Bryansk was founded in 1146, just a year before Moscow – at least, that was when it was first cited in a chronicle, which is the standard way of dating Russian cities. Its name, which was originally “Debryansk”, approximates to “wooded hillside” in Old Russian. That is an accurate description of its physical geography, as we shall soon see.
In the Soviet Union, Bryansk was a rather ordinary lower-tier Russian provincial system, based on textiles and some minor metallurgy. It should not have been a success story after the end of the USSR, and I wasn’t expecting it to be – its population had declined from a peak of 461,000 in the early 1990s to 406,000 by 2018, constituting a fall of more than 10%. Frankly, I was expected it to be a dump. So I was pleasantly surprised to the upside. From what I saw there over the course of a couple of days, it is a thriving and friendly city, with very nice roads, an astounding amount of historical renovation (the churches are in better condition than in Veliky Novgorod, despite the latter’s having much more historical significance), and even the beginnings of the SWPL culture that already dominates central Moscow and Saint-Petersburg (e.g. craft beer pubs, girls with dyed hair, etc). Considering that Bryansk is not particularly successful according to statistics – it is, in fact, somewhat below the Russian median in terms of salaries per capita – this suggests very good things for Russia as a whole.
Some other observations:
(1) The Bryansk region was one of the last core Great Russian territories to come under the total suzerainty of the Russian Empire, and as such imbibed considerable Ukrainian and Belorussian influence. Its main monastery held the largest fair in the Russian Empire for several centuries. It would not be an exaggeration to call it the Crossroads of the Russian World.
(2) This extends to linguistics. In the villages, old people would still use phrasings such as “у Брянску” (в Брянске), “иде я нахожуся” (где я нахожусь?), and “поссмащить” (IIRC, to slurp something up, e.g. soup; possible a bastardization of the Ukrainian “посмикать”). The beet is also known as a буряк there (as opposed to the Russian свекла).
(3) The Bryansk people are noticeably more religious than northerners or central Russians, though they are still nowhere near as religious as the Black Earth regions. This was visible even just based on church attendance, in terms of not just how many but also in terms of who attend (e.g. young men).
(4) They are also more patriotic (as suggested by this map I made). There were St. George ribbons everywhere, and one of the burger joints we visited featured a #CrimeaIsOurs burger.
(5) As I have noted on occasion, Southern Russian girls really are prettier than Northern and Central Russian girls. I think you’ll even see hints of this in these photos.
Bryansk lies 400 km south-west of Moscow. While it took most of the day to get there during Soviet days, that is now down to 4 hours thanks to modern trains.
The Bryansk main train station has some genuinely nice Soviet era artwork, including stained glass windows and a metallic/stone map of rail routes from the city at the far end of the hall.
There is a considerable amount of construction activity going on. While these flats are hardly elite class [top], they are cheap and have all the modern amenities. The other photo shows a typical suburb [bottom].
The Svensky Monastery was founded in 1288 and, like many monasteries, had a rich military and economic history. During the 17-18th centuries, it hosted the largest fair in European Russia outside its walls.
The view from the top is spectacular, a vast expanse of forests and waterways that once harbored the partisans that did battle with the Nazis and the Lokot Autonomy.
And here it is by daylight.
Unfortunately, the great bulk of the monastery’s buildings were blown up by the Bolsheviks in 1930.
The Assumption Cathedral [above], built in the early 18th century, is a reconstruction of the original that is close to completion.
The Church of Saints Anthony and Theodosius [above] was likewise destroyed by the Bolsheviks, and reconstructed in 2010. The cross commemorates the 100th year anniversary of the start of repressions against Orthodox Christian priests and laity in 1917.
The house where Peter the Great stayed before the Battle of Poltava [bottom]. Also destroyed by Bolsheviks, and recently reconstructed.
There is also a 16-17th century belfry that was destroyed in 1930 and has yet to be reconstructed.
This wasn’t the only such suspended vehicle on the roads. It appears the road constructors here have a sense of humor.
This is the Bryansk Partisan Museum.
It is worth noting that the Great Patriotic War is every bit as central to Bryansk’s identity as it is to that of Volokolamsk’s or Veliky Novgorod’s. It spend almost two years under German occupation, with the attendant demographic losses to dearth and reprisals against civilians for partisan operations. Shells and armaments are still dug up every year. One local acquaintance reported how he and his schoolmates found a functioning Makarov pistol during the 1960s and played around with it, even to the point of taking it to school. This was a criminal offense, though their school hushed it up (though they did get spanked for it by their parents).
There is an impressive collection of military hardware spanning the 1930s-1970s period.
This is a map of the main zones of partisan activity in Bryansk oblast. It is claimed that the 60,000 partisans destroyed 150,000 fascist occupiers.
Monument to a partisan.
Reconstruction of a partisan camp in the forests [top], and of a partisan dugout [bottom two]. There was some interesting information on how the partisans manipulated their stoves and other equipment to avoid detection.
Wild nature man appears.
Expansion of the museum continues.
The museum contains exponents of partisan weaponry, as well as the diaries of partisans, accounts of Nazi atrocities, etc.
Now we return to the city of Bryansk.
This monument to Peresvet is located at the top of a wonderful vantage point with a view over a large part of the city.
This fountain and the Bryansk Oblast Philharmonic Orchestra in the background [bottom] happen to stand at the site of the New Pokrovsky Cathedral, which was built in 1862 and blown up in 1968.
Ironically, according to the Russian Wikipedia, it was said that there were orders from Moscow not to go through with the explosion the day before, but the zealously anti-religious Bryansk obkom – apparently still in the throes of Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign – had other ideas and went through with it anyway. When asked to explain themselves, they pretended that they got the countermanding telegram a day late [А. Венедиктов. Взрыв назначили на субботу. / «Брянская Газета», № 12, март 1992 г.]. The destroyed cathedral is commemorated by a small chapel.
But a city of Bryansk’s size does need a cathedral in post-Bolshevik Russia, and with the New Pokrovsky Cathedral long gone, the Patriarch Alexy II took the decision to construct the Trinity Cathedral in 2005.
As you can see, it’s a rather beautiful building, with no expense being spared regarding interior decorations.
You can get a patriotic #KrymNash (#крымнаш = “Crimea is Ours”) box at this very fine dining establishment for 225 rubles.
I will conclude this post with a series of everyday scenes of life from Bryansk:
There were a couple of places I was unable to visit in Bryansk: The local museum (краеведческий), and the Kurgan of Immortality WW2 monument.
That is not a terminal problem, since I would be happy to visit Bryansk again, and there’s a good chance I’ll do so again in one or two years.