Stage 42 – Russia: The European Heartland [1/2]
Russia has fascinated me since I made my very first visit to the country in June 2007, at the very start of this Odyssey. Its huge territory presents almost limitless opportunities for exploration in wild, pristine and sparsely populated environments which stretch from the borders of the EU to the Pacific Ocean. The Russian people are also a great draw for me; free-spirited, highly cultured and intrinsically welcoming, a pleasant juxtaposition of European and Asian qualities and a fascinating mix of races from across Eurasia. Russia is a country which offers a scale of travel and a depth of immersion which in my experience is unmatched. Having made more than ten individual trips to Russia, mostly in 2010-11, I had plenty of experience of the country, yet I craved for more; specifically to make journeys to the far north and later far east (and back); journeys which would occupy the next four years of my free time.
The first of these would be the main focus of my 2015 journey. After entering the far south of Russia from Azerbaijan, this stage would take me right across European Russia to its eastern boundary in the vast wilderness of the North Urals, then north to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Between these natural boundaries I would stop in some of Russia’s most ancient cities, before turning my attention to the beautiful landscapes and twenty-four-hour daylight of the country’s far north and completing a completing a ten thousand kilometre journey across Russia’s European heartland on the Estonian border.
On the 25th May 2015 I cross the Samur River and after a friendly but rather lengthy process at customs, I start my trip across Russia in the Republic of Dagestan, one of my very favourite parts of the country. I pass the glorious Sassanian-Persian Naryn Kala Fortress above Derbent and arrive in the capital Makhachkala in the early evening, to a warm welcome from my old friend Bagdat, with whom I had stayed on my first visit to the region in 2010. The transmission of the truck has been making ominous noises ever since entering Turkey and so I decide to take it to a mechanic, where it is diagnosed with a worn clutch disc. Though the underlying reason seems to be general wear in the transmission, something which cannot be quickly rectified here, a new clutch disc will make a temporary cure. With the help of Zaur, whom I befriend at an auto parts store, a new clutch is quickly flown down from Moscow, being carried for a small fee by a passenger using an efficient system which is typical of the pragmatic approach Russians take to solving problems, a breath of fresh air coming from over-regulated Western Europe.
Whilst waiting for the clutch disc to arrive, I spend a few days in Makhachkala, which is an interesting blend of ancient Asian tradition and modern Russia; where I can sit with Bagdat’s cousin and two of his friends knocking back vodka while veiled women pass in the street outside. Makhachkala, and Dagestan as a whole, has become much safer since my last visit (when I witnessed a long gun battle in the streets) thanks to the ‘liquidation’ of many militants in security operations before the 2014 Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi, and a general exodus of others to join the fighting in Syria and Iraq. I hang out at the National Museum, where Bagdat works, and once again enjoy the company of his colleagues; wisened older men who lived their lives in the Soviet Union and wear their different national identities distinctly but lightly; another feature of Dagestan which I find rather endearing. There’s Magomed, a chain-smoking engineer, one of the museum’s craftsmen, with his love of the Beatles and all things German, and Temur, who with obvious tragedy and a touch of apprehension from his colleagues tells me that his two sons disappeared three years ago after quitting their jobs and getting involved ‘in something’. Both seem finely tuned to the museum’s old workshops and their rather frustrated intellect and camaraderie reminds me strongly of the descriptions of the Moscow sharashka in Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle.
Soon enough it’s time for me to move on; to say farewell to the gentlemen in the museum, thank Zaur for his help in finding a new clutch disc so quickly, to thank Bagdat and his mother for their generous hospitality, and begin a long journey northwards. I drive roughly parallel to the coast, initially re-tracing the route I took in 2010, but just past the brandy producing town of Kizlyar I turn westwards onto a quiet provincial road across the flat pre-Caspian steppe, passing through the outpost town of Yuzhno-Sukhokumsk and then crossing into Stavropol Territory where the land abruptly improves and I find myself passing small but prosperous looking farming communities; I am back in Russia proper. Just beyond the town of Neftekumsk I stop for the night, but my hopes of spending a cool night on the back of the truck sleeping under a star-filled sky are dashed by the numerous mosquitoes which buzz all around me as soon as I step out of the car; an annoyance which will become ever worse as I move northwards.
