Abramtsevo and Zagorsk

Visiting Russia's cultural heritage.

Click on any image for an enlarged view.

Part two: Zagorsk

A small fair with the monastery in the background.
Just about twenty or thirty minutes further north on the train from Abremtsevo is Zagorsk, a monastery with many examples of beautiful Russian architecture. While I have to admit I don't practice any religious faith, myself, and personally don't believe it to be essential to a good and productive life, the resurgence all over Russia of the religious impulse is, I believe, a sign of the healthy freedom of conscience that is coming back. This freedom to believe as one wishes, or not believe at all, I do believe to be absolutely essential to a free country. But, I'm not here to preach, so...

From what I understand, however, while many churches in Russia were destroyed by Stalin, or converted to wharehouses, Zagorsk was allowed to continue without too much harrasment. I was not able to get a lot of information about this, so if anyone knows of any internet sources about Zagorsk, I'd be very interested to hear about them. I did find a little historical information.

The monastery was founded in the middle of the fourteenth century by Sergiy of Radonezh. In 1380, just before the Kulikovo Battle, Prince Dmitri Donskoi came there to receive the blessing of the Father Superior. During the rule of Ivan the Terrible, in the 16th century, the monastery was turned into an impregnable fortress, which withstood the sixteen months' siege of the Polish and Lithuanian troops in the early 17th century. In the late 17th century young Peter the Great found shelter twice in the monastery during the Streltsy insurrections. So as you can see, it's been a busy place.

The main entrance.
The architecture of the monastery actually represents six centuries of Russian design; as you can see from the pictures here the style of each building is very distinctive. Today the monastery, The Moscow Theological Academy and Seminary, and the Zagorsk History and Art Museum are housed in the Lavra. The architectural ensemble of the Trinity-St. Sergiy Lavra and its magnificient collection of Russian art of the 14th to 19th century is a national treasure to the Russian people.

Many Americans are still unaware of the newer freedoms that have come to Russia since the mid 80's, and later. Some asked me, upon my return to Atlanta, if I was ever followed around Moscow by a KGB agent. I'd attribute this misconception to watching too many bad movies, especially The Saint, which I saw on the plane from Amsterdam to Atlanta.

Well, to clear the air, no, I was never followed by a KGB agent in Moscow. I'm sure there are not enough officials in the whole government to follow all the Americans around. There was one group, however, that eyed me with determination in many parts of the city: the souvenir salesmen. They know a pidgeon when they see one!

I was charged more than Russian citizens for tourist exhibits like museums and things, and I admit this did irk me just a bit, but the prices were still pretty reasonable, so what the hell.

Many people back home asked me if the Russians were fascinated with me. Well, not exactly. In the first place, I'm not that fascinating to begin with, and in the second place, Moscow is so overrun with Americans and American tourists you can hardly blame them for their indifference.

There is also no shortage of jeans, either. And, no, I didn't bring any Levis with me to sell. They're readily available in shops all over Moscow, even if they do cost about four times what they should.

Plazas surrounded by trees inside.
Judging from my experiences, the openness and freedom in Russia looks here to stay. I get the impression, especially among the young, that if some tough ultra-nationalist tried to take the country back to the past to a closed society, and suppress freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, there would be a serious revolt.

As long as where on a roll here, dispelling myths many Americans may have about Russia, let's deal with one more: the mafia. Russia is not, let me repeat not, like Chicago in the 1920's, whatever the hell that was like. There are not people being gunned down on the street corners gangland style in broad daylight. At least not while I was there.

Yes, there is organized crime in Russia, just like any country with an economy of any substance. But the image of gangsters driving around with machine guns and poor innocents caught in the crossfire, or being shoved around in shops and restaurants by guys with names like Boris just doesn't reflect reality.

There apparently was a murder related to organized crime while I was there. A thirty year old bank executive was coming back from his dacha on a Sunday afternoon in his bullet proof Mercedes when some nice men in a couple of Jeep Cherokees stopped his car along a desolate country road.

It seems they wanted to demonstrate to him that his car was not, in fact, bullet proof, and they did this in a way that left no doubt in anyones' mind. However, the facts of the case are interesting. First, the thirty year old banker had a huge summer house surrounded by a close circuit security system and armed guards. Gee, was he your average bank teller? I don't think so.

