Russian Language Blog

So Provincial! Posted by on May 22, 2012 in Culture, language

What cities or towns would you like to visit when travelling to Russia? If you have been to Russia, what cities have you visited?

While I am awaiting for your answers (feel free to post them in the comments), I’m going to venture a guess. I’d say that the vast majority of иностранные туристы (foreign tourists) to Russia split their visits between just two cities – Москва (Moscow) and Санкт-Петербург (St. Petersburg). Some might tour города Золотого Кольца (the towns of the Golden Ring) or sights near St. Petersburg.

Only a handful make it as far as Волгоград (Volgograd), Екатеринбург (Yekaterinburg), or Пермь (Perm’) even though these are all large cities and important административные центры (administrative centers). Still, they are провинция (the provinces). And провинция is frequently dismissed as backwater, boondocks.

People who live в провинции (in the provinces) are known as провинциалы (provincials). That’s strictly according to the dictionary. The way the terms провинциал (for men) and провинциалка (for women) are used much of the time, their closest English-language translation would be “a hick” or “a hillbilly”.

There are quite a few stereotypes about провинциалы in Russia. For example, these жители глубинки (residents of the backcountry) are usually viewed as недалёкие, но добрые (simple-minded, but kind), слегка наивные (slightly naive), but с хитрецой (with a measure of cunning), старомодные (quaint) when it comes to both мода (fashion) and нравы (mores), and, as long as they stay in their глухомань (middle-of-nowhere), безинициативные (lacking initiative or drive to succeed). Yet they are also considered самобытные люди (true originals), соль земли (salt of the earth), as opposed to the residents of corrupt, crime-ridden, dissolute big cities.

Yet many провинциалы don’t stay in their hometowns, but instead leave for огни большого города (lights of the big city). And don’t let the words большой город (big city) confuse you. The only two ultimate big cities in Russia are Moscow and St. Petersburg. Only these two are not considered глухая провинция by anyone.

Мы, провинциалы, устремляемся в Петербург как-то инстинктивно. (We, provincials, intuitively rush to St. Petersburg.) wrote Mikhail Saltikov-Shedrin in his “Diary of a Provincial in St. Petersburg” back in 1872.

Парадоксально (ironically), провинциалы, попавшие в большой город (provincials who moved to a large city), are viewed as энергичные (energetic), целеустремлённые (purposeful), амбициозные (ambitious). They might even be described as напористые как танки (lit. pushy like tanks).
The stories about провинциалки (female provincials) tend to be either about беспринципная авантюристка (unscrupulous gold digger) ready to do just about anything to stay in the city. Or they are about провинциальная золушка (a provincial cinderella), отзывчивая (compassionate), добрая (kind), и любящая (loving), trying to make it on her own in the cruel city. Третьего не дано (there is no middle ground).

So here’s my question to you – what town is considered the capital of Russian provinces, where is it located and what’s it claim to fame?

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  1. Rob Liscoe:

    Only ever been to Perm, nowhere else. Would like to go further east – Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk. No real desire to visit Moscow. SPB maybe.

    • yelena:

      @Rob Liscoe Rob, I’ve not been to Perm myself. How did you like it?

  2. Sami Ahonen:

    I think the the best way to grasp Russia is to visit St. Petersburg and make a daytrip or something to Novgorod. You get both Rus and Russia imperial and modern. I’m a Finn and have something of an aversion towards Moscow and everything it represents – Muscovy, which I think is a ruthless suppressor of much of the best in ancient Russian civilization (Novgorod) and something of a khanate build upon an enormous Russian village. I’m sorry if this offends somebody.

    • yelena:

      @Sami Ahonen Sami, I’ve been to Moscow a couple of times and that’s enough for me. I can’t say I like it there. St. Petersburg is so unlike anything else in Russia, that I highly recommend visiting it. You probably know already that Peter the Great’s feelings about Moscow were very similar to the ones you expressed.

  3. JP:

    Я была в Петрозаводске! It felt like what cities must have felt and looked like during Soviet times. Карелия – прекрасная и очень красивая.

    • yelena:

      @JP JP, I’ve always wanted to see Karelia, but so far it hasn’t happened. I’d like to see Kizhi although the logistics of the trip is pretty complicated.

  4. Garry Malone:

    A few weeks ago I visited the “provincial” towns of Vorkuta and Inta. This was my third time to those two cities. Photos of all three trips can be found on the website above under “Photo Galleries”.

    Garry Malone

    • yelena:

      @Garry Malone Garry, the photos are amazing! Thank you so much for sharing them! I wish there was a way to put even just a few words next to each photo! I’m re-posting the link to the albums so it’s more visible – Could you tell me a bit about the picture of a small bridge with lots of padlocks on the railings?

  5. Alexis:

    When I went to Russia, we stayed in Voronezh, because that is where my husband’s family lives. 🙂 It was fun. We also visited Moscow for a few days. I also study Chinese, so I really want to visit some cities near the China border someday.

    As for your question, I don’t know! Maybe Vladivostok? For being the Eastern capital?

    • yelena:

      @Alexis Alexis, this is the best way to see Russia – travel somewhere outside of the two big cities (St. Petersburg and Moscow) and spend time with friends or family there. That’s why I love Volgograd so much. As for the answer, it’s not Vladivostok, but Урюпинск.

