Murom Still Lives in a Fairy Tale
Published: November 28, 2012 (Issue # 1737)
OLGA SUKHOVA / FOR SPT
The Monastery of the Transfiguration is an example of the austere 16th-century style. It lacks decorations and features monumental columns.
Locals complain that outsiders are often surprised to find out that Murom actually exists, having heard of the small town in the Vladimir region only from fairy tales.
Murom is featured in a wide range of literature, usually as a gateway into a fantasy world of epic battles, dragons, heroic quests, slain martyrs, gods, princes and saints or a time machine that brings you back to the age of Vikings, pagan tribes and fierce nomads.
Murom — along with Ladoga, Beloozero, Izborsk, Rostov, Polotsk, Smolensk, Novgorod and Kiev — is one of the first cities of Ancient Rus. The Primary Chronicle first mentions all of them in 862-863.
At the time, Finnic tribes held undisputed sway over vast territories all the way from modern Finland to the Volga basin, and one of them — muroma — lived where the modern city is now. Finnish linguist Arja Ahlqvist translates the tribe’s name from the now dead Muromian language as “people living on a hill near water.”
The city’s subsequent history revolves around several myths. The most famous one is about Ilya Muromets, the local analogue of Hercules and the central hero of “Bylinas” — the cycle of epic poetry sometimes called Russia’s “Iliad.”
When the glory of ancient battles faded away, in the 16th to 19th centuries Murom became a quiet merchant town. The vibrant commercial culture survived through the Soviet period until this day; the number of retail outlets per capita is far higher than in Moscow.
Despite being relatively far from Moscow, Murom is in some ways a commuter town, with many residents regularly traveling to work in the capital.
Murom is linked with Moscow through the Gorky (formerly known as Kazan) railroad, the main artery connecting European Russia with Siberia. Russian Railways has been a major employer and shaped the development of the Kazanka neighborhood near Murom’s railway station, and it even used to own stores and other facilities there in the Soviet era.
Engineering giants were built in Murom during that period but they fell on hard times in the 1990s due to a lack of market demand. Since then, the city’s economy has refocused on retail and other service industries, and currently about 50 percent of its residents are employed in consumer goods industries. But the defense plants have also recovered some of their clout as the economy expanded and defense purchases soared in the 2000s.
Given the city’s ancient history, one would assume that the tourism industry would be booming. But currently, few visitors come to Murom (compared with cities like Suzdal and Vladimir) due to a lack of infrastructure and its former “closed city” status.
In the Soviet era Murom was off-limits to foreigners because the state feared that they could get access to defense industries.
Although in the 1920s a British specialist named B. G. Jobling helped develop the city’s museum and was even its director for a short period, Murom was subsequently isolated from the outside world.
A resident told The St. Petersburg Times that once an Englishwoman caused a furor in the city when she appeared, out of the blue, at the doorstop of the local museum in the 1980s. She had managed to escape the attention of the KGB and clandestinely made her way into the “closed city” — a visit that felt to locals like making contact with aliens.
But since 1991, Murom has become a major destination for religious pilgrims — especially ones combining a tour of the city with a trip to the Diveyevo Monastery in the nearby Nizhny Novgorod region, which was founded by Saint Serafim of Sarov.
Murom locals consider the Nizhny Novgorod region their backyard. Since the Oka River’s opposite bank used to be part of the Murom district, locals still feel at home there, even though it is now in the Nizhny Novgorod region. Residents frequently cross the river to Navashino — jokingly referred to as Nawashington, due to the similarity of the names. Many locals have also studied or worked in Nizhny Novgorod.
Muromtsy, as the natives are called, have a nickname for the metal factory in Vyksa, a city near Navashino: “Putin’s plant.” They claim that President Vladimir Putin might have an interest in it, though its website says that it is controlled by Anatoly Sedykh’s United Metal Company.
Though Putin has easily won a majority in Murom on a regular basis, the city has had a turbulent political life. Mayor Pyotr Kaurov was killed in 2000 in a conflict typical of the “wild ‘90s,” while the next mayor, Valentin Kachevan, had frequent disputes with the city council, which was dominated by United Russia. The Kremlin eventually managed to assert control over City Hall when Yevgeny Rychkov, a United Russia member, became head of the city in 2011.
The nationwide upsurge in protest activity in recent years breathed new life into Murom’s politics. When the local election committee did not register any major opposition candidates during the March 2011 mayoral election, an impressive rally against the decision was held, drawing hundreds of participants. In November 2011, a rally against a nuclear plant project in the Navashino district took place, while recent months have seen protests against a building management company backed by City Hall and a nationalist rally.
