To understand the way of life of the Mordva peoples, the Erzia and Moksha, you should travel north-west of Saransk to the ancient town of Temnikov. Stop off at Staroye Shaygovo and Krasnoslobodsk on your way there. This is a 180 km (112 miles) road trip.
Just an hour's drive from Saransk is the village of Staroye Shaygovo which was first mentioned in the chronicles at the end of the seventeenth century. The history of Staroye Shaygovo is tied to that of poet Nikolay Ogarev, close friend of the writer and philosopher Alexander Herzen. The poet’s family estate was located close to Staroye Shaygovo in the village of Staroye Akshino. Ogarev lived there from 1815 until emigrating in 1856. In later years the estate was overseen by the poet’s grandfather Bogdan Ogarev, who built a new mansion and planted an orchard. The Ogarev estate has not survived to the present day. In the centre of Staroye Shaygovo you’ll find the Church of Our Lady of Kazan, whose construction was completed in 2007.
Nine kilometres (5.5 miles) away from Staroye Shaygovo is the village of Staraya Terizmorga. This village is an open-air museum and centre of ethnic culture. In 2007, it hosted the First International Folk Festival of Finno-Ugric Peoples. Village residents always wear folk costumes and gladly conduct local ethnic rites for visitors. Back in 1797, the Polish writer and archaeologist Jan Potocki described the local way of life as follows: "The Mordva women, especially unmarried ones, dress strangely and rather fantastically. They wear large woollen earrings; they braid bells into their hair and hang large copper bells around their necks". At Staraya Terizmorga a tourist can learn about each detail of the national costume. There is an open-air ethnographic museum called the "Courtyard of a Well-off Peasant" which includes a bathhouse that is open for use and a large stove used for cooking. Here you can try bliny - thin pancakes - and poza - a low-alcohol beverage made out of beetroot. On Sundays, all the village residents gather at Nikolskaya (St. Nicholas) Church, a white building with blue domes.
The next stop is Krasnoslobodsk, located just 50 km (31 miles) away from Staraya Terizmorga. The town was established in 1571 and is almost a hundred years older than Saransk. According to the latest census, it has a population of about 10,000 people. The town centre is full of former merchant houses whose prominent facades have determined the historical look of many Russian towns. Merchant houses were often decorated with rich carvings, intricate wrought iron lattices and solid cast iron staircases. There was even a special “merchant” way to lay the bricks.
In Krasnoslobodsk, number 6 Sovetskaya Street used to belong to merchant Ivan Sevastyanov. The two-storey stone building with a colonnade was built at the beginning of the nineteenth century on the lands of the former Pokrovsky Convent. Today the house is a listed building of federal importance.
Walking further along Sovetskaya Street to number 16, we come across a mansion that originally belonged to a merchant named Muromtsev. The house was built at the end of the eighteenth century in the Neo-Classical style. This urban estate stands on the high bank of the Moksha River and can be seen from the other side when you drive to Krasnoslobodsk from Saransk. It was on the banks of the Moksha River that the Krasnaya Sloboda fortress, which gave the town its name, was originally established. This military fortress burned down several times during the fires that frequently ravaged the area in the seventeenth century and did not survive to the present day.
It’s impossible to leave Krasnoslobodsk empty-handed. The students of the local art school make Mordva nesting dolls or matryoshkas although it should be said that this craft only appeared in the area about 40 years ago.
After a walk through the old streets of Krasnoslobodsk, drive to the town of Temnikov, the birthplace of Admiral Feodor Ushakov, the patron saint of Saransk and Mordovia. The drive from Krasnoslobodsk to Temnikov through the villages of Purdoshki and Zhegalovo will take about an hour (60 km/38 miles).
It seems that time has stood still at Temnikov. Life here is measured and quiet, and the air is very fresh. In the early 1930's, when the present-day borders of Mordovia were set, the authorities wanted to make Temnikov the region’s capital - but the town had no railroad, which was strategically important in those years. Temnikov, established in 1536, was the centre of the cognominal district that was part of Tambov Governorate from 1779 to 1923.
Temnikov is home to the Sanaksar Monastery of the Nativity of the Mother of God. When the Moksha River overflows and the monastery is enclosed by water on three sides, it becomes a sight of astonishing beauty. The monastery was established in 1659 and by the early nineteenth century had grown quite large. The existing buildings were built in several stages between 1765 and the 1820s. At first, the construction was led by the elder Feodor Ushakov, uncle of the admiral, and later by the holy elder Philaret Bylinin. The Sanaksar Monastery ensemble is one of the few well-preserved heritage sites from the second half of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. The monastery’s architecture therefore has great artistic value. For example, the monastery's Church in Honour of the Nativity of the Mother God has a pyramidal composition: the three-tier church is crowned by an ornate five-headed dome. The church facades are painted with many colours, which was a rarity in those days.
The village of Alekseevka is the old Ushakov family estate, where the admiral spent his last years. In the town of Temnikov itself, on Kommunisticheskaya Street, is the Local History Museum named in honour of Ushakov. The eight museum rooms house an exhibition that tells the story of the admiral and the town of Temnikov. A wander through the museum will take you about an hour.
Several merchant houses have been preserved in Temnikov. Not far from the Ushakov Museum is a former merchant house that was built in 1731. The building is believed to be the town’s first stone structure. At the start of Kommunisticheskaya Street, house number one has preserved the remains of a merchant shop that was built in the late 1880s. Near it, at number 5, is another heritage site, the estate of the merchant Smirnov which was also built in the early nineteenth century. A long time ago this place was called Bazaar Square. There are other heritage buildings in the town, in particular the Municipal Administration building and the district training school building.
You can finish your road trip at Mordovian State Smidovich Nature Reserve. Leaving Temnikov, drive to Pushta. During the drive, which should take you about half an hour, you will see the small Endovische karst lake. Once you reach the nature reserve, drive to Pavlovsky lodge with its guest houses and banya for a night in the middle of the woods.
Additional information: You can take a bus from Saransk to Staroye Shaygovo that costs about 200 rubles. Another 50 rubles will get you on the bus to Staraya Terizmorga. If you come by car from Saransk, take the R180 main road for 61 km (38 miles).