Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Novgorod - cradle of the Russian state

As regular readers of the blog will recall, my struggle with a mouse in Belfast is ongoing. No enticement I can offer will beguile the cunning pest into a mouse-trap. Coincidentally the personal lowlight of my trip to Russia was also rodent-related.

On only two occasions did we shell out for the convenience of a taxi in Russia. Once to convey us from our hotel in Novgorod, a mile up the road to the train station and once beforehand in Moscow, when we had a rather longer ride to Leningrad Station with luggage. On this first occasion it was a blazing hot day, even at 10am. Rather than wait in a stuffy lobby for our cab, my girlfriend and I took our bags and sat on a grassy bank, under some shady trees. I was happily immersed in the excellent ‘Football Dynamo’ when two large rats came capering through the grass and one of them scurried in amongst our luggage, as if intent on setting up home there.

My girlfriend is more circumspect than I when confronted with rodents and its passage over her croc barely elicited more than a remark. Meanwhile I had seized my bag, flailed it wildly at the vermin and let loose a string of expletives. It was fortunate that the taxi chose that moment to arrive, as I simply was not going to return to my reading amidst such infestation.

Luckily I had the imminence of a Russian train journey to sooth my anxiety and Russia’s railways could teach British Rail a thing or two about efficiency and service. Our train did not leave until the late evening, so we visited left luggage and took the metro to Mayakovsky station in order to visit Patriarch’s Pond, the location where the devil appears, intent on wreaking mayhem in Stalin’s Moscow, in Bulgakov’s ‘Master & Margherita’.

Whilst Satan did not appear in the form of gentleman magician Woland, accompanied by his gargantuan cat, Behemoth, there was certainly a slightly disquieting presence in the Georgian restaurant which we visited for lunch and he was trailed along by a small dog. This character was extremely expensively dressed and seemed to be either strung out on something, or was affecting complete indifference to all those around him. He was a young man, with an extremely statuesque young woman in tow. He spoke to neither her nor the waitress who fussed around, providing the dog various delicacies to eat. Meanwhile its owner stared vacantly ahead without acknowledging anyone or anything. There were very few people in the restaurant and it was easy to begin inventing fanciful scenarios as to who this person was and why he was accorded such attention, despite his irresponsiveness to everyone else. Was he, for example, some godfather of organised crime?

Such speculation aside, we spent a relaxing day beside the pond in the sun, reading and preparing for the journey ahead. Dinner was rather shamefully consumed in the type of American diner which Russians frequently relish. American culture elicits exactly the same response from Russians as it does elsewhere, a mixture of attraction and repulsion. Certainly this place, with its omelettes, burgers and CNN had a large crowd of locals quaffing beer and ordering immense quantities of food.

Having travelled back to Leningrad Station, we retrieved our bags and settled down to wait for the train to Novgorod, which was to spirit us to the ancient city through the night, arriving at 6am the next morning. Train stations are frequently interesting places, mixing the excitement of distant destinations, the bustle of humanity on the move and a slightly unseemly underbelly which seems invariably to gravitate toward the streets surrounding a major station. Komsomolskaya Ploshchad houses Lenigradsky as well as Yaroslavsky and Kazansky stations, three of the major railway stations in Russia, from which the Petersburg train, as well as the famous Trans Siberian railway, depart. It is simultaneously an exciting and slightly intimidating square. Big, busy and noisy, business people and tourists on the move mix with itinerant workers, the homeless and incapable drunks. Before we entered the station we attempted to find somewhere to sit and consult a map. It was difficult to find somewhere that did not bear the stench of urine.

Inside, the station was no less busy, but a great deal more orderly. Crowds gathered to scrutinise the arrivals / departures board, or to buy last minute provisions for journeys which, in such a large country, can last for days on end. As is customary, the Novgorod train arrived in good time. It transpired we were to share our berth with a middle aged woman, who had already found her bunk and was immersed in a series of word puzzles, and a rather dapper business man. The first hour of our journey afforded enough light to watch Moscow’s suburbs disappear, sporadically at first, and then in many miles of wooden dachas amongst birch forest.

From our arrival at 6am the next morning, precisely the time we were scheduled to arrive, Novgorod made a favourable impression. It is a town of some 200,000 people, but the feel is unmistakeably provincial, even bucolic. Despite its historic significance to Russia’s national story, despite the Russian tourists who populate its Kremlin and beach, Novgorod feels like a large village. It formed an excellent counterpoint to the metropolises of Moscow and St Petersburg.

