Photographer: Walter Bibikow/The Image Bank
Luxury Travel

The Secret Russian Vacation Spot Where You Can Rub Elbows With Putin’s Pals

And where the local delicacy is a riff on American cheesecake.

Many towns in Russia’s Golden Ring—a compact network of ancient, fairy-tale villages northeast 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.

The domes of the Resurrection Church, with the town of Plyos in the background.
Photographer: Vladimir Smirnov/TASS

Fast-forward to 2017, and Plyos is occupying an increasingly large share of national interest. For one thing, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has been regularly vacationing 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 20-foot-tall fence to conceal it all. (Officially, it’s a guarded, government-owned residence.)

And 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 to Russia’s two largest cities.) No surprise, the country’s richest businessmen are now sweeping up weekend homes. Even Putin himself was rumored to be commissioning a house in the area.

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

A Seven-Figure Cash Injection

A houseboat on the Volga River pulls into Plyos.
Photographer: Nick Laing/AWL Images RM

Plyos’s 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’d always dreamed of having his own dacha in the town that claimed his best summertime memories. So with a few decades of financial success under his belt, 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.”

Details from a traditional wooden house in Plyos, fresh off a restoration.
Photographer: Walter Bibikow/AWL Images RM

So in 1998, Shevtsov bought a plot of land along the Volga River, in the middle of downtown Plyos, and got to work figuring out what had been there before. With the help of historical records, he learned the ins and outs of the town’s distinct architectural heritage—and was able to re-create the former home on his land.

Plyos had its ups and downs until a trading boom in the early 1800s inspired a wave of ambitious development, largely in the form 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 of so,” Shevtsov said. “It’s complicated work and expensive one, to keep this magnificent wooden town in all its splendor.”

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

A Million-Dollar Crowd

Models showcase modern fashions made from traditional linen, one of Plyos’s traditional crafts.
Photographer: Vladimir Smirnov/TASS

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 ’90s. “And after that, Plyos became fashionable among painters, opera singers, actors, bourgeoisie, and intelligents.”

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

“A community has formed here: diplomats with well-known names, businessmen, important people, and interesting, intelligent, successful people,” explained Shevtsov, who protects locals’ identities as a matter of business; 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.

Getting There

In Russia’s early history, czars would arrive to Plyos on the Imperial Yacht. You can follow their lead, but helicopters and cars are far more common.
Photographer: Vladimir Smirnov/TASS

Travel specialist Greg Tepper said that of the 1,500 American visitors he sends to Russia each year, only 20 or so visit Plyos—the destination is yet to make inroads with his clientele. But it should, he said.

“There’s no other place like this in Russia,” he told Bloomberg. “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, he explained. “It’s charming beyond all reason. And then there are all these billionaires running around. It’s a very unique experience.”

You can get there by helicopter, as most regulars do; otherwise you have to take a speed train from Moscow and then hop into a car, which takes about four hours in total.

Tepper will book you into one of Shevtsov’s fanciful antique houses—a full-service proposition. “Breakfast is served in your dining room, magically appearing when you wake up,” he said. “Everything is set before arrival, including your preferred foods and schedule.”

Expect to stay for three nights to get the full experience: long strolls along the promenade, slow-paced meals in your dacha and in neighboring cafes, 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

Heading to the Levitan museum in Plyos, which showcases landscape paintings inspired by the town, is a must—even for the regular crowd.
Photographer: Vladimir Smirnov/TASS

Go in July or September for prime people-watching, said Shevtsov, when you get peak summer weather and music festivals or vibrant fall foliage. (Winter is so bitterly cold in Plyos, he likens it to a Eugene Onegin drama.)

According to Tepper, you 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. Then book tickets for the opera (there’s a state-of-the-art theater in town), and check out the new brewery and Hidden Russia Museum Complex, which has individual buildings dedicated to facets of the local lifestyle—everything from yacht-building to fish-smoking and, of course, wooden architecture. Both debuts are bound to draw attention.

Poke your head into 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 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.

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