A young woman cools herself under a shower on the embankment of the Moscow River
A young woman cools herself under a shower on the embankment of the Moscow River
Honour guards place flowers around a monument dedicated to Yuri Gagarin on the eve of the Day of Aviation and Cosmonautics and the 50th anniversary of Gagarins historic first space flight in Star City outside Moscow.
Honour guards place flowers around a monument dedicated to Yuri Gagarin on the eve of the Day of Aviation and Cosmonautics and the 50th anniversary of Gagarins historic first space flight in Star City outside Moscow.

Novgorod

The beautiful city of Novgorod, 190km south of St Petersburg, was the first centre of the Russian lands. In the ninth century, Slavic tribes vied for supremacy in the region, but just as they were on the brink of fratricidal war, they invited a Viking prince called Rurik of Rus to rule over them and impose order. “From him did the Russian land receive its name,” says the ancient Russian Chronicle.

My most recent visit to the city came via a journey on board the milk train from Moscow and so, while the town was sleeping, I took a cab to the far side of the Volkhov River. From here, across the water, the full moon floated above the walls of Novgorod’s kremlin (the Russian name for a fortified citadel) in one of Europe’s most perfect vistas – red medieval battlements planted on green river banks and, rising above them, the high golden domes of a soaring cathedral.

Walk through the gates of the kremlin and you’ll find manicured lawns and a statue of Rurik complete with Viking helmet and shield. There’s also a fascinating history museum with birch bark documents from the earliest days – merchants’ bills, love letters and even schoolboys’ crib sheets. The white-walled 11th-century Cathedral of Saint Sophia is Russia’s oldest church, with splendid frescos and a miracle-working icon.

The Golden Gate of Kiev

In 882 Rurik’s heirs shifted their headquarters south to Kiev, in what is now Ukraine. Take a bus to the top of the Berestov Hill on the edge of town and you’ll see why they chose it. The mighty Dnieper River bends its way through the gorge beneath you, at the heart of the trade route from the Viking north to the Greek Byzantine Empire in the south.

For the next four centuries, Kiev was the capital of the Russian lands. When its Grand Prince, Vladimir the Red Sun, adopted Orthodox Christianity in 988, Kiev’s Monastery of the Caves became the new state religion’s highest holy place. Here, I took a wax taper and wandered through the catacombs, stumbling across the embalmed bodies of its earliest Christian monks.

Kievan Rus developed a quasi-democratic form of governance that allowed people to elect and dismiss their rulers. But on the edge of Kiev, you’ll find evidence of the sticky end it came to.

The Golden Gate of Kiev was part of the city’s mighty walls, designed to keep out the tribes of the wild eastern steppes. But in 1240 a Mongol army smashed down Kiev’s defences and murdered its inhabitants. Rus was plunged into the 200-year darkness of the Mongol occupation.

Kulikovo Polye (Field of Snipes)

The Mongols stifled native culture and forced the Russian princes into humiliating shows of submission. Some resisted, but it wasn’t until 1380 that 29-year-old Dmitry Ivanovich from the previously minor city of Moscow persuaded his fellow princes to mount a concerted challenge to the occupiers.

At Kulikovo Polye, 260km south of Moscow, he assembled his forces on the banks of the River Don and squared up to the Mongol cavalry. You can still visit the battlefield with its 30m Orthodox cross, church and museum.

The site has been adopted by Russian nationalists and every September they re-enact the battle in period costume.

During one such mock battle I watched burly men in chainmail knock the stuffing out of silk-clad Mongols with swords before heading off to share a beer.

But in 1380 things were less amicable. “Christian bodies lay like haystacks”, the Chronicles tell us, “and the River Don flowed red with blood”.

Mongol rule would last for another century, but in Russian folk memory Kulikovo Polye is “the place to which Russians came divided and left as a nation”.

Moscow’s kremlin

As Mongol power waned, Moscow’s grew. Prince Ivan I, known as Kalita (“Moneybags”) because of his knack for accumulating territory and wealth, laid the foundations of the Moscow Kremlin in the 1320s.

Today its palaces and churches are Moscow’s leading tourist attraction. As long as there’s no big political set-piece going on, you can tour most of them.

While you’re there, pop in to see Lenin in his mausoleum on Red Square beneath the Kremlin walls. In communist times I used to queue all morning; today you can walk straight in.

Events from more recent days centre on the Russian White House, the imposing white marble building on the Moscow River, where Boris Yeltsin defied the hardline communist coup in 1991. But none of that would have been possible without Ivan Moneybags. His wheeling and dealing sealed Moscow’s pre-eminence, replacing Kiev as the seat of the Grand Prince (the future Tsar) and of the Orthodox Church.

Borodino

Russia’s borders are long and vulnerable; the fear of invasion has been an enduring national terror myth since the Mongol Yoke. When the French began exporting revolution after 1789, the Russians were ill-prepared.

Napoleon’s armies advanced rapidly until they reached the village of Borodino, 120km west of Moscow. The ensuing battle, in September 1812, is the centrepiece of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and the subject of Tchaikovsky’s rousing 1812 Overture.

