Nizhni Novgorod, 11.06.2019
In Russia’s last two centuries of history, there have been several devastating wars and 70 years of communist regime. Among the wars, WWII stands out, as the fighting was particularly brutal and scorched earth, aka total destruction of everything, was part of the tactics. After WWII the communist regime had to rebuild a partially destroyed country, and did so with their own style – megalomania, political propaganda everywhere, and the reality that the Soviet economic system was not just significantly less sophisticated than where I grew up in the West, but outright poor and dysfunctional. To build, you had to make do with the material that was there, or not, and didn’t get what you need. Today the result is visible everywhere, on a macro or micro level. The two main invasions by foreigners (French and German) came from the West and stopped at about Moscow. East of there, the country was untouched by the destruction of war. After leaving Moscow, I was very curious to see the difference to the Western part of the country, that I had visited in 2013. The cities of the Golden Ring were the first steps to the east of the capital.
Spoiler alert: you might know I’m not into churches and religion. Here they are an integral part of the heritage. After being suppressed and neglected in Soviet times, there is a renaissance of religion in Russia in full swing. I passed villages that were on the verge of total collapse and locals fetch water from the well, but where the local church was newly renovated, incl. a shiny new golden roof you could see from afar. Also, as I’m reading about Russian history along the way, it seems the Orthodox church has been a fundamental element of Russian statehood and identity building for over a 1000 years, to a point where today churches and monasteries are among the few buildings standing from the more remote past. In them you can see the mix of Viking runes and Greek orthodox religion.
I’ll not go into the details of every church or monastery to not bore you. If you’re into this type of culture, come see it yourself. Just 200 km north and east of Moscow the cities start, and lie about 30 to 60 minutes by car from each other. I noticed that the wall frescoes are being extensively re-painted, with different degrees of sophistication. Bright colors seem to be a thing, and gold, of course. In Kostroma, where I spent a night, in the morning I went to see the Ipatiev monastery on the other side of the river. It’s not allowed to take pics inside most active ecclesiastical buildings. There was a sort of gigantic, wooden shrine that covered an entire wall of a church, depicting what I guessed were saints or priests, in very beautiful decor. Lots of gold again. I stood there quite a while amazed by the sophistication of the ornaments.
The town I liked most was Suzdal. It’s smaller than others I saw (Rostov, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Suzdal, Vladimir), a backwater as a city, and therefore has kept it’s heritage better as there are no factories, power plants or massive apartment blocks that needed to be bulldozed right in front of all religious or bourgeois heritage during Soviet times, like in so many other places. It had several monasteries, a kremlin (like every decent city seems to have in Russia) and plenty of well maintained wooden houses. I went to see the monastery of Saint Euthymius. As I entered a church I asked a young priest if my short and t-shirt outfit was OK. He nodded and let me in. A group of French 60+ tourists was happily taking pictures and videos inside. As I was about to leave, the priest came back with two older colleagues, announced that it was forbidden to take pictures. The Frenchies stopped and stopped chatting. Then the priests started to sing, a tenor, a baritone and a bass. What a wonderful choir, I was speechless by the beauty, the elegance of their performance. Three songs they sang, looking very earnest, and each of them had a song with more prominence of his part. I’m not sure if the clapping was supposed to happen in a church, but we all went at it with passion after each song, it was so wonderful. After the last song the three priests showed us the donation boxes, and left.
In the monastery’s compound the signs and explanations were mostly in Russian, so I had to discover the place, trying to walk into buildings to check if there was something to see or not. In several of them, the ticket I got sold at the entrance didn’t allow for full access, so I couldn’t see everything. In the Suzdal monastery I visited I was more lucky, and found several exhibitions. One building seemed to show artefacts about the history of the place, and it turned out it had a prison tract, with small cells where the tsars incarcerated religious dissidents during the orientation to the west of Russia. As I passed through the exhibition in chronological order, I recognized the faces of the tzars I had seen in the Hermitage, then came the images of the 1917 revolution and early bolshevik times. Further on I saw pictures of German WWII officers, and at a closer look I recognized Fieldmarshall Paulus‘ face, who led the army at Stalingrad, the turning point for WWII on the Russian front of particular brutality. I noticed the officers on the pictures wore their insignia and decorations. They must have received some special treatment as this is not customary. Then I noticed also Italian uniforms. A little later I found notes for a speech of an Italian prisoner. In the 1990’s he had come back to commemorate the Italians that were executed in the monastery “by those who have no god”, as the gentlemen described with a lot of pathos. It was the only document I understood. What also stood out in the words of the former Italian prisoner, was the total absence of acknowledgement of the fault of the Italians’ (and Germans’) presence in Russia in the first place, and the murderous regime they had been serving. It’s easy to complain your comrades got shot by the very nasty Soviets after you have invaded their country in the first place and destroyed and massacred their people first, wearing the uniform of a fascist regime that wasn’t very soft handed with opponents either. Having grown up in Italy I know the Italians have never properly digested their fascist path and acknowledged their faults, conveniently blaming all evil on their German buddies in arms, so this came as no surprise. The result of that attitude are nowadays realities like the current government, the former dictator’s granddaughter sitting in the European parliament, a shiny obelisk in front of the capital’s olympic stadium with “Mussolini dux” in golden letters and so on. Memories from home here in Suzdal, Russia.