Tula: Brand New?

It has been a VERY long time since I had a chance to update this blog.  I look at some of my earlier entries and I see that Tula has changed.  It is becoming more groomed, more modern.  Many of the old wooden houses I’ve been eulogizing here will soon be gone forever – streets of new modern high-rises will take their place instead. I am not sure if “gentrification” is the correct term here but you can see improvements everywhere – old apartment buildings are being repaired throughout the city, coffee houses and restaurants are popping up on every corner, parks look well-groomed, inner yards of apartment buildings receive colorful playgrounds.

At the same time the city’s image is being re-conceptualized.  It includes two, seemingly opposite, components.  First, it continues to be built within the frames of Tula’s official symbolism: the city as the country’s “arsenal and shield”.  At the same time, Tula – and Tula region – take on a new identity, that of a place open to its guests and comfortable to its citizens, a city with modern sports facilities, major tourist attractions, a stage for various art festivals, a cultural and “cultured” center.

I will talk about this metamorphosis later but I think that one recent project in particular illustrates this new development.   It is the restoration of pedestrian underpasses.

There are several pedestrian underground tunnels in Tula. Built in the Soviet times (early 1980s) they’ve seen good and bad times.  Dilapidated and some of them closed in the 1990s they have been repaired and now continue to help pedestrians to cross the city’s busiest streets.

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They were mostly unadorned, gloomy, dimly lit at night and a nightmare for those with strollers or in wheelchairs.


They seem to be in a pretty good shape now but a representative from the mayor’s office said that a complete renovation is scheduled for the next year and that the underpasses will be equipped with elevators.

But for now, in time for Tula’s 870th anniversary, passageways have been decorated with mural … graffitis!

I was really surprised to learn that these graffiti writers were winners of an open national competition of young graffiti artists sponsored by the city.

Painted by various artists these murals allude to Tula’s role in Russia’s history.

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All of these murals feature patriotic and historic images done – however – by a modern medium of contemporary graffiti!

The painter who worked on an underpass near one of Tula State University’s buildings is Dmitri Yazykov. Here is his rendition of the Patriotic War of 1812.

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Yazykov has already painted another graffito in Tula. It is the 140 meters long and 3, 5 meters tall piece on the embankment of Upa.  It decorates the fence of Tula’s MashZavod (now Machine Works holding), one of Tula’s oldest manufacturers specializing both in defense and civil products.  I find the fact that this work has been ordered by the plant really surprising.

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(A local newspaper documented the process of graffiti completion here: http://mk.tula.ru/news/n/39051/)

What is even more important is that Tula’s new image is on the agenda of the municipal committee on urban planning and development. А Moscow consulting agency has been hired to create Tula’s brand. I don’t write “rebranding” here, since I don’t know if Tula’s “city brand” has been developed before.  It formed, of course, by itself, organically, over the centuries of city’s long history.  But now, with the help of three focus groups including city’s representatives, students and businessmen and after a series of meetings over the last four months a new concept for the Tula Region’s brand has been developed.

Some of key words used in this place branding are: “workmanship, Tula secret, ability to create the unfeasible, pride, dynasties, continuity, competition, might, school, initiative, and talent.) (https://myslo.ru/news/tula/2016-10-19-kakim-budet-brend-tulskoy-oblasti)

It is said that about 86% of place rebranding campaigns fail.(http://www.citymetric.com/business/why-do-most-city-branding-campaigns-fail)

Let’s hope that this amalgamation of Tula’s past with the future will prove to be more successful.

“Here is the dacha garden where we were happy…” V. Nabokov

Summer passed very quickly, as it usually does in Central Russia.  Fall brought yellow and red leaves, a few scattered rains, shorter and colder days and nostalgia for the Summer – the season that for many Russians is inseparable from their dachas.

Dictionaries usually translate ‘dacha’ as a second home or a summer retreat. I think this is true only partially. Yes, dachas are houses used predominantly in the summer. But to me dacha, like living in the country, is a concept, especially since it may or may not have a livable house at all.

