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Soon-to-be on the UNESCO list: Gorokhovets – a 17-th century monotown

, Architecture
Translator Olga Baltsatu

How it turned out that the center of Gorokhovets in 2017 looks exactly like it did in the time of Peter the Great.

View of the town from Nikolina Mountain

A new Russian site was included in the preliminary UNESCO list of world heritage sites in March 2017: the historical center of Gorokhovets, Vladimir Oblast. This is the first case of a monotown getting such recognition. If you look at the contemporary indicators of its life, it mostly resembles the other 319 settlements in that category. The “city-forming enterprise,” the plant “Elevatormelmash”, which produces suspension cranes and conveyors, has a hard time finding orders. A few schools, one college, and one branch of an institute are working. The population has decreased by a thousand in the last ten years, so now there are about 13,000 residents. However, if you go into the center of town, it might seem like the age of industrialization hasn’t only not passed, but hasn’t even reached this place yet: time here seems to have frozen somewhere during the reign of the Romanovs. And two years ago, the center of the town was suggested for the UNESCO list as a part of the preparation for the celebration of Gorokhovets’ 850th anniversary in 2018.

The chairman of the Russian world heritage committee, Igor Makovetskiy, gave a detailed description of the procedure and described what concerns the specialists had: “It began with Sergei Rybakov, the deputy chairman of the Federation Council Committee for Science, Education, and Culture, turning to me with an offer to ‘try to write an application’. That was exactly how he said that – at the moment there are more than 200 cities in the UNESCO list that have a historical center that’s considered to be part of world heritage – that is why they are very strict with the nomination. Also, the town is quite small”.

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An estate on Lenina street, it is now a library

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The Annunciation Cathedral

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A window of the former Shorins’ house

Nevertheless, the process, which consists of two stages, was launched. According to the rules you first have to write a short application explaining why the place is so valuable. In the case of Gorokhovets, these are its architectural ensemble and its layout, which were formed in the 17th century and have remained almost untouched for 300 years. “If that application is accepted and the object is included in the preliminary list, as happened in this case, a second detailed description with explanations, proofs of value and preservation, and other information is created. The specialists from UNESCO come to explore the object and make corrections, if needed. After that, the question of the object’s inclusion in the main list is put to a vote, which takes place during the annual session”, Makovetskiy explains.

Strelka Magazine found out how Gorokhovets differs from other towns, how four centuries just flew by there, and what might change if it is included in the main list.



The first criteria according to which Gorokhovets was noted by UNESCO is its “high standard of historical 17th century urban landscape”. That was the time when the city was going through economic growth and was one of 12 biggest cities in the country. It had 230 homesteads, 36 stores, eight factories, but most importantly: rich merchants’ stone mansions. Eight of them still remain, which is very rare for Russian cities. There are houses with both classic arrangements (for that period) and innovative solutions. Walking along a few streets, one can learn a lot about civil architecture in the 17th century.

Most of the mansions are located around the main square of the former trading quarter. All the roads led to it, and the voivode’s (governor’s) homestead and a monastery were located there. There were also the mansions of two competing merchants. The house of Semyon Ershov, the richest citizen, is considered to be Gorokhovets’ oldest civil building: presumably, it was built in the 1660s. The size of the building matched its owner’s extensive work: his two-storey mansion was the biggest in town, 30 by 10 meters. Unfortunately, nowadays its décor has been almost completely erased and the walls are dilapidated. If you don’t know the history of the building, you may just walk by without noticing it.

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The merchants Kanonnikovs’ mansions

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Town street

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Shorin's former house

And on the other side of the square, there is the house of the merchants Shiryaev. Their mansion was three floors high with the traditional division of functions: the first one was for household services, the second one was the main one – it was decorated with beautiful frames – and the third one was residential. It is fascinating that the owners of the house chose such an unusual enfilade room layout for a building like this. Apparently, they wanted to look more fashionable and modern. A lovely porch, symbolizing their high status, is another important detail of the building.

The houses of two other businessmen of the 17th century remain between the main square and the river. The building where the ZAGS (the civil registration institution) now resides belonged to the Oparin merchant family. The house used to have one more wooden floor, and the rooms were set up traditionally for that time: the two mansions were separated by an entryway. The mansions of the Kanonnikov merchant family are situated not far from there. These were Gorokhovets’ first residential buildings where the grand staircase was put inside the house, rather than outside.

There is yet another interesting landmark located on Nagornaya street. These mansions belonged to the Ershovs as well, and now they house a historical architecture museum. Some historical interiors were recreated after a complicated renovation, so now one can imagine how wealthy citizens lived there in the past. But the most valuable detail may not actually be the house itself, but rather its oak gates that remain from the 17th century. According to historians, there is no other ensemble like this in Russia.

This ensemble was noted in 1970 when Gorokhovets was included in the list of Russia’s historic cities and in the Golden Ring route. According to local residents, tourist buses are often observed here, but they usually just pass by. Unfortunately, there is almost no tourist infrastructure in the center of the town, if you don’t count a group of taxi drivers by the edge of the square. The two cafés that are mentioned on the city administration’s website are now closed. There is a grocery store and bookstores, a newsstand and a funeral home. The reason for the latter lies in the fact that there are two monasteries and one church nearby.