Valery Yelistrarov, the owner of the Tibor and Vityaz shopping malls and a Just Russia member, now sponsors Novy Murom, a newspaper critical of the authorities.
Despite the possibly healthy local discord, federal authorities have paid some attention to the relatively non-strategic city.
In 2008 they established the Day of Pyotr and Fevronia — named after an ancient prince of Murom and his wife — as an alternative to St. Valentine’s Day, in line with the Kremlin’s efforts to combat foreign influence. Svetlana Medvedeva, the wife of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, has been a key supporter of the new holiday and promotes it on her frequent trips to Murom.
What to see if you have two hours
Take a tour of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration (1 Ulitsa Lakina; +7 492 342 2050; svyto.ru/). It is a good example of the austere 16th-century style: It lacks decorations and features monumental arches and columns. The monastery was, according to legend, founded by Prince Gleb no later than in 1015, while the current buildings were constructed by Ivan the Terrible in the 1560s.
The Church of Cosmas and Damian (Naberezhnaya Ulitsa) was also built by Ivan the Terrible. The tsar pitched his tent here in 1562, when he was watching his troops cross the river on their way to Kazan. When Ivan conquered the city, he thanked God by building the church, which resembles a tent.
Don’t miss the Monastery of the Annunciation (16 Krasnoarmeyskaya Ulitsa; +7 492 342 0502). It exemplifies the elegant 17th-century style known as Uzorochye, which some scholars believe to have been influenced by Western Europe’s Renaissance architecture. The richly decorated Cathedral of the Annunciation was reportedly founded by Prince Konstantinin in 1205. It became a monastery under Ivan the Terrible and was ruined by the Poles during the Time of Troubles. In 1664 it was rebuilt by wealthy merchant and arts patron Tarasy Tsvetnov. The monastery features the relics of Konstantin and his sons Mikhail and Fyodor.
COURTESY OF THE MUROM HISTORY AND ART MUSEUM
The Hagiography of Pyotr and Fevronia, a 17th-century icon that depicts Murom’s kremlin, its churches and the Oka River.
According to a legend recorded by local aristocrat and amateur historian Alexander Yepanchin, each midnight the monastery’s gates disappear, and Konstantin, Mikhail and Fyodor, clad in regal attire, ride out in a gilded carriage and head to the Cathedral of the Nativity of Mary, where they are met by Pyotr and Fevronia. After praying there, they guard and patrol the city.
The monastery’s graveyard holds the grave of Andrei Polisadov, to whom poet Andrei Voznesensky, one of his descendants, devoted a poem. He was taken as a hostage from Georgia and transported to Russia, where he became archimandrite of the monastery.
While the Monastery of the Annunciation is a friary, the nearby Monastery of the Trinity (3-a Ploshchad Krestyanina, +7 492 342 2648), also built by Tsvetnov, is a nunnery. Its cathedral is a graceful five-domed church with luxurious décor. The relics of Pyotr and Fevronia are located there. The monastery’s chief sponsor is John Kopiski, an Englishman who moved to Russia, converted to the Orthodox faith and became a farmer.
What to see if you have two days
Take a trip to Karacharovo in Murom’s south, a 10-minute bus ride from the city center. According to a local myth, the former village was named after a wizard who turned people into animals. He was later beheaded as punishment.
It is believed to be Ilya Muromets’ birthplace. Traces of him are all around this area. Oaks dredged up from the river were supposedly uprooted and thrown into the Oka by the hero to either clean up his parents’ field or to change the course of the river. In many places, springs are still found that some believe to have burst forth where his steed’s hoofs beat the earth.
Meanwhile, dinosaur bones found in Karacharovo were thought to be those of a dragon Ilya slew. You can even visit the Gushchin family (279 Priokskaya Ulitsa), who believe themselves to be descendants of Ilya Muromets.
A major landmark of Karacharovo is the Uvarov Estate (1 Ulitsa Kirova; +7 492 342 0535), which currently houses a military unit. Countess Praskovya Uvarova, nee Princess Shcherbatova — the daughter-in-law of Nicholas I’s chief ideologue Sergei Uvarov and a possible prototype for Kitty Shcherbatsky in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina — lived here in 1900-1910.
Local folklore surrounds Uvarova, who was an archeologist. One legend has the countess, clad in white, mounting a white horse to accompany Ilya Muromets to Kiev — even though he lived 1,000 years before her. Some natives also believe that she was a relative of Adolf Hitler, and that is why Nazi airplanes heading to Nizhny Novgorod did not bomb Murom — in order to avoid destroying the countess’ estate, according to Yepanchin’s notes. They also claim that the planes distributed leaflets saying they would destroy Moscow and Leningrad and make Murom the capital.