First dachas in Russia were country mansions, they were initially privileges of the aristocracy. But by the end of the 19th century dacha was a popular summer retreat for many. Upper and middle classes would usually rent dachas for the Summer.  For these citizens of Tula’s region cedar forests along Oka River (a tributary of the Volga) were – and still are – popular for their air.

Although the cultural phenomenon of dacha in Russia is rooted in the rise of bourgeoisie in the 19th and 20th century, dacha, as we know it today, reached its unique place in life and culture of people in the Soviet Union. If in the 1930s dachas were allocated to high Communist party officials and “art intelligentsia” and were a sign of their status, as previously the case with the aristocracy, then dachas distributed by the government in the 1960s and 1970s were, as A. Nikitin writes in Kommesrant, outside of the class frames, so to say. (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2469702).

Very far from luxury these dachas were but small lots of land supposed to be used by people to grow additional produce. This is the image of dacha familiar to those who watched a famous Soviet Oscar-winning movie Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears.  This is the image of any typical dacha of my childhood that was, at least originally, small land with a vegetable garden, several fruit trees and a shack.

Here is the picture from the Life in the USSR blog:


Today dachas are very different, ranging from big opulent summer cottages to the still existing shacks, remnants of the Soviet times. For many who spend their summers at their dachas life is often centered on the dacha during the whole year. You start to think about your dacha during winter months, you start planning your flower (vegetables) beds early in spring, you buy and plant seeds — in other words you indulge in activities that true gardeners find important and even essential. There exist many studies on the profitability of dacha’s life (non-profitable) — studies that are usually debunked by the dacha proponents in such anti-scientific sentences as “I don’t care” and “But it’s organic!” Some even suggest that for Russian people dacha is a certain wonderland as opposed to the reality. (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2469702) But no matter what one thinks dacha, in a way, is an image of life itself, tightly compressed between short cycles of sprouting and withering.

The actual work at a dacha in Tula starts usually in May, depending on the weather.

Small hothouses (teplitsy) are covered with plastic.

New stylish hothouses of any design can now be built to order.

However, many “true” dachniki still prefer to make these hothouses by themselves. Now, with the overwhelming popularity of new and improved windows everywhere in cities and villages alike old glass window panes find their new life at the dacha.

The dacha cycle quickly rolls into June with its peonies…

… buzzing bumblebees …

… and nascent fruit.

July brings proliferation of flowers and berries and first fruit of your hard labor.

Dacha changes swiftly with the progression of summer and if you don’t concentrate too much on cycles of gardening you can enjoy the immense beauty of the nature around:

Some people buy old houses in villages and go there for the summer.  If your dacha happen to be in such a place then you might, casting aside your urban life, lead a farm-like existence.  Villages in Tula, at least those that are neighboring the city, undergo a building boom recently.  So such staples of village life in 1970s and even in 1980s as carts pulled by horses, cows and even goats are supplanted by modern cars and supermarket-bought bottled milk.

August celebrates the end of summer with the abundance of apples.

Probably because of the warming climate but you can grow grapes now in Tula…

… watermelons and pumpkins.

Russian pumpkins


Fall this year was exceptionally mild and that wonderful time called Indian Summer stretched well into October. First cold days of Fall at the dacha were filled with soft sounds – the wind blowing golden leaves off trees, thumps of uncollected apples falling down – punctuated by occasional shrieks of a couple of ravens.

Fall colors in Central Russia are more subdued compared to the bright festivity of the foliage in New England. No flamboyant hues, no deep reds, ochre, no vivid orange.

Just all shades of yellow, soft purples of trees, brown and coal of the ground. Boris Pasternak’s poem Indian Summer (Bab’e leto) comes to mind:

Лист смородины груб и матерчат.

The currant leaf is coarse like burlap

В доме хохот, и стекла звенят,

The house is filled with laughter and clinking of the jars

В нем шинкуют, и квасят, и перчат,

There’s chopping, and pickling, and peppering,

И гвоздики кладут в маринад.

And cloves are being put into the marinade.


Лес забрасывает, как насмешник,

The forest, like a scoffer, throws that noise

Этот шум на обрывистый склон,

Over to the precipitous slope,

Где сгоревший на солнце орешник

Where the sun-burnt hazel grove,

Словно жаром костра опален.