  6. Moonyeen Albrecht:

    Russian cities I have visited: Yoshkar Ola, Farkovo, Archangelsk, Solovyetsky Islands, Dudinka, Norilsk, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, Yenisesk, Turukhansk, Igarka, Tikhvin, Pskov, Novgorod, Klin, Volgograd, Saratov, Samara, Simbirsk, Fedoskino, Pereslavl-Zaleesky, Kazan, Nizhny-Novgorod, Cheboksary, Rostov (Velikiy), Plyos, Vladimir, Suzdal, Palekh, Uglich, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Pushkin, Repino, Peterhof, Sergeiev Posad, Smolensk, Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Slyudyanka, Listvyanka, Lake Baikal, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Mikhailovskovo (Pushkin’s grave), Tver, villages along the Yenesei River between Krasnoyarsk and Igarka, Moscow and St. Petersburg. And I’ve been fishing on one of the tributaries of the lower Tunguska River south of Turukhansk. In June I will visit Yakutsk.

    • yelena:

      @Moonyeen Albrecht Moonyeen, you are officially the best traveled reader of this blog! I wish I could see even half as much of Russian as you have!

  7. Yuri Halay:

    Khabarovsk would be a consideration, the “Paris of the East”. I play in a russian orchestra here in Sydney, Australia. The group (Sydney Balalaika Orchestra) performed there and in Sakhalin in 2005 and 2007.

    • yelena:

      @Yuri Halay Yuri, do you have videos on YouTube of your orchestra performances? Please share. As for the correct answer, JohnS had the right answer – Урюпинск.

  8. Rob McGee:

    My guess would also be Vladivostok — famous for having been a semi-closed city for so many years, and also for its role in the Russo-Japanese War (although the war was more “about” the control of Port Arthur, now in China).

    The only two ultimate big cities in Russia are Moscow and St. Petersburg. Only these two are not considered глухая провинция by anyone.

    Heh-heh. Some Americans snobbishly consider everything other than NYC and LA to be “глухая провинция” (aka “flyover country”; “the sticks; the boondocks”) — an opinion most often held by residents of those two cities, as you might guess. (Of course, some inhabitants of Manhattan would claim that “flyover country” begins just north of 110th Street!)

    And in listing the other major cities of the USA, some people (especially on the East and West Coasts) would put San Francisco and Washington DC ahead of much larger (but supposedly “provincial”) cities such as Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth.

    • yelena:

      @Rob McGee Lol, Rob, I agree with the comment about NYC and LA. Living in Raleigh, NC I get teased by my NY friends all the time about Raleigh being the backwaters (which it’s not).

  9. JohnS:

    Just a wild guess, since I’ve not heard of this town, but got a hit through a Google search, from an article by Ivan Kurilla: Uryupinsk (Урю́пинск). Wikipedia has an article about this town:, which coined a popular reference (meme?) after a famous Soviet film, ‘Destiny of a Man’.
    I’ve only visited St. Petersburg, Moscow and the Mt. Elbrus region, as well as the Crimea; hope to see more, such as Lake Baikal.

    • yelena:

      @JohnS John, you’ve guessed it! Great job! I’ve never been to Lake Baikal and would love to go one day.

  10. Jeannie:

    Russian cities I have visited: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Pervouralsk, Mariinsk, Sloboda, Saratov, Samara, Nizhny-Novgorod, Vladimir, Suzdal, Palekh, Uglich, Kizhi, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Tver, Ufa, Kirov, Belgorad, Proharovka, Nalchik. I have spent more time living in Russian villages (with names only those who live there know!) in the Kirov region and in the Urals.

    In terms of your question, I would guess Vladimir, being the oldest Russian provincial town. Though Kiev (now in Ukraine) is considered the Mother of Russian cities, Vladimir was home to ancient Rus and her first princes.

    P.S. Your blog reminds me of my favorite Russian film: “Безымянная звезда”

    • yelena:

      @Jeannie Wow, Jeannie! What brought you to all these places?

  11. JohnS:

    Thanks for your always interesting posts. I learn so much from you.
    By the way, here are some very beautiful pictures of the Russian countryside. They are sharp and clear like paintings, maybe a bit overprocessed by post-production work, but very interesting to look at, as they seem to capture the timeless qualities of the provinces.


    • yelena:

      @JohnS Thank you, John. Wonderful pictures for sure. I used to subscribe to EnglishRussia blog, but at some point they started posting too much junk. Maybe I should give them another chance?

  12. Stephanie Briggs:

    I’ve been to Moscow, Sankt-Peterburg, Yaroslavl, Tutaev, Sergeiv-Posad and Rostov. I have to say my favourite place was Yaroslavl. It’s much quieter, and life moves at a slower pace.

    • yelena:

      @Stephanie Briggs Stephanie, that’s exactly why I love “provinces” – the pace of life is a lot saner, more enjoyable. Thank you for mentioning my previous post on your site!

  13. Trevar:

    Novosobirsk- St Petersburg- Moscow-Omsk-Krasnoyarsk- Divinagorsk-
    hopefully soon some others –

  14. Minority:

    LOL, I’ve been only to Barnaul, Kemerovo, Novosibirsk (few times, but haven’t seen much – проездом)), Moscow, St.Petersburg, Zelenograd. Not much of cities for Russian person.))

    Btw, there’re not only Питер и Москва for those who’s going to big cities. Ekaterniburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Vladivostok are quite big too. And it depends on откуда ты едешь and что хочешь получить. Sometimes Novosibirsk is better than Moscow.)