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Trips to Rostov Velikiy and Torzhok

May 18, 2009 at 8:01 am
By Mark Hagemann, Charlie Gamble, and Nikki Reich

This weekend, which for many of us was our last full weekend in Moscow, we broke through the Moscow Bubble, embarking on various excursions “zagorod,” that is, outside of the city.  While the majority of the group traveled south to Tula, we three traveled North—Charlie and Mark going to Rostov Velikiy and Nikki to Torzhok. 

Kremlin walls, Rostov Velikiy
We, that is, Charlie and Mark, took an early-morning “elektrichka” train three hours, beyond the sprawl of the Megalopolis that is Moscow, to the quiet “gorodok” of Rostov Velikiy, “Rostov the Great,” which distinguishes it from Russia’s other, perhaps greater (in terms of population) Rostov, Rostov-on-Don.   The train gave us a glimpse of dacha villages, forests, and the first Russian landscapes we’ve seen outside of the Tretyakov Gallery, that we could rightly call “pastoral.”  We saw people engaged in the traditional Russian activity of tilling gardens.  On Charlie’s side of the train, the occasional shining church cupolas poked above the trees; on Mark’s side, the occasional garbage-covered hillside muddied the view.  Our arrival at the Rostov station was marked with a profound realization of freedom to roam through a new, strange place.  We were immediately struck by the comparatively quiet town and the wooden simplicity of its houses (houses!), having spent the last two months in a concrete Lego-land.  We headed down a street deserted except for crowds of running children towards the cupolas of the Rostov Kremlin we had seen from the train (we eventually deduced these were participants in some sort of town-wide scavenger hunt).  On our way there, we passed a yellow, columned building, which stood out sharply from the surrounding houses, and in front of which a bronze Lenin gestured boldly forward.  The downtown, too, was adorned in a neo-classical style, no doubt a remnant of tsarist times.  Continuing toward the lake shore, we stepped further back in time as we approached Rostov Velikiy’s main attraction, its kremlin (fortress), which dates back to the 13th Century.

We were struck by the antique look of this kremlin compared to the Moscow one, and felt it looks no different than did in the 17th century, when most of its buildings were constructed.  It has certainly been restored to attract tourists and we saw some of its churches covered in scaffolding.   We bought a student pass for all the museums and made our way around the perimeter wall, which took us from building to building and through the several churches that make up parts of the wall.  We saw an exhibit of a Moscow artist’s woodcarvings, as well as one displaying the detailed porcelain that the city is famous for, a small art museum and a museum about the history of drinks in Russia (tea, beer, vodka, and wine).  The church interior walls were dark and covered in original frescos, and their huge wrought iron doors fit the rustic nature of the place.  The central courtyard of the Kremlin was a small park with trees, a small pond and dirt paths, as quiet as the rest of the town. 

Spaso-Yakovlevskiy Monestary in Rostov Velikiy 

Leaving the kremlin, we took a dirt road along the bank of lake Nera to the Spaso-Yakovlevski monastery two kilometers away.  We passed a few Russian style houses, many fishermen and a strongly smelling factory that took up most of the lakefront.  The monastery didn’t differ all that much from the kremlin, we thought.   A high-walled, white structure populated by churches, cathedrals, and lookout towers, the main things that distinguished the monastery were its much later architecture style, uniform layout, and active monastic community.   The courtyard was filled with flowering fruit trees and housed a well of some religious significance, where people were bringing bottles to be filled. 

First View Rastov
 After we left the monastery our remaining time in Rostov was already running short.  We walked back along the same lakeside dirt road, catching some glimpses of dilapidated yards and buildings against the backdrop of the mystical kremlin towers and cupolas.  Back at the Rostov depot, we joined a crowd of Muscovites returning from a weekend at their dachas, then settled in for the three hour train ride back “home.”

As the boys were on their way to the northeast, I was heading about the same distance (145 miles) northwest to Torzhok. My journey began in the metro where I met a friend of my host family, who had invited me to join him on the trip. We took the metro to the center of the city and met up with other curious Muscovites waiting for the tour bus. I was surprised to see such a young crowd, ranging from 10-50 years old, since in America, bus trips are most often taken by an older, retired crowd. Just as a bonus, we got a mini-tour of Moscow, narrated by our guide as we excited the city heading toward the major highway route to St. Petersburg. (Actually, I heard that Russians love to have talkative tour guides, and when some Russians go on excursions in other countries, they are often disappointed, feeling cheated of a good tour, when their guide is less chatty.) Like Mark and Charlie, I saw typical Russian landscapes with dacha villages, forests, and many busy Russians at work tilling their gardens. Our trip was not complete without a couple extra stops for our bus driver to take a cigarette break!

Gold embroidery 

We arrived a few hours later at one of the city’s landmark sites, a gold embroidery factory, now functioning as not only a factory but also an art institute and museum. Our guide told us that many of the girls had gone blind doing such meticulous work. In fact, in the late 18th century they made a gown for Catherine the Great, with many going blind in the process. Unfortunately, the factory was closed for the day, but they let us into the gift shop.


Our next stop was to the city’s central marketplace. It was vacant at the time, but not too long ago, it was the hub of Torzhok life. In fact, in Russian, Torzhok means little market. The market may have been little, but it was actually a central trading post for getting grain and other products to the northern city of Novgorod. For this reason, Torzhok was a strategic place to destroy in times of war because without it, those in Novgorod would starve. Many of the place names in the city begin with the word, “new.” The city was rebuilt so many times everything was often very new!

Houses of Torzhok 

Torzhok was also a major post station on the way to St. Petersburg, and consequently many travelers would stop there to rest. Pushkin, in fact, passed through Torzhok on a number of occasions. In honor of Pushkin, our tour guide read many of his poems on our trip. Interestingly, there was local baker in town named Eugene Onegin and Pushkin later named the protagonist of his novel in verse by the same name. For Pushkin, this was a city of love, as he wrote one of the most famous Russian love poems about Anna Petrovna Kern, who lived in Torzhok. Our tour guide allotted a great amount of time to Pushkin’s love affair with Ms. Kern, even venturing to her grave-site. Here is the first stanza of his poem:

I still remember that amazing moment
You have appeared before my sight
As though a brief and fleeting omen,
Pure phantom in enchanting light.

Our trip continued on to a few churches. We first visited the main monastery of the city, the Monastery of Saints Boris and Gleb.  Under Catherine the Great the monastery was redesigned in the neoclassical style. During the Soviet era the monastery functioned as a prison, and Solzhenitsyn was one of its many prisoners.  Now the monastery is being rebuilt, but only one of the churches is actually functioning.The iconostasis is brand new, but there are much older icons lining the walls that villagers have kept safe in their homes and recently donated to the church. We also visited a church built in the 18th century made of timber without a single nail! It is one of the few wooden churches with frescos. Currently the church is under reconstruction, and I hear they sneeked in a few nails. Oh well. All in all, it was a wonderful day outside the city, experiencing a bit more Russian life as we know it.