The real Russia

Forget Cold War images of cold, gray Soviet sameness. The Golden Ring shows glorious Old World beauty

BRETTON B. HOLMES  | Contributing Writer bholmes@holmesworldmedia.com

CHARM INITIATIVE  |  The towns along the Golden Ring, including Rostov, enchant visitors with their medieval architecture, such as churches like this one. (Photo courtesy Svetlana Frolova)
CHARM INITIATIVE | The towns along the Golden Ring, including Rostov, enchant visitors with their medieval architecture, such as churches like this one. (Photo courtesy Svetlana Frolova)

The Cold War has been over for 20 years, but for many Americans, Russia remains a mystery. From movies, we imagine a skyline of gray, Stalin-inspired buildings and murky green waters of the river that runs through the city.
Wrong.

Much of this misperception results from our failure to understand the country’s history. And a chance to explore that history can lead to some of the most awe-inspiring travel one can find.

Russia’s history reveals a deeper partnership with the West than many might expect. It’s actually two countries at odds with each other. The people show great fortitude and graciousness, and are among the most welcoming of cultures. Russians are a proud people, defined by an undercurrent of their Orthodox faith and the monuments to that faith that have survived the Communist state.

One of the greatest travel opportunities the country boasts can be found in the towns that make up the Golden Ring. Comprised of several cities that extend out from the country’s capital of Moscow to the northeast, it is often referred to as the “museums under the sky” because of the many gorgeous churches and monasteries found in and around them. Russians themselves often refer to these towns as “the real Russia,” as Moscow is believed by many to be something of a “country within a country.”

The Golden Ring offers great opportunities for travelers tired of the typical tourist spots. You can travel back in time walking through the halls and courtyards of buildings built nearly 1,000 years ago. Although these rural locales hardly provide nightlife opportunities for gay travelers, the chance to experience history is not to be missed.

Kostroma
Founded in 1152, this town boasts the Ipatievsky monastery. It is understandable why the Romanov tsars regarded Kostroma as their special protectorate. Icons and chalices, some nearly 1,000 years old, extol the history while being dutifully preserved in a surprisingly modern way. Most of the buildings date from the 16th and 17th centuries. The Trinity Cathedral is famous for its elaborately painted interior. Photographs of the interior of the Trinity Cathedral can be had for a few hundred rubles, which the avid photographer should quickly shell out. Nuns and priests, upon seeing your photography ticket, are usually more than happy to suggest great picture spots.

Yarolslavl
Recently celebrating its millennial anniversary, Yaroslavl is a large city that boasts the Church of St. John the Baptist, a church so inspiring that its likeness can be found on one of the bank-notes. Other churches here date to the 17th century; visitors will be struck by the elaborate frescoes and enormously majestic proportions of the cathedrals. Of particular note is the Assumption Cathedral, a brand new church that doesn’t look like it. Though the city is the biggest and most active one in the Golden Ring, there is still an abiding sense of its provincial life and history.

FAIRY TALE TOWN  |  Spaso Jakolevskij monastery in Rostov is well-known for the brilliantly colored domes on its spires. (Photo courtesy Svetlana Frolova)
FAIRY TALE TOWN | Spaso Jakolevskij monastery in Rostov is well-known for the brilliantly colored domes on its spires. (Photo courtesy Svetlana Frolova)

Rostov
One of the oldest towns in Russia, Rostov is also one of the best-loved destinations on the Golden Ring. Because of its meticulous preservation, it is a popular locale for the film industry. It’s home to what many believe is the most magnificent kremlin outside of Moscow’s. The cathedral and four tall kremlin churches, with their silver domes, were imitated throughout the city, a trend especially evident in the Savior-on-the-Market Church and the cathedral Church of the Nativity convent. The oldest church within the city center was consecrated to St. Isidore the Blessed in 1565. It is believed that Ivan the Terrible had the architect executed because his church was so much smaller than its predecessor.

While Rostov may appear to be a bit rundown, this characteristic only serves as a fitting backdrop to the majesty of the churches that can be found there. It’s also an excellent place from which travelers can venture out approximately 20 kilometers to the Boris and Gleb monastery. Located in the town of Borisoglebsky, it’s where Ivan the Terrible personally oversaw the construction that surrounded an even older church.

Suzdal
By far considered to be the favorite location on the Golden Ring even among Russians, this picturesque fairy tale village requires at least a full day’s exploration. To maintain its charm, village leaders mandated that no buildings be built more than two stories tall in the historic areas. The architectural consideration upon arrival makes perfect sense. The monasteries and churches in Suzdal offer dream-inspired views — simply walking around the village or resting in the grass under the cool shadows of the gilded church domes are memorable experiences.

The kremlin in Suzdal is the historic center of the town and provides one of the best places to view the area. Rozhdestvenskiy Cathedral is the oldest cathedral here, marked by its brilliant blue domes with gold stars. Walking down Lenin Street, you might expect to find a yellow brick road not far off. The windows of these buildings are exceptionally ornate and colorful, adding to the town’s fairy-tale appeal.

Farther down Lenin Street is the Saviour-Euthimiev monastery-fortress, with its immensely thick walls and porticos and towers letting all and sundry know that to attempt to lay siege to the place would be a rather sizeable mistake.

The Kamenska River offers travelers the best place to enjoy a traditional Russian pancake or blini. A rare and specific treat that can only be found in Suzdal is medovukha, a honey-based liquor cherished across the country. The babushkas can be seen along the lined market selling the beverage, with happy bees circling their covered heads.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 29, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas