07 May 2006
Here in provincial Russia, a three-hour drive from Moscow, something is stirring in the city of Kaluga. The potholes on Lenin Street are as treacherous as ever, but over the past couple of years the dreary Soviet-era stores that once lined it have been snapped up and remodeled. Waitresses in red tartan aprons now dish out edible pizza for $1 a slice at Tashir's shiny new restaurant, which also offers wireless Internet access.
Nearby are a sushi bar, a kitchen design store, a café that bears a passing resembling to Starbucks, a bright yellow mobile-phone kiosk that's open 24 hours a day and Jackpot, a slot-machine arcade that marks Kaluga's attempt at glamour. A South African company has renovated the town's brewery. "You can see people have more money," says Alexander Kuptsov, owner of Bellissimo, a shoe boutique that stocks a range of little-known Italian brands alongside a few famous ones like Valentino. In a good month, he sells 150 pairs.
Sergei Kuznetsov, 32, is one Russian in a hurry to live better. He used to sell sausage from a kiosk in Kaluga's open-air market, a tough business under any circumstances and particularly after Russia's 1998 financial crisis, when the government temporarily suspended debt repayments and devalued the ruble by 30%. But the economy recovered much faster and more strongly than anyone expected. Together with his wife and a friend, Kuznetsov scraped and borrowed to buy a crude packaging machine and set up a snack-food business.
Sunflower seeds are his main product. He buys them in bulk from farmers in Rostov, 400 km away, roasts them, and then sells them in nearby towns through a small network of distributors. He recalls how in the early days he had to trudge through fields carrying bags of seeds to the building that housed his rented roaster because it wasn't accessible by road. Today, the Kuznetsov Seed Co. has annual revenues of about $1 million, and most of its upgraded equipment is in the cafeteria of a former school.Moscow Daily News
18 October 2007
A visit to a Russian provincial city can often be compared to travel in time. And I am not talking here about architectural monuments from earlier centuries, which, set against the newer background, still look like part of the contemporary environment. Just about any big city in Russia's central part looks like a blend of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, with some element of today added to the mix.
Kaluga, a regional center with a population of about 330,000 people, located southwest of Moscow, is not an exception. Different periods of the recent past easily mix here within the same few blocks, and architectural items from the 19th and 18th century make the city's appearance even more diverse.
The easiest and quickest way of getting to Kaluga is by an express commuter train, which leaves Moscow's Kievsky train station at 7:20 a.m. and, making just three stops on the way - at Balabanovo, Obninsk and Maloyaroslavets - arrives at Kaluga's main station in about two and a half hours.
A bus is an alternative option, with service running at least every hour between metro Teply Stan and Kaluga's main station. But it is the more time consuming option. A trip by regular commuter train takes about as long by bus - three and a half hours - while regular passenger trains passing through Kaluga stop at another station that is quite far away.
When exiting the train station, built in the late 19th century (with architecture similar to other train stations in Russia, like, for example, Moscow's Paveletsky), visitors enter a square with a monument in the center, indicating the city was awarded for its economic achievements in the Soviet era.
Here, Lenin Street, one of Kaluga's main arteries, begins, taking you to the city center, which is just a few trolleybus stops away. This section of the street was primarily built in the 1970s, and mosaic on the walls of 5-story khrushchevkas still bear the iconography of that time, like, for instance, images of "the dove of peace." Wooden, one-story buildings from the earlier periods, pop up occasionally alongside the khrushchevkas.
The central section begins around the city's main stadium, which must have lost importance since the times when it was built - like many sports venues across Russia. These days it provides a roof for numerous small stores.
One of the few newer buildings on Lenin Street is a massive local office of Sberbank, not far from the crossing with Kirov Street. A right turn on the crossing leads to an area constructed in the 1950s, with sober Stalin-era residential buildings and a "culture palace," adorned with columns and a portico. The abundance of small stores and advertisements makes this part of the city look very much like 1990s, though. Names lake "Café Viktoria" also immediately evoke the early capitalist era.
Taking a left on Kirov Street brings you to Victory Square and a World War II monument, built in 1965 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the victory.
From the square, a boulevard named after Stepan Razin, a 17th century Cossack uprising leader, descends towards the Oka river. The apartment blocks on the boulevard were apparently built in the 1980s, and are typical of late Soviet residential areas.
Spending too much time in the newer sections of the city wouldn't be very exciting, so take trolleybus 3, or a corresponding marshrutka, back to the city center. From here, pass the 18th century Epiphany church on the right side, get to the city's main square, predictably named after Lenin, as no major street-renaming campaigns seem to have occurred in most of the country's cities.
In contrast to the massive late Soviet building of the regional administration, the opposite side of the square is occupied by the 18th century Gostiny Dvor, a red brick landmark; it is an arcaded edifice that used to serve as a merchant court. Here begins Kaluga's main park, descending towards the Oka. Here you will find the Trinity Cathedral, built in the late 18th century to replace an earlier wooden church of the same name.
A walk on Pushkin Street under the two arcs of Prisutstvennye mesta - an 18th century complex of administrative buildings leads you towards Zolotaryov's mansion - currently, the museum of local history, with some noteworthy exhibits.
Pushkin Street continues over the Stone bridge, a unique late 18th century spot currently being renovated. The street switches to Korolyov, and leads to Tsiolkovski Park, named after renowned aviation and outer space scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who lived and worked in Kaluga for many years. The park hosts the outer space exploration museum, built in the 1960s. If you don't care too much about outer space stuff, the park is still worth checking out, as it provides a picturesque view of the river and its other bank. One could just sit on one of the benches scattered among exhibited rockets and admire the view.
Although at first sight the city looks quite untouched by globalization and corporate capitalism, multinational giants have begun to set foot on its streets, with the first McDonald's restaurant opened early this year. Meanwhile, the number of sport utility vehicles with tainted glass windows driven by local "New Russians" is relatively few, and domestic retail chains are not yet present in Kaluga, except for those in the mobile phone business.
No Coffee House or Shokoladnitsa is in sight, which gives local proprietors some business opportunities. For example, a nice coffee shop called Senior Capuchin is located near the crossing of Kirov and Lenin Streets. Similarly, no luxurious restaurants are to be seen around the city center, and places like, for example, "Stary Park" or "Grand Café Dvorik" offer traditional Russian fare at moderate prices.