Sviyazhsk Island (Tatarstan, Russia), or How Ivan the Terrible Conquered Kazan
Русская версия Thirty kilometers from Kazan up the Volga river, there is a city of Sviyazhsk. A small island of the great history. The stronghold town was built in the forests, transported by the Volga River, and assembled within one summer month of 1551. Sviyazhsk was constructed as a fortress of Ivan the Terrible, who conquered Kazan from it.
Ivan the Terrible decided to build the fortress after the unsuccessful campaign of conquering Kazan in 1550. Unlike the previous campaigns and multiple sieges, the enterprise of 1552 was planned very seriously. Local Finno-Ugric tribes were ordered to stay and Sviyazhsk and prepare for the campaign, while the main forces came from Moscow. Gradually, Russian army gathered around the fortifications of Kazan Kremlin and made several undermining. Despite the chaotic character of the storm, the unassailable fortress Kazan fell. After Kazan was conquered, most of the Volga region was annexed to the Tsardom of Russia. Sviyazhsk, and later Kazan become the centers of Christianizing local tribes, including those who lived in Kazan too. And Sviyazhsk is indeed very rich in churches.
Today, you may reach Kazan by car (about one hour from Kazan, the parking lot is at the entrance to Sviyazhsk island, since there are no roads here). 9 kilometres from Sviyazhsk there is a railway station, connected with the island through a dam (you will have to take a taxi).
The simplest and the most romantic way, however, is by ship from Kazan. The ship departs every day at 8.20 (arrives at 10.30), returns at 16.30 (arrival at 18.45). Also, every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday there is an additional ship for tourists (departs at 9.00 and returns at 15.00).
On the arrival, you may join a guided tour, in which they will even transport you on the small trams. Or, you may easily walk yourself, using the map. It is impossible to get lost here.
The road leading to the center of the island will bring you to the market and historical reenactment place. Here, you may buy souvenirs, try some blacksmith’s work, shoot from crossbow, or simply eat.
The sights of Sviyazhsk are easy to find as there are always signs next to them. This, for instance, is a mansion of merchant Kamenev of the XIX century.
Having performed its main function, Sviyazhsk became a rich city. It was a monastery center with twelve temples and two cloisters. During the revolution, half of the churches were demolished, and the monasteries were turned into prisons. The model of one of Sviyazhsk prison cells:
The flood of Kuibyshev reservoir cut the island off the civilization once and for all. Sviyazhsk became a refuge of the sick, exiled, insane and outcast. The exhibition of the museum “Island-town Sviyazhsk” tells a lot about those days.
Out of three thousand people who lived here before the revolution, today not more than two hundred is left. Now they live in the island in its new status – as a museum city. Yet, there are many arguments about this status and its consequences, as too many tourists come, and the construction workers are said to demolish what could have survived in the archeological dig. The tastes of the island decorators are also sometimes arguable:
Most of the churches were renovated, some still await restoration with the crosses on the places where they were built.
The first, Uglich church of the island was built in the forests in 1550 within one light day only. The church was reconstructed when the island acquired its recent status.
In front of the Uglich church, there is the largest and the latest cathedral in Sviyazhsk built in 1898–1906 due to Mother Superior Apfia, who had collected money for it. The cathedral was damaged during the Soviet years, although not too much.
In the Sergiev church, the relics of St. German are kept.
The ensemble of Horse Yard (XVII – XVIII centuries) served as a household territory of the prison, and later – mental hospital during the Soviet years.
The corpus of Unspensky monastery situated on the island (nowadays you may buy fresh pastries here) served as a gulag prison and a corpus of mental hospital too. Next to it, there is a monument to the victims of political repressions.
One day in Sviyazhsk (coming and leaving by the ship) is enough to visit major sights; you will have some time just to walk too. Sviyazhsk stands out in Tatarstan, it an unexpected salient place of Orthodoxy in the middle of Muslim culture.