Leaving Moscow on the Viking Truvor, we finished the first part of the Viking River Waterways Of The Tsars cruise. Exploring Moscow proved an enlightened beginning – what I thought would be a stern, grey place turned out to be a vibrant city, full of great art, intriguing religious history and museums, and often, exceptional Russian Iconography combining all three.
But this enlightenment expanded as we journeyed up the Volga to towns and cities that are part of what is called the Golden Ring. This is the name of a chain of historic towns northeast of Moscow. Their histories are tragic, artistic, unique, and compelling. All those dimensions allowed us to understand, to an even greater degree, the political and cultural heart of Western Russia. Many are UNESCO Heritage sites; many are set in bucolic landscapes that provide primary exposure to the pastoral life enjoyed by Russians for centuries.
Our first stop was Uglich — a small town 109 nautical miles north of Moscow, on the right bank of the Volga in the Yaroslavl Region. It is historically connected with a fierce, mysterious death that took place in the 16th century. On 15 May,1591, under strange circumstances, Prince Dmitry, the eight-year-old son of Ivan the Terrible (who had died years before) was found dead in his garden. There were those who said that the little prince was playing with a knife when he suffered a cerebral seizure, fell on the knife, inflicting a mortal wound. But his inconsolable mother was certain that her son was murdered by Boris Godunov’s agents, so Godunov could become Tsar, which he did. Yet, his guilt was never established and the wife of Ivan, mother of Prince Dmitry was sent to a Convent and never re-emerged. In the meantime, a church was erected in the same place where Prince Dmitry died. It is the Church of St. Dmitry On The Blood. The story of Boris Godunov was made famous in an opera by Modest Mussorgsky, and in a play by Alexander Pushkin.
Further up the Volga, 160 miles northeast of Moscow, was our next stop: the historic city of Yaroslavl, the oldest of all the currently existing towns, and the first Christian city on the Volga. It was founded by Yaroslav The Wise in the 988AD. In July 2005 the city’s center was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The churches here are beautiful, yet in contrast, Yaroslavl’s history is tragic. Combining such tragedy and beauty is The Cathedral Of The Assumption.
The cornerstone of the Assumption Cathedral of Yaroslavl was laid in 1215, and was the first stone church in Yaroslavl. After a fire in 1501 the cathedral was rebuilt, and was rebuilt again after another fire in 1658. This second building of the cathedral lasted until 1937 when it was again destroyed in World War II. After the war, it was rebuilt for the third time.
About 200,000 people from the Yaroslavl area died on the fronts during World War II. This sacrifice is today remembered through a monument and eternal flame which was opened near the Cathedral of Assumption in 1968.
When the Cathedral was finally rebuilt, the new Assumption Cathedral was sanctified by the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Cyril on September 12, 2012, on the occasion of the millennial (plus a few years) anniversary of Yaroslavl. This cathedral is within walking distance of the Church of Elijah The Prophet — another fascinating example of great architecture, housing great frescoes.
The Church Of Elijah The Prophet was built in 1647 – 1650 and is considered a masterpiece of ancient Russian architecture. A main interest is the interior painting, made by the famous Kostroma artists, from the Kostroma area of Russia, known well at the time for their church fresco painting. Seeing these works was a thrilling experience, as you could almost see the brush strokes on the walls. The dazzling colors textures and subjects had not faded with time.
But Yaroslavl was not all churches and frescoes and memorials. It is a lively town, with an energetic Farmer’s Market also. It was there we saw all that the local farmers provide – not very different from Farmer’s Markets in the US except the spices were different. The saffron varieties were astonishing, the varieties of chocolate also. I bought many bitter chocolate with hazelnut bars, some were local, and others were from the Red October Candy Company in Moscow.
From Yaroslavl, loaded with chocolate bars, we sailed to Kuzino, and saw even more exceptional art at the Kirillo Belozersky Monastery. This was our first Monastery, after all the churches and cathedrals. Again, with such history. The Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery was founded by St. Cyril in 1397. He followed the advice of his teacher, St. Sergius of Radonezh
and first dug a cave here, then built a wooden Assumption chapel and a loghouse for other monks. And from there, the Monastery grew, thanks to, of all people, Ivan The Terrible’s donations. The story is that he came here often as he loved to savor the peace and deep spirituality of the place, and had planned to retire here and live out his days in peace and spiritual contemplation. That didn’t happen, he died of a stroke while playing chess. But the dream of spiritual peace did happen for others.
The walled area of the monastery eventually comprised two separate priories with eleven churches, most of them dating to the 16th century. The monastery walls, 732 meters long and 7 meters thick, were constructed in 1654-80.
After the Bolsheviks turned the monastery into a museum in 1924, a wooden shrine from 1485 and several traditional timber structures were transferred to the Museum. During Soviet restoration works, superb 16th-century frescoes were discovered in the Gate Church of St. Sergius (1560–94) and were also transferred to the Museum. The larger part of the monastery is now called the the Kirillo-Belozersky Museum of History, Art, and Architecture. As of 2011, the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery is one of the four active monasteries in the area, and the only one for women.
From the Monastery, we sailed from the Volga to Lake Onega, our first lake stop on the second largest lake in Europe. The lake is situated in the northwest part of Russia. Fifty rivers enter Lake Onega, one of them is the Volga. We docked on Kizhi Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site includes two large wooden churches –the 22 dome Transfiguration Church and the 9 dome Intercession Church– and a Bell Tower. The churches and tower are famous for their beauty and longevity, especially since they were built exclusively of wood, just a few feet from the Lake. In addition, the 22 domed Transfiguration Church’s shingles are made of Aspen, and without nails. The Transfiguration Church was built in 1714, and the builders are unknown.
One more thing about Kizhi – if there was one area we visited that to me defined the fierce perseverance and artisanry of the Russians, it was this 22 dome church at Kizhi. It is a cold island, damp and rainy much of the year, with a short spring and summer. The artisans, whoever they were, surely built this masterwork with an awareness that especially in this most distant, cold place there was needful room for the warmth of worship and community. Impressive. Memorable.
We had only one more stop on this exceptional trip into the history and culture of Russia, whose persevering essences allowed us to better understand the depth of the Russian character. Our last stop before St. Petersburg was Mandrogy, a colorful contrast to all we have experienced before.
Mandrogy is an artistan village on the Svir river, skirting both Lake Onega and Ladoga. The history of Mandrogy is short. It was a traditional Russian river village, but the town was destroyed during World War II. But in 1996, a Russian entrepreneur rebuilt Mandrogy as an open air museum showcasing what a traditional Russian village looked like. It does have brightly painted wood homes, windmills, a Vodka Museum, a Moose farm, costumed craftspeople and a small Zoo. Travelers who come to Mandrogy can shop for traditional Russian lacquered boxes, or other lacquered wood items, Matryoshkas, or Russian nesting dolls, Baltic Amber and Ural mountain malachite jewelry, or hand made Russian embroidery items, as Mandrogy is a town of exceptional artists and musicians.
We sailed northwest after Mandrogy on the Svir River, toward our final destination, St. Petersburg.
Each of these towns and cities told distinct back stories about both Russian evolution and revolution, through their iconography, their art, their architecture. It seemed so appropriate that Mandrogy, a town full of salespeople, happy capitalists actually, would be our last stop. From Uglich to Mandrogy, we sensed Russian history in a new way, as we saw the wake of our Viking Truvor create a watery road from ancient to modern, part of the essential Golden Ring.
We sailed in the evening, under a full moon, from the Svir to the Neva, the river that leads us closer the Venice Of The North, the great city of St Petersburg.
To be continued.