These days there are guided tours of the battlefield and in a small museum you’ll find the bloody uniforms of Russian and French troops. The museum explains that Borodino was a defeat for the Russians – their casualties were much higher than Napoleon’s – but the French were fatally weakened.

They rolled on to Moscow, only to find that the retreating Russians had set the city ablaze. Deprived of food and shelter, frozen by the Russian winter, the half-million French turned homeward. All but 200 000 of them died in two hellish months of headlong retreat.

Also at Borodino, look out for the memorial to the Soviet 82nd Rifle Division which perished trying to halt the Nazis’ advance in 1941.

Moika Canal, Saint Petersburg

When Peter the Great chose the site of his new capital in 1703, the Russian aristocracy were appalled; St Petersburg would be built in a swampy, desolate bog on the Gulf of Finland. But Peter’s choice was emblematic of boldness and renewal. He was shuffling off the old, backward-looking connotations of Moscow, taking Russia on “a leap from darkness into light”.

The city that became Peter’s “window on the West” is full of wide avenues and splendid vistas. It has fascinated me ever since I was a student there in the 1970s.

Don’t miss the tsars’ Winter Palace, home to the incomparable Hermitage Museum; Palace Square where the events of Bloody Sunday unfolded in 1905; and Battleship Aurora, still anchored at the quay where it fired the starting gun for the October Revolution of 1917.

Spare a moment, also, for the spot by the Moika Canal where Russia’s hopes for democracy were blown apart. Here in March 1881, the reforming Tsar Alexander II was torn to pieces by a revolutionary’s bomb.

He’d freed the serfs and was planning a new liberal constitution, but his reforms died with him. The Cathedral of Spilled Blood, with its marvellous mosaics, now marks the site. Forty years later, Russia was in the grip of an autocracy worse than anything the tsars had imposed.

Lake Razliv

The Bolsheviks were a small, fanatical clique of professional revolutionaries who set little store by democracy. In February 1917, Russia’s first revolution had brought liberal democrats to power, who released political prisoners, granted civil rights and planned free national elections.

Lenin’s forces were scattered, and he fled in disguise to a hiding place on Lake Razliv, 32km north of St Petersburg. You can get there on an elektrichka (commuter train) from St Petersburg’s Finland Station, followed by a short bus ride. In communist times it became a shrine, with cafés, a museum and the remarkably preserved grass hut in which Lenin hid from the tsarist police.

The scenery is breathtaking; the walk through the birch forest alone is worth the trip. Lenin, of course, returned to St Petersburg in time to overthrow the embryonic democracy of the provisional government in the October Revolution.

Yekaterinburg

The Siberian city of Yekaterinburg, on the eastern slopes of the Urals, has an attractive centre, set around an artificial lake.

Its place in history was cemented in the early hours of July 17, 1918. The Bolsheviks had imprisoned Tsar Nicholas II and his family in the commandeered house of a local merchant, but when anti-revolutionary forces threatened to capture the city and free the royals, Lenin sent orders that they should all be shot.

The spot where the last tsar met his fate is occupied by a new cathedral, the Shrine of Redemption through Blood, surrounded by billboards showing life-size images of the dead Romanovs and asking for prayers to “the holy martyrs”.

The bodies of Nicholas and his family were dumped in a mine shaft outside Yekaterinburg and weren’t discovered until 1991.

Lake Ladoga

Today Lake Ladoga, which lies to the north-east of St Petersburg, is a popular beauty spot, rich in fish and wildlife. It’s a pleasant day’s outing and you might even spot native Ladoga seals. But from 1941 to 1944 it was the scene of a desperate struggle for national survival.

Leningrad, as St Petersburg was known, was besieged for nearly two and a half years by Nazi troops.

Leningrad could be supplied only via an “ice road” across Lake Ladoga. Under enemy bombardment, lorries carried food and fuel to the city’s population. Nearly one in three of the 2.5 million inhabitants would eventually starve to death.

Certain of victory, Hitler printed invitations to a celebratory party in the city’s Hotel Astoria. But Leningrad held out and the siege was lifted in January 1944. You can see Hitler’s unused party invitations in the State Memorial Museum of the Siege of Leningrad, which also has personal testimonies from Soviet civilians and the diaries of German soldiers.

Star City

The Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev was plagued by economic problems, but excelled in certain areas. The Soviet space programme is inspiring and horrifying by turns. Moscow achieved a string of remarkable firsts, from the sputniks of the 1950s to the first dog in space, the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin in 1961) and the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova in 1963). You can trace their fascinating story at Star City (Zvezdny Gorodok) 80km north-east of Moscow.

Star City is still a military zone, but state-approved travel organisations now offer guided tours and they are well worth taking. The heroism of the Soviet cosmonauts helped the USSR beat the Americans at every turn. But Khrushchev and Brezhnev became so obsessed with propaganda victories that they demanded ever greater risks be taken.

Tragedy ensued; cosmonauts died and the space programme went into meltdown. The Americans won the race to the moon and no Soviet would ever follow in their footsteps. It’s a fitting image for the whole communist century, which promised much but ended in failure. – The Independent

Travel tip:

Tourists will find it easier to get to now than in the days of the Soviet Union, but Russia is still no simple destination. Check with the Russian Embassy for visa details – call 012 362 1337/8 or e-mail [email protected]