. Two-and-a-half miles beyond Suzdal’ is a haunting spot—the tiny village of Kideksha, hardly more than a churchyard with its wall, its leaning bell-tower, and a couple of churches of which one is the oldest in the district. The far side of the churchyard is on an abrupt bank above the River Nerl’.
When I was there it seemed like the end of the world—the frozen river, then a great expanse of unfenced field deep in snow, and several hundred yards back the edge of the forest: black, unbroken, stretching across the whole field of view. I was told that elks often come down and graze with the cattle and horses by the Nerl’. It was a memorable weekend; much of the time it was brilliantly sunny, though colder than I had ever felt it. I asked a local in Vladimir what the temperature was. ‘Oh, about 23 degrees,’ (i.e. minus 23° centigrade) ‘at any rate, not a hard frost.’
The long expeditions which I have described were extremely interesting—yet places almost as interesting and beautiful were to be found much nearer Moscow itself, and it was those that I explored, visited and revisited at weekends throughout the winter and the summer, and through which I came to love the Russian countryside. Among them were old towns which in the Middle Ages had supported independent princes and still retain relics of the past. The most interesting of these were Kolomna to the south-east and Zvenigorod to the west—both accessible by the elektrichka. Kolomna still has most of a huge 16th-century brick kremlin, on a hill over the Moskva River near its confluence with the Oka. It is typical of the pleasantest type of provincial town—spacious, very calm and quiet, with classical buildings of the 18th and early 19th century in its centre and sturdy wooden houses on the dusty roads of its periphery. Zvenigorod is much smaller, by the sandy-beached meanders of the upper Moskva. Three little hills project in succession from a forested escarpment: on the first is spread the present-day town, on the second is a tiny one-domed cathedral, the oldest in the Muscovite style of architecture (1399), on the third rises the fine and picturesque silhouette of a great monastery—the Savvinsky—with another early Muscovite church dating from 1404. Behind Zvenigorod is lovely, remote countryside, favoured by discerning Muscovites who go camping (a very popular recreation) in its forests on summer weekends.
But near Moscow it is not on the whole the few towns which attract the visitor. More beautiful are the secluded churches, monasteries and above all the great country houses which (if one can lay one’s hands on a good guidebook) can be discovered in abundance. Some are sadly ruined or put to unworthy uses; but these are happily becoming fewer as the Government makes progress with the colossal task of restoring all the important old buildings in the country. Alas, it is hard to see what even unlimited funds could do to restore one of the greatest of Russian architectural whimsies—the monastery of New Jerusalem, on the other side of the river from the minute town of Istra. It was blown up during the German occupation (though even the ruined shell of the great conical rotunda is impressive enough). The monastery had a strange origin it was founded by Nikon, the notable 17th-century Patriarch of the Russian Church, who literally wished to re-create Jerusalem in Russia. To this end his emissaries visited Palestine, and brought back to the Patriarch a strange fanciful model (in polished wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl) of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem itself. Nikon built the cathedral of his monastery as a very free interpretation of this model, with typically Russian details (ceramic tiles, a multitude of onion domes). Having fallen out with the Tsar, Nikon retired to New Jerusalem; and the beautiful little skete (cell-andchapel) where he lived survived the war and stands in the woods a hundred yards from the monastery walls. Strangely enough, the original model from Jerusalem was another survivor, and can be seen in the small local museum. Nikon gave the features of the local topography Palestinian names: the stream beside his skete is the Brook Kedron, and the pleasant little River Istra near by is the Jordan (in the autumn of 1960 I saw three elderly women ritually immersing themselves in it). Despite the irreparable damage to it, New Jerusalem remains a fascinating spot.