The Golden Ringlet: Yaroslavl and Rostov

Posted by on Jul 3, 2013 in Europe, Play-by-plays, Russia, Uncategorized | 0 comments

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As part of the school program in Russia, we took a three day trip to Yaroslavl and Rostov (pictured above). Both the cities are considered part of the “Golden Ring”, a circuit of historical Russian cities (which also includes Moscow and is basically sold as a tourist draw). We didn’t have a chance to visit all the cities, just the little ringlet unfortunately. Yet it was still very informative for us to also get away from Moscow, because the farther you go, the more of real Russia you see.

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Yaroslavl was built on the river Volga and the river has always been instrumental to its development. It was part of the trade with the north and south. These days the river is also important, and it is dammed in 5 or 6 places, so all movement is highly regimented. And in true Russian fashion of efficiency, there are only really 2 bridges that cross the Volga near Yaroslavl, which becomes an issue for those towns on the other bank. In some places, there are barges or small boats, but as people leave for greener pastures (actually un-green pastures of cities in a process I like to call Moskovization of Russia) there are fewer and fewer services left for the people who remain, who are usually the elderly. So some of the smaller neighboring towns are becoming eerie ghost towns. The irony is that the towns are wealthy in history with churches and mansions, but are becoming increasingly economically impoverished, decrepit and abandoned.

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The churches (of which there are many) used to be built by communities of particular tradesmen. Today they are more significant not just because of their historical value, but also with the revival of Russian Orthodoxy, which was suppressed in Soviet times. Many rich people donate huge sums to restore old churches. These buildings are incredible, with the golden cupolas and centuries-old frescoes. Because most church goers were illiterate, they literally “read” the frescoes which depicted the story of the Bible. Each city also had a Kremlin, which really means a fortification, similarly to the Medieval cities of Western Europe.

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Parallel to the historical structures, there is the modernization of the cities (Yaroslavl more so than Rostov, which is tiny). Cafes bars and restaurants are opening on each corner. There is wifi everywhere. Retail shops are springing up (retail is huge in all of Russia, and is one of the few industries that isn’t mostly government controlled). People are excited about the opening of Park Inn (hotel by Radisson) in Yaroslavl, because it means a potential influx of foreign visitors who demand Western hotel brands and chains. But even in the face of all the urbanization, some nostalgia for the good ole days remains. Near Yaroslavl, there is a Soviet Park, with busts of all the Soviet leaders as well as a row of old soviet cars. And people still spend their summers on the dachas, which merits a lengthy description. Because of this exodus of people to the countryside, the cities are actually empty on the weekends.

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Dachas are probably typically translated as summer houses (or second homes), but those are dire misnomers. I would say there are different categories of “summer houses”. There are those, probably more so mansions, for people who use “summer” as a verb. There are also those lovely beach front properties or mountain chalets that people use their life savings for, to spend family vacations. And then there is the Soviet dacha, which comes from the word “given”. The feudal system never really left Russia, and the system of giving land to people in exchange for services reigns to this day in one form or another. So historically dachas were given to people in exchange for service/allegiance and then normal people got them, say last century, for pretty much same reasons. This is the closest some people have felt to owning anything, so people’s hearts and lives were poured into dachas for the 2-3 summer months each year. Of course, today the modern dachas are like any suburban home, replete with the amenities of one. But an old school dacha has an outhouse, maybe a well, a sauna if you’re lucky, is heated by a stove, so not very convenient for winter usage. And that’s without even going into the roads…”roads” that are probably impassable in the winter because of snow. But roads in Russia probably deserve their own post, another day.

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So we were lucky to go have a traditional barbeque “shashlyk” at one dacha near Yaroslavl. It was incredible–the fresh air, the rolling hills, the smell of smoke–the ambiance is well worth the 20+ mosquito bites I got. And the best part is you can feel that no matter how much people love their comfortable lives in the city, their hearts are on the dacha. These days, everyone can easily buy potatoes or dill, but they not the same as the ones grown on their little plot of land. Everyone feels a bit like a kid in the countryside, and wants their kids to eventually feel the same.

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After 2 days in Yaroslavl, and a half-day stop to see the old fortress (Kremlin) in Rostov and take a boat ride on Lake Nero, we headed back to Moscow. As a reminder of who is the boss, we were greeted by 7 hours of traffic on the ~250 km journey.

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