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Ulyanovsk: Magic of Lenin and Twin Rivers
ULYANOVSK — Ask any Russian what Ulyanovsk’s claim to fame is, and the most likely reply will be: “Lenin was born there.”
But only an Ulyanovsk native will tell you that the Soviet founder is just one of many prominent people associated with the city —and that the secret to why Ulyanovsk has raised or attracted talented people is its location on the Volga and Sviyaga rivers.
The two rivers flow in opposite directions a few kilometers apart in the city. Local folklore has it that the two flows create a mysterious energy that makes Ulyanovsk a magnet for famous people.
“There’s the opinion that the water is energy. Can you imagine two energy flows in different directions? They appear to create a sort of energy field,” said Roman Razumov, head of the Ulyanovsk tourism information center.
“I guess, that’s simply magic,” he said.
In addition to Vladimir Lenin, whose original surname, Ulyanov, now serves as the city’s name, the list of people associated with Ulyanovsk includes the writer Ivan Goncharov and the poet Nikolai Yazykov, who were born here in the early 19th century.
Alexander Pushkin mentioned Ulyanovsk — then known as Simbirsk — in his famous novel “Captain’s Daughter” after visiting the town to collect information about the peasants’ war described in the book.
Modern Ulyanovsk looks very different from what Pushkin must have seen, with rows of multistoried houses occupying the left bank of the Volga. Restaurants belonging to international food chains like McDonald’s, Subway and Baskin-Robbins jostle for space with Russian chains like Shokoladnitsa, Yolki-Palki and Il Patio.
Lenin would no doubt turn over in his Red Square tomb if he could see the makeover that capitalism has brought to his hometown since the Ulyanovsk regional government started implementing an investment program in 2005 that offers significant tax breaks to domestic and foreign investors who set up shop in the city or its suburbs. The program has attracted the likes of British brewer SabMiller, U.S. chocolate maker Mars and Henkel, the German producer of consumer goods and construction materials. The city of Ulyanovsk is also home to SUV maker UAZ and aircraft producer Aviastar.
“The first big foreign company — SabMiller — came to Ulyanovsk in 2006, followed by Mars. Now we see new foreign investors arriving every year,” said Sergei Vasin, executive director of the Ulyanovsk region government agency responsible for working with investors.
The presence of big firms encourages other foreign investors, Vasin said.
Despite the burgeoning manufacturing sector, Ulyanovsk doesn’t leave the impression of an industrial town. The industrial zones are located far from its historical center, where time seems to have stopped and a visitor feels like a character from a Pushkin novel.
What to see if you have two hours
At first glance, the main Ulitsa Lenina in central Ulyanovsk could hardly be distinguished from a street in an ordinary Russian village, with small wooden houses lining both sides. In fact, Ulyanovsk is one of a handful of cities that has managed to preserve the atmosphere of an old Russian province. That is why the city’s wooden architecture is the first thing that catches a visitor’s eye.
Start a brief tour of downtown Ulyanovsk along Ulitsa Lenina, with its colorful two-story wooden houses preserved in their original late 19th-century style. Check out the fanciful design of the carved window casings, which are reminiscent of delicate lace.
Drop in at the Lenin House Museum (68 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 8422-39-49-70), one of four museums dedicated to Lenin in the city. The low-key wooden building was the first home owned by the Ulyanov family, which previously had lived in rented houses. The house, where the Ulyanovs spent their last 10 years in the city before moving to Kazan, bills itself as a place where visitors can get a sense of how provincial intellectuals lived in the second half of the 19th century and displays some of the family’s personal possessions.
On a recent visit, a friendly elderly museum attendant in a knit woolen shawl, Tamara Tarasova, eagerly shared stories about the candlesticks and other furnishings in the house.
After the museum, head up the street to Ulitsa Goncharova, the local version of Moscow’s Arbat, to see the three-story house with a redbrick facade where the writer Ivan Goncharov was born. The house, which now hosts a local history museum, is known as Big Ben among the locals thanks to the clock tower dominating the building.
Just a few meters down the street, stop at a viewing point that provides a breathtaking view of the rolling Volga. The site is easy to find thanks to an enormous stele in the middle commemorating those who died in World War II.
