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Suzdal- A spectacular Russian town in winter's splendor

Tracing the history of eastern Russia from the Vikings to Vladamir(Putin) by Ramdas Iyer

sunny 23 °F

I am often asked the question “What is your favorite place that you’ve visited?” It is almost akin to inquiring about the ranking of my affection for our children. My answer is to always deflect the question back by asking for more details especially with respect to seasons and their impact on sea sides, mountain-scapes, cultural experiences, historical locales and sweeping landscapes.
In that vein I believe that my favorite historical winterscape is Suzdal, the quaint city of medieval Russia. Dating back to 990 AD, Suzdal is one of the oldest towns in Russia and the 'jewel' of Russia's famous Golden Ring of ancient villages. In its heyday, Suzdal's Kremlin and monasteries held untold riches and its leaders fought with the princes of Moscow to make Suzdal the most important principality in Ancient Rus.

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Until my recent visit to post Soviet Russia (my first trip was in 1989)I only had a very faint knowledge of Russian history. Since I am fascinated by it, I will attempt to give you a primer for the understanding of ancient Russian history
The ancestors of the Russians were the Slavic tribes, whose original home is thought to have been the wooded areas along the Pripyat River( near Chernobyl). Relatively little is known about East Slavs prior to approximately the 9th century AD. Upon reading on this subject I was amazed at the influence of Vikings for the populating and subjugation of the area of what we call Ukraine, Russia and Belarus today. The Scandinavian Varingians also known as Vikings or Norsemen engaging in trade, piracy, and mercenary activities, roamed the river systems and portages of areas north of the Black sea( See map). According to Norse legends and Kievan Primary Chronicle(850-1110) the first settlement was near present day Novgorod in 882 AD under the leadership of Rurik, a legendary ancestor to proud Russians today. These settlers were called Rus and the state they established by subjugating the eastern Slavs between the 9th and 12th centuries was known as the Kievan Rus. It was ruled by Rurik’s descendents from present day Kiev.( Hence Russia’s constant problem with Ukraine whose capital is Kiev, home to Mother Russia).

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The Kievan Rus controlled the Volga trade route connecting the Baltic to the Caspian Sea, and the Dnieper trade route leading to the Black Sea and Constantinople. Those were the critically important trade links at that time, connecting Dark Age Europe with wealthy and developed Arab Caliphates and the Byzantine Empire.. Attracted by the riches of Constantinople, the Varangian Rus' initiated a number of Rus'-Byzantine Wars, some of which resulted in advantageous trade treaties. At least from the early 10th century many Varangians served as mercenaries in the Byzantine Army, comprising the elite Varangian Guard (the personal bodyguards of Byzantine Emperors). During the first decade of Vladimir's reign( the man who converted to Christianity and founded the Russian Orthodox Church), pagan reaction set in. Perun was chosen as the supreme deity of the Slavic pantheon and his idol was placed on the hill by the royal palace. Although Vladimir seems to have gone further than other Scandinavian kings (even human sacrifices were reported in Kiev), his religious reform failed. By the late 980s he had found it necessary to adopt monotheism from abroad.

The Primary Chronicle reports that, in the year 986, Vladimir met with representatives from several religions. The result is amusingly described in the following apocryphal anecdote. Upon the meeting with Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga, Vladimir found their religion unsuitable due to its requirement to circumcise and taboos against alcoholic beverages and pork; supposedly, Vladimir said on that occasion: "Drinking is the joy of the Rus', we can't go without it." He also consulted with Jewish envoys (who may or may not have been Khazars), questioned them about their religion but ultimately rejected it, saying that their loss of Jerusalem was evidence of their having been abandoned by God.

In the year 987, as the result of a consultation with his knights Vladimir sent envoys to study the religions of the various neighboring nations whose representatives had been urging him to embrace their respective faiths. Of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga the envoys reported there is no joy among them; only sorrow and a great stench. In the gloomy churches of the Germans his emissaries saw no beauty; but at Hagia Sophia, where the full festival ritual of the Byzantine Church was set in motion to impress them, they found their ideal: "We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth," they reported, "nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it."

Eventually most of them, both in Byzantium and in Eastern Europe, were converted from paganism to Orthodox Christianity, culminating in the Christianization of Kievan Rus' in 988. The Ottoman Emperors until their decline in the 18th century continued to use Christians as their bodyguards. From amongst that elite group rose Sinan, the famous Christian architect of the Blue Mosque and 100 other buildings. My travels from Istanbul to the Black Sea, to Ukraine and to Kazan and Nizhniy Novgorod on the Volga over the past two decades have helped me understand the rich history of the Kievan Rus.