Visit the centrally located Oka Park, at the original site of a pagan muroma temple and Murom’s wooden kremlin, which was dismantled under Catherine the Great. The park features amusement rides and an observation platform with a colorful view of the Oka. A statue of Ilya Muromets by sculptor Vyacheslav Klykov is located at the site of the city’s cathedral, the 19-century Church of the Nativity of Mary, which was demolished in 1939 by Soviet authorities as part of an anti-religion campaign.
Another must-see is the Murom History and Art Museum (13 Moskovskaya Ulitsa; +7 492 343 2359; www.museum-murom.ru). Its collection includes 18th-century German baroque furniture, exquisite 19th-century porcelain, Carolingian type swords, bronze muroma jewelry, Viking brooches and Dosso Dossi paintings. Don’t miss the Cloth of Pyotr and Fevronia, which was sown by Tsaritsa Irina Godunova and donated by Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich (1584-1598) to Murom. You should also take a look at duck-shaped muroma pendants, which symbolize the mythical bird that created the earth by bringing it up from the cosmic ocean floor.
You can break the ice with locals by talking about the city’s famous residents. These include Vladimir Zvorykin, an inventor of television who emigrated to the U.S.; Prokudin-Gorksy, a pioneer of color photography; painter Ivan Kulikov; Ivan Gubkin, the founder of Soviet petroleum geology; Nikolai Gastello, a renowned Soviet pilot who reportedly died in a suicide attack on Nazi troops; and Kristina Potupchik, a former activist of the pro-Kremlin Nashi group involved in a major e-mail hacking scandal. Other well-known residents include Ileyka Muromets, an imposter who passed himself off as a son of Tsar Fyodor in the Time of Troubles, and Loginus of Murom, a leader of the Old Believers during the schism of the church in the 17th century.
Murom is not ethnically diverse, with Russians accounting for 95 percent of its residents. However, there is a Tatar settlement with a mosque, known as Aul, within the city limits.
Check out the 1,100th Year Anniversary Cultural Center (23 Ulitsa Lva Tolstogo, +7 492 343 6373), where you can enjoy amateur theater, dance and circus shows and concerts.
Where to eat
COURTESY OF THE MUROM HISTORY AND ART MUSEUM
A horse-shaped Muroma pendant.
Rioni (village of Kovarditsy, 1a Ulitsa Sosnovy Bor; +7 492 345 3301; rioni.promurom.ru/) is one of the area’s most upmarket restaurants. There you can savor pastirma, a seasoned cured beef of Turkish origin, for 120 rubles ($4), as well as beef tongue with horseradish sauce (180 rubles, $5.8) and chicken with Georgian Imeruli cheese (550 rubles, $18). The venue also features a dance floor, VIP lounges and billiard tables. It is frequented by Murom’s top businesspeople.
The multi-functional Moskva complex (7/A Radiozavodskoye Shosse; +7 492 343 3862; http://òðê-ìîñêâà.ðô/) includes a restaurant, bar, nightclub, bowling lanes and karaoke lounge. The restaurant serves Russian, European, Japanese and Uzbek cuisine. A mutton shishkebab costs 490 rubles ($16).
Where to stay
Murom’s most popular hotel is Lada (43 Moskovskaya Ulitsa; +7 492 343 1171; www.lada-murom.ru/), where celebrities usually stay when they are in town. In 2009 the hotel was visited by then-First Lady Svetlana Medvedeva. A deluxe suite costs 5,200 rubles ($168), while a one-bed luxury room costs 4,950 rubles ($160).
What to do with kids
Children are sure to enjoy living in traditional local dwellings (izby and terema) heated by Russian ovens at Usadba (village of Nezhilovka, 34 Prigorodnaya Ulitsa, +7 492 347 3484). The hotel offers an assortment of entertainment including banyas, ice skating, horse riding, paintball and sleds. It also includes a small zoo with ponies, camels, yaks, foxes and raccoons. A log cabin costs 4,000 rubles ($130) in the winter and 3,000 rubles ($97) in the summer.
How to get there
The daily train from St. Petersburg to Kazan (No. 133A) stops at Murom. The train leaves the Moscow Railway Station at 4.13 p.m., and the journey takes about 13 and a half hours. Second-class tickets start at about 2,000 rubles ($65), while third-class tickets begin at 1,000 rubles ($32).
