Magazine article Russian Life

Jewel on the Volga

Magazine article Russian Life

Jewel on the Volga

Article excerpt

Yaroslavl has always been one of Russia's most attractive and visitor-friendly cities. Now, as Igor Yunakovsky discovers, its rich history and cultural traditions are providing the basis for a revival of its fortunes.

As in many provincial Russian towns, visitors to the old city and river port of Yaroslavl may find themselves bombarded with useless and often bizarre information. Like the fact that the population of Yaroslavl is almost 1 1/2 times that of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, or that the Region of which Yaroslavl is the capital is only a few hundred square kilometers smaller than Holland.

Comparisons with BeNeLux should end here, however, as Yaroslavl is very much a Russian city, standing in the forests of central Russia since 1010, when Kievan Prince Yaroslav the Wise decreed the building of a fortress city on the banks of the broad Volga river.

Yaroslavl's favorite legend provides a reason for the prince's decision - on this spot he wrestled a bear and won. In heraldry, however, the bear fared better. On the city's coat-of-arms, he is portrayed standing proud on his hind legs and holding a gold pole-axe, representing the strength of character and power of the Russian spirit, and the kindheartedness of the people of Yaroslavl. Now he is successfully marketed on souvenirs, emblems and trademarks well beyond the confines of the city.

Yaroslavl became a minor princedom in the 13th century, and three centuries later grew to be a major commercial center, with especially well-developed trading links with England and Holland. This period in particular has left it with a rich legacy of architectural masterpieces, a kind of chronicle written in stone on a scale unmatched in Russia. The interiors of these buildings, meanwhile, are replete with magnificent frescoes and paintings, usually by Russian artists of simple peasant stock.

The best of these can be seen in the Church of St. Elijah the Prophet(top photo, left hand page), built on the spot where the 'wrestling match' took place in the 17th century and later made the focal point of the new city plan at the time of Catherine the Great. It is painted with frescoes by the celebrated local artists Gury Nikitin and Sila Savin, whose work can also be seen in the cathedrals of the Moscow Kremlin.

Another architectural and artistic feast is the later Epiphany Church, renowned for its fine proportions and decorative tile patterns, which contrast pleasantly with the red brick of the walls. The paintings inside reflect the tendency towards realism in late 17th century church art, with the faces of saints by artists like Dmitry Plekhanov and Fyodor Ignatev looking decidedly more human than Nikitin's or Savin's.

Though little remains of Yaroslavl's Kremlin, its place is surely filled by the Monastery of the Savior, whose white walls dominate the center of town. In the beginning of the 13th century, north Russia's first educational college was set up here. The monastery's library had a huge collection of Russian and Greek literature, including the old Russian epic poem The Lay of Igor's Host, discovered here in 1788.

Yaroslavl has much more to it than art and architecture, though. It was here that in the 17th century Fyodor Volkov founded Russia's first professional drama theater, and the first woman cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova began her training in the local aviation club. The city's quick-witted youths were reputed to be fine waiters, and served in the best of Moscow's eating houses before the revolution. …

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