Looks as if being singed by the bonfire.


Здесь дорога спускается в балку,

Here the road descends to the gully

Здесь и высохших старых коряг

Here you feel pity for the old dried-out snags

И лоскутницы-осени жалко,

And for the motley rag-picker Autumn

Все сметающей в этот овраг.

Who sweeps everything down into this ravine.


И того, что вселенная проще,

You feel sorry that the universe is simpler

Чем иной полагает хитрец,

Than some wise-man might believe,

Что, как в воду, опущена роща,

That the grove looks crestfallen,*

Что приходит всему свой конец.

You feel sad that everything has its end.


Что глазами бессмысленно хлопать,

That it is senseless to stand blinking

Когда все пред тобой сожжено.

When everything before you is burnt down.

И осенняя белая копоть

And the white spider web of autumnal soot

Паутиною тянет в окно.

Flows to the window.


Ход из сада в заборе проломан

There’s a way from the garden through the broken fence,

И теряется в березняке.

And it loses itself in the birch grove.

В доме смех и хозяйственный гомон,

There’s laughter and the noise of chores in the house,

Тот же гомон и смех вдалеке.

And the same noise and laughter is far away.

* The literal translation of the Russian “kak v vodu opushchena”  “as if lowered into the water” which is an idiom “to (look, feel) crestfallen, dejected” can also mean a more vivid image of water if we see the grove against the (blue, presumably) of the sky.

Victory Day

Victory Day is on May 9th.  Important for the Russian mind this national holiday commemorates the victory of the Soviet Union over the Nazi Germany and the end of the Great Patriotic War in 1945.  The significance of this day cannot be overestimated, especially since the events in the last decades in ex-Soviet republics and, more recently, in Ukraine, prove to us that the people’s collective memory may be rather short.

I always noticed how people who lived through the long four years of the Great Patriotic War were eternally shaped by it.  The war not only left a huge mark on each veteran but was rather a major event from which each one, no matter how successful in his or her peace life, seemed to count time.  For my grandfather’s generation you were not only a doctor, an engineer or a teacher, you were a veteran of a certain division or you were a Soviet partisan – a member of the resistance movement.  This phenomenon has absolutely nothing to do with the militant ideology.  Rather, the war left such a big impact on each individual and each family that its echo was resonating well into many years past the war itself.

For myself and my peers – those of us whose childhood happened to be in 1970s and 80s – Victory Day is one of the essential holidays and I can assure everybody that our veneration of this historic event is not the result of the Soviet propaganda.  We honor Victory Day because we understand the importance of defeating the fascism.  We consider the 9th of May a very dear day because it was always personal.  Every family was affected by that war somehow.  Growing up we heard veterans’ stories, we participated in their meetings.

In my family four men fought in that war – my grandfather, his father, and his two brothers.  My grandfather started the war as a nineteen-year-old in 1941.  A teenager, as we would say now.  He fought in the regular army, was a head of a partisan group and finished the war in Czechoslovakia.  Every 9th of May he would meet with his war comrades, usually in Moscow in front of the Bolshoi Theater.  I remember polishing his medals – he usually wore them once a year – and going with him.  I could recall many stories I heard during their meetings and I can still feel that atmosphere of comradery and joy but also of sorrow and remembrance of the fallen soldiers that prevailed there.


My grandfather passed away 20 years ago.  With every passing year there were less veterans here to share their stories with us.  “Two or three years from now who will our children see” on Victory Day? was a question organizers of the Immortal Regiment initiative asked themselves in 2012. (http://moypolk.ru/ustav-polka)  The non-government non-commercial initiative started in Tomsk as an idea — on Victory Day bring a photograph of a soldier, a veteran, a partisan, a person who worked on the home front, was in a Nazi concentration camp – anybody who has to be honored and remembered – and go in a symbolic parade so people can see and remember all members of this Immortal Regiment.

Since its inception two years ago the project grew in popularity.  This 9th of May Immortal Regiment participants marched in 450 cities in 6 countries.  (http://voiceofrussia.com/2014_05_09/photo-Immortal-Regiment-forever-remembered-by-descendants-4028/?slide-1)  Tula was among these towns.


