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Outside of Moscow

April 19, 2010 at 9:46 am
By Kenneth Ellis-Guardiola, Lily Schieber, Ben Hellerstein

At 7:20 on Friday morning we met for our weekend trip to a few of the towns on the Golden Ring, the ancient cluster of cities and villages that formed the center of Russian culture following the Mongol conquest of Kiev and struggled with one another for dominance of the region until Moscow emerged supreme in the early 14th century. Many of us chose to spend the two and a half hour bus ride to Vladimir in an unconscious state, but those who managed to keep their eyes open were rewarded with a view of the Russian countryside. The view out our windows – of rolling fields, birch and evergreen forests, and old, intricately-decorated log houses slowly sagging into the landscape – was a refreshing contrast to the past three weeks spent in Russia’s bustling capital. The bus system itself was different from that of Moscow: bus stops seemed to appear out of nowhere alongside the road, and where there were none, people would stand by the road and wait (leaving us impressed that the driver knew to pick them up at all). Indeed, the contrast between life in Moscow and life in provincial Russia became more apparent throughout our stay.

After dropping off our baggage in Vladimir, we headed to Suzdal, a town with 11,000 people and 50 churches that dates back to at least 1024. In its heyday, Suzdal was a major trading center: its merchant population plowed much of its wealth into the construction of churches. In the 19th century, there were over 100 churches in the town, but Suzdal’s fortunes rapidly declined when a new railroad was built that bypassed the town. With a declining population, the small town could no longer support so many churches, and about half were taken down for building materials by the time the Soviets came to power. During the reign of communism, the remaining churches were saved by the protection of a passionate curator. Today, Suzdal’s ancient churches and monasteries are a major tourist draw. On the day we visited, it seemed that most of the activity in the town was centered around tourism: dozens of vendors hawked colorful souvenirs from street-side tables and offered carriage rides through Suzdal. While Moscow’s economy is certainly bolstered by a significant tourist trade, it does not comprise the majority of the city’s income. A provincial town like Suzdal, however, whose glory days as a trading center are long gone, might have difficulty sustaining their local economy without tourism (although our excellent guide, Pavel, informed us that nowadays, the town is well known for its agriculture, specifically its cucumber festival—where one can enjoy cucumbers in all forms, including ice cream!). Most buildings are no more than two or three stories tall, so the skyline of Suzdal is defined by the tops of churches and bell towers—which used to be the case in Moscow as well. And while the quiet atmosphere of the town was not surprising, it still came as a bit of a shock after our weeks in Moscow.

We visited Murom the following day. To learn more about our adventures there, please read Denis’s and Karl’s blog post.

On Sunday, we finally explored our temporary hometown of Vladimir, accompanied by three local students who sacrificed their free Sunday to show us around town. The city dates back to the 11th century, and figured as one of the major seats of Russian power until the 14th century. Vladimir borrowed much of its architecture from the fallen Kiev, which had previously held the center of Russian power. This is manifested through the Golden Gates at the old entrance of the city. Although there is no shortage of grand, large churches in town, the two that stood out to the group were the Church of the Intercession on the Nerli and the Dmitrievskii Cathedral, both of which impressed not with their scale but with their simple elegance. Some interesting features of both of these churches are their white facades, Romanesque features, and surprisingly pagan adornment, which differ from the typical colorful flourishes of churches in Moscow.  The lack of an iconostasis inside the Church of the Intercession on the Nerli felt unfamiliar after our exposure to churches from later eras (this church was constructed in the 12th century, before iconostases were included in Orthodox churches).  These two churches predate by several centuries any of the churches and monuments we have seen so far in Moscow, a city that was subject to frequent demolition and reconstruction (as well as periodic invasions by foreign armies) long before the Soviet Union came into existence.

The towns of the Golden Ring have not been untouched by modernity, however. Though Vladimir has preserved much of its two- and three-story, human-scaled downtown, it also boasts a brand-new modern shopping center with a Baskin Robbins and a Sbarro’s. The outskirts of town are dotted with rusting Soviet-era apartment blocks. And in Murom, one of the city’s most prominent twelfth-century churches was demolished by the Soviet government in the 1940s and replaced by a playground. Even though the cities that we visited seemed, at times, several centuries removed from the modern bustle of Moscow, we could never lose sight of the fact that Vladimir, Suzdal, and Murom were also shaped by the same turbulent history.


  • April 27 2010 at 7:48 pm
    Lisa Hellerstein

    wonderfully descriptive. Thank you!

    And I looked up iconostasis, so now I know what it means.

    keep having a great time, Lisa H