In the town of Budyonnovsk I turn northwards once more through huge fields on a road lined by flowering trees and I’m impressed by the scale of agriculture which seems to be thriving here in Russia’s southern steppes. As I reach the Kalmykia Republic the quality of the land deteriorates once more and I’m again struck by the heavy set faces of the Kalmyks, an unexpected sight in what still seems like provincial Europe. In the afternoon I stop in Volgodonsk, a pleasant-looking small town located well away from any major highway and where little appears to have changed since Soviet times. The city is located on the southern edge of the Tsimlyansk Reservoir on the Don River, at the northern end of which starts the Volga-Don Canal which links the two great rivers of European Russia and thus the Caspian and Black Seas and also gives Volgodonsk its name. In a territory as large as Russia, rivers have always been a key means both for control and communications, and for trade, and it was along the rivers that the early Varangian (Viking) controlled state of Rus’ was established in the ninth century, operating the Volga Trade Route which connected northern Europe to the Caucasus and even Abbasid Baghdad.
On my way out of town, I stop at the Don River and watch a ship passing through an ornate, Stalinist-era lock, part of the Volga-Don Canal system, before continuing my northward journey on a small back-road eventually joining the M21, which I take briefly before turning north once more in Surovikino and soon stopping to camp, again having to take refuge in the car from the voracious mosquitoes. The following day, I re-cross the Don in Serafimovich and notice an immediate change in the landscape; from the endless rolling farmland of southern Russia, dotted only occasionally by small villages beyond the fields, to a more varied landscape with small stands of pine forest, sandier soil and linear villages of pretty wooden houses lining the road.
Despite this change, I am still in an area outside of the ancient heartland of Russia, an area which even after the withdrawal of the Golden Horde in the fifteenth century, was a frontier region used by raiding groups of Crimean Tatars and Nogays who would prey on the southern flanks of the country. After joining the busy M6, I stop in the afternoon in Tambov, a city established in the seventeenth century as border fortress against Tatar raids, later to become a provincial trade centre. I’m hosted in Tambov by Olga, a photographer who lives with her brother, and who takes me out in her car for a tour of the city. Tambov is a pleasant place, far enough from Moscow to retain a pleasant provincial atmosphere, but with sufficient infrastructure to avoid being a neglected backwater. We drive around taking in the city’s modest sights until we reach the central square with its Eternal Flame Monument to those killed in the Great Patriotic War, when a roiling mass of black cloud suddenly breaks into a heavy summer storm.
Tambov is around 450 kilometres south-east of Moscow, a city which emerged from the chaos of the thirteenth century Mongol invasion to later become the centre of a new Russian state, and remains by far the most important city in modern Russia. I however head northwards on small roads towards some of Russia’s oldest cities, glad to avoid Moscow’s wearying sprawl and traffic by doing so. I pass through faded small towns and depopulated villages, often with old churches still in ruin after the neglect of the Soviet period, their whitewash and plaster slowly peeling away to leave a damp brick shell. I cross the wide, slow Oka River and stumble by accident into the beautiful small town of Kasimov, with a charming unmodernised centre whose main street runs straight to the large nineteenth century Assumption Cathedral. Later in the afternoon I stop in Murom, one of the very oldest cities of Russia, first listed in the Primary Chronicles, the earliest history of the Eastern Slavs, in 862 CE.
Murom harks back to the times of Kievan Rus’, when it is believed that Varangians (Vikings) from what is now Sweden came to rule over the Slavs and Finno-Ugric peoples of northern-western Russia, soon integrating and spreading southwards to Kiev. There they would establish Kievan Rus’, the first Eastern Slavic state, a loose federation of principalities such as Murom, which would last until the Mongol invasion. Culturally, Kievan Rus’ is the ancestor of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus however, the origins of the modern Russian state are very much Moscow-centric with only distant connections to pre-Mongol Kievan Rus’. Murom is interesting for having been on the eastern-most frontier of Kievan Rus’, a border with the uncharted territory of the native Finno-Ugric tribes, locally the Muromians. Today Murom is a pleasant enough provincial town, though following heavy destruction in Soviet times, there is scant evidence of its historical importance and I’m soon driving out of town to spend another night camping in the truck to avoid the voracious mosquitoes.