There were several places in Tula where you could make a placard from your photograph.  The cost of each one was really symbolic (80-150 rubles or about $4.  In comparison, a 1 litter of milk costs around 60 rubles).  I think that participating printing shops volunteered their work and charged only for the materials used. (http://moypolk.ru/tula/inform-bureau)  You did not need to have a placard to participate – you could make your own poster or you could march with just a photograph.

In Tula Victory Day was celebrated with a parade on the central square and a multitude of events in city’s parks.

It is estimated that Russia lost about 26 millions of people in the Great Patriotic War.   Today not only those who fought on the battlefield but also people who worked on the home front, those who were on occupied territories and in Nazi’s concentration camps are honored.

Later, fireworks were held in several areas of the city.  Central streets became a big parking lot with everybody cheering the fireworks and Victory Day.


It took me a while to write about Easter.  Easter – Paskha – is the most important holiday for the Russian Orthodox as for many the miracle of Christ’s resurrection surpasses the initial wonder of His birth.  Being Christian I celebrated many Easters.  I also saw many pictures of people celebrating Easter all over the world.  Photographs of Easters in Russia are usually colorful, concentrating on magnificent processions taking place at big cathedrals.  “Why write about Easter in Tula?” was a question I asked myself during the past week.  “A church service is a church service and the Cross procession at my neighborhood church, however special and significant it was for me and other parishioners, may not seem any different compared to many other services and processions from better-known cathedrals around the world.”  I then realized that this unity – of services, processions and people – is exactly what makes Easter so unique.  Services in churches in Tula were held in unison with services in many other cathedrals – big and small – throughout the country and the world, echoing, in turn, other processions and ceremonies held throughout many years of Christianity.  This spiritual unity was heightened this year by the fact that both Western and Orthodox Easters were celebrated on the same day.

If the week after the Easter Sunday is the time of celebration then the week before, the Holy (strastnaia) Week was the time for reflection.  People came to Saints Peter and Paul cathedral to pray.  Father Sergius is seen here with the cathedral’s parishioners.

The symbolism of resurrection can be seen in many things, big – such as the people’s growing faith and the restoration of a very special cathedral in Tula — that of Saints Peter and Paul — and seemingly small – such as the miracle of the nature’s renewal, brighter, for some reason, this year.


Or in the city’s Spring cleaning with its usual yearly freshening of curbs.


Or, even, in the abundance of Easter’s cakes, kulichi, which in my childhood used to be baked only at home.

On Holy Saturday people brought kulichi and colored eggs for the sanctification.  This is done every twenty minutes or so, when new people come.

Easter Vigil, held later Saturday, is followed by the Cross procession at midnight.  “Christ is Risen!” proclaims Father Sergius to the people for the first time after the procession he lead around the church comes back to the front doors of the cathedral.  “Indeed he is Risen!” are the joyful replies of the faithful.  People then come inside the church for the Divine Liturgy — a very solemn and important service for every Christian.

Later the Holy Fire was brought to the cathedral.

Holy Fire Russia Peter and Paul Cathedral

Eastertide or Easter Season lasts forty days, from Easter Sunday until the Feast of the Ascension.  The importance of this festive time to me lies not only in celebrating per se as in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and the ethical values emphasized by the resurrection.  Love, forgiveness, renunciation of violence and unity based on tolerance sound especially important in light of the recent events in Ukraine.

International Women’s Day

My return to Tula coincided with the 8th of March, the International Women’s Day.  Commemorating the women’s struggle for emancipation this holiday was predictably very popular in the Soviet Union.  It became a non-working holiday in 1966.  In my childhood, in the 80s, the International Women’s Day was still associated with its history but right now in Russia this holiday lost any previous political coloring completely.

Today the 8th of March in Russia centers on expressing your love and gratitude to women.  It’s like a mixture of Valentine’s Day (becoming very popular on its own) and Mother’s Day.  But you don’t have to be a mother to be congratulated.  You just have to be a female – precisely the reason that some people consider this holiday sexist.