Alternatively, wander through the historical center of Ulyanovsk, with at least a dozen museums concentrated in an area of 174 hectares. Visit the estate of a typical Simbirsk resident (90 Ulitsa Lenina; +7 8422-32-63-19; Ulzapovednik.ru/en/) from the beginning of the last century, complete with an original samovar and a real Russian pechka, a big brick stove that doubled as a bed.
Then head to Bulvar Novy Venets, the highest point in the town, for the best view of the Volga. The promenade surrounded by leafy green tree crowns is a favorite place for Ulyanovsk residents to relax.
En route, check out the monument to the letter “Ё,” which was added to the Russian alphabet by historian Nikolai Karamzin, an Ulyanovsk native, in 1797 and is almost out of use in modern Russian. A big slab of red granite with the carved letter is located right on Bulvar Novy Venets.
For a one-stop tour of all things Lenin, check out the Lenin Memorial (1 Lenin Square; +7 8422-44-19-56, +7 8422-44-19-22; Lenin-memorial.ru), a huge museum complex built in 1970 to mark the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth. The heart of the complex is a massive building covered in marble and shaped like two rectangles resting on rows of columns. The museum is crammed with information about Lenin’s life, his contemporaries and his enemies. Exhibits also include paintings, sculptures, illegal and forbidden literature and satirical magazines. Don’t miss the observation deck offering a stunning view of the Volga.
What to do if you have two days
Locals take particular pride in the President’s Bridge, which spans the Volga and at 14 kilometers is the longest bridge in the country. It opened in 2009 after 25 years of construction. One fun way to view it is from a steamboat on the Volga (bookings via Lenin’s Hometown, +7 8422-32-45-32, Ulzapovednik.ru/en/).
For those interested in soaking up modern history with the locals, spend the better part of a day at the Civil Aviation Museum (8/8 Ulitsa Mozhaisk, +7 8422-34-90-42), checking out more than 9,000 exhibits, including 38 planes and helicopters, the oldest of which date back to the 1920s. The museum is located near the Ulyanovsk Baratayevka Airport, about a 30-minute drive from the city center. Visitors can climb into the cabins of a Tu-154 passenger jet and a Mi-8 helicopter.
For the more adventurous, rent a log house in the picturesque settlement of Russky Bereg located on the bank of Volzhsky Bay, 70 kilometers northeast of Ulyanovsk (+7 9272-70-30-65; Rusbreg.ru). For 2,500 rubles per night, you’ll get all the simple pleasures of the Ulyanovsk countryside, including a rooster crowing instead of an alarm clock in the morning and fresh milk and vegetables from the local farm. Traditional Russian cuisine like pelmeni meat dumplings and pirozhki pies are served in a communal dining room (about 500 rubles per day).
The Ulyanovsk region Philharmonic Hall has a broad repertoire ranging from Russian folk music to songs of world-known international bands like ABBA and the Beatles performed by the Ulyanovsk State Symphony Orchestra (6 Ploshchad Lenina; +7 8422-41-83-16; Ulconcert.ru).
For those who prefer family sports activities, bowling in the Kosmos, the largest entertainment center in Ulyanovsk, would be a good option. Bowling Club Galaktika offers eight bowling lanes, including two for children (2 Prospekt Generala Tyuleneva; +7 8422-54-62-62; Kosmoball.ru). Prices start at 450 rubles per hour.
Where to eat
Restaurant Feniks (Enterra mall, 39 Ulitsa Radishcheva; +7 8422-444-754; Restoran-feniks.ru) is the most likely place to meet the local business and political elite and is frequented by the governor and the mayor. Audit Chamber chairman Sergei Stepashin and Rusnano head Anatoly Chubais were spotted here on a recent visit to the city. Hand-carved wooden furniture and Chinese silk paintings provide a welcoming atmosphere for quiet conversation in a non-official setting. The menu offers Chinese, Japanese and European cuisine, and the lamb fried with onion and cilantro on a cast-iron pan is a must-try. A meal for one without alcohol costs 1,000 rubles.
Restaurant Volga (3/38 Ulitsa Goncharova, inside the Volga Hotel; +7 8422-42-11-80) is a popular downtown venue among Ulyanovsk business executives wanting to make a splash for their birthdays and other occasions. True to its name, the 85-seat restaurant specializes in fish, with zander baked with mushrooms, cheese and mayonnaise being one mouth-watering option. A meal for one without alcohol costs 700 rubles.
