September 01, 2007

Kaluga's Rocket Scientist

Kaluga's Rocket Scientist

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, 1857-1935 

Kaluga is a wonderful city. It lies a bit off the beaten path, with no stunning historical architecture or monuments to antiquity. But perhaps it is easier to understand Russian history and culture here than in the towns of the Golden Ring, where you can barely take two steps without running into a group of sightseers being shepherded by a booming tour guide. Kaluga is an ancient city, dating back to the early 14th century. Its name is even more ancient, probably of Finno-Ugric origin, which implies that people lived here before the dawn of history and before Slavs came to these parts. 

The city’s heyday came during the 18th and 19th centuries, when local manufacturers of paper and cloth brought prosperity to the town. But at the end of the 19th century a fateful decision was made. The city rejected the idea of having the railroad come through town, and by the time they realized the impact this would have on commerce it was too late. Today the city does feature a train station, and you can travel there from Moscow by rail in just over three hours. Nevertheless Kaluga is off the major lines, and this is a stroke of luck for lovers of old architecture: perhaps because the city did not develop as rapidly in the 20th century as it did in previous centuries, many marvelous buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries have been preserved. As you wander the city’s quiet, tree-lined streets, or stroll through its park or along the banks of the Oka River, which nobody took the trouble of lining with granite, you feel immersed in the history of a Russia that existed outside Moscow and St. Petersburg; you understand that  much of what was important and interesting took place outside of Russia’s capitals. 

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