In the morning I pass through the regional capital of Vladimir, which I regard as one of Russia’s most beautiful cities, but stop only in the adjacent village of Bogolyubovo. Here, well beyond the heavy traffic of one of the country’s main highways, alone in the swampy fields along the Nerl River is the twelfth century Church of the Intercession on the Nerl. Elegantly slender, with the beautiful proportions of an early, strongly Byzantine-influenced cross church, but crowned with the later addition of a traditionally Russian onion dome, the Church of the Intercession ranks immediately alongside the similar Cathedral of Saint Demetrius in Vladimir, which I visited on a snowy December morning four and a half years ago, as one of my favourite pieces of Russian architecture. The immediate surroundings of the church, a wild, unkempt grassy landscape of ox-bow lakes and willow trees makes for what to me is an almost perfectly Russian scene.
I’ve entered the region known historically as Zalesye, which came to prominence in the twelfth century following the decentralisation and decline of Kievan Rus’. The name ‘Zalesye’ literally means ‘beyond the forest’, referring to the swathe of forest which separated it from the other successor states such as the Republic of Novgorod to the north-west, or those further south around the Don. Once the Principality of Vladimir-Suzdal, today it’s a beguiling region with small farming villages built around ancient whitewashed churches. Amongst the rolling fields are towns such as Yuryev-Polsky; clearly once of some importance but now a real backwater and those which have managed to fare a little better into modernity, such as Pereslavl-Zalessky, where I make my next stop. Located on another major highway, Pereslavl-Zalessky is busy with Muscovite tourists who come to enjoy the town’s historic atmosphere and location on the shores of Lake Pleshcheyevo. It was here that one of Russia’s greatest heroes was born in 1221; Alexander Nevsky, who would lead the country through wars with western invaders and eventually submit to the Mongols of the Golden Horde, preserving medieval Russia; something for which he was canonised in the sixteenth century by the Russian Orthodox Church. Nevsky’s youngest son Daniel would go on to found the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the late thirteenth century; transforming it into the city which would forever eclipse these more ancient cities of the early principalities of Rus’.
Not far north from Pereslavl-Zalessky is the very ancient city of Rostov which, like Murom is among the oldest in the Russian heartland, having first been mentioned in 862 CE, but which is much more attractive and is perhaps my favourite in the region. I stop outside the large brick kremlin (fortress) and walk to the shore of Lake Nero, where I’m greeted by a vista of exquisite beauty in this seemingly endless landscape of grass, lakes and hills. It’s a scene which so perfectly encapsulates rural European Russia; understated, timeless, unspectacular though soul-stirringly beautiful; a live view of a Russian watercolour looking across the limpid waters of the lake towards the silhouetted domes of the Monastery of Saint Jacob and the low, rolling folds of Russia beyond. Rostov’s seventeenth century Kremlin is exotically beautiful, almost kitsch in its fairytale proportions; a picture-book image of onion domes and (largely decorative) defensive towers which stand over the the city’s quiet streets and still-active trading arches, all giving Rostov a very pleasant small-town atmosphere.
I stop for the evening in Ivanovo which, unlike its neighbours, is a city lacking any historical allure; a city of textile factories fallen on hard times and capital of a region which is very nearly the poorest in the entire country. The following day I drive north and in the picturesque town of Plyos, famous as the retreat of Russian landscape painter Isaac Levitan, I meet the greatest river of the Russian heartland; the Volga. Together with the Don and Dnieper, these three rivers are of great importance in Russian history; firstly as the very conduit along which the nation was established and later as a means to connect and control a large, sparsely populated territory. I drive up the Volga, stopping next in the city of Kostroma, which sits on the mighty river’s left bank. On the edge of town, sitting beyond the wide junction of the Kostroma River with the Volga lies the fourteenth century Ipatievsky Monastery, an important landmark in Russian history. It was here, in 1613, during an interregnum of foreign domination and famine known as the ‘Time of Troubles’ following the demise of the Rurikid Dynasty (descendants from the original Varangian rulers of Rus’) that the first Romanov King, Mikhail was crowned, seeding the royal line which would transform Russia into an empire and rule the country until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
Kostroma has a delightful, preserved eighteenth and nineteenth century city centre radiating out on spokes from the central Susanin Square, named for a semi-legendary martyr who is said to have refused to reveal the hiding place of Tsar Mikhail to the Polish-Lithuanian occupiers of Russia at the time and was tortured to death in punishment. Amongst the grandiose, pastel-coloured administrative buildings are a distinctive fire-watch tower and a very nicely preserved, though rather quiet, example of city trading arches; a typically Russian marketplace which has often disappeared in Russian cities. I spend the day strolling around Kostroma; visiting an art museum, then walking down through a shady park to the river. It’s a perfect early summer day and whilst a few weeks ago the last dirty remains of the winter snow would have been lying around, now the city is at its most beautiful with all plants in bloom and people out in the streets. The temperature is in the mid-twenties and the sky is a cloudless deep-blue for the whole day; the start of the long, wonderful Russian summer. Down on the Volga, locals are enjoying the weather on a sandy riverbank, an excellent inland beach, where one can lie in the sand as the Volga slowly moves past on its way to the Caspian and feel quite detached from the stream of traffic crossing the city’s road bridge from the south. By late afternoon I am slightly regretting having to leave, feeling that Kostroma is one of Russia’s nicest cities.
