April 01, 1999

Rostov Veliky

The highway from Moscow to Yaroslavl, although tattered and mercilessly polluted by heavy traffic, still gives a sense of the forested lands that once stretched endlessly to the northeast of the Moscow River. It is all too possible that the dense forest cover on both sides of the road will eventually give way to tawdry development, yet the groves of birch, pine, fir, and aspen convey not only the beauty of the landscape but also thoughts of the rich history that unfolded in this part of Russia. Along this ancient path, which passes through the medieval towns of Sergiev Posad and Pereslavl-Zalessky, there is no more imposing site than the towers and cupolas of Rostov Veliky, Rostov the Great.

Fortunately, most automobile traffic bypasses the historical core of this small city (population approx. 31,000). As one approaches along the Moscow highway from the south, a smaller road splits off to the right, through a grassy marsh on the fringes of Lake Nero. In the distance gleam the cupolas of the recently restored Savior St. James (Spaso-Yakovlevsky) Monastery, situated on the shores of the lake. From there the road turns into quiet streets that lead to Rostov’s main architectural ensemble, the majestic kremlin or, as it is more properly known, the Court of the Metropolitan. (After the Patriarch, “metropolitan” is the highest ecclesiastical rank in the Russian Orthodox Church.) Although most of the ensemble was not built until the 17th century, this mighty citadel immediately conveys a sense of Rostov’s turbulent history.

Rostov is one of the earliest historically attested towns in Russia, first mentioned under the year 862 in the ancient chronicle “Tale of Bygone Years.” Throughout the 10th century, Slavic settlers—primarily from the Novgorod lands—moved into this area, already sparsely inhabited by Finno-Ugric tribes. So far as we know, this merging of the two peoples was relatively peaceful, and produced the characteristic population of central Russia, which still has many placenames of Finno-Ugric origin.

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