Saransk has a very cosy feeling and a fascinating mix of old and new. The tidiness of the city is striking and the locals are engaging, but you will struggle with English as the number of foreign tourists visiting Saransk until now has been minimal.
That said, if you are lucky enough to be heading to Russia’s smallest World Cup host city you will see how proud the locals are to host the festival and can expect to enjoy good hospitality.
Saransk is pleasant to explore on foot. Try wandering around the Ushakov cathedral and the central square around it, which will also host the official Fan fest.
The central quarters feature some impressive Soviet architecture. Relax at the city park along the small Saranka river or try some of the traditional local cuisine at the ‘Mordovskoe podvorye’ restaurant on Saranskaya street, 21. Some of the quiet quarters of old, traditional Russian style one-storey wooden houses behind it are also worth checking out.
Stepan Erzya arts museum provides an overview of the most famous local painter and sculptor, who changed his real name to the name of his ethnicity to honour his historic roots. If you want to gain a deeper insight into Erzyan culture, traditions and daily life, you might take a 30-minute journey to one of the nearby villages – Podlesnaya Tavla - hosting a wooden house and museum of one of the biggest enthusiasts of the local culture, famous erzyan musician Vladimir Romashkin, also known as Iovlan Olon.
The museum features various artefacts and wood-carved items representing Erzyan culture and traditions and is certainly worth visiting. Museum ‘Etno-Kudo’ of Vladimir Romashkin is located in Podlesnaya Tavla village, Moskovskaya street 96 but you would do well to check in advance by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at +79053786767. The museum keeper, Petr Vladimirovich Ryabov is a great enthusiast who is fighting to preserve the native Erzyan language and culture.
The Central market provides a good glimpse into the variety of the local food and people from all over the world selling it. Steps from the Central market at Plezhayeva strett, 46 you can find a charming family café ‘Vostochnyi Dvorik’ serving traditional Central Asian food and Halal food.
The city is very safe but as a general advice avoid remote areas during the night as you won’t find many English speakers. The fact the locals are not used to foreign tourists might lead to fantastic hospitality but also may cause some unusual reactions when facing diverse sets of fans.
Saransk was the only city of all host cities we visited where we were openly followed by an unknown civilian car the whole day wherever we went, and where some of the people we met were later visited by the security services to question them about our visit.
In Soviet times the region featured several dozen Gulag camps and prisons, some of them are still operating as prisons. One of the members of the feminist punk band ‘Pussy Riot’, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova served her sentence in Mordovia for staging a punk performance in a Moscow Orthodox Christian temples.
Saransk’s population is majority Russian with a number of Tatar villages around the city and two notable, large indigenous Finno-Ugric ethnic groups - Erzya and Moksha - together referred to as Mordvins or Mordva, although the groups themselves prefer separate identification as Erzyans and Mokshans.
The Erzyan and Mokshan languages are co-official in the Republic of Mordovia (of which Saransk is the capital) but are rarely used compared to Russian. The indigenous groups have historically lived along the Volga basin. Most erzyan villages are concentrated around Saransk now.
Today the Erzyan and Mokshan language and traditions are practiced by a very small number of people, requiring more effort to preserve the culture. Young people are increasingly leaving the villages to move to the cities, largely breaking continuity with native traditions. With many also converted to Orthodox Christianity, the two ethnic groups have historically followed a native belief system centred around the Mastorama (‘Mother Land’) concept.
Erzya have a tradition of woodcarving craftsmanship, producing fascinating hand carved pieces of art depicting traditional animal symbols – horses and scenes of daily life with a strong emphasis on family and the native land.
The city has several Orthodox Christian churches, Catholic churches and several mosques but no synagogue. The Muslim community, mainly represented by Tatar people, is very active and currently the new Islamic cultural centre is being built at prospekt 70-Letiya Oktyabrrya, 163a.
The surrounding Tatar villages of Inyatki, Aksenovo, Belozerye are known for their hospitality and the development of local agricultural business.
Saransk University attracts international students from India, Pakistan and several other countries.
In the past decade Saransk has invested a lot in the development of the city’s sports infrastructure, with the local team Mordovia reaching the Russian Premier League in 2012, although it has now been relegated to the third division. The city also has a basketball and ice hockey team as well as a number of prominent individual sportspeople.
Sport clubs in Saransk have their own ‘superfan’, a 68-year-old Viktor Vanyagin, who rarely misses a home match of FC Mordovia or the local ice hockey and basketball clubs. Vityok, as he is known by the locals, usually occupies a seat in the central section and gives his all to driving the team forward whistling and chanting, shaming any visiting ultras with his loud support. His personal story featuring several small terms in prison before eventually settling in Saransk sheds light on a different side of Mordovia’s history.
There is no active LGBT+ community in the city and displaying any such symbols might bear a risk.