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Plyos: The town on the Volga

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-07-2017 Nikki Ekstein

Many towns in Russia’s Golden Ring—a compact network of ancient, fairy-tale villages north-east of Moscow—have connections to the country’s emperors and czars. Ivan the Terrible vacationed in the 11th century town of Yaroslavl; Peter the Great grew up in Pereslavl; the Romanovs were said to have links to the town of Kostroma.

“Everywhere you look here there are stories about power struggles or political intrigue,” a local monk told the South China Morning Post magazine in 2015.

But one Golden Ring town has been exempt from a politically charged history… until now.

Plyos, a medieval merchant town on the Volga with just 2,000 permanent residents, has scarcely been in the spotlight since it was settled by Slavs in the 10th century. Its claims to fame have typically ranged from the obscure (talented linen producers! Excellent smoked sea bream!) to the culturally significant—the town was a source of inspiration for the great landscape painter Isaac Levitan.

Fast-forward to 2017, and Plyos is occupying an increasingly large share of national interest. For one thing, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has been vacationing regularly in a sprawling compound just a few miles beyond the town’s main road—complete with a ski slope and chairlift, a man-made lake, multiple helipads, and a 20ft-tall fence to conceal it all (officially, it’s a guarded, government-owned residence).

Medvedev is just one of a growing number of prominent local vacationers. The former Russian ambassador to Washington has a dacha in Plyos, as does a former governor of St Petersburg and President Vladimir Putin’s national security adviser (the town is equidistant from Russia’s two largest cities). No surprise, the country’s richest businessmen are now sweeping up weekend homes. Even Putin himself was rumoured to be commissioning a house in the area.

So what’s drawing the Russian elite to this burgeoning Hamptons on the Volga?

A bust of landscape painter Isaac Levitan in Plyos.

A Seven-Figure Cash Injection

Plyos’ revival is the result of one (very wealthy) man’s crusade: Alexey Shevtsov. When the Soviet republic collapsed in 1991, Shevtsov navigated the rocky economy and became one of the country’s most renowned financial consultants.

Emotionally, Shevtsov was invested in Plyos as a place of great nostalgic value—his grandmother had owned a home nearby, and he had always dreamed of having his own dacha in the town that claimed his best summertime memories. He returned to Plyos in the early 2000s to discover a run-down town in need of a serious cash injection. “I decided to leave stocks and bonds for younger people,” Shevtsov said of his decision to switch gears from finance to architectural preservation. “Plyos was in poor condition, and I wanted to do something for our Mother Russia.”

Shevtsov bought a plot of land along the Volga, in the middle of downtown Plyos, and got to work figuring out what had been there before. With the help of historical records, he learnt the ins and outs of the town’s distinct architectural heritage—and was able to recreate the former home on his land.

After a trading boom in the early 1800s, Plyos had become full of highly ornamented wooden houses and churches. “These fragile wooden details, they need to be restored like they restore temples in Asia, every 25 years or so,” Shevtsov said. “It’s complicated work and an expensive one, to keep this magnificent wooden town in all its splendour.”

But Shevtsov accepted the responsibility, buying one building after another until he amassed more than three dozen restoration projects within a roughly 1-mile radius (Plyos is about the size of New York’s Central Park). When asked how much this had cost him, he laughed. “Many, many millions. An important percentage of what I have.”

Cruise boats on the Volga.

A Million-Dollar Crowd

Plyos has had its fair share of posh visitors, past and present. “Levitan saved Plyos from oblivion when he created several well-known masterpieces,” explained Shevtsov. The artist was alive in the latter half of the 19th century and was at the peak of his fame in the 1880s and 1890s. “And after that, Plyos became fashionable among painters, opera singers, actors, bourgeoisie, and intelligents.”

Plyos’ chicness subsided until Shevtsov’s work started reclaiming the town’s reputation. By 2008 a reporter revealed that Medvedev was developing a compound nearby—and had stopped at a local restaurant for lunch with two governors. Overnight, Plyos’ star re-emerged.

“A community has formed here: Diplomats with well-known names, businessmen, important people, and interesting, intelligent, successful people,” explained Shevtsov. These part-time residents are buying his restored homes as private weekend oases. That’s not to say Plyos is empty during the week: A more permanent crowd of intellectuals and artists has also set in.

The domes of the Resurrection Church, with the town of Plyos in the background. Photographs by Alam

Getting There

Travel specialist Greg Tepper said that few travellers visit Plyos, but they should. “There’s no other place like this in Russia,” he said. “You get lunches overlooking the Volga, go to local concerts, stay in dachas with talented private chefs and organic farms.” It’s a picture of a small-town Russian idyll that still feels authentic. “It’s charming beyond all reason. And then there are all these billionaires running around. It’s a very unique experience.”

Visitors can get to Pylos by helicopter, or take a speed train from Moscow and then hop into a car, which takes about 4 hours in total.

Tepper books travellers into one of Shevtsov’s fanciful antique houses—a full-service proposition. “Everything is set before arrival, including preferred foods and schedule,” he said. He suggests staying three nights to get the full experience: long strolls along the promenade, slow-paced meals in the dacha and neighbouring cafés, a stop at the Levitan museum or the area’s eight historic churches, visits to local sea bream smokehouses and old boating stations, and yacht cruises down the Volga.

How to Rub Elbows With Russia’s Elite

Shevtsov recommends visiting in July or September for prime people-watching, when there is peak summer weather and music festivals or vibrant fall foliage.

According to Tepper, visitors might run into Medvedev at the morning farmers market. “Russians love their own culture, and this is a place where they reconnect with their own Russian-ness,” he explained. Other suitable spots are the opera (there’s a state-of-the-art theatre in town), and the new brewery and Hidden Russia Museum Complex, which has individual buildings dedicated to facets of the local lifestyle.

Travellers can visit La Villa Plyos—the home that was supposedly earmarked for Putin and is now being converted into a six-star spa—and queue up at the Kuvshinnikova bakery for cooleyka, a local riff on American cheesecake made with sweet cheese curds. “Our most distinguished guests always take one back to Moscow,” said Shevtsov, so clearly you should too. Bloomberg

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