The tradition to congratulate women starts at school, when all girls receive small gifts from their classmates and teachers get numerous bouquets of flowers.  It continues throughout the country’s offices and other workplaces.  The festive fervor increases dramatically on the 7th of March.  The holiday’s all-encompassing nature (unlike, say, Mother’s Day, which is usually limited to your mother and your mother-in-law) requires not only men but women as well to congratulate all the women they know, including your dentist, if she happens to be a woman, your child’s teachers, your hairdresser, the concierge at your building and any other woman, in addition to those from your family, that you feel you have to wish a “Happy 8th of March.”

No wonder that this festive yet hectic atmosphere of everybody running around with bouquets of flowers and boxes of candy can be frustrating.  Walking to get some flowers in the morning of the 7th I saw three car accidents in the span of one hour in addition to many men looking really concerned.  And this is before the 8th itself, when one of the tradition for men is to do all household chores!



Men buying tons of sweets.

The 8th of March is the first spring holiday so it is all about flowers.  Bouquets of any type – including plush toy ones – are available 24/7 at this flower market.


I hear that the street near this very popular flower market is usually crowded with cars in the dawn hours of the 8th.


A boutique selling soft toys bouquets.


But just a couple days before the holiday smaller improvised flower stands appear throughout the city.  In contrast to fancy arrangements they offer mostly simple bouquets of tulips and whole branches of mimosas sold out of carton boxes.



Despite the ugliness of some of these stands many people prefer to buy their flowers there.  Not necessarily because they are cheaper than roses found in stores but because these stands remind them of the past.

This year the 8th of March happened to be unusually warm and sunny.  I remember previous International Women’s Days in Russia and people walking in the snow with bouquets of tulips wrapped in old newspapers.  But this year the streets were dry and clean and it was a pleasure to see women, smiling or not, carrying flowers in their hands, in their bags and, hopefully, in their hearts.



Storing the Past

Storage huts, or I should probably call them storage sheds – are sarai in Russian.  I mentioned them earlier, these remnants of the past.  Either solid brick ones …


… or dressed in pale grey of the weathered wood …


… these storage sheds are still a staple of courtyards of many Soviet apartment buildings in Tula.


You walk by a charming old house in the city’s center, a very good, quiet and green area.  You notice that many apartments have been repaired recently (there are new windows everywhere)…

small dom u parka

… the courtyard looks very nice, too, clean and quiet…

inner yard dom u parka

…and here they are — these old storage sheds, rickety but still standing.

garazhi sarai dom u parka

Storage sheds existed always in Russian towns, but in 1950s and 1960s and probably earlier they were officially considered “household buildings” and built with the development of apartment houses.  Each apartment was entitled to its own storage shed; people used them for storage but many, especially in smaller cities and towns, kept some small livestock there.  A family could keep a pig and a couple of chickens in their sarai, as well as use it for storage of potatoes and other vegetables for the winter.  Barrels with pickled cucumbers and apples, sauerkraut, jars of preserves – all very helpful and often indispensable items in a Soviet family’s diet.  It seems that the fight against keeping the livestock in these storage sheds was initiated by Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s but was not always successful.  

I remember such sarai from my childhood – a rusty metal bar across, a big key for the lock.


Now there exists a number of issues associated with the sarai; for one, their legal (cadastral) status may not always be clear.  (This is the reason, probably, why apartment owners of the adjacent buildings cannot tear them down on their own.) Besides being the thorn in the side of aesthetically attuned citizens storage sheds may also be a real fire threat.  Once in a while you read about these fires, many of them probably arsons.  This is one of the reasons city and towns’ administrations decide to raze storage sheds down, an act that sometimes receives a mixed reaction from the citizens.


One of my favorite Soviet movies is Eldar Riazanov’s “Garage”.  Out in 1979 this satirical comedy has a seemingly uneventful plot: a meeting of members of a garage cooperative in a research institute.  A new highway construction will be going through the territory allocated for the cooperative thus reducing its space by four garages.  Whose future garage will have to be sacrificed is for the members of the cooperative to decide.  The subtleties of human nature depicted in the film are universal and a-temporal (this is precisely the reason this movie remains so popular) but are, nevertheless, based on Soviet realities.  It is a fact well known that the script is based on the real story that happened to Riazanov in his own quest for a garage.

