Zherdelas, Chekhov and Imperial Past — a Trip to Taganrog

by Alexandra Yudina

"The train to Rostov departs at 18:40 from the first track," a monotonous female voice uttered from the loudspeaker of the Kazan railway station. The eight of us were on our way to Taganrog, a provincial town in the South of Russia. Tossing suitcases and bags, we climbed into our compartments and dumped all the food on a small table. We're off. In Rostov-on-Don, the main train was unhooked, and the two remaining cars went to Taganrog. Upon arrival, we were exposed to humid southern air, intoxicating heat, and cheap taxis.

Taganrog is not popular amongst tourists. It is visited by twice as few people as Sochi or Sevastopol each year. The only well-known fact about Taganrog is that Anton Chekov was born and spent his youth there. Located in the Rostov oblast in the bay of the Azov Sea, the town has no more than 260,000 residents, and the population decreases consistently.

The five of us settled in the apartment of my relatives because part of my family hails from Taganrog. The others moved into a guest house nearby. I used to spend every summer here and served as a guide on this trip. Our apartment is located in a typical Taganrog courtyard with abundant landscaping, ornate gates, and masonry. For tourists, the conditions may seem a little out of date: somewhere there is no glass in the windows, in some places, amenities are unavailable. Yet the yard has its charm. Taganrog locals do not need modern conveniences to lead the usual relaxed lifestyle.

Peter the Great, who established the town in 1698, hoped to make Taganrog the capital of the Russian Empire.

The Russian-Turkish war is believed to have interfered with the plans, and the city remained unfinished until the end of the 18th century. Ruins of military fortresses and palaces of Mediterranean merchants are located side by side on the main streets because Taganrog used to be the largest military and commercial port.

We tried to plan our week, yet following the schedule turned out to be quite difficult. All of us felt relaxed once we got there as a break from Moscow's routine was what we needed heavily.

In the morning we went to the Central Market for groceries, where all the local flavor is concentrated. A mix of chicken squeaking and the cries of the barker traders could be heard everywhere. Sometimes understanding what the sellers were talking about was confusing — there are a lot of dialectisms in the local speech.

  • "Zherdela is a wild apricot (grammatical forms of words are preserved — Editor's note)," the trader told us.

  • There are also interesting verb forms: "skuplyatsya" ("to buy" — Editor's note) and "spechsya" ("to be baked" — Editor's note).

  • And Taganrog residents simply call the bushes "kushari". Having spent a week in the town, we lost our Moscow accent and began to speak like locals.

In the afternoon a cultural program was scheduled. Singling out the best sight of Taganrog is challenging as all of them are worth visiting. Taganrog itself is an attraction. The Museum of Urban Planning, built according to Shechtel's project, is an art museum where the collections of both the XVIII and XXI centuries are displayed. Its mosaic ornament is commonly considered to be a masterpiece. Multiple sights are related to Chekhov's name: the writer's family store in Gogolevsky Lane, the gymnasium, where the playwright studied, and the family nest. The latter makes a strong impression regardless of its modest size and decor. Being formerly used as an outbuilding, the place has green-painted shutters and a sloping roof. It is so tiny that one has to bend down to fit inside the rooms. Visiting Chekhov's house felt like travelling back to imperial Russia. Furthermore, we got to understand many of his characters better. All of them are inspired by Taganrog residents.

The evenings were usually spent at the public beach on the coast of the Azov Sea. It is easily accessible if you go down the Stone staircase, the symbol of Taganrog. 188 stairs is not a big deal after all! You have to do it both ways, though. Going down, small islands of greenery where youthful companies gather can be seen. Two embankments — Pushkinskaya and Chekhovskaya — are decorated with a scattering of copper statues and bright blue tents with inflatable toys and souvenirs. Everything is traditionally Russian there: hot corn from local merchants, noisy family and friendly trips with beer and loud music, mud treatments. And, of course, inflatable "bananas" and "vatrushkas" are available for a risky ride. The water is warm, like from a tap, greenish-turbid and fresh.

As a person who has been visiting Taganrog since early childhood, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia.

The trace of the rich past, the commercial and cultural life of the seaside city is visible everywhere: on wide landscaped streets, on dilapidated walls, in narrow shady alleys, in windows with peeling frames and courtyards, cramped and rocky. It seems that the city has frozen, remained in the past.

But I want it to live and hope we can make that happen.

One week passed so fast that it could barely be noticed. We found ourselves standing at the Kazan railway station again. This time Moscow awaited us.