To the north of it are forest-covered hills, and among them is the Istra Reservoir, one of the several great artificial lakes around Moscow; the others lie due north of the city. Like many Muscovites, I have enjoyed camping out near these reservoirs for summer weekends; it is a paradise for bathers and walkers marred only by the twilight battle with the midgesIn the 18th and early 19th centuries the great country mansions of the Russian aristocracy were built on estates scattered throughout the Moscow countryside.
Many of the more important ones also have fine churches attached, which date from earlier centuries: the old royal preserve of Kolomenskoye, on the south-east edge of Moscow above the river, is especially rich in unusual buildings of the 16th and 17th centuries, yet is hardly known to tourists. Finest of such churches is the unique, towering baroque structure at Dubrovitsy (built about 1690) near the unremarkable town of Podol’sk. It stands at the confluence of two beautiful little riversPakhra and Desna—which flow down through steep, forested valleys. Remarkable too is the church of similar date in the suburb of Fili (accessible by the Moscow metro), where the old estate is situated on a bold escarpment over the best beach on the upper Moskva River. The mansions themselves are usually of the same classical style of architecture as the greatest. houses of Moscow and Leningrad, colour-washed with white pillars and details. A fewMarfino to the north, Tsaritsyno near Kolomenskoye—are early mock-Gothic, charming and strange to encounter in Russia. Many of the great houses are sanatoria or rest-homes: Sukhanovo for example (which has a fine lake, and Gothic outbuildings) is a retreat for architects, which does not prevent the casual visitor from wandering round its gardens. The most famous houses are kept up scrupulously as museums; and at any time of the year the visitor to Moscow should make a point of getting out to near-by Kuskovo—with its fine collection of pottery—or better still to Arkhangelskoye, which has one of the world’s most notable parks, high above the upper Moskva River.
An old church or country house makes a splendid goal for an expedition in the Podmoskovye (the Moscow province), yet to walk in it without any specific aim is no less pleasant. Its charm lies in its small winding rivers, its alternation of broad pasture with deep forest (one is continually amazed by the height of the trees, particularly the elegant birches), and the tiny remote villages of delicately carved wooden houses, connected only by a dusty track with the outside world, still looking much as they have looked for the last five centuries. In such a village I have come across the local people spontaneously folk-dancing in the open air on a summer Sunday afternoon; the deep village wells provide a welcome drink of ice-cold water.
Moscow itself, with five million people, erupts somewhat incongruously and suddenly in the middle of this bucolic and underpopulated scenery. But most of its inhabitants are fond of the country and pour out of the city at weekends.
Around the railways and chief highways out of town cluster settlements of dachas—wooden country-cottages, which even humble families often own or rent. Winter does not curtail this exodus; in recent years the popularity of skiing has grown to an enormous degree. On cross-country skis (lent free by the University) young people race along forest paths; Alpine skis, heavier and shorter, are less useful. The older generation tends to prefer the quieter sport of fishing (in winter through holes in the ice); buses going to the peaceful village of Tishkovo on its reservoir at weekends bristle with rods, for there is a special fisherman’s camp near by.
It seems a pity that foreign tourists seldom do as the Muscovites do by getting to know the city’s hinterland. They would enjoy not only the beauty of the countryside but the interest of seeing a more typical Russia than the streets of Moscow or Leningrad. And they would discover as I did that the standard conception of the Russian landscape as ‘flat and monotonous’ deserves to be superseded.