Rzhev (Russian: Ржев; IPA: [ˈrʐɛf]) is a town in Tver Oblast, Russia, located 49 kilometers (30 mi) southwest of Staritsa and 126 kilometers (78 mi) from Tver, on the highway and railway connecting Moscow and Riga. It is the uppermost town situated on the Volga River. Population: 61,982 (2010 Census); 63,729 (2002 Census); 69,808 (1989 Census).
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Rzhev rivals Toropets as the oldest town in the region. Rzhevians usually point out that their town is mentioned in the Novgorod laws as early as 1019. Their neighbors from Toropets, on the other hand, give more credence to Rzhev’s first mention in a major chronicle under 1216, when it was in possession of Mstislav the Bold, Prince of Toropets. Whatever the truth may be, it is clear that medieval Rzhev was bitterly contested by three regional powers—the Novgorod Republic, the Principality of Smolensk, and the Grand Principality of Vladimir-Suzdal.
Following the Mongol invasion, Rzhev passed to a lateral branch of the Smolensk dynasty, which made the town its capital. Later the princes divided the town in two parts, which are still called the Prince-Dmitry’s Side and Prince-Theodor’s Side. In the mid-14th century, they had a hard time repelling attacks from Algirdas of Lithuania and Grand Princes of Tver, who bought all the villages around the town. Finally, they left for Moscow, where their descendants (the Rzhevsky family) have become comic characters of many a joke. In the meantime, the town was occupied for a short space by Tver, Poland-Lithuania, and finally by the Grand Duchy of Moscow.
In the 18th century, local merchants, mainly of Old Believer confession, brought a great measure of prosperity to the town. This was disrupted by the October Revolution of 1917 and the bloody and inconclusive Battles of Rzhev in 1942, which all but wiped out the town. More than one-sixth of the population was sent off to forced labor in Germany during the Nazi occupation and some nine thousand residents were shot, starved, or tortured to death in a concentration camp set up in the center of town.
«In the town of Rzhev there is a concentration camp with fifteen thousand captured Red Army soldiers in it and five thousand civilians,» noted a smuggled report of December 1941. «They are holding them in unheated huts, and they feed them one or two frozen potatoes each a day. The Germans threw rotten meat and some bones through the barbed wire at the prisoners. This had made them ill. Every day 20-30 people are dying. The ones who are too ill to work are shot.» (Ivan’s War by Catherine Merridale—quote from the Center for the Documentation of Contemporary History, Smolensk Oblast)