Samara was founded in 1586 as a strategic ostrogue, a fortress for protecting Russia’s commercially valuable waterways. It was built largely by the military, using peasant labor, at the confluence of the Volga and Samarka rivers. Samara was officially recognized as a town in 1688 but would be ruled by a voevoda, a naval officer, until 1775. This official was in charge of collecting customs and attempting to curb the piracy of nomadic tribes along the Volga.
Samara has a rich and varied history. It was razed in 1670 during the bloody First Peasant Rebellion, in which Stepan Razin led 7000 Cossacks, peasants and the disaffected against the czarist government. Razin was later executed in Moscow. He was succeeded by Emanual Pugachev a hundred years later. Pugachev claimed he was the then-deceased Peter III, who was overthrown by his German wife, Catherine (the Great). Whether Pugachev believed his claim is still a matter for historians to debate, but what is not is the destruction his band of rag-tags wreaked on the city. Catherine responded to the violence by creating a colonization project (centered in Saratov) and inviting German peasants to develop the region’s extensive farmland and help tame it’s frontier. The region would become largely German and remain unaffected by large-scale uprisings until the Russian Civil War, which started in Samara when a group of Czech war prisoners seized control of first, their military train, then the city.
The Soviets changed the name of the city to Kuibyshev in 1935 and considered the city so important to the country’s struggling industry, and particularly to military aviation, that they closed the city (to foreigners, immigration, or emigration) during WWII. WWII would also see most of the area’s 1.5 million Germans dispersed when a reactionary movement sent most of them into exile or to forced-labor camps.
Today, Samara has been restored its original name and is helping to lead the country back to capitalism. German influence is still felt (see, for instance, the massive Lutheran Church), although the German population is now minimal. It is still an important industrial site as well as a crossroads for many rail and river transportation lines including the Trans-Siberian and routes connecting the Caucases with the Urals. Its beauty and rich heritage have attracted many tourists including Alexander Dumas in 1858 (while writing his book From Paris to Astrakhan).
Samara now offers one of Russia's few Social Work programs and numerous volunteer opportunities within the community in areas ranging from business leadership to dance. Its surrounding national forest and unique archipelago offer unique possibilities to biologists and geologists. Finally, with some 1.5 million residents, it is now one of Russia’s largest and most important cities, but it is still small enough that people continue to greet each other on the street regularly and to offer help to a stranger in need.
Thinking about a trip to Samara?
Why to Go There: The city’s main tourist attraction is Stalin’s WWII war bunker, built several stories under the old Mayor’s residence. Beyond this, however, the city produces much of Russia’s spacecraft (see the museum!) and boasts an interesting blend of old Russian and German architectural styles as well as a handful of ultra-modern buildings, which serve as a sign of the city’s growing economy. Also worth mentioning are the city’s very friendly people and growing nightlife.
Budget: A couple of days and about 3000 ru ($100)
How to Get There: Trains leave regularly from the Kazanski Railroad Station (at the Kazanskaya Metro stop). You may buy tickets there. The trip is some 17 hours, however, so you may wish fly there or back. Student-discounted plane tickets may be purchased (in advance) for perhaps $60.
Sample Itinerary: Given the city’s distance from Moscow and St. Petersburg, you will likely want to combine a trip to Samara with a stop in Volgograd or Saratov. In any case, we recommend arriving in or leaving Samara via train, if only to see Europe’s biggest train station. It’s ultra-modern to the point that it feels Jetsens inspired, and is a conversation piece among the locals (particularly they discuss the multi-million dollar price tag). Beyond this, you can spend a day just walking up Frunze St. from Pl. Revolutsii to the Drama Theatre, then back to Pl. Revolutsii via Kuibysheva St. This will take you past Stalin’s bunker, both major art museums, the Stukovski Gardens (and just beyond them, the wide Volga), the Catholic and Luthern Churches (both built in German Styles), the Drama Theatre (also in German style) beyond which you can see the very Russian Iverski Nunnery. For an evening’s meal, the Zhili Bili on Pl. Revolutsii is a favorite with the locals and with tourists both for traditional Russian food.
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