|Last weekend, Lidia and I drove out to the Golden Ring,
a group of classically beautiful cities surrounding Moscow, that date from
the beginning of Russian history. I was just about to write my impressions
down, when I saw Helen’s article below which describes the trip much better
than I could have.
The Independent (UK) 27 July 1999
Street Life – An optimist’s guide to Russia: Part one
By Helen Womack
I always set out with high hopes on the roads of Russia. In this vast
country, it seems, there is so much to be discovered. Never mind that every
past journey has been tinged with toska or melancholy yearning. Next time
I am sure to come to the Promised Land.
Thus, in hope, I set off from Samotechny Lane last week on the M7 to
Vladimir, 120 miles east of Moscow. In the 19th century, when prisoners
walked for months down this road to exile in Siberia, begging for alms
as they went, it was the highway to Hell, effectively a sentence of death.
But times have changed.
My cherry red Niva or Russian jeep bounced merrily over the potholes
as I passed fields of sunflowers and settlements with quaint Communist
names like Red Electrician. Impatient Mercedes drivers, hurrying to their
cottagi (new brick mansions), overtook me on the inside. The narrow road
became the slow lane, the ditch became the overtaking lane. Suddenly, we
were all driving on the left, like in England. It was anarchy.
By and by, we came to Petushki, immortalised in Veniamin Yerofeyev’s
comic novel of the Brezhnev era, Moskva-Petushki. It is about a boozer
from Petushki, who travels to the capital to see the sights but ends up
in the buffet of Kursky railway station, drunk again. It is a symbol of
the hopelessness of Russian life.
By the side of the road in the real Petushki, some drivers were having
a picnic. Vodka bottles were arranged on the bonnet of a car. They were
drinking the vodka from plastic cups. They were going to drink it all and
then get back into their vehicles. Corrupt as they are, there are times
when one should give thanks for the Russian traffic police.
I decided to rest, too. I did not fancy the kvas (drink from fermented
bread) from the fetid roadside barrels or the delights of the Cafe Kormilitsa
(Breast-feeding woman). Instead, I plunged into the forest, dry as tinder
after the heatwave, and picked a handful of wild raspberries, in exchange
for which I donated what seemed like a pint of blood to the mosquitoes.
Further down the road, I bought some more of these wild raspberries
from an old woman. She had spent all day in the infested forest, picking
them. She was selling them for four roubles per glass. I bought five glasses
and still I had spent about 60p. She cried with gratitude, saying that
at last she could afford bread.
Along its length, the road was lined with traders desperate to make
a sale. Every village offered the same bizarre wares – towels decorated
with the face of Marilyn Monroe, giant toy tigers, popcorn, electric fans
and rubber boats, although there was no water in sight. Suddenly the skies
opened and the villagers rushed to cover their goods, imported from China
and brought here by the Moscow Mafia.
When the Russians brought down Communism, they carried placards speaking
of “70 years on the road to nowhere”. After the experiment with capitalism,
they are still on the road, seeking a turning to somewhere.
My car lurched. The strip of asphalt on which I had felt confident to
raise my speed came to an abrupt end and without warning I was back on
lunar craters. Ahead, were the wrecks of a BMW and a Lada that had been
in a head-on collision. The BMW driver was alive but I did not give much
for the chances of those in the more vulnerable car.
The ambulance would come. I drove on. On, past a town called Gus Krystalny
(Crystal Goose), where the glass-factory workers had been paid in kind.
They were standing by the roadside, their chandeliers hanging up for sale
in the branches of trees.
On through Pokrov (the Virgin’s Veil), with its sleazy motel, and the
towns of Noginsk and Lakinsk. All over Russia these shabby, inconsequential
places are indistinguishable, with their war memorials, their chicken-coop
apartment blocks, their rusty garages, their gardens with cabbage and phlox.
Irreverent Muscovites call them Perdyulinsk (Fartville) and Mukhasransk
I was leaving them behind. The belching lorries and buzzing motorcycles
thinned out and I emerged on to a plain of golden cornfields, lined with
silver birch. On the horizon, glinted the domes of the ancient city of
Suzdal. My destination. The New Jerusalem.
This was a city of the greatest nobility. Yet, its story too is a tale
of Russian toska. Of wasted opportunity. Of endless sadness. I will tell
it in the next episode of The Eternal Optimist’s Guide to Russia.
The Independent (UK)3 August 1999
Street Life – Russia’s little empty Oxford
By Helen WomackSuzdal
“Having a lovely time. Wish you were here.” I am away from Samotechny
Lane, sending this postcard from Suzdal.
Actually, it would be reassuring if anybody were here. This ancient
Russian city is an architectural jewel, comparable perhaps to somewhere
like Oxford, yet at the height of the tourist season it is almost deserted.
I arrived as the sun was setting, coming over a glorious plain with a prospect
not of dreaming spires but of dreaming onion domes, Suzdal being one of
the so-called “Golden Ring” religious centres of old Russia.
Now I am staying in the concrete Tourist Centre. A private hotelier
leapt into the road as I passed, trying to attract me to his bed and breakfast,
but I had already booked the former state hotel. It is fine. The renovated
room costs $20 (£12.50) a night. There is soap and toilet paper.
I have promised the private man to dine at his guesthouse instead.
I explore the city. It has a kremlin (fortress), a convent, two monasteries,
dozens of churches, dating from the 12th to the 18th centuries, and a nearly
200-year-old shopping arcade with wrought-iron signs for the cobbler, the
milliner and the wine merchant. Little wooden bridges take me back and
forth across the river Kamenka, meandering and thick with water lilies.
I am looking for the world famous Church of the Intercession on the
Nerl. It is featured in thousands of pictures.Simple, white and standing
alone on the bank of the river Nerl, it is as perfect as a pearl. But I
discover that the church, built in 1165, is not in Suzdal itself. I must
drive through the nearby city of Vladimir, grim and industrial despite
its historic centre, to Bogolyubovo. When I arrive, I find that the church
is smaller than I expected and somehow spoilt by electricity pylons, cars
and other 20th-century trappings.
Returning to Suzdal feels like coming home. There are no high-rise buildings
here.The city is like an extended village of wooden houses with lace curtains
and geraniums in the windows. Goats and geese stand at the bus stops.
The locals are poor. A sign in the supermarket lists the times when
the hospital will pay blood donors. At night, the street lamps are not
lit. The city budget lacks funds.
Yet, there is a feeling of quiet dignity here. The statue of Lenin in
the central square is not overpowering. Capitalism also seems to have touched
Suzdal only lightly. Absent are the kiosks that make other Russian cities
If only there were more road signs to encourage tourists. If only at
the private Kuchkova guesthouse they could do something about the flies.
Then Suzdal would indeed be a five-star tourist destination. So why are
there so few visitors? Because rich Russians go abroad and poor Russians
do not have holidays, while Westerners are scared off by the country’s
Suzdal is distinctive, an island of beauty in a sea of mediocrity. Yet,
umbilically linked to the rest of Russia by the poor, anarchic road I described
last week, it is dragged down to the common level. In that sense, it is
anything but an island and will only prosper when Mother Russia herself