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Escape to Old Russia

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

In the thirteenth century, hordes of Tatar Mongolian warriors rode out of the Eurasian steppes and laid waste to most of Russia, enslaving or massacring the population and occupying the land in the south. The towns of Rostov, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and Bogolyubovo, more than 150 miles northeast of Moscow (at the time a remote provincial village), were pillaged by the invaders but spared the occupation. Previously isolated amid forests and on windswept plains, but seated on or near the upper Volga and with access to trade, these towns flourished in loosely allied autonomous principalities for the next 200 years. Forming a rough semicircle, and with a bounty of gilt-cupolaed churches, they and other nearby towns acquired a collective name: the Golden Ring.

The Ring exemplifies what I like best about the Russian countryside: rural hospitality; somnolent landscapes and tree-lined lanes where pedestrians stroll and cars are few; wooden cabins with plumes of smoke trailing from the chimneys; the dreamy susurrus of the wind through the trees. The area is within easy reach of Moscow—several hours by car or train, or a longer but more pleasant ferry ride up the Volga—and provides a welcome escape from the capital’s traffic and crowds. But most of all, as I discovered recently, a visit to the Golden Ring surrounds one with the artistic and spiritual treasures of Old Russia: the masterpieces of Orthodox ecclesiastical architecture, and the evocation of a hazy, half-mythical era of lost liberties, a time before Moscow arose as Russia’s unifier and despot.

As I approached Rostov, a cold wind rolled off Lake Nero, pushing a mosaic of gunmetal clouds. Here and there rays of sunlight shot through, illuminating rows of turquoise and green cabins along the hilly shore, glancing off the domes and crucifixes atop the Cathedral of the Assumption in the town’s citadel, or kremlin. Later that day I walked the kremlin’s courtyard with my guide, a young woman named Irina who, with her round eyes, plump figure, and flaxen hair coiffed beneath a pink shawl, reminded me of a matryoshka doll.

Irina recounted Rostov’s history in elegiac tones. The town’s first Slavic inhabitants came from Novgorod, in the boggy forests to the north, late in the first millennium, mixing peaceably with local Finno Ugric tribes. As their numbers increased, so did their need for protection. Rostov’s centerpiece is the kremlin, a stone structure of solemn grandeur. With six onion-domed churches, it stands starkly on the plains, evoking the isolation the town must have felt as much of the country was settled by the Mongols.

By 1207, Rostov was the capital of an eponymous principality that evolved into one of medieval Russia’s main city-states. And as the resting place for the remains of Saint Dmitry Rostovsky, who died there in 1709, it became a center for Orthodox pilgrims, who would come from all over the country to pray at his tomb. This was, Irina assured me, not mere folklore: the church has certified 300 miracles of healing in Rostov.

In their campaign against religion, the Soviets leveled most of Rostov’s churches and deliberately neglected the town. The government housed proletarians in the monks’ cells at the fourteenth-century Monastery of St. Jacob, which we visited next, and used the magnificent Cathedral of the Conception as a barn. Today about twenty monks inhabit the monastery. They look after an ever-changing number of trudniki, men who drift from monastery to monastery doing manual labor in exchange for food and shelter. I found something reassuring in this: despite the feverish efforts of the Soviets, the communal structures of Old Russia have survived here, at least in a small way.

A ninety-minute taxi ride northeast from Rostov took me across undulant, dun-colored plains and gave me my first view of Yaroslavl: billboards and Brezhnev-era concrete tenements. I wasn’t expecting this depressing sort of modernity here. But as we shot past the tenements, onion domes rose up around us. Yaroslavl, like Rostov, is renowned for its ancient churches, which are everywhere in the city. Pedestrian streets teeming with shoppers dead-ended at cathedral walls; markets where old women haggled over cheese and sausage abutted antique brick churches; young people strolled in and out of cafés and pizza parlors in the shadows of belfries. With a population of 680,000, Yaroslavl bustled in a way that tiny Rostov, with only 40,000 inhabitants, could not, yet it exuded the same sort of charm.

And the city has its peaceful places. At the Museum of Music and Time, located in a fin-de-siècle merchant’s house on the Volga, I drifted into reverie listening to the ticking of countless Swiss, German, and French clocks from centuries past, along with an intermittent, soothing concert of chimes that sounded regardless of the hour. (The clocks were not synchronized.) I heard a Cupid-emblazoned German Klingsor gramophone playing Chaliapin and Caruso; Swiss music boxes that tinkled out ditties; and an Odessan street organ called a sharmanka (from the French charmant) that, when cranked, emitted a circus tune. Scenes from the works of Tolstoy and Chekhov came inescapably to mind. Indeed, in another room tiny porcelain figures representing heroes from Russian literature stood frozen in crystalline light.

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