A garage, similar to a car, was a coveted, very costly and often unattainable possession in the Soviet Union.  Leaving in a city you could not just get a garage for your personal car, you could either be eligible for one (being a war veteran or handicapped) or you could become a member of a garage cooperative.  Urban garages transcended their main purpose of protecting lucky citizens’ cars from the elements and thieves.  In the land of no private property it was a quasi-private territory for a Soviet man, a strange substitute for a man’s study and even a club.  You could use it for storage – starting with vegetables and preserves for the winter and parts for your car.  You could spend numerous weekends there in peace working on your car or mingling with other lucky owners of neighboring garages.

Large garage cooperatives were located in non-developed areas of cities and towns.  It was not unusual to first put your car in the garage and then spend some considerable amount of time getting home.  Those “garage towns” stand there now mostly unpopulated; they will eventually be engulfed by the growing city.  But there are also plenty of garages within the city’s central areas.  Like storage sheds, in Tula you see  garages in courtyards of houses everywhere –

…single garages …

…and rows of garages.



Today these metal rusty boxes look ugly, their status often lowered to that of storage sheds (sarai).  I can only imagine what sarai and garages keep nowadays – old furniture, old toys, probably a lot of glass jars used for pickling which, in its own turn, became so much less popular.  Anything but not chickens or pigs!  And moreover, probably not cars either.  It is strange but you seldom see an open garage or a car pulling out; and I know many people who own a garage but prefer to keep their cars in parking lots.

Storage sheds and garages will undoubtedly be gone soon.  But now they are storing the past.

Barracks: Part 2

Barracks represent an era where communal housing was common, which, for Russia and the Soviet Union, is a big span of the twentieth century.  This was an era where people used to live together and were shaped by this “togetherness”.  Here is a picture of people celebrating a holiday.  Barracks are in the background.

Segen's picture
(The picture is from the archives of V. Dolgosheev, from http://ssgen.livejournal.com/495769.html)

It is precisely that feeling of a happy communal living that my mother praises when she recalls her grandmother’s room in a barrack on the outskirts of Moscow.  I find that kindness, generosity and love that she always describes when talking about her visits to her grandmother’s room are the results of my great-grandmother's nature and the happy obliviousness of the childhood in general (when you're not that concerned about one toilet for thirty families) rather than that of the barrack’s itself.  But mostly barracks are associated with unhappiness and poor living conditions.  Igor Kholin, a great Russian postavangardist poet, a member of the famous Liаnozovo group of underground poets, wrote in the 1950s:

Дамба. Клумба. Облезлая липа.

Дом барачного типа.

Коридор. Восемнадцать квартир.

На стенке лозунг: МИРУ — МИР.

A damb.  A flower bed. A mangy linden tree.
A barrack.
A hall.  Eighteen apartments.
On a wall there is a slogan: Peace to the World.

Or another:

Кто-то выбросил рогожу.

Кто-то выплеснул помои.

На заборе чья-то рожа,

надпись мелом: «Это Зоя».

Двое спорят у сарая,

а один уж лезет в драку.

Выходной. Начало мая.

Скучно жителям баракa.

Somebody threw out a burlap.
Somebody threw out slops.
Somebody’s mug is on the fence,
“This is Zoya,” a writing in chalk says.

Two are arguing near a storage hut,
one is ready to get into a fight.
It’s a day off.  Beginning of May.
The residents of the barrack are bored.

