Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Exploring Ancient Russia One Llama at a Time

Another Russian city checked off the Russian bucket list. This time I traveled with a group of about 20 American and Hungarian students to the sleepy city of Veliky Novgorod. Sleepy because it can by no means compare to the hustle and bustle of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Veliky Novgorod is essentially a small city filled with ancient churches and a brick kremlin that dates back to the 1400’s. The Kremlin isn’t just a phenomenon of Moscow. There are Kremlins all over Russia, in cities that used to be important centers of culture, government, and trade during the middle ages. Kremlins are fortresses that were used to protect the cities against invasions. Here I am with the Novgorod Kremlin. 

St. Sophia Cathderal
Upon arrival at the Kremlin, I was immediately assaulted with a version of Russia that had somehow mixed together a contradictory past with a countryside present. In front of me: the Kremlin dating back to the middle ages. Behind me: a statue of Stalin and countless rows of the monotonous apartments that the Russian people lived in during the Soviet Union. Oh and then there’s the strange: a “modern" children’s carnival to the right complete with pony rides and yes even LLAMA rides. The most memorable part of the trip was my visit inside the Kremlin to St. Sophia Church, the oldest standing Church in the Russian Federation (it's 1000th year b-day is coming up in 32 years!). The church inside was stunning if you consider its ancient history. The walls were painted with beautiful gold frescoes and the Mother Mary of the Sign icon was on full display. According to legend, this icon saved the city of Novgorod from conquest by the Princedom of Suzdal in 1169 AD. After getting stuck by an arrow during the battle, the image of Mary on the icon began to cry, sending the enemies into a fit of despair. Even today, you can see a notch in the icon itself that looks as if an arrow had struck this ancient miracle maker. 

Llama Sighting!
Our group made a few more stops in Novgorod before heading back on our 3.5 hour journey to St. Petersburg. One of these ventures included a visit to the oldest monastery in Northern Russia - Yuriev Monastery. The churches were quite beautiful (especially the fresco painted walls and ceilings), but exceptionally cold. It was the last day of March, and I could see my breath even while standing inside the church!! Not to complain, but Russians have been dealt the tough end of the stick when it comes to weather. There should be pleanty of sun on April 1st not 5 inches of snow. Nice April’s Fool Joke Russia. But at least I can say I survived a Russian winter. Something to be proud of. I must commemorate one of me friend's recent status: "Listening to Russian radio this morning, I learned that this March had been the coldest one Russia has had since 1953. You know who survived more Russian winters than Napoleon? This guy." Ray, I couldn't have agreed more.
Ancient Rus Museum

Another memorable stop was the Ancient Russian village museum, complete with children’s games and old wooden homes. Personally, I think the domes of these wooden homes are worth mention. How did ancient Russians build a perfectly shaped dome out of wood like they this? Quite spectacular. Plus I got to ride around in a sled and play on a wooden swing. Any time that happens, you know it’s been a great day.

I am grateful that I have now been able to see Russian life in one of Russia’s smaller cities. Veliky Novgorod has that Soviet building vibe complete with gray sky-rises for a population that is significantly smaller than that of my hometown in California. Yet, it is always surprising to see the 1960‘s Soviet architecture built adjacent to the ancient church buildings and brick Kremlin walls. Unlike Veliky Novgorod, the center of St. Petersburg seems to be a modern city. I sometimes forget that even if I travel 3 miles outside the center of city (or to another city like Veliky Novgorod) life is not so modernized. Most Russians still live in second world circumstances. This brief excursion to Veliky Novgorod reminded me that my experience in St. Petersburg is especially exceptional. Most Russians don’t leave their apartment in the morning to stroll along famous Nevsky Prospect and glance at all the imperial era palaces along the way. I am blessed. 

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