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St. Nicholas Monastery

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Town street

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The gates of the former shipbuilding plant

Last year, during the warm season, the first tourist information center appeared on the main square. One could get a map there, buy coffee, a magnet or a traditional pryanik, and take a photo in the “semi-antique” interior. No books about the city were being sold last season. “It’s not Vladimir, it’s a small town, there is probably not enough money”, Makovetskiy explains. He also says that if Gorokhovets gets into the UNESCO list, then books, souvenirs, and various services will most likely appear. However, the “conservation” of the historical center will be the main result. “It just so happened that new construction moved away from it all the time, without touching the historical building. When its borders and the buffer zone adjacent to them are specified, no one will be able to build anything new or demolish anything old here. Instead, additional obligations to protect the historical center and preserve it in good condition will appear”, Makovetskiy points out.



The second proof of Gorokhovets’ value is connected with the Russian tradition of building fortifications in the uplands: the town was declared “a standard for the interrelation between an urban architectural ensemble of the 17th century and the surrounding natural landscape”. In order to experience the meaning of this formal phrase, one would have to go up Nikolina Mountain and look around. This is the spot where the 200 by 100-meter fortress, the main cathedral, and other buildings were situated. This area was called “detinets”, and it was fortified with a five-meter high rampart. One can still see the remains of the rampart and the place where the gates were. The town acted as an outpost, which is why it was important to make it impenetrable.

The terrain was probably the reason for residents’ life to move further and further down to the mountain’s base to the trading settlement. And the St. Nicholas Monastery was founded on the area of the fortress in the middle of the 17th century. It is worth visiting in order to see the second oldest stone church in the town. This is the Trinity – St. Nicholas Church, which was built in the 1680s with the richest local merchant Semyon Ershov’s money. “Architecturally speaking, the five-domed cathedral belongs to the archaizing tendency, which came together in the area of Vladimir itself: in Suzdal, Vyazniki, and Gorokhovets. Such churches are focused on earlier architectural models from the middle of the 17th century, and sometimes they interpret the features of 16th-century cathedrals as well”: this is how the significance of the building is explained in the “architectural heritage” community. They also point out that the bell tower and the walkway leading to the refectory replicate the shapes of wooden architecture. The other buildings in the ensemble were built with donations from the brothers Shiryaev, who were rich merchants. During the Soviet era, only the overgate church was demolished here: a film club was set up in other buildings.

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The Shiryaevs’ mansion

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The view of the Annunciation Cathedral and the church of St. John the Baptist

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The Kanonnikovs’ mansion

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The Kanonnikovs’ mansion

One should also go up the mountain to get a view of the town, including the first stone cathedral. This is not easy to do from other spots: it is situated beyond the Klyazma river in the Znamensky monastery. The abode was founded in 1598 and was built with the merchant Ershov’s money as well. This is the only ensemble that has remained on the lower, constantly flooded coast. It becomes island-like during when the river floods, and there are times when one can only get to it by boat. But if it is reachable you can conduct an experiment that was suggested by Makovetskiy as a justification of the town’s historical value. If you compare the town plan dated from 1722, which was drawn from that same spot, and the current view, you can observe that in 300 years all the dominant structures have remained almost untouched.

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Town streets

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Town streets

The hilly terrain played an important part in the town's past and present. One of the hills, Bald Mountain, is considered an archeological landmark. Also, there’s a ski resort on Puzhalova Mountain. All the tourist infrastructure of the town has been grouped together there: a hotel, a café, and a dance pavilion. This part of the town could become the second center of attraction due to wooden mansions of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Two of the most outstanding of them combine the concepts of art nouveau and local traditions of woodworking.

The first one is located on Lenina street (the former Blagoveschenskaya street). The chairman of the county council, Prishletsov, built it in 1915. The main roof of the house is a traditional, gable one. The entrance is adorned with a canopy. The quadrangular tower with a hipped roof and a spire was set above the entryway, and the mezzanine (the superstructure over the middle part of the building) is barrel-shaped. There is a carving with floral ornaments, lions, and Berehynias on the facade, which is why the building is often called “the house with mermaids”.

The second art nouveau house is situated on the Moscow Highway. However, when the owner of the Gorokhovets shipbuilding plant, the merchant Shorin, was building a dacha there, it formally belonged to the village of Krasnoe. The businessman decorated the wooden building with shaped windows, curly frames, carvings, and two towers of different shapes. One of them required bending logs in order to put them in a circle. The House of Folk Art resides there now.

Incidentally, Shorin’s plant brought glory to Gorokhovets at one point. The biggest (at the time) naphthalene barge “Marpha Posadnitsa” was built and launched there in 1907. The metal workers were invited to help with the construction of various objects all around the country, including assembling the Shukhov tower on Shabolovka street. Shorin’s enterprise, which used to produce sea vessels even for little Klyazma, doesn’t work anymore. The hope remains that the town’s historical center will help bring its glory back.

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