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The Golden Ring

May 8, 2010 at 3:18 am
By Kenny Bendiksen

The Golden Ring

That weekend we hopped (or dragged ourselves) onto a bus to explore the Golden Ring. As others have noted in their blog posts, this region is truly ancient—Vladimir dating back to the 11th century and Murom to 862! I was looking forward to this as a nice change of pace from Moscow life. Like most of us, I promptly fell asleep upon boarding the bus, despite the telephone conversations of the businessman sitting across the aisle…

When I awoke, the businessman had disappeared and all traces of Moscow with him—around us on either side was dense birch forest, too thick to see through. No more city sounds, just the hum of the bus tires. Well, there was the pop music blaring from the radio. But from the window, it seemed like we had been taken back all the way to the 9th century, to a time before the area was inhabited by humans at all. Spring had not yet come, so the birches were bare, with only intermittent evergreens breaking up the gray-brown landscape. The blur of birches streaming past sometimes gave way to open fields—desolate for the moment, equally brown, awaiting spring. A rusting Soviet-era factory or two appeared from time to time. Sometimes in between the birches little villages would blink past, revealing scenes from a life far removed from what we’d seen in Moscow: babushki working in their yards, girls drawing water, and beautiful old wooden houses with elaborate, brightly-colored carvings on the windowsills. Not Moscow life by a long shot!

Even when we arrived in Vladimir (pop. ~340,000), the atmosphere was different. This felt like small-town Russia, an impression reinforced by the small-town hospitality of the very cool American Home. The soft pastel blues, yellows, and coral pinks of the older buildings in Vladimir reminded me of St. Petersburg’s canal-side architecture, calling up associations with that 19th-century Russian style influenced by European designs. It was clear some of these buildings dated back at least that far; Vladimir had seen a lot of history, as influenced by this mixture of architecture from various eras.

Suzdal (pop. ~11,000) was something of a “city of churches,” with another Orthodox church appearing, it seemed, around every turn. The atmosphere was fairly "touristy," with trinkets of probably-Chinese origin being sold on one of the two main squares. The churches, though, were absolutely beautiful, as was the kremlin. We chanced to hear a special ringing of the bells at St. Euthymius monastery that is only played around Easter. Here we also saw the tomb of Dmitrii Pozharskii, the prince who helped free Russia from its "Time of Troubles" at the beginning of the 17th century.

But Murom will probably stay in my memory longest of all, not so much for its long history, but for our personal interaction with its residents. We visited the Murom Institute on Saturday and many of its students turned out to greet us. Let me repeat that: on Saturday. After watching a talent show, being filmed for the local news, and being fed in the Institute's cafeteria, we were led around town to “see the sights” with those students who wanted to stay and socialize with us. This was undoubtedly the most pleasant, yet surprising, part of the trip. I was a little caught off-guard at first by the format of the day’s events—I felt a little out of place. A talent show? All of this for us? Six students and a professor for those several hours felt greeted more like some royal or exotic retinue. Now that’s Russian hospitality! And fro many of these students, it was their first time meeting Americans. I was impressed by how talented the students from this Institute were in various fields—during the talent show we heard Vivaldi magnificently shredded out on an electric guitar, for example. But I’m thinking more of the English-speaking skills of some of the students. We had very little trouble communicating! I even encountered one student who had taught himself Spanish and spoke it almost without an accent. He proceeded, over lunch, to ask me a rather difficult grammar question he hadn’t been able to figure out himself in the course of trying to master the language. (For the record I didn’t know the answer either…)

All in all, the experience was a much-appreciated break from the hurried pace of Moscow life. It was a chance to see a more ancient side of Russia, explore some very storied old cities, and meet the people who live there today.