Smolensk: Russia’s western citadel

The architecture of the city of Smolensk has managed to survive despite four centuries of being on Russia’s front lines.

Photographs by William Brumfield

Contemporary Smolensk is a pleasant provincial capital (population around 325,000), whose many historic monuments are surrounded by parks and lush greenery. Yet this placid appearance belies one of the most turbulent histories in European Russia. Its strategic position on the main route to Moscow has been both a blessing and a curse, as the city was confronted by numerous invaders from the 16th to the 20th centuries.

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Smolensk is one of the oldest historic settlements in Russia. First mentioned in medieval chronicles under the year 862, the early settlement was long a center of the Krivichi, an eastern Slavic tribe. Its location on the upper Dnieper River endowed it with importance for the development of a lucrative trading artery between the Baltic and the Black Seas, from “the Varangians to the Greeks.” By the late 9th century, the town had been brought into the orbit of Kiev, center of the Varangian princes of the Riurikovich dynasty on the middle Dnieper River.

With the conversion of Kiev's Grand Prince Vladimir to Orthodox Christianity in 988, Byzantine forms in architecture and art came to the Dnieper River basin. In the 1050s, Smolensk emerged as a subordinate principality that eventually came to rival the power of Kiev itself. During the 12th century, Kiev and Smolensk were involved in a complicated struggle among competing Riurikovich princes. The attempt to create a stable political situation was temporarily resolved in 1181 with a division of power between Sviatoslav Vsevolodovich (of the Chernigov Olgovich clan), who became grand prince in Kiev, and Riurik (of the Smolensk Rostislavich clan), who assumed the title of grand prince of the vast territory of Rus.

In this division of power, Riurik and his brothers became major patrons of the arts and builders of churches. To this day Smolensk has some of the oldest churches in Russia, such as the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul (built around 1146), the Church of St. John the Divine (1160s), and the majestic Church of Archangel Michael (late 12th century). Although these churches have undergone restoration, their basic structures are intact. Together with the discovered foundations of several other 12th-century churches, they provide valuable evidence of the scale of early Russian architecture.

Fortunately, Smolensk was spared by the Mongol invasion (Kiev, on the other hand, was largely destroyed in 1240.) Nonetheless, the general devastation wrought by the Mongols led to a decline in the region's power. For the next four centuries, control over Smolensk alternated between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Poland and Moscow. The capture of Smolensk by Basil III in 1514 is still considered a major date in Russian history.

The strategic importance of Smolensk was reaffirmed by Tsar Boris Godunov (1551-1605), who saw it as a bulwark against Poland and undertook a massive rebuilding of the city walls between 1595 and 1602. One of the largest Russian construction projects before the reign of Peter the Great, the fortress had 38 towers along a perimeter wall 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) in length. (By contrast the Moscow Kremlin walls are not quite 2.3 km (1.4 miles) long.) Construction, supervised by the engineer Fyodor Kon, required a massive mobilization of resources and labor. The production of the 100,000,000 bricks needed for the walls and the great quantity of limestone blocks used for their base was made possible by the standardization of building materials, as well as a centralized organization of the work guided by Godunov.

Despite these grandiose walls, Smolensk was lost again to the Poles during Russia's dynastic crisis known as the Time of Troubles. From the time of Godunov's death in 1605 until the end of the 1610s, Russia was wracked by foreign invasion and brigandage. In June 1611 Smolensk fell to the Poles after a heroic 20-month siege. With a defiant, if futile, final gesture the remaining defenders retreated to the ancient Dormition Cathedral (1101) and detonated the building with barrels of gunpowder stored in the cellar.

Smolensk did not return to the Muscovite fold until a successful campaign in 1654. With the Andrusovo Truce of 1667, Moscow's possession was formally acknowledged by Poland, although for another century much of the local nobility adhered to Polish culture. Symbolically, the Dormition Cathedral was rebuilt on its previous site, yet construction difficulties stretched the project almost a century, from 1677 to 1772. The cathedral has survived to this day as the seat of the powerful bishopric of Smolensk. Unfortunately, its primary sacred object, the Icon of the Virgin of Smolensk, disappeared during World War II.

The city's next major trauma occurred in August 1812, when one of the major battles of the Napoleonic invasion was fought at Smolensk. Vividly described by Leo Tolstoi in War and Peace, the Smolensk battle allowed the Russian army to retreat in orderly fashion but at catastrophic loss to the burned city. Only churches and the massive walls remained relatively intact.

By the turn of the 20th century, Smolensk had become an important railroad hub with a population of almost 60,000. Its cultural luster was enhanced by the philanthropy of Princess Maria Tenisheva, an ardent supporter of the Arts and Crafts revival in Russia. Her Talashkino estate near Smolensk, with its colorful Teremok ("tower chambers"), has been converted to a museum.

Smolensk endured the chaos of World War I and the civil war, but its greatest trial was still to come. The German invasion of Poland in September 1939 moved Soviet boundaries to the west (as agreed in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), with thousands of Polish prisoners interned on Soviet territory. In March 1940 the Stalin regime decided at the highest level to execute officers and other special personnel among the Polish prisoners. Of the some 20,000 Poles killed in what is generally known as the Katyn massacre in the spring of 1940, over 4,000 were shot in the Katyn Forest itself, some 12 miles to the west of Smolensk. During the 1990s memorial crosses were erected at the site of the mass graves, and in 2000 a joint Polish-Russian Katyn Memorial and a small museum were opened at Katyn Forest. The site also contains graves of Soviet citizens killed during the late 1930s and under German occupation.

With the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22 1941, Smolensk rapidly found itself under attack. The enormous Battle of Smolensk in late summer 1941 resulted in one of the worst Soviet losses of the war, but the desperate defensive battles around Smolensk gave essential time to hold the line in front of Moscow during the following months. Liberated by the Red Army in late September 1943, Smolensk had suffered enormous material and human losses. For its resistance the city was given "Hero City" status in 1985.

Contemporary Smolensk is now a regional educational and research center, as well as a destination for tourism. The Russian Orthodox Church has a major presence in Smolensk. Current Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was formerly Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad. The city also has an active Catholic community. Despite the devastation of World War II, much of the historic central city – including the fortress wall – has been carefully renovated. Churches and monasteries are also being restored. But the memory of the tragic human losses during the city's modern history will long give cause for reflection.

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