Travels October 2006

Escape to Old Russia

The Golden Ring, northeast of Moscow, offers a respite from the capital and an immersion in the past

The museum—the first private museum in all of Russia—is the creation of John Mostoslavsky, a magician by trade. With a showman’s aplomb, hands astir and eyes ablaze, he described the events leading to its founding, in 1993. “It began thirty years ago,” he said, “when I used an old gramophone in an act. Every item you see here has become a part of my soul.” Born in 1942 in the far-eastern Amur region to Jewish parents who had fled the Nazi invasion, Mostoslavsky spent most of his life performing on the road, all the while assembling a reliquary of Russia’s gentried past—a hobby forbidden by the Communists. “The Soviets considered collecting antiquities tantamount to dealing in hard currency,” he told me, smiling. “But I’ve never been law abiding. I’ve always done what I want. And in Soviet days I did my time in jail.”

As he spoke Mostoslavsky walked about the museum, cranking the gramophones and playing the organs, ringing the bells and pumping the pneumatic pedals on a Story & Clark player piano. “For me, musical instruments are meant to be played,” he said. This is a living museum, a cri de coeur!”

His enthusiasm has evidently infected others. Before leaving I thumbed through an album full of photographs showing newlyweds posing in front of Mostoslavsky’s pianos—something of a postnuptial ritual in the town.

In 1888 a young artist with delicate features and intense eyes debarked from a Volga ferry in Plyos, a tiny hamlet about sixty miles east of Yaroslavl. The surrounding meadows, the birch-mantled hills, and the fir-shaded dales inspired him to spend three summers there, during which he painted more than forty landscapes. The artist’s name was Isaac Levitan; his Plyos pictures would earn him fame as the greatest Russian realist.

Levitan lived modestly in Plyos, renting, with his mistress and an artist friend, the upper floor of a merchant’s riverside house, which is now a museum exhibiting some of his work. (Much more is on display in the State Tretyakov Gallery, in Moscow.) As soon as I arrived in the town, I searched out his home. Upstairs was a sitting room bathed in the Volga’s blue reflected light; in it, an easel stood next to an oak desk and a lamp with a filigreed base. Across the hall was a dining room looking out onto a stand of birches.

Downstairs I examined Levitan’s paintings. In one room hung originals, including Sunset on the Volga, depicting the peach-tinted sky of an endless summer’s eve; Quiet River, a tableau saturated with the verdure that blooms so vividly yet ephemerally in Russia; and Spring Has Arrived, a slushy scene of a log-cabin village huddled under a cold sky early in the season of revival. Another room held reproductions; my favorite was Evening Bells, which shows a green-domed church reigning over a glassy river that winds away into fiery autumnal forests.

Later I wandered down the embankment. The ferry station, a floating wooden structure painted blue and white, creaked on currents glinting with the copper lambency of the expiring day. Levitan died of a heart ailment just shy of his fortieth birthday, but the beauty and tranquillity his works evince pervade Plyos still.

Prince Vladimir of Kiev accepted Christianity from the Byzantine Greeks in A.D. 988. Since then, religion has flowed through the Russian state, becoming intertwined with patriotic sentiment and official ideology. It was from the Monastery of St. Ipaty in Kostroma, forty miles east of Yaroslavl, that the first Romanov czar emerged from hiding, in 1613, to end the Time of Troubles—a fifteen-year interregnum of civil war, invasion, and famine following a disputed succession to the throne—and inaugurate the dynasty that would rule until the Bolshevik Revolution.

In the monastery’s Trinity Cathedral, a researcher named Larisa showed me the iconostasis, multitiered and inlaid with impossibly ornate icons, and the frescoes—more than eighty in all—adorning the high walls. Several of the scenes dealt with Judgment Day: Jesus conferring with Mary and the apostles, devils dragging sinners off to hell, angels weighing repentance against sin on handheld scales. One showed a monk ascending a ladder, each rung representing a sin. “We can’t overcome all our sins at once,” Larisa said. “We must move slowly, conquering one after the other.”

I told her what I had always assumed: that such frescoes served as a Bible for the illiterate, teaching Christianity in pictures—especially necessary because Orthodox services are conducted in Old Church Slavonic, which today can be difficult to understand. Larisa disagreed. “That’s a misconception related to how we think now,” she said. “The public, even the illiterate, would have understood the texts—if not at first, then over time and with repeated exposure. The Old Church Slavonic masks many layers of meaning and reveals them to us gradually.”

Obscurity as a means of enlightenment? I wasn’t sure I bought this. So in Bogolyubovo, 120 miles south of Kostroma and my last stop before returning to Moscow, I attended a liturgy one evening in a nineteenth- century cathedral, a soaring structure of whitewashed stone.

There are no pews in Russian Orthodox churches; worshippers must stand. By the second hour of the service I was tired (and dizzy from the incense), but I began to suspect that Larisa was right: the sense of the text was seeping in with repetition. And the rituals seemed almost palpably to be uniting the worshippers, allowing them, perhaps, to forget for a time the trials of the present. The mystery of gloom in the Golden Ring’s cathedrals, the enigma of its icons and ancient texts, might, I reflected, be the greatest and most enduring legacy of Old Russia.

Photograph of Rostov Veliky by Jeffrey Tayler

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Jeffrey Tayler lives in Moscow and is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book is River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny.

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