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Three Trips to the Muscovite Zagorod

May 20, 2009 at 12:35 am
By Andy, Ben, Shane

This week, the three of us had very different experiences as each of us ventured out alone, at least without anybody else from our group, to have a peek at the countryside surrounding Moscow.

I (Shane) probably went the shortest distance this weekend of anybody. Tsaritsyno is a suburb of Moscow that’s fairly well developed at this point and surrounded by residential and commercial areas. However, in its center lies a true jewel in Moscow’s crown, the Tsaritsyno Estate. Tsaritsyno is often translated in English as “Empress’s Village”. Catherine the Great named it Tsaritsyno when she purchased it in 1775. The estate dates way back, however, to the 16th century when the wife of Tsar Fyodor owned the land. Now the old buildings of the estate have been redone to look vaguely like Catherine’s Palace in St. Petersburg, and the manicured park sprawls down over a hillside and across a lake with a manmade island with an incredible set up fountains. It’s ever so slightly Disney, if you know what I mean. Unfortunately I did not take any photos, but please click here to see a good one.

I stumbled on Tsaritsyno, to be honest. On weekends, when I have nothing better to do, I sometimes just get on the metro and ride around for long periods of time reading. I read well on the metro with the motion and the background noise and have, at times, read for up to 4 hours, riding back and forth on one line. Eventually, I need a bathroom, something to eat, or I finish my book, and I emerge from the metro. This was shaping out to be one of those long reading sessions before, after only a half hour, I heard the announcement that we were approaching Tsaritsyno station, which I remembered was one of the places that Diane had suggested we go to. I packed up my book, somewhat reluctant to be distracted from my reading by a sense of duty to visit this location, and got off the train. It’s cold again now, but it was glorious on Saturday. The park just unfolded in front of my eyes in the bright sunshine. And what did I do? I found a park bench and started reading again.

The metro is a great place to read because everything is so dull and every station looks like the last when you’re underground. Tsaritsyno is significantly less dull, and eventually I found that I was just gazing at the lake as the fountains danced.

When you think of Russian fountains, you might be tempted to think of old European fountains that are beautiful for their design and architecture more than for what they do with the water itself. This fountain, however, is more like one might find in Disneyland, or even Las Vegas. Hundreds of jets of different sizes fire shots of water at different intervals and angles. To enhance the show, it’s timed perfectly with classical music and even rows of colored lights under the fountains which illuminate the water. It’s just stunning.

An observant reader might wonder how I was able to appreciate the underwater lights when I was there in bright daylight. Surely the sun would dull those lights, right? Indeed. While the fountains were running with the music when I got there at lunchtime, it wasn’t until I returned at 10pm that I got the full show, lights and all. Once again, I hadn’t intended to end up at Tsaritsyno, but Saturday night was the night of museums, which meant that they were open and free until late. After visiting museums for a couple of hours, the Russian students that we were with suggested a trip to Tsaritsyno. And so I returned to Tsaritsyno for the second time. It really is even prettier at night. Being a special night, there was a concert of rather eclectic music going on. It included some Ella Fitzgerald songs, some Pavarotti, and a little rock for good measure.

Finally, I left the southern suburb of Tsaritsyno to return home to the northern suburb of Shchelkovskaya. Tsaritsyno is actually a lot closer to the center than where I live. There’s even a beautiful, less manicured, park and forest right across the road from my apartment building. I’m not sure if I went to the countryside this weekend. I didn’t intend to go to Tsaritsyno either time; it really came to me. Secondly, is Tsaritsyno even the countryside, or did I start the day in the countryside and go into the city for the day? Whatever happened, Moscow isn’t an ugly city, as I might have said if you had asked me several weeks ago. Now that Spring has set in and everything’s green, it’s quite an attractive city. And as much as I envy Andy’s trip out to Abramtsevo and Ben’s to the dacha, you don’t even need to get on an elektrichka to see some very beautiful parks.

Unlike Ben and Shane, I (Andy) took a trip northeast of the city, to the Abramtsevo estate, home of Savva Mamontov, a wealthy Old Believer merchant in the late 19th century who generously supported the Peredvizhniki art movement by hosting artists at his home and buying their artwork.  Having procrastinated over the weekend by not going on any cultural excursions, I woke up late on Monday and only about 11:30 AM decided to scoot to the Yaroslavl train station and catch a train out to Abramtsevo.  Coming out of the metro stop Komsomolskaya, I was happy to see that the train (called an "elektrichka" in Russian)for Sergiev Posad, which stops at Abramtsevo, was leaving in 8 minutes. I hurriedly bought a round-trip ticket for $6 (194 roubles) and hopped on.  Once on the train, I pulled out my Rough Guide to Moscow to once again glance over the information on Abramtsevo and was disappointed to read that the estate was closed on Mondays.  Well, that will screw things up, I thought to myself, particularly given that I was so excited to see the Baba-Yaga house that Savva Mamontov had built for his children.  Nonetheless, I stayed on the train in the hope that the schedule had been changed in the past year and I would be able to get in after all.  In addition, this Monday, May 18th, all of the museums in Moscow were offering free entrance, and I thought there was a chance Abramtsevo would have the same deal, despite being located an hour from the city.

Outside of Moscow the train ride passed slowly as I counted down each station to Abramtsevo and looked longingly out at the sun-dappled woods that flanked the railroad.  Three stops from my destination, overcome by the sight of idyllic dirt trails twisting up from Akushinskaya station into the forest, I actually reached down for my backpack and nearly stood up to exit the train, startling the man next to me, before rethinking and planting myself back down on the upholstered train bench. Two stops later, at Radonezh station, I gave in and hopped off, this time rationalizing that the estate wasn't likely to be open, and that I could walk there anyway from Radonezh if I felt like it.

Abramtsevo Estate, Moscow 

About fifty feet from the station, past a thick hedge of imposing birch and other trees of whose names I am ignorant, lay a typical rustic Russian village.  Dirt roads and paths, overgrown yards and wooden houses greeted me, complemented by crowing roosters in the background.  After wandering for twenty minutes through a couple of small settlements, I found a "produktovyi magazin" (small grocery store), where I got some rolls, water, and asked for directions to Abramtsevo.  The ladies there told me that I needed to walk to the end of that village and then take a left through a field to reach Abramtsevo station.  The directions worked perfectly and about fifteen minutes later I was at the station.  From there, I found out that I still had over an hour until my train back to Moscow rolled through and decided to try to find the stupid estate since I'd come this far.  The Rough Guide helpfully noted that it was a twenty minute walk from the station to the estate, but gave no clue as to which path to take.  I guessed the opposite direction from which I'd come and plunged west into the forest.  Several other paths presented themselves to me along the way, but I kept following the best-marked one, and soon came out to a major highway, across which lay an artificially enclosed pond and river that looked suspiciously like part of the estate described in the Rough Guide.  Sure enough, at the top of the next hill I found I was standing at the estate's gates and that moreover entrance was free as I had hoped.  With a full half hour to wander I delightedly sauntered through the picturesque main yard, fronted by the central residence (the home on which Anton Chekhov based his play "The Cherry Orchard"), a kitchen and an art studio that Ilya Repin, Vasnetsov, Vrubel, and Serov, the famous Peredvizhniki (Itinerants) artists of the late 19th century, often worked in, invited by and financially supported by  Mamontov.  Further on, I stopped at the children's Baba-Yaga hut, which stood next to the estate's church, collaboratively decorated by all of Mamontov's favorite artists.  Adjacent to the church lay the Mamontov family's graves, topped with Old Believer crosses, marking their commitment to a repressed and marginalized faith.  From there, I wandered down to the river and meandered along a path leading back to the highway that ran alongside the estate.  The beauty of the natural surroundings made it easy to understand why, under Mamontov's support, this estate had become the center of the renaissance of slavophile art and culture.  Indeed, Mamontov's land was used extensively by Peredvizhniki artists for their landscape paintings, which I must note were my favorite pieces of art in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery.

Abramtsevo Estate, Moscow 

Incredibly thankful for the beautiful weather and auspicious fate that had guided my steps all day, I walked back to the train station in an euphoric state, caught the train for Moscow and two hours later was already seated in our music classroom on the 8th floor of the philological department building on the Moscow State University campus, in time for our 6 pm music class.


While I (Ben) didn't go on a specific excursion out of the city, I was lucky enough to be invited to my host family's dacha for a weekend. A dacha is a country house, usually suitable only for warm-weather living, located out beyond the suburbs of the city in which the family lives during the year. My family's dacha is located not far from Zvenigorod, a town about 60 kilometers due west of Moscow. An interesting note about the name of the town - it comes from two words, the first "zveni(t)" means "to ring," and the second "gorod" - "city." I would posit that this had to do with the town serving as an early warning location of sorts, but short of a historian to inform me of such, that's just my speculation (after checking wikipedia, it seems I'm not the first english speaker to make this inspired connection - the name of the city translates as "the place where bells are rung" and supposedly Moscow could hear Zvenigorod ring).

When we first arrived, we just dropped our things off at the house and then took off again, this time to see the Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery, a fort/monastery in Zvenigorod. Moscow is ringed with such entrenched chapels, which served equal duty as churches and defensive installations to slow down invading armies on their way to the main city. No longer serving as a fort, the church is still active, and the complex a tourist destination for the historically inclined - with perfect weather and a Sunday afternoon, the kvass vendors by the monastery gate were doing a brisk business, while inside the walls people wandered from photo to photo, cameras to noses.

Savvino-Storzhevskii Monastir


While there, I was given a very special tour through the musuem concerned with the town's history by my host mother, and wandered through two subsequent exhibits, one about 18th century furnishing, and another containing a gallery of portrature.The interior of the chapel itself was breathtaking - icons, paintings covering every wall, intricate stonework around the entrance - and interesting in that it contained paintings done in more modern style (3d depictions) along with classical iconic figures ('flat' presentations).

After spending a few hours at the monastery, we went back to the dacha, where we stayed until Monday afternoon. Highlights included getting water from a well using a bucket and a giant turning handle, eating grechka in milk for the first time, and reading "Moscow to the End of the Line" from cover to cover (a title which brought some questions from my host mother, since "alcoholic" is too mild a word to describe the central character). My host parents mostly occupied themselves with yard work, either watering, or raking, or cleaning up (the only activity I managed to help with was mopping the outdoor deck).  In sum, the dacha was a delightful break from listening to traffic and city noise - I can see why the roads turn to standing room only on warm Friday afternoons, given the number of people driving to the dacha for a weekend of peace (or yardwork).

The dacha compound (what looked like a square few kilometers riddled with dachas, each with a small plot of land and surrounding fence).