It’s not far from Kostroma to Yaroslavl, my next stop on the Volga. Founded as part of Vladimir-Suzdal, then becoming capital of its own principality, before being merged into the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the fifteenth century, Yaroslavl is the largest of the ancient cities lying to the north-east of Moscow, in an area (incorporating Zalesye) known as the Golden Ring. I’m hosted in the city by Roman, a local small businessman who works from home and who shows me the UNESCO World Heritage-listed centre of the city after dark. Yaroslavl has a centre filled with parks and churches but, perhaps due to its greater size, does not quite have the harmonious feel of Kostroma. I spend all of the following day strolling in Yaroslavl, visiting a wealth of churches, most spectacularly the Church Of Saint Elijah The Prophet, which sits in a large square and has a distinctive tent-style steeple and wonderful frescoes. What I most enjoy finding in Yaroslavl however is something in my experience very unusual in Russia. On the Volga Embankment is a tranquil, tree-lined street of tall beech trees and quality housing; not choked with traffic or filled with the vulgar black SUVs of local ‘biznesmen’ who ruin the area with crass cafes and boutique shops. Here instead is a slice of European sensibility; a genuinely pleasant, liveable centre to the city, with the cupolas of various churches visible in the gaps between elegant apartment buildings.
From Yaroslavl I continue up the Volga as far as the pretty city of Rybinsk, where I drive across the Volga on an attractive iron bridge and turn north. Here, driving along the bank of a large reservoir on the Volga, the landscape changes noticeably; gone are the fields and ancient cities of the Golden Ring region, replaced by dense forest, lakes and villages of wooden houses; I am beginning to enter the wilds of the Russian North. It’s a very tranquil and pleasant drive, though in the afternoon I find myself passing through the noxious city of Cherepovets where the air is so polluted with industrial fumes that I have to wind up my windows whilst stuck in traffic. It’s not long however before I’m back on a minor road, heading north through more forests and swamps and occasional fields, towards the ancient city of Belozersk which I explore in the morning after a night camping. Belozersk is, along with Murom and Rostov, one of the oldest cities in the Russian heartland, having also first been mentioned in 862 CE, but feels far removed from its contemporaries. Now effectively a large village with a feeling of being rather distant from central Russia and with a slight air of timelessness, I immediately like the place. Especially fine is the view from an ancient settlement mound across the rooftops of Belozersk towards the misleadingly named ‘White Lake’ whose waters are a tannin-rich, dark, reddish-brown; a sure sign of having entered the North.
After a walk along the lake-shore, whose sandy beach is scattered with driftwood, watching distant ships crossing the lake, which is part of the Volga-Baltic waterway, I head east on an unsurfaced road, taking a free ferry across a narrow reservoir to the town of Kirillov. Soon after coming under the control of the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the end of the fourteenth century, these remote northern territories of the Russian heartland became a refuge for monasticism, and their remoteness has seen them escape many of the ravages of Russian history. The first of two monasteries is the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery in Kirillov itself, picturesquely set on the banks of Lake Siverskoye and notable for its huge defensive walls with distinctive towers. A few kilometres away in the village of Ferapontovo is the second, Ferapontov Monastery which is less architecturally vibrant than Kirillov, but contains a collection of magnificent frescoes. Painted by the Russian master Dionisius in 1495-96 and quite staggeringly complete and unmolested, the frescoes cover every wall and roof in the interior of the Cathedral of the Nativity, making it the last medieval church in Russia with intact frescoes.
