Magazine article Russian Life

Vyazma: Battered but Not Broken

Magazine article Russian Life

Vyazma: Battered but Not Broken

Article excerpt

An ancient central Russian town that has beaten the odds for a thousand years.

Of the major western approaches to Moscow, the road to Smolensk is the most direct route from Central Europe, and that most associated with Russia's turbulent history. Situated midway between the two cities, the little town of Vyazma (pop. 60,000) has seen more than its fair share of war, occupation and general suffering at the hands of Lithuanian, Polish, French and German armies.

Founded in the 9th or 10th century on the river of the same name, a tributary of the Volga, Vyazma became a center for trading in the 1300s, developing flax and bee-keeping industries. From the latter sprang the local tradition of baking honey-cakes, believed to be the tastiest in Russia.

Vyazma even purports to having once briefly been the capital of Russia. It is said that Tsar Alexei (father of Peter the Great) stopped here in the 17th century. Having left a plague-ridden Moscow, he was heading for Smolensk, but discovered that the disease had reached that city too. Vyazma briefly became the center of his state.

In the 19th century the town blossomed again, with the coming of the railway, accompanied by a large influx of Jewish families - most Jews were forbidden from settling in Moscow itself.

Local merchants were rarely able to trade peacefully, though, as the town confronted Russia's western enemies almost every century. Notably, in 1812, Napoleon's army defended the town for 10 hours against the advancing Russians. The town was almost completely destroyed. Having lost 7,000 men, the demoralized French army dumped their burdensome spoils in a nearby lake. They were never recovered.

But Vyazma's harshest trial came in the last war. The area was the scene of horrific battles from the fall of 1941 until liberation from the Nazis early in 1943. Flush with victory after the Battle for Moscow in the winter of 1941-2, the Red Army had attempted to gain and hold Vyazma with too few resources in 1942. Most of the town was destroyed, and hundreds of thousands killed in a battle known as the 'Vyazma Cauldron', which left the ground studded with pieces of shrapnel and human bone.

In view of these upheavals, it is miraculous that some of Russia's most peculiar church architecture has survived in Vyazma. It remains a distinctive, provincial town, best visited in the Russian autumn, in October, when the leaves have fallen and the historic monuments are clearly visible. In this season there is also a sense of the battles that have raked this area. Even the landscape seems to reflect the destruction in the stunted trees of new forests.

The most striking of local landmarks is the 17th century church dedicated to the Odigitria Virgin, an icon believed to provide guidance for those who have lost their way. It is situated in the Monastery of John the Baptist on the edge of town. Founded in 1536, the monastery has shared the many trials of this frequently invaded land: it was burned by Polish detachments during the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century; rebuilt in the 1630s with a donation from Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich (the first Romanov tsar); burned again during the Napoleonic invasion of 1812; repaired in 1832-36; closed after the Bolshevik revolution; and further damaged during the Second World War. Nonetheless, its churches were so well built that they remain structurally sound after 350 years.

The Odigitria Church, with its massive brick base and unusual triple towers, is particularly sturdy. Perhaps this exuberant design represents a beacon, as its dedication suggests. Or perhaps it commemorates resistance to invaders, as do other tower churches built in Muscovy following the Time of Troubles.

On a recent October day, a sudden snow storm (unusual at that time of year) had cleared the sky and created an almost unimaginable color of blue, captured in the picture above.

The monastery seemed uninhabited, apart from a portly, bearded monk in charge of the refectory and Ascension Church (late 17th century), and a lean, energetic abbot supervising a few construction workers. …

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