Second, he drove around in a bullet proof (supposedly) Mercedes luxury car, probably not purchased on his teller's salary. So what do we conclude from this? Well, it's like Woody Allen says about the mafia and intellectuals, 'They only kill their own kind.'

A view through the trees.
It does seem true that much of the Russian economy is still underground; this is clearly evident on a day to day basis. Our taxi driver from the airport upon my arrival slipped the guard at the parking lot a little cash for letting him park in a reserved lot. A little bribe here, a little bribe there...

I read once that during Soviet times anywhere from forty to sixty percent of the real economy was underground, and hence, illegal. What this meant is that if your plumbing in your apartment broke and you needed it fixed, you didn't call the official state plumber. He'd probably be around to see you by the time you got that car you were on the twenty year waiting list for. No, you called your cousin Nikolay, because his friend had an uncle who did plumbing on the side, and in a couple of days your plumbing was fixed.

Even though this kind of free enterprise and independent contracting was clearly illegal under the Soviet -state runs everything- system, the government knew that if they shut it down the entire economy would collapse in about two seconds. So, they tolerated this foundational layer of capitalism that probably provided the glue that held the whole system together.

Old habits die hard, and too many people in the former USSR are accustomed to this kind of business, which is probably why so many of them are so good at working a market economy, even though, offically, it is a relatively new thing to them. In reality, it is certainly not.

All this is probably for the better. Had this underground economy never existed, perhaps the shock to a market system would have been even more devastating than it's been. Still, there is too much wealth in too few hands, and the opportunities for small business people and enterprise is not what it should be, but this will surely change in the future.

Many centuries of architectural style are represented.
Perhaps the thing that makes Russia difficult for many people to understand nowadays is the complete lack of anything else to use for comparison. Americans trying to understand who and what Russia truly is today grasp for situations in history that seem synonymous, and yet there are none. At no time in history have we seen a country go through the kind of radical and complex transformation that Russia has gone through over the last ten or fifteen years. So, naturally, we struggle to relate conditions to something we already understand, hence, the 'Chicago in the twenties' comparison.

One person I met in Moscow described Russia as a country being dragged from the nineteenth century straight into the twenty first century, with barely of glimpse of the twentieth century. I don't think this truly describes everything in Russia, after all, they build the Mir, and that's certainly no product of the nineteenth century. But I think you can say there is a certain amount of truth in this statement. The sophisticated markets and communication systems that have developed in other parts of the world have much more recently come into existence in Russia.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 many western journalists picked up on a catch phrase that was to be much repeated in the following days. The end of history was declared, meaning that things from then on would be so boring it wouldn't be worth writing into the history books, I guess. Without the cold war adversaries staring each other down and the rest of the world huddled around their legs, I suppose they figured everything was going to be one big day at the beach sipping umbrella drinks.

Since that time we have certainly seen a lot of stuff that will give students in school plenty of stuff to study. But again, I think the inability to anticpate how things have changed, all over the world, as a result of the massive shifts and realignments are due to the fact that no other event in history can really give us a complete insight into what we watched happen in 1991, and what we are seeing now, as aftershocks, years later.

After a while Ali and I sat down on a bench under a tree and discussed our views on religion. I was surprised to learn that Ali was a nonbeliever like myself, coming from a country like Turkey. I guess I would have just assumed him to adhere to whatever the dominant faith of Turkey is at the present.

We decided that nonbelievers must be the voice of rational reasoned thinking, no matter where they come from. How interesting, we decided, that out of every culture in the world, where a different faith is always dominant, you find nonbelievers with very much the same views as nonbelievers from other cultures. We became very smug in our observation and congratulated each other with a hearty handshake.

Of course, there was a large degree of joking in our observation, but also some degree of truth, as well. We both agreed absolutely that, even though we ourselves were nonbelievers, the resurgence of faith in Russia, and indeed the resurgence of a true freedom of conscience, was a very good thing.

It was a cool and dry day, weather that I was to miss very much and very quickly upon my return to humid Atlanta, and we sat beneath the beautiful trees and among the amazing architecture. I had now been in Moscow almost ten days and was still amazed that such a place truly existed.