Where to stay
Imperial Club Deluxe (60 Ulitsa Alexandrovskaya; +7 8422-240-240; Imperial-hotel.org/en/) is the town’s only high-end hotel, located about a 20-minute drive from Ulyanovsk Baratayevka Airport and 20 minutes from downtown. The 16-room hotel puts visitors right in the middle of the lifestyles of the local elite, nestled in a neighborhood of newly built cottages. Prices range from 6,000 rubles per night for a single to 23,000 rubles for the four-room presidential suite. Recent prominent guests include pop music composer Konstantin Meladze.
Barcelona (45 Ulitsa Bebelya; +7 8422-794-332; Barcelona-ul.ru) is a cozy three-story hotel tucked between Ulitsa Lenina and Ulitsa Goncharova in the heart of Ulyanovsk. Its name is displayed on a huge banner depicting the Sagrada Familia church, one of the well-known attractions of the real Barcelona in Spain. The hotel, which has 23 rooms starting at 4,200 rubles for a single, is popular among visiting politicians, actors and athletes. Photos of guests hanging in Barcelona’s lobby include opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, skating champion Irina Slutskaya and Soviet stage legend Edyta Piecha.
The town was founded in 1648 as Sinbirsk and later renamed Simbirsk, before adopting Lenin’s original surname. But locals love to talk about whether the town should return to the name of Simbirsk.
The young people tend to favor the change, while the older generation, still devoted to Lenin’s heritage, isn’t very happy about the idea.
“The voices are divided equally. I like Simbirsk more because it’s the name that was given to the town when it was founded,” said Razumov, of the tourism center.
Another popular topic is the poor quality of local roads, which are filled with potholes. “What a nightmare!” complained taxi driver Tamir as he bounced his car through another pothole on the way from the hotel to downtown Ulyanovsk. Bad roads, however, are a good bet for conversation in almost any Russian city.
Other helpful hints
The best time to visit Ulyanovsk is the summer. High snowdrifts and a lot of snow on the sidewalks in winter make it hard to walk.
The Ulyanovsk locals are very friendly and talkative, so you can get a detailed historical background simply asking for directions in the street.
How to get there
Depending on the airline, daily flights from all three of Moscow’s airports take one hour 20 minutes to two hours 15 minutes to cover the 893 kilometers east to Ulyanovsk. Tickets start at 2,500 rubles round trip.
There are two airports in the city located on opposite banks of Volga.
The Ulyanovsk Baratayevka Airport (+7 8422-45-56-45; Airport73.ru) — a small two-story building with only one check-in counter — is located nine kilometers southwest of Ulyanovsk, or a 30-minute drive from downtown.
The bigger Ulyanovsk Vostochny Airport (+7 8422-28-78-29; Ulvost.ru/eng/) is the base for Volga-Dnepr Airlines and Polet Airlines and boasts the world’s third-longest public-use runway at 5,000 meters. It is also the world’s widest runway of its kind, at 105 meters. The airport is located 28 kilometers northeast of Ulyanovsk, or an hour by taxi from the city center.
Daily trains depart from Moscow’s Kazansky Station for trips of 14 hours 22 minutes to 17 hours 30 minutes. Round-trip prices start at 2,500 rubles.
Main industries: Aircraft manufacturing, car and machinery manufacturing, confectionery, brewing, pet care products, construction materials
Mayor: Alexander Pinkov
Founded in 1648 by Tsar Alexis I’s boyar Bogdan Hitrovo as the fortress of Sinbirsk
Interesting fact: A nine-day fire destroyed 75 percent of the city in 1864.
Sister cities: Krefeld, Germany; the U.S. cities of Macon, Georgia, and Oklahoma City
Alina Abitova, marketing department head with the Ulyanovsk region Development Corporation (+7 8422-41-28-80; Ulregion.com).
Major Ulyanovsk Factories
Ulyanovsk Car Factory, or UAZ (8 Moskovskoye Shosse; +7 8422-40-61-59; UAZ.ru) is one of Russia’s largest carmakers producing SUVs like the Patriot and UAZ-469, as well as trucks and commercial vehicles. The plant was founded in 1941 after staff and equipment from the Moscow Car Plant were evacuated to Ulyanovsk during World War II.
