The Golden Ring of Russia, Suzdal

Suzdal is the remarkable ancient town, famed for its school of icon painting and for many forms of practical art, as well as a place of imprisonment for the tsar’s disgraced courtiers. Suzdal is a part of the Golden Ring of Russia and one of the most popular historical places.

The town seen today, with its numerous bell towers rising like fir trees against horizon, took shape in the eighteenth century but it was a centre of trade as far as the twelfth century and its unique charm lies in the architectural traditions of the twelfth to sixteenth centuries.

Among its many beautiful buildings is the Cathedral of the Nativity, originally built in the early twelfth century by Prince Vladimir, the founder of the city Vladimir. The five heavy domes seen today were added to the old base when the cathedral was rebuilt in 1528 by Prince Yuri Dolgoruki. It is decorated with fine carvings, many of lions, the heraldic beast of the Vladimir princedom, but its most glorious craftsmanship is shown in the so-called Golden Gates of the southern and western portals, made by local craftsmen in the thirteenth century. The series of copper plates engraved in gold illustrate stories of the Virgin and the Archangel Michael, the glittering reliefs framed by carved white-stone portals. Within is the splendid iconostasis of gilded copper made in the seventeenth century by the court artist Grigori Zinoviev.

The cathedral was built within the walls of the Suzdal Kremlin, of which traces remain of the rampart and moat.

To the north stood the prince’s palace, which included the royal Church of the Dormition; the present stone church was built in 1650, replacing the original wooden structure. Nearby are the Archbishop’s Chambers, a variety of structures dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, built on the former Bishop’s Chambers, and now housing various museums with many examples of the fine icons and artistry for which Suzdal is famed. There is also a collection of reconstructed wooden churches brought from different places in the Museum of Wooden Architecture.

By the end of the twelfth century the painters, goldsmiths, potters and other craftsmen of Suzdal formed a large community north-east of the Kremlin, protected by ramparts and wooden wall, and with a central market place. A trading arcade was built in classical style in the early nineteenth century along its western edge. Today the area is still the city’s main shopping centre and the venue of the week-long festival of Maslenitsa, a part of traditional Easter celebration.

Although Suzdal, like the rest of ancient Russia, was sacked by the Tartars, seven monasteries had been built around the small town by the end of the thirteenth century and, by the sixteenth century, there were eleven monasteries and nunneries there.

The Convent of the Intercession become well-known in the early sixteenth century when the Moscow Grand Prince Vasili III confined his wife there after she had born him no heir, forcing her to take the veil. He finally divorced her to marry the Polish beauty Yelena Glinskaya, mother of future Ivan the Terrible. According to legend, some months after coming to the convent, the first wife gave birth to a boy, who was said to have died and whose tomb was shown to the agents sent from Moscow by the Prince. The child, however, supposedly survived and grew up to become the famous brigand-hero Kudeyar. Excavations in 1934 did in fact reveal a tiny wooden coffin, within which was a rag doll dressed in pearl-embroidered shirt.

Many other aristocratic women were confined in the convent the following centuries, including, in 1698, Peter the Great’s first wife. She was moved to a stricter convent twenty years later after she had been implicated in a plot against the Tsar by the Tsarevich Alexei. The history of the Convent of the Intercession does not, however, lessen the charm of its architecture.

The church is very similar to the Convent of the Deposition of the Robe, also built in the sixteenth century. The walls and towers of the convent have a beautiful, airy look, almost like stage scenery, in contrast to the stout, fortress-like walls of the Monastery of the Saviour and St.Euthimius on bank of Kamenka.

Besides the monasteries and nunneries which form the architectural centres of Suzdal, there are nearly thirty churches along the streets and lanes, and to walk around the city is a constant source of pleasant surprises for visitors.