At 6am the town’s white stone station was softened by early morning mist. Inside, the sleepy passengers, many of whom seemed to be young girls preparing for a day out in St Petersburg, occasionally drowsily stroked a pair of cats, which worked the room with an air of proprietorship. As we got our bearings I was corralled into immediate conversation with an enthusiastically befuddled young man called Sergei, in the mixture of Pidgin English and Russian which had become lingua franca for such encounters. After several minutes a militiaman arrived and insisted on moving Sergei’s friend, who was lying comatose along an adjacent bench. As they were removed from the concourse my new friend bid me a cheery ‘dos svidanya’ and raised a salutary hand in parting. Walking the half mile or so to the city centre, along a pleasant tree lined boulevard, we passed several more benches of early morning revellers as we searched for suitable accommodation (the benches themselves were not deemed appropriate). After a brief disagreement about cost, it was the clean, modern and comfortable Akron Hotel which attracted our custom. It took only twenty minutes or so for them to get a room together, which we were able to avail of from 8am, seeking the refreshment of an hour in bed and a shower after a fitful night’s sleep on the rails. So much for the clich├ęs about Russia and its lack of a service culture!

Thus invigorated we set out to explore Lord Novgorod the Great in an optimistic frame of mind. Broad tree lined streets lead to a spacious park facing Novgorod Oblast Duma. A ubiquitous Lenin might lurk under a shady canopy of deciduous trees, but the park’s centrepiece is undoubtedly the town’s 10th century Kremlin, also known as the Detinets. Amongst the collection of churches and museums which the Kremlin houses, sits a vast monument to the millennium of the Russian state. An enormous bell is encircled by the pre-eminent figures of Russia’s history and culture. Erected in 1862, the monument posits the establishment of Novgorod (literally ‘new town’) by Varangian chieftain, Rurik, as the moment from which the Russian state can be dated. The Norse prince’s ancestors would form a dynasty which played a pivotal role in ruling Kievan Rus and then Russia until the 16th century.

Novgorod’s quiet history museum houses a range of Viking trinkets testifying to the city’s origins. Rurik made it his capital, predating by at least 20 years the capture of Kiev by his son Oleg, and the foundation of Kievan Rus, from which most scholars trace the origins of the Russian state and its attendant national identity. Novgorod’s importance to Russian identity is magnified by its retention of independence when much of the rest of the modern state was under Mongol occupation. The principality in some respects kept the flame of Russia’s statehood alive, despite its strongly independent inclinations when Ivan III began to forge something akin to a unitary state in European Russia.

Today the Kremlin’s ancient belfry overlooks a man made beach created beside the River Volkhov. From an adjacent pier boats take tourists on an hour long cruise through the adjacent marshes, to the edge of Lake Ilmen. Solitary fishermen bob on the waters in their little dinghies, oblivious to the larger boats and onion domes which rise from the surrounding countryside. It is a beautiful and tranquil trip.

During our stay there was a beach volleyball tournament in progress and the sands were populated not only by sunbathers, but by various competitors as well. Meanwhile horses cantered alarmingly around the Kremlin’s parkland in the charge of children, feet away from people stretched out to sleep on the grass.

Across a footbridge and the Volkhov River the park continues, housing the churches and ruins of Yaroslav’s Court, what remains of the towns 18th century market place. None of these attractions are thronged with sightseers. It is quite possible to wander amongst them un-jostled and unhindered, taking snap shots and enjoying the sunshine, whilst polishing off another delicious Russian ice-cream. After an afternoon spent relaxing, it is only a short stroll to the Detinets restaurant, set in the medieval walls of the Kremlin itself. For about £10 I was able to try caviar, enjoy a delicious beef stew in sour cream and cap things off with Novgorod’s own local brand of vodka. The surroundings were splendidly atmospheric.

Although we only spent two nights in Novgorod, it is a destination I will remember for a long time. On Saturday we took a fifteen minute bus ride into the countryside, which the town melds seamlessly into, goats grazing the verges long before buildings become scarce. After almost leaving the bus at a couple of wooden villages, we decided that we had arrived at the Museum of Wooden Architecture. The museum comprises a collection of beautiful traditional wooden buildings rebuilt from various villages in the Russian countryside. The staff were in national costume, but the slightly untended paths overgrown by wildflowers, the young locals having wedding snaps taken, its location where the Volkhov broadens into Lake Ilmen and an ability to walk a little off the beaten track where the crowds would dissolve, made this place charming, rather than gimmicky or kitsch.

On Saturday night, walking along the river to an outsized Soviet statue of Rurik and a bellicose memorial, bristling with images of automatic weaponry, to the town’s occupation in World War 2, we rather regretted that we had not scheduled more time to stay in Novgorod. As the suburban train pulled out toward St Petersburg the next morning the feeling though was gratefulness for the welcome that we had been accorded by the town’s friendly and relaxed locals.

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