Aviastar-SP (1 Prospekt Antonova; +7 8422-20-35-06 or +7 495-238-34-13 in Moscow; Aviastar-sp.ru) is one of the largest manufacturers of aeronautical engineering in Russia and focuses on the production of Tu-204 jets and the An-124 Ruslan, the world’s biggest heavy transportation aircraft.
SABMiller Rus Ulyanovsk (1 44-y Inzhenerny Proyezd; +7 8422-26-54-04, +7 495-637-93-10 in Moscow; Sabmillerrus.ru) is one of three Russian breweries operated by global brewer SABMiller and produces the brands Simbirskoye, Zolotaya Bochka, Tri Bogatyrya and Velkopopovicky Kozel.
After a 30-year career at UAZ, he served a stint in the regional administration and was elected mayor in 2010.
Q: Why should foreign investors come to Ulyanovsk?
A: We have one of the best investment laws in Russia, offering investors excellent breaks on all kinds of taxes, including income tax and land and transportation taxes. Most important, we finance the creation of infrastructure in industrial zones from the regional and city budgets. So when an investor comes to a site, he only needs to build facilities, set up equipment and start to implement the project.
Q: What are you doing to make Ulyanovsk a convenient place for foreign investors to work?
A: It’s hard to attract foreign investors without creating world-standard living conditions in the city. So maintaining roads and transportation infrastructure and developing the restaurant business, culture and sports are a priority. We have set aside more than 3 billion rubles ($107 million) in the municipal budget to improve living conditions in 2011, including 2.5 billion rubles for road maintenance.
Q: Which sectors are developing the most rapidly in Ulyanovsk?
A: I would have to say machinery and car manufacturing, the aviation industry, health care and the whole consumer sector, including the restaurant and hotel business. We’ve started construction on a Hilton hotel as well as another five four- and five-star hotels.
Q: What would you recommend to see in Ulyanovsk?
A: We’re lucky to have a number of places to visit. We have preserved the places connected with Lenin’s name, no matter what people might think of him now. I grew up on Ulitsa Lenina, right opposite the Lenin House Museum, and I remember very well from my childhood the long lines of people waiting to visit.
President of Mars Russia
Q: Why did Mars choose to invest in Ulyanovsk?
A: There were many factors that influenced our decision, including a good location, infrastructure, labor market and investment climate. We are happy to say that the region has this favorable combination.
Q: How are you cooperating with the regional and local authorities? Are they helpful?
A: We like the regional government’s approach to creating a favorable investment climate in the region. The governor and his team take care of the investment projects that are under way. They have visited our sites many times to see how construction is going on and provide help if needed.
Q: Is Ulyanovsk a convenient place for the Mars employees to live and work?
A: I’ve been to Ulyanovsk many times, the town has changed since 2007 when I first came. A new bridge, which opened two years ago, facilitated connection between the two parts of the town. It’s good for us because our production sites are located in Zavolzhye, across the river from downtown. Much is being done in the service sector as well.
Q: What are your development plans in the city?
A: We launched a factory making pet-care products in 2009, which reached full capacity last year, and plan to install additional production lines there. Another — chocolate — factory is under construction to be launched next year. (MT: Investment in the projects totals 4.6 billion rubles, or $164 million.)
Q: What would you recommend to see in Ulyanovsk?
A: I think the panoramic view of the Volga River from the Lenin memorial is magnificent.
founder of Lita,
an 18-year-old small business that makes handiwork crafts from simbirtsit, a type of calcite mineral unique to the region and found along the banks of the Volga River.
Q: What’s it like to develop a small business in Ulyanovsk?
A: I started my handicraft business from the ground up and have seen all the obstacles with my own eyes. It’s hard for craftworks to survive in Ulyanovsk, Moscow or Nizhny Novgorod.
Q: What challenges have you faced?
A: The law on small and medium-sized businesses applies equally to my company and the local sellers of Chinese goods. They have a bigger turnover and can have the profitability of 30 percent to 40 percent, while we have profitability of only 5 percent. The amount of government support, however, is the same regardless of what kind of business you have.
Q: How do you manage?
A: We just work a lot.
Q: What do you like most about working in Ulyanovsk?
A: I was born here. I have simbirtsit, and I have been working with it since the 6th grade.
Q: What do you recommend to see in Ulyanovsk?
A: The historical center, which is in fact a small town from the late 19th century, is a must-see because there is nothing like it in the world.