Volokolamsk is a small, medieval Russian town about 120 km west of Moscow, where I spent about a couple of years before being taken to the West.
As a strategic portage point on the River Lama – the name Volokolamsk literally means “portage on the Lama” (волок на Ламе) – it figured in numerous battles, including the Polish invasion during the Time of Troubles, and the two month occupation by Germans in 1941. As such, it is an occasional host for historical reenactment festivals, such as Field of Battle (Поле Боя).
Volokolamsk was also the center of the Markov Republic, a peasant autonomy that existed for less than a year during 1905-1906. It was crushed when the regime restored its authority, but there were no mass repressions and even its organizers were merely exiled abroad or to Siberia, as opposed to being executed for treason as would have happened in most other countries. For comparison, the Bolsheviks exterminated 250,000 peasants during the Tambov Uprising.
Historically, it is most notable as the birthplace of St. Joseph of Volokolamsk, a major figure in Russian monasticism during the late 15th-early 16th centuries. Joseph championed clerical land ownership, an alliance between church and state, and a firm line against heretics against the ascetic liberalism of the “Non-Possessor” hermits. Expropriated by the Bolsheviks, the Joseph-Volokolamsk Monastery now again belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church, although in much diminished form thanks to 20th century history: The Soviets melted down its bells, while the Germans blew up its belltower (which was the tallest structure in Russia for a short period after its construction in the 1490s).
But unfortunately, as we shall see, Volokolamsk hasn’t thrived since the end of the USSR.
When I visited in 2017, the railway station was in a ramshackle state, probably unchanged since the 1960s or so. The public restrooms in particular were a reeking mess along the lines of this memetic painting by Vasily Shulzhenko.
Ruined church getting slowly repaired… three years and counting as of 2017.
There is a certain Russian prole specimen who talks exclusively in “blya” (“slut”), “khuy” (“dick”), and various permutations thereof. One doesn’t encounter them very often, but the workmen there fit the bill.
This used to be a boathouse. It is now a post-Soviet ruin.
The oldest factory in Volokolamsk (now disused).
During the Soviet period, Volokolamsk was little more than a town-sized agricultural depot. There was a minor textile industry, where my dad as a schoolboy in the 1960s was surprised to see that the machines were stamped as having been manufactured in the 1900s. With no major heavy industrial or hi-tech enterprises, and subjected to Moscow’s gravity well, the population has fallen by more than 25% since 1991 (after adjusting for territorial expansions).
“The New Russian University: Quality education – path to a successful career!”
The Eternal Flame is a centerpiece of Great Patriotic War memorials throughout Russian cities, and Volokolamsk is no exception.
And yet even that is in a state of chronic disrepair.
This is the central administrative building for a town of less than 20,000 people. The disproportion between bureaucratic scale and local populations seems to be a recurring feature of commie regimes.
Our taxi driver claimed that their previous mayor – a United Russia member called Alexander Sharov – was very corrupt. He had apparently sold off a Sturmgeschütz III war trophy to a German collector and replaced it with a cheap model at the Vzryv memorial complex. I looked up these claims online and found them to be fake news. The person in charge of the restoration was someone else, and he had, in any case, been cleared of the charges (though why you’d need to “restore” a hulk of metal in the first place remains unclear to me).
However, it was still pretty clear that Sharov had an odious reputation, and was removed from office in 2016 for corruption that appears to have been notable even by the standards of Russian backwaters. He was replaced by a Communist.
But this didn’t end the town’s woes. Last year, the toxic landfills that surrounded Volokolamsk wreathed the town in a putrid miasma, thanks to local officials taking kickbacks for taking Moscow’s garbage and failing to invest in modern waste incineration plants. I was there again in 2018, and I can confirm that the stench really was rather nauseating… I shudder to think about having to live through that. This understandably ignited local protests, and during the 2018 Presidential elections – almost uniquely for a small Russian city – Putin ended up getting a worse result in Volokolamsk than he did in the Tverskaya area of Moscow (Russia’s most expensive ZIP code).
In the distance, beyond the Lenin statue in front of the administrative building, is the Volokolamsk Kremlin, which towers over the town.
The top of the Resurrection Cathedral belltower hosts a beautiful panoramic view of Volokolamsk’s environs, including the photo headlining this post.
The Kremlin hosts a very nice – if underfunded – local museum (краеведческий музей). There are coins, armors, and other artifacts from the medieval period, icons and books from the Tsarist/Imperial era, and misc paraphernalia from the Civil War (one public decree from September 23, 1919 demands the “mandatory registration of former landowners, capitalists, and officials who occupied senior positions in the Tsarist and bourgeois order” on pain of confiscation of property confiscation and prosecution for treason).
Unsurprisingly, though, the single biggest part of the collection has to do with World War II. According to one statistic in the museum, there were more than 13,000 residents of Volokolamsk raion who took part in combat, of whom almost 7,000 died. For comparison, its entire population was 55,000 in 1939 (of whom 25,000 were men).
There is also an art gallery featuring the work of local artists.
And here is the monument on which that painting is based on. The T-34 monument is another hallmark of small Russian towns that were heavily afflicted by the war.
As with most things in Volokolamsk, the Church of the Nativity at the foot of the Kremlin is in a state of disrepair. Having served as a materials depot during the Soviet era, it now subsists on small donations from the general public.
The above account is rather depressing, but I would stop to note that Volokolamsk is not the Russian average; it is substantially below average. As I have noted, many Russian cities are becoming better and nicer, and this doesn’t include apply to just Moscow and the millioniki. It includes decidedly middling cities such as Bryansk (which I visited last year), which were also relative dumps during the Soviet era, but which have now been cleaned up and restored, and have even started acquiring some elements of SWPL culture. Actually, Volokolamsk is probably the single most depressive place I have visited in Russia since coming back, despite it only being 120 km from Moscow.
That said, it’s not all bad. The town now has a shopping mall (perhaps the ultimate economic symbol of the Putin era), numerous fast food joints and modern retail outlets, new apartment blocks, and an Italian restaurant. This reflects growing material prosperity, even if Volokolamsk lags more dynamic regions, suffers from brain drain to Moscow, and has its coffers intermittently looted by the ex-sovok bandits who constitute the local political elites.