There are towns with many museums, and then there is Yelabuga, which is a whole museum town. Here, at the very heart of Tatarstan, people live surrounded by history, with famous names and legends anywhere they go. Even in the pedestrian street of this town time seems to have stopped. There are no visible features of modern times here. Every building and every brick can tell a story.
The thousand year old town of Yelabuga is located in the north-east part of Tatarstan at the confluence of the rivers Toyma and Kama, 215 kilometers to the East of Kazan. Long ago there was a ferriage across Kama here, which was a part of a trade caravan track leading from the center of Volga Bulgaria to the Kama region and further to the Arctic Ocean.
Yelabuga’s most mysterious place and one of its most popular places for visiting is, of course, the Yelabuzhskoye Chertovo (Devil’s) Hillfort (11th – 12th centuries). This architectural monument of the pre-Mongolian period of Volga Bulgaria is steeped in numerous legends. According to one of them, in the tower of the Hillfort there lived some priests, who demanded gifts from anyone sailing down the Kama River. After receiving the gifts, they saved the ships from wreckage. The secret of their power lied in a sunken rock which was called Bull. The stream of the river rushed to this rock with such force from the opposite bank that ships could easily sink in these waves. There was a sunken rock there indeed, but when the navigation of vessels through these waters became really busy it was decided that the rock must be destroyed in order to avoid accidents.
In the town itself it is hardly possible to make a single step without coming across a museum or another monument. Old houses are still inhabited by people or occupied by modern organizations. You can feel that cozy atmosphere of a very old town just by walking around one of the neighborhoods with merchant mansions, along the pedestrian Kazanskaya Street.
Proper tourist itineraries always include the Memorial House of the famous painter Ivan Shishkin, the Memorial House and the Literature Museum of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, the Library of the Silver Age of Russian Poetry, the Manor Museum of Nadezhda Durova – that very noblewoman who fought against Napoleon’s army in the Russian Patriotic War of 1812. You could expand the list with the Local History Museum, the unparalleled Portomoynya Museum which shows how our ancestors did their laundry, the Bekhterev Museum of Small Town Medicine, the Workshop Museum of Applied and Decorative Arts, the art salon and the exhibition hall. All these places belong to the Yelabuga State History, Architecture and Art Preserve Museum.
For those willing not only to experience history but also to stay for some time in a town full of historic monuments there are six hotels, a recreation center and even a health care resort.
It is recommended to book rooms in advance, in case the date of your visit coincides with the well-known Spasskaya Fair – the biggest and most stylized of all fairs in Russia, or with the international Marina Tsvetaeva conference (because this is the very town where Tsvetaeva’s life tragically ended), or with the international symposium on modern painting – at this time the Shishkin ponds and the Aleksandrovsky garden are usually crowded with artists sitting before their easels.
The town, which at that time belonged to the Vyatskaya governorate, became a place of brisk trade, one of the merchant centers of the Kama region, in the second half of the 18th century. In the 1860s Yelabuga was equal to Vyatka (modern-day Kirov) in the number of merchant citizens, while having 3.5 times less population in total. Among the citizens were the very well-known merchant families of the Ushkovs, the Girbasovs, and the Chernovs. However, the richest and busiest family was the Stakheevs. They invested money into the construction of some local training schools, a grammar school for girls, a school for the blind, the eparchial school for ladies, the Aleksandrinky orphanage, churches and monasteries, as well as a power plant and even the water supply system. After the big fire of 1850 which destroyed most of the wooden houses, the buildings were only constructed from stone, some of those buildings are still intact. The Naberezhnaya, Pokrovskaya, Kazanskaya streets became the most vivid examples of merchant housing.
Bus: from Kazan’s Tsentralny (Central) bus terminal, travel time – 3.5 hours
Plane: Moscow – Nizhnekamsk (transfer to Yelabuga takes 30 min)
Train: Moscow – Naberezhnye Chelny (transfer to Yelabuga takes 20 min)