When we entered the ATR-72 turboprop plane for our evening flight from Sochi to Astrakhan, my friend Olga and I were a little surprised at the ethnic mix of passengers on board. Nordic, Southern European, Caucasian, Central Asian, Western Asian and “typical Russian” features were all visible on the two-hour flight to the city via the Volga. As we were to find out over the next three days, Astrakhan, which has a population of 526,000, is home to members of 104 of Russia’s 120 ethnicities.
Ajay and her friend Olga on a cold morning
The small airport is only a 15 minute drive from the city center and we were lucky to find an apartment in a well maintained Stalinist era building literally across from the Astrakhan Kremlin.
Walk around the city at night
Our first task was to try the city’s highly publicized Caspian cuisine. Although it was only 9:30 p.m. on a Friday, the beautifully landscaped area that sits near Lenin Square and borders the Kremlin was nearly empty. Tastefully lit, the neighborhood had a distinct Mediterranean feel. With a bearable cold breeze and crystal clear air, I found the surroundings romantic, but my travel partner said she had a strange feeling as we hadn’t seen anyone on the street.
As we walked down to the riverside we found our first Caspian themed restaurant. Olga managed to calm down over a bottle of white wine and a few local specialties, such as Volga Delta sturgeon and ukha, which many restaurants refer to as Tsar’s fish soup on their English menus. .
Astrakhan at night
The main activity at night in Astrakhan revolves around the streets leading to the edge of the Volga. This is where the young people of the city go to clubs or bars. There were signs of nightlife in this part of town, but we had seen much larger crowds in much smaller Russian towns. Locals told us later that they took the pandemic more seriously than their counterparts in other parts of the country and as a result there were so few people on the streets.
Feel the diversity on display at the Kremlin
On my first morning in town, I embarked on an exploratory run and was absolutely in awe of downtown. The plaza that was empty the night before was a hub for exercise and sporting activity. Under a clear blue sky and hot sun, I saw well-tended flower beds and trees that had leaves in all fall colors. The season of colors had come and gone in northern Russia in haste in 2021, but Astrakhan was still in mid-fall mode in November.
Astrakhan Kremlin Church
Later in the morning, we decided to explore the impressive White Kremlin which towers over the city center. Located on Zayachy Hill, this massive fortress was originally built in the late 16th century and has been altered several times since. Entrance to the Kremlin, which opens at 7 a.m., is free and there are stalls where you can buy local crafts. I couldn’t resist the urge to buy a handcrafted wooden fridge magnet with an engraved image of this ancient fortress.
The Kremlin is a great place to take a stroll or sit on a bench and enjoy the great historical vibe, as many locals do, but we wanted to know more about this fascinating and well-preserved monument. So we took a tour of the resort – in a golf cart! The present-day Astrakhan region was disputed among various groups and empires until the mid-16th century, when it became part of the expanding southward Russian Empire. An experienced guide shared with us lots of historical facts about the Kremlin and the city.
After our visit we were treated to an unexpected audiovisual treat. As the sun battled the gray clouds of autumn and warmed the temperature to 18C and the bells rang from the Cathedral of the Assumption, a group of teenagers dressed in various ethnic costumes traveled by from the church. Over the next 20 minutes, the colorful group performed a series of dances reflecting the cultures of the various ethnic groups that made Astrakhan their home.
Astrakhan Assumption Cathedral
We first saw a Russian folk dance, followed by a Tatar dance, and then a performance of the indigenous people who inhabit the Astrakhan region. We were fortunate to be in the Kremlin on the day the city celebrated Russian National Unity Day.
This ethnic diversity is seen everywhere in Astrakhan, but nowhere is it more visible than in restaurants and bars, where groups of people from different backgrounds are seen socializing and partying.