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After a thrilling journey on the Trans-Siberian railroad and visiting many Siberian towns in February 2013 , I arrived in Moscow. I had always wanted to visit the Golden Ring cities of Sergiev Posad, Suzdal, Vladimir and Rostov. Being the premier tour circuit of Russia , I was disappointed to find a lack of organized tours in February, in the thick of winter. Involving great expense, I hired a taxi to take me to all the three locations in two days.
My ride from Moscow took me through the 1980 Olympic arena, the impressive alley of Cosmonauts and finally through the ICBM alley protecting Moscow during the cold war, consisting of silos holding the RS-36( SS-18 Satan), which only opened recently for road passage. From the impressive and tear inducing solemnity of the great Sergiev Posad Monastery( photo blog sent earlier), I reached Suzdal at dusk. Suzdal is situated on a sharp bend in the Kamenka River. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the turrets of 40 odd churches in a post card like setting with people travelling by horse drawn sleds on snow covered and unpaved roads. The town was set in the country side with sweeping vistas of snow-fields, which would turn to golden meadows in summer, as can be seen in Google images.

I quickly donned all my winter layers and headed for an extremely slippery walk towards the World heritage Kremlin. All along there were kids sliding, sleighing, skating and slipping on snowy mounds with a brilliant back drop of the famous Church of the Nativity circa 1022 AD. Being a Friday evening there were weekenders from Moscow, 220 Km away, enjoying themselves. Tipple included. I walked until the golden hues of the sun kissed all the monuments before darkness set in around 9:00 PM.

As I was settling down for some dinner I was invited by a group of ten Muscovites to their table. They were childhood friends; lawyers, cooks, teachers, gays (banned by the state by Putin recently; we talked about it) and a broken hearted immigration officer whose former girlfriend was paying more attention to me than him!.I found the Russians to be very philosophical and the educated ones were very spiritually inclined; often clinging on to solace providers like Sri Sri Ravishanker of the Art of Living. Not wanting to sound cliché ,our wonderful gathering for over 4 hours ended up in drunken bawdiness much to my disappointment. Vodka is the bane of Russia.

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The next bright morning I set about visiting the ancient Kremlin Complex. Right across the street was the weekend market with over 50 vendors selling pickled gherkins, woolen sweaters, hats, handicrafts, and church paraphernalia. My pictures should illustrate the beauty of the town, markets that surround the monuments. The ancient cathedral of the Assumption was constructed in the Kremlin by the craftsmen of Prince Vladimir Monomahk of Kiev at the end of the 11th century. It was at the same period that the first Suzdalian monastery of St. Demetrius was founded to the west of the Kremlin. To the east of the Kremlin the posad inhabited by craftsmen and traders began to grow. The posad was also fortified with ramparts and walls. All the main parts of the old town (the Kremlin, the posad, the monasteries) are well preserved in Suzdal. Suzdal is one of those rare towns in Russia, which could preserve their old lay-out.
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I particularly enjoyed my visit to an outdoor museum holding a collection of ancient wooden churches, houses, wind-mills, barns and assorted structures. It brought sweet memories of a trip made to Soviet Rumania in 1989. While very disappointed with Bucharest the most redeeming features was a similar collection of Rumanian/Romani houses and structures in a vast outdoor park. The Soviets to their credit preserved a lot of historic structures including conducting massive archeological works all over central Asia.

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The flourishing of art and culture in the North-Eastern Russia at the beginning of the 13th century was interrupted by the Mongol-Tartar invasion. In winter of 1238 Suzdal was seized and burnt down by the tartars ( Descendents of Genghiz Khan who controlled the eastern part of todays’s Russia until Peter the Great conquered them in 1698). Tatarstan, whose capital ,Kazan is a great city on the Volga was also home to Lenin. My visit to Kazan was also a highlight of my recent trip.
One of the greatest experiences I had was listening to an all male choir inside the 13th century frescoed church inside the World Heritage St. Eusthemius Monastery. I also had a wonderful lunch inside the monastery café.

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:39 Archived in Russia Tagged winter church in of world sites heritage russia russian nativity rus stave suzdal vladimir kievan kremile vatangians

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Ram...Enjoyed the juxtaposition of pics and writing. I have seen this pics before, but the travelogue gives it much better context. As a total aside, the starting QB of the Wisconsin Badgers (a Big 10 force) has the last name "STAVE". He is a straight "A" engineering student at Madison!! Kumar

by kumar Doraiswami

As always, I loved reading your blog. Such thought such love goes into every word. I am not a big history buff but I have learned so much from you. I did not know about the Khazar Jews. I find it fascinating that the current Khazars language is Yiddish. Oy vey, talk about creating some controversy. Love It!

by Mark Riesenberg

Mark: You are one of my followers that soak upeverything I write. I am blessed that I have true fans of my wanderlust.

by Ramdas Iyer

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