Yasnaya Polyana—strangely a recognized tourist ‘objective’ from Moscow—was thus not an unqualified success as the goal of a day’s trip. ‘ But an equally long excursion I made in the opposite direction was marvellous. I was in a car, the smart medium-sized ‘Volga’ saloon, and it was a Sunday in early May. The day before, all the leaves on the trees had come out at once: early summer in Russia is breathtakingly sudden and luxuriant. The scenery to the north of Moscow is quite different from that to the south. It is undulating, rising to a well-defined line of hills, the `Klin-Dmitrov moraine ridge’, clothed in wonderful, variegated mixed woodland; a slight rise may unexpectedly give you a view over miles of blue-green forest.
We passed Zagorsk, one of the few places outside Moscow of which the average tourist may have heard—for it grew up around one of the most famous monasteries of the Orthodox Church, the Troitskaya Lavra of St Sergius, which even today is the goal of pilgrims from all over Russia (and supports a theological seminary). The immense, airy baroque belfry is visible well before one enters the fair-sized town; the first sight of the monastery itself, with its red-and-white fortress walls, its multitude of churches with their blue, silver and gold cupolas rising beyond a steep little valley, cannot be forgotten. Inside there are more treasures than I can list: St Sergius in his silver coffin, a good museum, some of the world’s greatest icons dating from about 1420 (when the Tartars had just sacked the province for the last time).
But it was beyond Zagorsk that the truly magical Russian countryside—utterly unexplored, without another tourist—began. Some ninety miles from Moscow one suddenly finds oneself looking down on a great calm oval lake in a bowl of hills, with a little town at the near end of it. It is Pereslavl’ Zalesskiy (the second word means `beyond the forests’)—a princely town coeval with Moscow, and boasting a perfect little white-stone church which is the oldest building (1152) in central Russia. It stands by high grassy ramparts equally old, and near a small river, gay with coloured boats, which flows into the lake. After Pereslavl’ the forests thin out, the villages become more numerous and prosperous, and then what seems like a mirage appears—another lake glistening beyond broad green meadows, and on the further side a gleaming city of white walls and domes. It is Rostov ‘the Great’ (nowadays a tiny place compared with its younger namesake, Rostov-on-Don), older by far than Moscow, seat of archbishops—one of whom in the 17th century dreamt up the magnificent, perfectly preserved white kremlin (fortress) with its little domed churches built over each gate.
The drive to Rostov is an easy day’s excursion in a fast car—yet who in the West has even heard of it, how many foreign visitors to Moscow have made the journey? Also some 125 miles from Moscow (this time to the east) are the oldest and perhaps the most picturesque towns in middle Russia. These are Vladimir and Suzdal’, joint centres in the Middle Ages of a vast principality of which Moscow (founded in 1147) was once but a small outpost. In the 12th and 13th centuries Vladimir indeed was considered the capital of all Russia, superseding Kiev, which was vulnerable to incursions by nomads from the steppes. From that period date the superb and unique buildings which still constitute one of Russia’s architectural glories: the Cathedrals of the Assumption and St Demetrius at Vladimir, the Golden Gate there, the palace-tower at Bogolyubovo, the lonely churches on the River Nerl’ and at Kideksha, the cathedrals of Suzdal’ and Yur’yev Pol’skiy Con the fields’). All these are built simply, elegantly of fine white sandstone, and most are decorated with startling carvings of unknown inspiration (the old Russian chronicles merely indicate that ‘God sent craftsmen from all corners of the world to Andrei Bogolyubsky’—the reigning prince). I spent a February weekend in Vladimir, staying at a pleasant old hotel with good food, visiting the village of Bogolyubovo and Suzdal’ which is almost a museum-town: today minute in size, yet preserving from the 12th to 18th centuries a dozen great monasteries and a multitude of picturesque churches.