Ajay at the Astrakhan Kremlin
Astrakhan is also known for its religious diversity. We visited two newly renovated mosques which are located just outside the historic city center. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit outside of prayer times. There seemed to be a strong Persian influence inside these mosques, which is not surprising given that Iran is just across the Caspian Sea. The city also has an Iranian consulate and a Russian-Iranian banking joint venture. Some stores in the city sell imported Iranian sweets.
During our three day stay in the city, we had the chance to get to know people from Dagestan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. For those in other Caspian states, Astrakhan is seen as a logical entry point to Russia. In fact, several students from former Soviet countries study in the city.
Enjoy the unique architecture
The most interesting feature of Astrakhan is that no street in the historic center seems to be the same. A street full of red-brown brick structures from the early 1900s is cut in half by an artery that features buildings mixing Art Nouveau, Renaissance and Classical architecture! Likewise, a walk along the outer walls of the 16th-century Kremlin offers views of 19th-century buildings that appear to have been transplanted from St. Petersburg.
Tastefully restored building in Astrakhan
Longtime residents say many of the city’s heritage structures were in disrepair, until ten years ago when Russian President Vladimir Putin took a personal interest in reviving the city, reckons given its strategic location near the Caspian Sea.
The victory of the Soviet Union at the Battle of Stalingrad and the halting of German troop advances in southern Russia helped save the old buildings in Astrakhan during World War II. The radius around the Kremlin and the riverside is European in character, but once you cross the canal a whole different side of the city opens up. These areas have Persian and Tatar ethnic localities, known locally as “sloboda”. One has the impression of crossing a whole other century walking through these districts with their wooden cottages and comfortable courtyards.
While there is a strong sense of community here, the neighborhood belongs to the lower middle class and unfortunately doesn’t appear to have any Tatar or Persian style cafes. We were told that the best place to taste this kind of food was the Tatar Bazar, which we couldn’t visit. Residents of these ethnic enclaves apparently preferred to either cook at home or eat in food courts in shopping malls.
A wooden house outside the center (L); One of the oldest churches in Astrakhan
The classic Russian quarters of Astrakhan offer a wide range of dining options, including an elegant restaurant named “Onegin” (named after Alexander Pushkin’s famous novel in verse “Eugene Onegin”), which features stylish interiors. XIX century, chandeliers, paintings of the greats of Russian literature and plays the music of Russian composers Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. Many other restaurants are themed around the Caspian Sea.
Spend an evening on the banks of the Volga
It goes without saying that the best place to spend an evening in town is the riverside promenade. Runners, cyclists, families, college students and retirees all converge on this stretch in the early evening, as another day drags into night.
The small islands that can be seen from the promenade are home to a variety of birds that scramble to find refuge in the trees before dark. As the river flows south towards the Caspian, the nature is absolutely breathtaking. Visitors to Astrakhan during the warmer months often head to the Volga Delta, which is a biodiversity hotspot and home to various species of flora and fauna.
We made it a point to catch the sunset over the Volga on two occasions during our brief visit. Few experiences in Russia compare to seeing the red sun set behind the country’s most iconic river. The ensuing twilight paints the sky of Astrakhan in a unique crimson hue.
Astrakhan with Olga
Standing by the river on my last evening in town, my gaze turned to the left, where about 100 kilometers to the south, the great Volga flows into the Caspian Sea. This area has always been a major transit point connecting north and south, east and west. For several hundred years it was the intersection of the east-west trade route north of the Caspian Sea and the north-south trade route down the Volga to Persia. I couldn’t help but think about how much the city has the potential to become a major commercial, logistics and tourism hub, if Russia, India, Iran and the Caspian coastal countries give a new impetus for the development of the international North-South Corridor.
Astrakhan, such as it is, remains a privileged place where several cultures meet and mix. As a melting pot of religions and ethnicities, no city in Russia (outside of Moscow) represents the diversity of this colossally vast country as well as Astrakhan. The city’s community harmony and friendship has set an example for many other parts of the world struggling to cope with the close interaction of various ethnic groups.
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