With years, barracks lost their already dubious charm completely.  I can imagine that people who still have to stay in barracks find themselves in the shabby world permeated by signs of the past.

paradnaya blog engels
The picture is from http://vengelse.ru/foto/3912-kirpichnyy.html

Ceramic tiles, durable and costly now but used everywhere in Soviet time, walls, covered by coats (how many?) of indestructible green paint, wooden steps of stairs and communal kitchens.

koridor koshka engels

(The picture is from http://vengelse.ru/foto/3912-kirpichnyy.html)

Dilapidated storage huts outside.

sarai barak

sarai big baak

But traces of beauty or, rather, human perpetual aspiration for beauty, still remain now, like flowers seen in the following picture put there by somebody’s hand.

flowers barak

The modernity, even if in the form of a satellite TV, takes over.

barak inner yard

Today there exist several government programs of moving barrack residents to new apartments.  I believe that the date for the completion of the move is set for 2015.  But the implementation of these programs is difficult, especially in smaller towns, as new and affordable public housing is usually universally scarce.  Here, in Tula, “depopulated” barracks stay empty for some time ready to give way to their fancier counterparts  – private town houses, cottages and fancy high-rises.  It is amazing how fast they are gone, destroyed.

It took an excavator just a couple of hours to raze down a whole barrack.


A truck came later, picked up the debris and by the end of the day there were only yellows gas pipes remaining of loves, joys, laughter, death, sorrows, birthdays, breakfasts, dinners, words – of lives of the barrack’s many inhabitants.


Barracks: Part 1

I wouldn’t exaggerate if I say that barracks aren’t pretty.  For me, as probably for any Russian of my generation, “barracks” are not associated with the army, as they are in English, or with the labor camps but designate a type of public housing.  Despite my recollection of various camps barracks in the art of such Gulag survivors as Yury Dombrovsky or Varlam Shalamov, in a word association game, when asked about barracks, I would think about public housing first.

As public housing one or two-story barracks in Russia were incepted on the rise of the industrial revolution and were being built well into the first half of the 20th century.  Wherever affordable and, what’s most important, fast housing was needed barracks were used.  It is amazing how much comes to mind when I think about barracks despite my lack of special interest in the subject.  I know about the efficiency of barracks for soldiers in the WWI and workers at various grandiose construction sites during the years of Soviet industrialization.  I must have read many stories about the Soviet life and watched films in which barracks were a background against which protagonists’ stories developed.  But most importantly, I saw whole settlements around factories and mines comprised solely of barracks.  I realize that in my life I must have seen many of them since I can describe their various shapes and colors, construction materials used and atmosphere that comes to mind when the word itself, “barrack”, is uttered.

 Here is a row of wooden barracks.


pink wooden barak boldina
And barracks made of wooden frame with some cement/gravel mixture in the walls.
two pink houses boldina

For somebody reading my posts it may probably appear that I find these various old houses, dilapidated storage huts and other such things on purpose.  But in fact – and this is what I find interesting – they still exist in central areas of the city and one passes them every day.  Compared to some other smaller towns, barracks in Tula are definitely not a prevalent trait of the landscape, neither are they terribly decrepit.  They do exist, or rather, coexist with new luxury town houses and high-rises and I see them as remaining symbols of an epoch that soon will be gone forever.


orange barak and big house 2

It is amazing how people don’t really notice these barracks.  I asked several of my acquaintances here whether they can tell me when some of these houses were built.  The reaction I got surprised me, as some people couldn’t even recall the houses I mentioned.  “It’s difficult to concentrate on anything else but the road while driving”, one friend explained to me.  And he lived in the area since his Soviet childhood and used to pass many of these barracks even when he did not have a car.

I don’t know what happens.  I guess your eye gets used to details that you find unimportant or uninteresting.  Or, probably, you just don’t notice the familiar anymore.  Or, rather, it is a habit of protecting yourself from ugliness by not noticing it, as another friend suggested when I brought it up.

But in fact barracks are not that ugly either.  They may seem ugly to us now, but when some of them were built they were considered beautiful and an improvement of one’s housing conditions.  It was some time in the beginning of the 1950s when the barracks seen on the following picture were built.  “They had separate entrances and big windows, small terraces, flowers in front,” a grandmother, who used to be a girl back then recalled in our recent conversation.  “We, the children, used to go there and look at such good, as we thought at the time, houses.”


two yellow houses boldina
If barracks had separate entrances they certainly did not have running water or toilets inside.  Each room, on each side of a long hall would usually have a separate wood or coal stove, the main source of the warmth for the residents.  Probably some barracks built later, not in the 1930s but in 1950s had improvements, but by the look of the water pump outside – still working and used, as seen in the following picture – there still is not any running water inside.

barak front

Janus, God of Time

Janus, in Roman mythology is the god of transitions, beginnings, endings and time.  His two faces look to the future and to the past.

