Sculptures, stories and soaring kremlin walls
Start and end: Zaraisk bus station Distance: about 2km. 130 kilometres south of Moscow, the delightful old town of Zaraisk makes an interesting day trip from Moscow. The tiny town centre with its dilapidated wooden houses, looking particularly picturesque in the unsullied snow, is a total contrast with slushy Moscow. Buses leave about twice an hour from Vykhino bus station, next to the metro at the south end of the “purple line”. The journey takes about two and a half hours and costs 240 roubles each way.
According to legend, the town’s name comes from the death jump (“zaraz”) of the 13th century Princess Eupraxia. Rather than be taken as a concubine by the leader of the approaching Tartar horde, she threw herself and her baby son from the tallest tower in the battlements. The Russian poet, Lev Mei, whose historical drama, “The Tsar’s bride” was the basis for Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, wrote a poem that popularized this story. Calling Zaraisk “grandfather-city… above Osyotr’s waves”, he describes the town as looking cheerfully from its hilltop into the river: “As if quite forgetting the tragic old tale Of how you were founded and over whose graves.”
The bus station is in the old merchants’ trading rows, close to the kremlin (1) so it makes sense to start by exploring the 16th century walls and towers, surrounding the cathedrals of St Nicholas and John the Baptist. 17th century St Nicholas, with its ornate crosses and carved limestone doorway, is the first church you see as you enter through the eastern gate. The Kazyonnaya tower, to the right, was once the storehouse for weapons and gunpowder. The larger, domed John the Baptist church in the centre was built in 1821 and was the local cinema for most of the 20th century. It has now been restored in vibrant colours with a copy of Alexander Ivanov’s famous “Appearance of Christ to the people” above the stained glass fanlight of the southern doorway.
Walking round the walls either inside or outside, you can admire the towers at the far end of the kremlin. The tower on the southwest corner, near the Yeorgievskiye Gate (opposite the one you entered through), had a secret underground passage for escaping during a siege. The Karaulnaya tower on the northwest corner was the look out point. From here, the banks and lanes slope down to the Osyotr River. The preserved white stone facing outside the kremlin walls makes it unique in Russia.
Going out of the main, St Nicholas, gate, you pass the site of a prehistoric settlement (although there is nothing to see now). Archaeological excavations unearthed some important ice age figurines and a carving of a bison, made from mammoth ivory. You can see a diorama of Paleolithic Zaraisk in the kremlin museum in the crumbling Trinity Church (2), to the right behind the old merchants’ trading rows. There is also a great little diorama of the Polish nobleman Alexander Lisowski’s Coassack forces capturing the kremlin in the 17th century. Zaraisk’s Prince Pozharsky (whose statue stands in front of St Basils on Red Square) fought back against the Poles at the end of the “Time of Troubles”. There are memorials to Pozharsky on the Zaraisk kremlin wall and behind the trading rows.
The kremlin museum, which is open 11am-5pm, Tues-Sun and costs 40 roubles, also contains a great collection of local portraits of merchants and noblemen. Some of the merchants’ wives are particularly striking, with their beadwork collars and shrewd expressions. Aristocratic, mercantile and peasant artifacts complete the displays.
After visiting the museum, go back past the war memorial, with bronze statue and eternal flame, and the Pozharsky monument and turn right along Pervomaiskaya Ulitsa, the ‘main’ road. You can see several fine old mansions, some badly in need of repair. The 19th century merchants’ houses typically have a brick and plaster lower level and a wooden upper storey. Catherine the Great decreed that the streets should be laid out in an orderly grid, as she did in several provincial Russian towns. Just beyond the crossroads, you can see a house with two old gateways. Turn right at this crossroads along Leninskaya Ulitsa to visit the early 19th century Ilinskaya church (3). To the left, you can see an early 20th century brick water tower (4) through the trees.
Go on along Leninskaya and take the second right turn, down Ulitsa Karla Marxa, passing more fine old houses, an old school and the cosy, wooden “Izba” café (5). Turning left along Sovietskaya Ulitsa, you reach the statutory Lenin monument, surrounded by blue fir trees. Just left of Lenin, at number 38 Ulitsa Dzerzhinskogo, there is an interesting museum (6) dedicated to the sculptor Anna Golubkina, who was born here.
Turn back past the Lenin monument and go straight on to admire more 18th and 19th century mansions and the striking, blue-domed Annunciation church (6). There is a memorial nearby to soldiers killed by Polish forces in 1606 and at the end of the road ahead you can see the gates of the cemetery where Anna Golubkina lies buried. Turn right along Komsomolskaya and cross the Monastyrka River, a little tributary of the Osyotr, to return to the bus station.
Landmark of the Week – Golubkina Museum in Zaraisk (5) The Russian Sculptor, Anna Golubkina, was born in Zaraisk on 16th January 1864. She worked as an assistant to Auguste Rodin and produced expressive sculptures of many famous Russian figures. Her most famous public work in Moscow, where you can also visit a studio museum, is the wave relief over the doorway of the Moscow Arts’ Theatre on Kamergersky Pereulok. She returned to Zaraisk and died there in 1927. Five years later the house in Zaraisk became a museum, the first of its kind in Russia. It contains a few original works, including a colourful vase and touching sculptures (upstairs in the memorial rooms) of her mother and grandfather, together with several copies. Opening times and tickets are the same as for the kremlin museum. A third branch of the town museum, in a nearby village, is dedicated to the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, who lived there in the 1830s.