houses in the buildings both a small regional museum and an art gallery with exhibits by local artists. 70 rubles for the museum and art gallery each.
- St George and Annunciation Church (Георгиевская церковь), ul. Georgievskaya, 26. Dating back to 1410, this stone church was the family church for the Dostoevskys during their summers here. In their first summer at Staraya Russa, the Dostoevsky family actually stayed at the house of the senior priest, Father Rumyantsev, and it was in his house that the writer finished his work Demons. While not a shining example of old Russian architecture, it has a good deal of country charm.
- St Nicholas Church (Церковь Николая Чудотворца), ul. Krasnykh Komandirov, 8. Built in 1371. The classical bell towers were built in the early eighteenth century while the church was being rebuilt. Unfortunately, the renovations and modern decor have for all intents and purposes ruined the elegance of this ancient church.
- Trinity Church (Троицкая церковь), ul. Frunze, 12a. A well preserved 1676 church, characteristic of churches for the merchant class of the seventeenth century, right at the central City Park.
- Book Store (Магазин «Книга»), ul. Lenina, 6, ☎ +7 816 52 37-705. M-F 09:00-18:00, Sa-Su 09:00-17:00, lunch break 14:00-15:00. Just a small, handy bookstore with area road maps.
The Monastery of the Transfiguration
- Book Store Pishi, Chitay (Магазин «Пиши, читай»), ul. Engel'sa, 3, ☎ +7 816 52 51-755. M-F 09:30-18:30, Sa-Su 09:30-16:00, lunch break 14:00-15:00. Another bookstore with the same scope.
There are several cheap cafes/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 250-400 rubles). Outside the hotel, Cafe Il'men' is the local favorite, and is not a bad choice of watering hole.
- Cafe Grill (Кафе «Гриль»), ul. Krasnykh Partizan, 8, ☎ +7 816 52 52-1232. M-F 9:00-18:00, Sa 10:00-15:00. This small cafe 5 min away from the train station serves lunches to locals. Join them for grilled meat or fish, both are worth trying.
- Cafe Princessa (Кафе «Принцесса»), ul. Karla Marksa, 18, ☎ +7 816 52 135-316. 11:00-23:00. Positively reviewed.
- Cafe Rushanka (Кафе «Рушанка»), ul. Engel'sa, 4/18, ☎ +7 816 52 233-163. 08:00-20:00 daily. This is a pretty typical, cheap provincial cafeteria towards the center of town, where you can fill up quickly, if not have a terribly memorable gastronomic experience. 50-120 rubles.
- Cafe Sadko (Кафе «Садко»), ul. Lenina, 7, ☎ +7 816 52 31-538. 09:00-21:00 daily. Another cheap cafe with a very convenient location, where you can get tolerable, basic Russian food like beef kotlety or stuffed cabbage. Semi self-serve—order at the counter. 50-120 rubles.
- Сafe Tortuga (Кафе «Тортуга»), ul. Karla Marksa, 27, ☎ +7 816 52 32-290. 10:00-21:00. Launched as a cafe for children, this eatery eventually transformed into a cheap bar colloquially known as ryumochnaya. It is not the best place to eat unless you are deeply interested in local drinking traditions, or simply want to taste savory pirozhki that are on sale here.
Charming, in spite of poor state of repair, Mina Muchenik Church
- Cafeteria (Кулинария), ul. Tribuny, 3. Popular among locals, this shop-cum-cafe offers a variety of local pastries as well as some hot food served in plastic dishes.
- Blinnaya Apel'sin (Блинная «Апельсин»), ul. Karla Marksa, 10, ☎ +7 816 52 31-063. 10:00-22:00 daily. While coffehouses are still non-existent in Staraya Russa, this place would be your best option for drinking coffee or enjoying sweets. Start with stuffed pancakes and go on for coffee, cocktail, or dessert. Pancakes range from 40 to 80 rubles.
- Cafe-bar OKAMI (Кафе-бар OKAMI), ul. Karla Libknehta, 10, ☎ +7 921 606-19-99, 911 615-49-99. 12:00-23:00 daily. This eatery with a cryptic name offers what now became the most popular food in Russia: pizza and sushi. Fortunately, they are not mixing it. Free Wi-Fi. Pizza: 150-300 rubles.
- Cafe Druzya (Кафе «Друзья»), ul. Karla Marksa, 32, ☎ +7 816 52 357-034. Mo-Th noon-02:00, F noon-04:00, Sa 16:00-04:00, Su 14:00-02:00. A small and unremarkable, but positively reviewed cafe. Mains: around 200 rubles.
- Cafe Il'men' (Кафе «Ильмень»), ul. Mineral'naya, 145a, ☎ +7 816 52 231-968. Su-Th noon-02:00, F-Sa 13:00-04:00. Il'men' is the best local restaurant (although in fairness, that's not a profound accomplishment) outside the hotel, and if you ask for a local restaurant at the hotel, they will likely direct you here. Fare is standard Russian, and the service is... standard Russian. The menu is nice and long, so you should be able to find something to your taste. Hours run very long into the night, and they usually have live music, if you are looking for a bar to hang out at. 200-400 rubles.
- Restaurant Graf Muravyov (Ресторан «Граф Муравьёв»), ul. Mineral'naya, 62 (2nd floor, there is an outside staircase from the street), ☎ +7 816 52 131-676, . 11:00-23:00 daily. This would be the oddball choice for lunch/dinner—the balneological resort restaurant. While run by the resort, it is just north of the main grounds, so you can walk there without going through the sanitarium. 1150-2300 rubles.
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'.
- Hotel Polist (Гостиница «Полисть»), ul. Engelsa, 20, ☎ +7 816 52 37-547 ([email protected], fax: +7 816 52 37-894), . Having recently undergone a full renovation, Hotel Polist is no longer a place to be avoided, and visitors now can overnight here without worrying about their comfort. The hotel has become a fine three-star provincial hotel, with what is the town's best restaurant. Breakfast included. 1,800-3,400 rubles.
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.
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