I recalled Janus recently when passing a building in Tula’s center.  A regular residential stalinka, e. g. typical of Stalinist architecture and probably built in late 40s or early 50s, this house is no different than a dozen of other such buildings that adorn this quiet street.  The building’s ground floor houses an office of a law firm and a recently opened cosmetics shop.


I have to add that remodeling first (ground) floor apartments of residential buildings into offices and shops became one of features of architectural design in Russia in the last decade or so.  So this building is no different.  It faces now a row of newly developed townhouses made of brick (or imitation brick) …

cottages cropped

and plastic siding.

town houses white pervomaiskaia

The back yard, though nice and quiet, has a different feeling altogether.  It overlooks an old but still stout town house, a more frail-looking five-story khrushchevka (an apartment building typical of Khrushchev’s era city planning) …

inner yard house and khrushch

… along with a usual set of dilapidated wooden storage huts (sarai) …

back yard sarai

… and metal boxes of private garages.


Each of these constructions represents an epoch in itself.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the old white house survives from the beginning of 20th century when the street had a different name and was not in the center of the city as it is now but on the outskirts…

I can imagine how happy people were to get new apartments in that khrushchevka…  At that time, in the 60s or probably 70s this was already a great city area – near the park, in the center.  In fact, a family friend, herself in her sixties now, still lives there with her mother, a general’s widow, whose husband was given one of the apartments here when he retired…

I can still enumerate hurdles one had to go through in 1980s in order to get a permission to build or install private garages…

And those sarai, storage huts, where people kept everything from boxes of New Year tree ornaments and empty jars in the summer to potatoes – in basements – and rows of self-made preserves in the winter!  Sometimes, at least in provincial towns, people kept pigs or rabbits there, too.  But this was the time of deficit.

If sarai and garages are noticeable right away, then a small sign on the back wall of this apartment house is not.

ubezhishche dom

The sign is rusty and covered by different paper flyers advertising moving companies or plastic ceilings.  But one can still read “Shelter No. 3” on it.

ubezhishche table

Another era.  That of the pre-WWII or the beginning of cold war when bomb shelters were built in basements of newly built residential buildings.  Buildings typical of Stalinist architecture were constructed from 1930s until the end of 1950s.  Looking at this house now I wonder when exactly it was built.  My main question is, of course, whether this inner yard with its fancy SUVs parked here now, saw black NKVD’s, secret police’s cars, rolling in the night and quietly stopping to pick up some or other resident of this prestigious house and unleash yet another personal tragedy?

History often hides behind modern facades.  Universally true this fact is even more obvious in Russia.  Walking in Tula I am constantly aware of these overlapping layers of time, of beginnings and endings, and of transitions.  Looking into the future I hope that bomb shelters and storage huts will remain in “inner yards” of our collective memory but in our present we'll be accompanied by more peaceful, though mundane, cosmetic shops and town houses instead.

Wooden Houses: Fall

I already wrote that I like Tula’s old streets for their mellow beauty, half-erased by time, but still present.  Walking here you get a feeling of harmony, which stems from the area’s architectural uniformity.


Balance of history and architecture is clearly perceivable in this area despite the fact that many of these old houses are dilapidated.


In the spring old gardens and orchards in bloom offset marks left on these streets by merciless years.  On the contrary, signs of time become more obvious against old snow in late winter or dust in the middle of summer.  But Fall, with its greys and browns, suits the weathered wood and stone of these houses better, I think.  In the Fall these streets blend with the dark sky, leafless trees and the rain.  Imperfections dissolve and what remains is a watercolor painted with just a few but deep earthy colors.  


Sometimes, though, modernity clashes here with history.  Like the orange and the green of a hardware shop on the following picture.


Or graffiti on the wall with a church in the background.


Or even an old tractor, probably a survivor left from the Soviet times, charmingly draped in a similarly old and similarly representative of those times rug.


You stumble on these inconsistencies with the area's general mood.  But then, of course, you can always zoom in.