Hugh Gatenby

I discovered the town of Tarusa, almost by accident, when I was working here in Russia two years ago. I promptly fell in love with the place, returned three times, and now, on my first visit since then, I can see why. Perversely, it even reminds me of my adopted hometown of Beccles. Maybe it’s something to do with scale; they have populations of similar sizes. Or age perhaps; the buildings, though vastly different, are of about the same vintage. Maybe even proximity to water – though our murky Waveney is dwarfed by the wide, lazy river Oka. 

I’m not well-travelled enough in provincial Russia to be able to say whether Tarusa is an anomaly or not, yet it contrasts massively with Moscow – quite apart from the obvious difference in size. Moscow, in architectural terms was heavily scarred by the Soviet period. Fine buildings, including churches and cathedrals, were razed. The often hastily erected residential accommodation comprised of great, ugly blocks of flats; grim, towering prefabs. In Moscow there has since been active de-Sovietisation. Streets, which had previously born the names of Soviet luminaries, have been renamed, their statues have come down and many now stand in a Moscow outdoor museum. There, Lenin stands with Stalin with almost identical explanatory plaques stating that the 70-year social experiment was just ‘a phase we were going through’. Actually, they don’t say that at all – I’m paraphrasing. But the actual message is similarly trite and dismissive.

In Tarusa the opposite is true. The town bears few scars from the Soviet period; churches and fine old buildings of wood-and-stone construction have largely survived and have enjoyed restoration since. Perhaps in gratitude at having been spared the worst architectural and town planning excesses of the time – I’m sure that I’m being fanciful here – the denizens of the town allowed their Soviet statues and street names to remain. So my hotel room in Rosa Luxembourg (a 1920s German Communist martyr) Street looks out on the guilt onion-domes of the colourful Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, and also out onto Lenin Square, with the leader of the October Revolution’s statue mutely exhorting the sleepy town’s proletariat to rise – his back defiantly turned on the cathedral. Alas the restored, pristine cathedral is in much better shape than Vladimir Ilych.

The town, even in Soviet times, retained and even built on its reputation as cultural centre – an artistic, intellectual and literary retreat. The statue of Marina Svetaeva, a native of the town, and a internationally-renowned poetess hounded to death by Soviet regime, looks out over the river Oka. Interestingly, because of its geographical location of being just beyond the 100km boundary from Moscow, Tarusa also became a haunt of the ‘101-ers’, those dissidents sent somewhere where, in pre-internet days, they could no longer preach their ‘anti-Soviet’ message. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, did time there, so to speak. As far as internal exile goes, there are worse places to be sent – I reflect on this as I sit on the terrace of a riverside pub. I don’t wish to trivialise the plight of those brave enough to speak out against state repression during that grim period, but I wonder how many dissidents sombrely listened, stony faced, to the State Prosecutor’s verdict of internal exile to Tarusa, only to go outside the courtroom to their anxiously waiting relatives- and cracking a wide smile, punch the air and shout “Tarusa! YE-ES!!!” Probably, none. I’m being fanciful again.

Back to Moscow, tomorrow. But I’ll be coming back to Tarusa. I’m a self-imposed 101er.