My mind was full of images and impressions of what I had seen and heard so far when I said to Ali, 'You know, you can read all you want, look at all the pictures and television you want, but there is no substitute for exploring another land on your own.' I told him I was having the greatest time of my life.

He said he was very happy for me and implored me to travel more, not to make this a once in a lifetime experience, but something done as often as time and money allow. I assured him I would. He then recommended I see Instanbul some day, his own hometown, and he drifted into one of those far away, reminiscent moods of a homesick expatriot.

There we were, two foreigners on Russian soil, one anxious to return to his homeland, another anxious to see more of this land, knowing full well that too soon the adventure would be over.

It was getting late by this time, probably around eight in the evening, and the last train would soon be leaving for Moscow. Russia is a wonderful place to travel because, among many reasons, a tourist is afforded a great deal of daylight in the summer. Here we were at eight in the evening with the sun still high in the sky.

Nino and Tatyana found us just in time to head towards the train station, and I walked through the small town trying to imagine what living there would be like. It seemed a very good place to live. The whole mindset among the people of Russia was so different to me than the mindset of the people in the states, I was a bit bewildered. In the states there is a competetiveness in practically every aspect of life. It permeates society so deeply that from each waking moment you feel as if you are in a contest.

In Russia there is a very different sense. People seemed much more inclinded to draw inward into their own lives, not worrying too much about what everyone else around them is doing. Of course, you may try and attribute this to the general conditions of things, arguing that people in Russia have too much to worry about to concern themselves with the affairs of others.

Details of the ornate decorations.
While there may be some truth to this, I still think the fundamental difference I felt between the two cultures goes deeper. Even now as I write this, I still haven't quite figureed it out. And I won't even begin to argue one is better than the other. You could waste a lot of time doing that. 'Why of course you have to be competitive. We Americans have known this a long time with our wonderful market economy, and those Russians better learn it quick!' Or how about, 'You Americans are always sticking your noses into other people's business. Why don't you worry about your own problems for a while and clean up that mess of a country of yours?'

A little bit of truth in both perspectives? Probably, but why wast time on the negative when there's so much work to be done on both sides.

We got to the train station with a few moments to spare. I realized I was pretty hungry; I was hungry a lot in Russia and I think that's why I gained a few pounds while I was there. I would have guessed all the walking I did would have kept off any extra pounds, but it was not to be the case.

So I hunted around the tables and stands for something to eat. I settled on some kind of pastry looking thing with meat in it; it might have been a bliny. I'm not sure. But I saw a lot of people eating them as they waited for the train, so I figured they were safe enough.

When Nino saw what I was eating she told me I should be more careful. She tried to tease me by pointing out that there were no cats hanging around the station and then pointed to my snack. I was too hungry for this kind of nonsense, however, and responded, 'Well then, it's pretty good cat. We should get the recipe.' Nino stuck out her toungue and groaned and I finished my bliny. It was very tastey!

The train was pretty crowded, it being Sunday evening, with many Muscovites returning from their dachas. Many people had freshly cut flowers and vegatables they had grown. One couple had a small kitten in a box they were taking back to the city, and I thought about my bliny. I pointed to it and told Nino I was still hungry and she punched me in the side.

I watched the landscape begin its gradual change from trees and countryside to the large, familiar buildings of Moscow. I knew we were getting closer to the city as our train passed more and more of the huge, grey apartment buildings.

It had been a long day, and a long journey back into Russia's past. I marvelled at how just a little more than an hour from the city that is one of the most quickly changing places in the world, you can visit places unspoiled and lasting.

In Moscow buildings are being swept away and replaced or renovated daily. The churches of Zagorsk will last many centuries more.

In Moscow your eyes find new sights every day while the artwork of Abramtsevo's walls remain to tell its story.

These two places, I think, will become even more important to Russia as the country speeds into the twenty first century, along with the rest of the world. As Russians join Americans join Brits, Germans and everyone else in the future, all of us looking beyond our own borders like looking over fences in our yards, Abremtsevo and Zagorsk will always be there to remind Russians of their rich and wonderful artistic and cultural past. I felt very fortunate to have had the chance to visit them.

My Russian Adventure Atlanta Life comments Guestbook

All contents and photos © 1997 by Skip Evans