Travel: On sacred ground in the Russian town of Suzdal

The Washington Post – 30/6/13 

A sea of humanity surged forward at the train station in Moscow, pushing me away from the ticket window. I was losing ground, fighting a crowd of people who’d survived both the slog of Soviet bureaucracy and the quicksand of anarchic capitalism. A wily octogenarian attempted to squeeze under my arm, and I blocked him with my backpack while shoving a random assortment of foreign bills at the cashier.

“Vladimir, dva,” I said, holding up two fingers — pretty much the extent of my Russian-language skills.

Vladimir, however, wasn’t our final destination. Cheap airfare ($270 round trip!) had inspired my boyfriend and me to take a spontaneous trip to Moscow, and an expat friend had suggested that we also check out Suzdal, a picturesque town just 140 miles east of the capital.

A regional capital itself in the Middle Ages, Suzdal stood at the epicenter of a golden age of Russian architecture when Moscow was just an obscure outpost in the wilderness. By the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, however, it was Suzdal that had slipped into obscurity, due to the ascendancy of nearby Vladimir. So even as historic churches all across Russia were burned, disassembled or put to secular uses, Suzdal managed to hang onto some 30 churches, 14 bell towers and several walled monasteries.

On a rickety commuter train, however, the trip to Vladimir took nearly four hours, and we still had another 24 miles to Suzdal. Instead of taking the bus, we opted for a cab on the final leg and watched in silence as industrial blight gave way to rolling hills and fallow farmland. Then, on the horizon, there appeared the stately onion domes and church spires of our destination. We alighted from the taxi right outside the city’s 11th-century fortress walls.

It was getting late, and I watched the sky darken as a church bell tolled. Three fishing huts stood on chicken legs beside the Kamenka River. The long and difficult journey suddenly made sense: Suzdal isn’t just 140 miles from Moscow; it’s also at least 500 years away from the bustling capital.

The next morning, we walked a mile up Suzdal’s main street from our hotel to the unassuming headquarters of the Vladimir-Suzdal Museum Reserve to meet our English-speaking guide, Nadia. Immediately, she answered a question that had been on my mind: What’s with all the churches?

Suzdal’s grandest and oldest churches, she said, were built by princes to awe their subjects and repel invaders. In many instances, these buildings actually served as fortresses, where people took shelter when under siege. In other parts of medieval Russia, architects preferred to build in wood or brick, but for unknown reasons, the princes in Suzdal insisted on sturdy limestone, though it was much more expensive, difficult to work with and had to be carted from quarries about 250 miles away.

When Suzdal was no longer politically important, it became a thriving commercial center, Nadia said. Merchants would build wooden churches in pairs — one light and airy for the summer, one squat and easy to heat in the winter. Every street had its own pair, and building grand churches became a contest and a source of pride and prestige for the wealthy businessmen. That’s why “everywhere you look is a beautiful old church,” Nadia boasted.

As we drove to our first destination, Savior Monastery of St. Euthymius, we passed people tending gardens and haggling over the price of seeds. “We have very fertile soil and the best cucumbers in the world,” Nadia said proudly.

The monastery, however, seemed far removed from these earthly concerns. Formidable walls with 12 battle towers surround the complex, which sits on the crest of a hill. Inside the gates, we found a wide, grassy courtyard. A school group had gathered, and the children were craning their necks to see inside a bell tower.

Several stories above us, a man appeared, and he seemed to have ropes attached to his limbs. He began bouncing on his toes and jerking his arms in a spastic dance that set nearly 20 bells clanging in rhythmic cacophony. “Stravinsky was inspired by church bells like these,” Nadia said. The schoolchildren captured the performance with their cellphone cameras.

After the bell concert, we entered the Transfiguration Cathedral, a 16th-century building crowned with one large gold dome and four green ones. Having never been inside a Russian Orthodox church, I was surprised to find the walls covered floor to ceiling with pictures of saints. “They helped the illiterate understand the life of Jesus,” Nadia said. As a functionally illiterate tourist in Russia, I appreciated the gesture.

Four men in priests’ collars filed into the cathedral, stood shoulder to shoulder and began to sing. Their voices sounded clear and ethereal, like sunlight through still water, and I turned toward the wall to hide my shining eyes from my stoic Russian guide. “They aren’t monks, you know,” Nadia whispered to me. “They are from a local choir.”

As we took a bus to the eastern side of town, I noticed that we were on Lenin Street.

“Isn’t it weird,” I said, “that Suzdal’s main street is named after a man who was responsible for destroying so many churches?”

Nadia looked at me uncomprehendingly. I repeated my question. “Khrushchev was worse,” she replied with a shrug.

We alighted at Market Square, a raised stone patio that has served as Suzdal’s trading center for the better part of the millennium. Ignoring vendors hawking Russian nesting dolls and birch brooms, we walked down the town’s oldest street to one of its oldest churches, the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin.

The church was built in 1222, but eventually the upper part collapsed, perhaps due to its innovative high arches, and was rebuilt in 1528. Some original carvings on the outside of the church have survived, however, including serene female faces and heraldic lions — suggesting that early Orthodox churches may have allowed more decorative art, while later churches leaned toward saints and Bible scenes, Nadia said.

Just outside the cathedral’s central chamber, we came upon a pair of massive black doors inscribed with gold. The pictures included scenes from the Bible and images of Byzantine theologians and Russian saints — a clever interpolation of different sources of authority, Nadia explained. The meaning of these images was largely lost on me, but the doors, featuring lions holding massive copper handles in their jaws, clearly conveyed the power, wealth and religious legitimacy of Prince Yuri, who had commissioned the church. Even wild beasts followed the orders of this long-dead prince.

Like the Transfiguration Cathedral, the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin is covered floor to ceiling with paintings of saints — some bright and vibrant, others in pastel hues. About every 200 years, the interior of the cathedral has received a new paint job, Nadia explained, and restorers are now chipping away at the newer paintings to uncover the older ones. Even the cathedral’s famous blue onion domes are an 18th-century reconstruction, I later discovered.

We’d worked up an appetite trying to make sense of this architectural pastiche, so we took a lunch break and headed to the nearest restaurant. Though it’s housed in the cathedral’s nearby monastery complex, Trapeznaya is one of the pricier restaurants in town, so we ordered a modest meal of mushroom soup and locally made mead. While we waited for our food, I noticed a disco ball hanging above our heads, dangling from a fixture that appeared to be drilled directly into the historic 15th-century ceiling.

As we drank honey wine from a medieval recipe, in a monastery that had survived Mongol hordes and attacks from neighboring princes and had been rebuilt, renovated or at least redecorated nearly every century thereafter, I realized that my initial impression of Suzdal had been all wrong.

This town isn’t a museum or a place that time forgot. It’s a work in progress.