In the late afternoon I drive to the regional capital of Vologda, where I am hosted by Sveta, who lives alone and works as a theatre set designer. Vologda became rich during the sixteenth century, based on passing trade between Moscow and the port of Arkhangelsk on the White Sea, which for a long time was Russia’s main sea port. With the establishment of Saint Petersburg on the Baltic coast in the eighteenth century, much of this trade was diverted and Vologda declined. With improvement in infrastructure however, the city’s fortunes later recovered somewhat and around the central Cathedral Square Sveta shows me several fine examples of coloured wooden merchants’ houses with finely carved decorative window frames known as nalichniki. Immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, Vologda was Russia’s diplomatic capital, away from the ravages of the First World War, and it is perhaps for this reason that the city received one of the very first statues of Lenin, in 1925, which still stands. Unlike any other of the many Lenin statues I have seen, here Lenin is life-sized, showing just how small he was.
From Vologda it’s a long drive east towards the Urals, passing a swathe of very sparsely populated territory, rather forlorn-looking villages and towns dependent on the timber industry, using a road which in places is newly built and at one point swarmed by hornets, making me keep the windows shut and suffer the summer heat. It’s well after dark when I reach my next destination; the city of Kirov, where I am hosted by Zhenya, who calls himself Jack in English. Jack is one of a community of low-budget Russian travellers who return to Russia only for long enough to scrape together a little money doing informal work, before taking the road once more on long journeys hitch-hiking, camping, Couchsurfing and trying to make a little money in order to extend their travels for as long as possible.
Kirov feels again different from any of the cities I have recently visited; a large, mostly unattractive industrial city which feels a long way from anywhere else and was indeed historically a place of exile. Known formerly as Khlynov, then Vyatka, the city was renamed in honour of Bolshevik leader Sergey Kirov, who was born in the town of Urzhum south of Vyatka and murdered (in Leningrad) in 1934. Kirov was the human face of Bolshevism; a charming, handsome man amongst ruthless (often criminal) contemporaries. Whilst there is no concrete evidence, it is likely that Kirov was murdered by the most ruthless of the Bolsheviks, Stalin, who saw Kirov’s popularity as a threat. Allegedly a close friend, Stalin publicly mourned Kirov’s tragic death with great fanfare and used the event to set off his Great Purge of the Bolshevik Party, staging show trials which swept up hundreds of thousands of Soviet Citizens on flimsy or absurd charges, to be incarcerated or summarily executed. Poor Kirov still stands beaming benignly on his plaque; a monument to one of the darkest periods in Russian history, a tragedy which sits rather awkwardly in modern Russia, with many deliberately trying to forget or wilfully deny the dark events of Stalin’s rule, while the tyrant is slowly being rehabilitated by the current regime.
From Kirov it’s another long drive, this time north into the forested wilderness of the Komi Republic where I stop in the low-rise capital Syktyvkar. I’m hosted in Syktyvkar by Isa, who is delighted to have a guest in such a far-flung spot and introduces me to a number of her friends. My reason for stopping in the city is however to put the truck in a secure car park and prepare myself for a journey to the remote primeval forests of the North Urals.
My journey to this outpost in the taiga has taken me across much of European Russia, across the most ancient heartland of the country, through some of the country’s most pleasant cities. From here however the nature of my journey will change slightly, as I start to explore the great northern wilderness, up to the Arctic Circle and Barents Sea.
Amazing stories! I am based in Moscow and recently completed visiting all 15 soviet republics. Would love to catch up sometime if you are in the area.
One small correction — Kostroma is on the Volga’s left bank, not right.
Thank you for your comment and correction (noted) and congratulations on completing all fifteen republics! Armenia was my fifteenth republic, but Russia remains my favourite. At the very start of the year I made a winter trip across Russia from Magadan to Moscow, much of it on ice roads (which I have not yet written up). I then made my way down through Ukraine and left the Former USSR on a ferry from Chornomorsk (Odessa) to Istanbul. That for me was the end of my travels in the Soviet world as I want to concentrate on the Middle East and Africa in the next few years. If you pass through the Netherlands then please get in touch as I am always happy to talk about post-Soviet travel.
Just followed the link you provided on lonely planet. Excellent writing – and great choices of places to see!