STUCK ON STALIN: How This Russian Town is a Blast into a Soviet Past

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Incredible how people could still admire that murderer, Stalin.

On a small stage in a community hall, still grandly called a Palace of Culture, a powerfully built lady belts out an old Russian gypsy ballad.

Then a choir of podgy teenage girls troops out, all dressed in sky-blue party frocks, like something out of the 1950s.

The mostly elderly spectators, sitting in their raincoats on wooden chairs, listen attentively.

It is a fitting mid-afternoon concert to find in Oryol, a Russian provincial town which prides itself on its cultural heritage, and its links to an extraordinary number of Russian authors.

Ivan Turgenev, the 19th-Century Russian novelist of elegant love stories, came from here. So did Ivan Bunin, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature. So did the ingenious storyteller Nikolai Leskov, the poets Tyutchev and Fet, the short story writer Leonid Andreev…

It is as if one small English town had produced Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, T S Eliot and Philip Larkin and many more.

“How did this one place give rise to so much literary talent?” I asked the mayor, Sergei Stupin, who was taking me on a personal tour in his car, to show me all the writers’ statues.

“Who knows?” he answered obliquely. “Something in the air, perhaps.”

Old Russia

The director of the Turgenev Museum, an enthusiastic bibliophile called Vera Yefremova, was clearer. “We are in the very middle of Russia,” she said. “And in tsarist times Oryol was at the heart of a huge guberniya, or province, which covered a large area and included many estates.

“We like to call this the third literary capital of Russia, after Moscow and St Petersburg. Last year we had 65,000 visitors. But it could be so much more,” she added wistfully.

Like everywhere else in provincial Russia, Oryol is looking to Moscow to furnish more federal funding for upcoming anniversaries. “To rebrand ourselves,” says the mayor, a former marketing man.

But there’s a long way to go before Oryol becomes a mecca for tourism. It feels trapped in time.

When I arrived by train from Moscow I was struck by how reminiscent it was of the Soviet towns I had known as a student.

Read more: BBC

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