Old Russian City

Tula is an old Russian city. In fact, it is believed to be one year older than Moscow but as sometimes happens with historical timing, the date can be disputed. Tula first mentioned in the Nikon’s Chronicles written in the 16th century in relation to a battle that happened in 1146.

Did Tula exist before this date or did a scribe place it into an earlier (or later) historical context? We don’t know for sure and it surely does not matter. I’m only mentioning it to illustrate that Tula is an old city and that growing up in Tula as a child you get the year “1146” instilled into your mind as a fact. This makes you really proud – your native city is older than Moscow (founded in 1147) and at the same time unwisely ignorant – as you go on living never questioning the validity of this historical date and repeating to everyone you meet that “you come from Tula, the city that is one year older that Moscow.”

Kremlin (fortress) in Tula
Kremlin in Tula

It is interesting to see how often and carelessly we use clichés. Ask anybody whose childhood was spent in the late years of the Soviet Union to describe “New York” in one phrase and they will most certainly use a phrase from a very famous and loved by many Soviet movie “The Diamond Hand” – “New York is a city of contrasts”. Similarly with Tula – when you think of it or ask somebody to describe it this is what you get: Tula is a city famous for:
1. Firearms production (Tula became the center of firearms production in Russia in the beginning of the 18th century)
2. Samovars (vessels used to boil water for tea)
3. Honey cakes called prianiki
4. “The significance of Tula is of the essence for the Soviet republic” a quote from works by very loquacious Lenin (leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917), and
5. Yet again, the perennial issue of Tula being older than Moscow.

Famous Tula samovar (teapot) and prianik (honey cakes)
Tula Samovar and Pryanik

This is what comes to mind first when you think of Tula. And all of it is true. But strangely enough, you don’t think of your city as a place where you went to school, waited on the streets for buses and street cars in cold winter mornings, strolled with your friends through streets drenched in sweet smell of blossoming cherry and apple trees in the spring; or any other such seemingly trivial activities. Nothing, it seems, at least at the first instinct, outweighs the firearms factories, teapots, honey pastries, Lenin’s phrase (adapted from its original version by his communist followers), and the questionable superiority of Tula over Moscow in your mind!

It is true, from a small mention in ancient Chronicles, Tula has grown into a large industrial city of almost half a million people. True, its history is great. True, that the city has a reputation of one of the esteemed old Russian arms production cities, and certainly true that Tula’s prianiki are very tasty and its samovars are exceptionally good to sit around and are very often true pieces of art. But why, I wonder, is the collective so often takes over the personal in the subconscious?

Tula street

Like many other such places all over Russia Tula combines two principal traits: that of an old big provincial town and that of a former Soviet city. I form this opinion based on Tula’s history and architecture solely, but some of the people would say that this is true about the mores, as well. I agree with the claim of Tula’ s provinciality (although relative in our age of globalization), but view it as a charming quality that in its best should be cherished and preserved.

Tula - Old Russian City

There still exist a number of old historically important buildings in Tula. There is the Kremlin in the very heart of the city, beautiful churches and cathedrals, houses bearing traces of historically important meetings or famous people. But what makes the city even more interesting, if not unique, is the coexistence of several historical (architectural) levels. Today, blocks of wooden town houses dating from the beginning of the 20th century and probably earlier share ground with Soviet apartment buildings and wedges of newly developed high-rises and town houses developments. This creates an ornate mix and walking through the city you always feel like an anthropologist digging through slices of “cultural landscapes”.