Chocolate and Soap: Five Unofficial Capitals of Russia

PHOTO by krisztianphotos / Depositphotos
Where they produce Russia's best soap, glassware, tea, chocolate and matches

Rambler.Travel presents these five unofficial Russian capitals that provide the whole country with their trademark quality goods and explains why you should go there right now.

Shuya – The Soap Capital

Soap boiling is the oldest industry in Shuya, a city in the Ivanovo region. Its development was helped by Shuya’s location on the Teza River. Soap making in Shuya was first mentioned in Afanasy Vekov’s register in 1629.

Shuya’s old coat of arms, approved by Catherine the Great in 1781, was a shield split into two parts. The top part showed a lion with its head turned towards the viewer while the bottom part showed “a bar of soap on the red canvas denoting the city’s glorious soap factories.” The industry was so popular that Vasili IV of Russia was called the “soap tsar.”

The city’s soap museum contains unique exhibits illustrating the history of soap boiling in Shuya. Here you can find recipes for soap making dating all the way back to the 18th century, antique samples of soap, wash boards, wash basins, perfume bottles from bygone eras and other useful household items. A guided tour lasts about an hour. You can also buy natural handmade soap here made with lime, apple, orange, lemon, grapefruit and cinnamon.

Five unofficial russian capitals

Kungur – The Tea Capital

Located in the Perm region, Kungur was called the tea capital of Russia. The city was built on the main Siberian road that carried Chinese tea from Kyakhta in the 18th century. Over time, tea turned into a traditional Russian drink.

In the 19th century, tea’s popularity continued to grow and the Kungur merchant Aleksei Gubkin established his own tea company in 1840. Within a few years, he became the leader of the tea trade in the Russian Empire. After his death, his grandson, merchant Alexander Kuznetsov, founded the commercial partnership Aleksei Gubkin’s Successor A. Kuznetsov & Co and bought a factory in Hankou, China, and a sugar refinery in Moscow.

The grandson of the legendary tea merchant became a worthy successor to his grandfather. Thanks to his efforts, “Tea and the Tea Trade in Russia and Other Countries” was published in 1892 in St. Petersburg.

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The scope of the manufacturer’s activity is visible in the numerous buildings in Kungur’s historic centre. The tea-producing part of Kungur’s history is presented in an exposition in the city merchants’ history museum, where one of the rooms is styled as a teahouse at the beginning of the 20th century.

Balabanovo – The Match Capital

Regular, fireplace and hunter’s matches were produced in Balabanovo in the Kaluga region for over half a century, and the products could be found in any Soviet kitchen.

The match factory Plitspichprom, whose chimneys can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, was built in Balabanovo in the late 1940s but started working at full power only in 1954, when the first boxes of matches were produced.

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In 1955, the factory produced the first souvenir set of matches and the first matchbooks five years later. In the late 1950s, matchbox gift sets, manufactured in Balabanovo, were shown at the World’s Fair in Brussels. Today, they are highly prized among collectors of matchboxes.

In 1977, the Balabanovo factory made a technological breakthrough: instead of plywood veneer, cardboard was used to make matchboxes. In the 1970s, the factory produced about a hundred billion matches per year.

Several years ago, the match production line at the Balabanovo factory was closed as it had become unprofitable to produce them. Instead, Plitspichprom began to produce wood panels, window frames and beams.

Pokrov – The Chocolate Capital

The old city of Pokrov in the Vladimir region produces a third of all Russian chocolate. The city is also home to a confectionery factory for Kraft Foods.

Here you can find a monument to chocolate made in the form of a three-metre fairy and a museum of chocolate.

The museum will tell you about the history of this delicacy, starting from the discovery of cocoa beans by the Mayans and finishing with modern production lines, as well as give you the opportunity to try hot chocolate drinks. On the last Saturday of June, Pokrov celebrates the Day of Chocolate.

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Gus' Khrustalny – The Glass Capital

The historic capital of Russian crystal was founded in 1756. That same year, the legendary glass factory was opened. The factory used all sorts of technical innovations and, in addition, a unique diamond facet was invented here. It formed the basis for the development of a new direction in the art of crystal decoration.

Russia’s glass capital produced thousands of crystal products – vases, bowls, carafes, bottles, plates and glasses. They were also valued abroad: in 1893, local crystal vases were awarded a bronze medal and a diploma at the World Exhibition in Chicago, and in 1900, they won the Grand Prix at the World Exhibition in Paris.

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The best works of the local masters were gathered in the city’s crystal museum, whose exposition is located in St. George’s Cathedral.

In 2012, the glass factory was closed but then reopened a year later. Its masters now specialise in original crystal products that are made to order.