Dubbed the “capital of the Russian south”, Rostov’s architectural story is similar to many Russian cities, in which the Wehrmacht finished off what the Bolsheviks started. The atheist fervour of the communists saw to the cities main landmarks – the St. Alexander Nevsky and St. George Cathedrals – in the period following the revolution. The Luftwaffe then flattened the rest in the battle for control of this strategically important city during the Second World War. The city was a key railway junction on the route to the oil-rich Caucasus and such was the destruction wrought here that it was well into the 1950s before the city had been properly rebuilt.
An obelisk in Teatralnaya Square, affectionately known to the locals as “Stella”, commemorates the war. In its shadow lies the fan zone, capable of holding 25,000 people. Coupled with the new 45,000 seater Rostov Arena, the atmosphere in the dizzying summer ferment on the River Don promises to be euphoric, particularly for the visit of Brazil on June 17.
The city is not only important militarily. Rostov’s trade links to the Black Sea, as well as it’s geographical proximity to the Caucasus, Sochi, and now Crimea, have made it southern Russia’s commercial hub.
Much will be made of Rostov’s tradition as the “home of the Cossacks”. The Cossacks are an ethnic group whose self-governing traditions were tolerated by the Romanovs in return for military service. They played a key role in defending the Empire’s frontiers and aided its expansion into Siberia and the Caucasus.
Their deep loyalty to the Tsar and the Russian Orthodox Church saw them choose the losing side in the Russian Civil War. Communist rule saw persecution, with hundreds of thousands killed during the process of “Dekossackisation”.
This all but wiped out the Cossacks. That said, under Yeltsin, and especially Putin, the Cossacks have been rehabilitated as part of the national myth. Those wishing to be better acquainted with Cossack life should go east up the river to the Cossack village of Starocherkassk. With it’s open-air museum fans can get a sense of idealised Cossack culture: sword fights, immaculate uniforms and traditional singing to-boot.
Nevertheless, cynics argue that there are no “real” Cossacks left, and those that claim to be Cossacks today are mere Kremlin stooges, serving a useful role as both a muscular morality police (they have attacked both Pussy Riot and prominent opposition member Alexei Navalny in the street) as well as “volunteer” paramilitary forces.
Indeed, situated as it is just 80km from the Donbas region in Ukraine, the city has become the staging post for a variety of unofficial forces, including Cossacks, fighting for control of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic.
In October 2017, Rostov’s mayor, Vitaly Kushnaryov, opened a monument in the city’s Ostrovsky park, dedicated to the “heroes of the Donbas” who lost their lives fighting to “preserve the Russian world”, according to the mayor.
Despite this proximity to the frontier, Rostov is a safe city, the Russian police have even drafted in three hundred Cossack horsemen to provide extra security during the tournament.
Quietly Flows the Don
It is also a very pleasant city in which to stroll. Walking is by far the best way to see Rostov, which is fortunate since it’s metro system, planned since 1970, has never come into operation. The city is blessed with an abundance of green spaces and the pace of life is generally relaxed. Best places to walk include the pedestrianised Pushkin Street, Park Gorkovo and the riverside embankment. Upon the latter are wonderful views of the river as well as numerous restaurants and bars. Indeed, this area comes alive at night with riverside nightclubs open until dawn.
Don’t get caught out by the distance to the airport. The brand-new, gleaming Platov Airport lies one hour north of the centre of Rostov. Don’t heed any guide books from before 2018, they will all direct you to its now defunct Soviet-era predecessor, which had been situated close to the centre of the city.
Read before coming
Quietly Flows the Don – Mikhail Sholokhov