The picturesque Saransk

2 hours

There are more than 40 churches and chapels in Saransk and its surrounding area. The history of the Mordva people can be traced through the town’s religious monuments. This route is about 5 km (3 miles) long.

Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS
The starting point of our walk is on Demokraticheskaya Ulitsa (formerly known as Pervaya Bogoslovskaya Ulitsa), where the Church of St. John the Evangelist is located. This is one of the few architectural landmarks of the Mordovian capital dating back to the seventeenth century. The church, which is open to the public, was built in the style of Moscow or Naryshkin Baroque (named after the style of estates of the Naryshkin family) in 1693, almost 50 years after the founding of Saransk. Back then, this was the Streltsy Quarter (the Streltsy, literally “shooters”, were units of Russian infantry). In 1711 a refectory and a bell tower were added to the main church building. Local historians claim that the spot on which the present church stands was previously occupied by an older, wooden church.

There is also a smaller Church of the Epiphany on the premises of the main church, but this is a modern building. When the Diocese of Saransk and Mordovia was formed in the early 1990s, the Church of St. John the Evangelist became the centre of the new eparchy. The first written evidence of the adoption of Christianity by the local Mordva people dates from the sixteenth century. The first to adopt the Orthodox faith were the local elite, and by the mid-eighteenth century the conversion of the Mordva people was more or less complete.
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After leaving the church complex, walk towards Kommunisticheskaya Ulitsa (previously Vtoraya Pokrovskaya Ulitsa) and take a ten-minute stroll to the Mordovian Erzia Museum of Visual Arts. This houses a collection of works by Mordovian sculptor Stepan Erzia (1876–1959) and painter Fedot Sychkov (1870–1958). Both artists were born in what is now the Republic of Mordovia. Before Erzia became a famous sculptor, exhibiting works in Venice, Rome, Milan, Nice and Paris, he worked in various icon-painting studios and painted churches in the Volga region.

You will need at least an hour to look through the museum’s collection, which contains more than 1,500 items, including works by contemporary Mordovian artists. The museum has an interesting display of Orthodox icons dating from the end of eighteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century. A collection of nineteenth century drawings includes etchings of paintings by well-known Russian artists – Ivan Shishkin, Ilya Repin and Nikolai Ge.
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Leaving the museum, walk another 500 metres (1550 ft) through the garden square towards Sovetskaya Ulitsa (formerly Bazarnaya Ulitsa) and you will find the Cathedral of St. Theodore Ushakov. Construction began in 2004 and ended in August 2006. The central cross of the Empire-style cathedral stands at 62 metres (192 ft) high. There are four bell towers and 12 bells, the largest of which weighs six tons.

Next to the cathedral is a monument to Fedor Ushakov – a Russian admiral who commanded the Black Sea Fleet in 1790–1792. The residents of Saransk consider him the town’s patron saint. The military commander spent only his last years in Mordovia, but his family history is closely intertwined with the history of the Mordva people. The admiral’s uncle, Ivan Ushakov, took monastic vows under the name Fedor in 1747. He oversaw the transformation of the Sanaksarsky Monastery, located 153 km (95 mi) away from Saransk (and considered to be in the neighbouring Tambov Province), into the region’s spiritual centre. Even today, the Sanaksarsky Monastery is a very important cultural and spiritual site for Mordovian residents.
 Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS
Next to the cathedral and monument is the Alexander Nevsky Chapel, built in 2000 in memory of Mordovia residents who have died as a result of wars, natural disasters and cataclysms. The red-brick chapel has an octagonal dome design and was consecrated by Patriarch Alexy II who was visiting Mordovia at the time.

A hundred metres away is a monument to Patriarch Nikon, erected in 2002. Nikon (1605–1681) was a venerated reformer of the Russian Orthodox Church and the founder of the Iversky Monastery in Valdai and Novoierusalimsky/New Jerusalem Monastery in Istra. The monument stands next to the modern symbol of Saransk - a rotunda where local residents come to take photographs.
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If you descend another hundred metres from the rotunda, you’ll find yourself on Krasnoarmeyskaya Ulitsa, which used to be called Uspenskaya. This is where the Church of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin is located. Back in 1734, local merchants – the Kotelnikov brothers – built a stone church with golden crosses in honour of the Holy Virgin, displacing two old wooden chapels in the process. Sixty-eight years later, another local merchant built another stone church, naming it in honour of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. In 1882, a merchant family named Syromyatnikov built a new bell tower between the two churches, thus uniting them as one. In Soviet years, the church complex was nationalised by the state. In 1992 the Church of St. Nicholas was reconsecrated as the Church of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin.
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When you leave the Assumption Church and go around the corner, you’ll find yourself in Pushkin Park. Just a hundred years ago, part of what is now the park was occupied by the market square, this being where the merchants lived. You can walk through the park, past a small town zoo, and end up on Moskovskaya Ulitsa. Turn right and walk a little further until you reach the Mordovia Local History Museum.

The museum’s exhibits are housed in a red Baroque building that was originally built in 1761–1765 as the Church of Three Saints. After the October Revolution of 1917 the building was nationalised, and in 1935 it was given to the Local History Museum. After two years of repairs and additional construction the former church opened its doors as a museum.

The museum’s most ancient exhibits go all the way back to the Mesolithic period. The museum is named in honour of Ivan Voronin, considered the father of the academic study of Mordovia's regional ethnography. It is one of the few places where you can learn about the customs and traditions of the Mokshi and Erzia ethnic groups that constitute the Mordva people, including the history of their gradual conversion to Christianity.
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After the Local History Museum, walk down Moskovskaya Ulitsa towards Sovetskaya Ulitsa. After a 15-minute walk that will take you once again through Pushkin Park, you will come to the Mineralogy Museum. The museum is a branch of the Geography Department of Mordovia State University. Its collection is comprised of all the principal minerals, rocks and mineral resources of Russia, the CIS and other countries. The museum collection numbers over 5,000 items, half of which are on display.
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Right across from the museum is the Mordovian Drama Theatre. The story of the republic's national theatre tradition began in the 1930s with a performance of Alexander Ostrovsky’s 19th-century play “The Storm” in the Erzia language. This particular theatre building was constructed in 2007 on a spot previously occupied by a two-storey pre-revolutionary building, home to Saransk’s first movie theatre.