Major industries: Engineering, timber processing, tourism
Mayor: Yevgeny Rychkov
Founded: The first mention of a fortified Muroma settlement was in 862, and the city itself was likely founded in the 10th century.
Interesting fact 1: The city’s main hero, Ilya Muromets, had an independent mind and often had conflicts with his master Vladimir the Great, grand prince of Kiev in 980-1015, once even calling him a “dog.”
Interesting fact 2: In 1570 Ivan the Terrible violated diplomatic ritual by humiliating several Swedish ambassadors and then exiled them to Murom, where some of them died of the plague.
Interesting fact 3: The city is unique in having the “Murom Cycle of Novellas,” published in the 16th to 17th centuries. One of them is the Tale of Ulyania of Lazarevo, which some believe to be the first Russian work that crossed the boundary between religious and secular fiction. The others include the Tale of Murom’s Christianization, the Tale of Pyotr and Fevronia, the Tale of the Unzha Cross and the Tale of the Miracles of the Vilnius Cross.
Interesting fact 4: Murom was one of three locations (along with Yaroslavl and Rybinsk) where revolts erupted against Soviet authorities in 1918. It was also one of the cities (the others include Novocherkassk, Aleksandrov and Krasnodar) where uprisings took place in the early 1960s. At that time, protesters stormed Murom’s law enforcement department after rumors spread that a resident was killed by police.
Mayor Yevgeny Rychkov (+7 492 343 1102; firstname.lastname@example.org)
Vera Kurdikova, head of City Hall’s economic department (+7 492 343 3911; email@example.com)
Sister cities: Most, Czech Republic; Babruysk, Belarus; Mexico City, Mexico
The Murom Electronic Test Equipment Plant, set up in 1947, is a subsidiary of state-owned arms producer Almaz-Antei. The company manufactures air defense and precision approach radars. Its revenue totaled 1.159 billion rubles in 2011, while its net profit stood at 13.113 million rubles.
The Railroad Switch Plant, established in 1928, is Russia’s largest railroad switch manufacturer. The plant is controlled by little-known Moscow-based company Verkneye Stroyeniye Puti. The company’s revenue amounted to 3.1 billion rubles in 2011, while its net profit was at 105 million rubles.
The Murom Plywood Plant, also known as ZAO Murom, was founded in 1929, and produces plywood, particleboard and furniture. Its sales revenue totaled 1.049 billion rubles in 2009, while its net profit amounted to 7.586 million rubles.
Vladimir Batayev, a local painter.
Q: What inspires you in Murom?
A: The atmosphere of an ancient city. It has preserved a unique picturesque aura. Its small streets are inspiring.
Q: What places do you like most in the city?
A: I like some beautiful places near the Church of Our Lady of Smolensk and the Cathedral of the Trinity. There are also picturesque streets near the Church of the Resurrection.
Q: What are Murom’s most important cultural achievements?
A: The most significant painter was Kulikov. He undoubtedly gave an impetus to the city’s cultural development.
Q: Is there anything unique and unifying about the art of Murom?
A: I haven’t really thought about whether my art has similar aspects to that of other artists. I don’t think there is a unified art school in the city. It’s different from the situation with the Vladimir art school, which is more unified. It’s simpler and freer here. Nobody depends on anyone else.
— Oleg Sukhov
Yevgeny Krotov, owner of Talant, a company that focuses on selling works of art and holding exhibitions.
Q: What are the main challenges for business in Murom?
A: To be honest, I haven’t had any major difficulties. Sometimes there were misunderstandings with City Hall but they have always been tolerant towards us. Though there have been some attempts to crack down on some businessmen.
I used to head the Alliance of Entrepreneurs and I was the first to have a legal dispute with tax authorities. Fifty of the first entrepreneurs registered in Murom were being pressured. Some of them gave up and caved in to the authorities. Many left the alliance and City Hall set up a lobby group of its own to thwart us.
Q: What are the most promising industries in Murom?
A: The city’s economy went in the wrong direction. More attention was paid to trade but trade is all about tossing money around. The focus should be on manufacturing.
Q: What are the benefits of doing business in Murom?
A: Our city is ancient and attracts many tourists. Restaurant chains have developed, and a hospitality industry has emerged.
Q: Why is the tourism industry underdeveloped?
A: The authorities are not educated enough to bring the tourism industry to the level appropriate for Murom. Infrastructure is necessary, roads, parks etc. The main industry would be tourism and culture. We have splendid artists and a magnificent museum.
— Oleg Sukhov