Text and photos by Larissa Franczek
Until recently the small town of Staritsa was known mainly to well-informed travellers, and was almost a secret to the general public. Regular excursions to the place were not even available. It was no surprise that one of the main sights, the Dormition cathedral, was in a sad state. Now the situation has changed. The monastery is celebrating its 900th anniversary this year. A large-scale reconstruction has been undertaken to return this architectural jewel to its original state.
Staritsa is located at the confluence of the Staritsa and the Volga rivers, and is known for a rich history that began in 1297. Before and during Ivan the Terrible’s reign the town was connected with the Staritsky princes and Ivan’s battles against them. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Staritsa was a part of the Tver principality, which was probably the richest and most developed area in old Russia. It had its own traditions in architecture, icon painting, even in publishing miniature books. The town embodied the princes’ idea of freedom from the influence of Moscow. Once he had accumulated enough power, Ivan the Terrible tried to eliminate the whole family of the Staritskys princes. This is a separate page of the town’s history, full of stories of endless intrigues, wars, insidious plots, cruel tortures, love and death.
Ivan IV was constantly fighting against Poland and Lithuania, and Staritsa’s geographical location made it an ideal base for negotiations with the Polish king. They say that Ivan even wanted to make it the capital of Russia, calling it “my beloved town”.
In the 16th century, stone construction began in earnest in the town. The town’s Kremlin was built on a bank overlooking the Volga, surrounded by a four-metre high wooden wall and 13 towers. The Kremlin housed a prince’s palace, Boyars and Strelets’s (guardsmen) houses, two churches, a jail, barns and so on. People traded honey and wax, sturgeon, white salmon, clothes and shoes, jugs and sickles, horseshoes and locks.
The grandest building in the Kremlin was the Boris and Gleb cathedral with its five-hipped roofs. The cathedral was constructed in 1558-61 to a very original design. Being a contemporary of St. Basil’s cathedral in Moscow, it was most probably built to commemorate the conquest of Kazan. The cathedral was richly decorated with white stone carvings, coloured tiles, a large panel with a portrayal of the crucifixion on it, and other details. It was undoubtedly majestic and splendid. It stood on the very edge of a hill and its roofs rose up into the sky from the steep bank of the Volga. Its central tower was thirty metres high, and must have been an impressive sight.
The cathedral withstood the Time of Troubles, but later Patriarch Nikon, who didn’t like hipped roof churches, ordered its demolition.
Now the spot is a plateau with nothing remains to remind one of the majestically beautiful Kremlin. From here, an excellent panorama of Staritsa and its vicinity opens up. The Dormition Cathedral (1530), is one of the oldest in north east Russia, and looks like a picture postcard. This is one of the most original examples of old-Russian stone architecture. Under Ivan IV, architects built a hall in the cathedral’s refectory chamber resembling the Faceted Chamber of the Moscow Kremlin.
The life story of a very interesting person, the prelate Iov, is connected with Staritsa. In some records, Iov is described as being an educated man with a phenomenal memory. In others he is thought of being a not very bright man from the provinces, which means that his contemporaries’ attitude towards him was contradictory. Anyway, Iov became the first Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. He was buried in the Staritsa Dormition Cathedral and then reburied in the Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin.
At different times, Staritsa fell under the jurisdiction of Smolensk, St. Petersburg, then Novgorod. In 1775 it was finally appended to Tver province. By that time the town had developed shoe-making, pottery and other crafts, among which black-smithing was particularly famous. At the foot of the site of the former Kremlin you can still see arches where smiths shoed horses, built carts and carriages, made scythes, sickles, axes, knives and pitchforks. All these goods were highly valued far from Staritsa. In many Russian museums, Staritsa chain armour and helmets are displayed.
The town traded bread, wood, hemp, and quarried marble. Marble was widely used for coating buildings, for foundations and monuments. Merchants bought it and floated it on barges to Tver, Yaroslavl, Petersburg. On this now quiet bank of the Volga, a white stone quay used for mooring heavy cargo barges is still preserved.
Near the Volga is a building in the shape of a semi-rotunda with semi-columns. Originally they were the two of them, identical in every respect. Looking quite imposing, they served as an entrance to the commercial part of the town, though in fact they were nothing but warehouses where people could buy all sorts of food and beverages. Pushkin used to buy champagne there. He came to Staritsa in 1829, spent Christmas with the local nobility, enjoying himself in their estates nearby. Here he wrote The Winter Morning and some chapters from Eugene Onegin.
One of the former estates is Krasnoye. Its owner was M. Poltoratsky, Anna Kern’s grandfather. It was to her that Pushkin dedicated A Magic Moment I Remember, one of his most wonderful poetic masterpieces. Pushkin’s visit, and its extremely beautiful church, make Krasnoye a special place. The Transfiguration church (1790) was built in an unusual style for Russia, the pseudo gothic.
Evgeny Klodt, a grandson of the prominent sculptor Peter Klodt, who produced the famous horses on the Anichkov bridge in St. Petersburg, created one of the greatest Russian museums in Staritsa. Its collections were so valuable that before World War II, the museum was included into the World Museum catalogue published in Leipzig. Pushkin’s poems, impromptus and sketches were among especially priceless exhibits in the museum.
For three months in 1941, Staritsa was occupied by the Nazis. The white stone trading stalls, the main street running down to the Volga and the great museum with all its collections were all destroyed. The town was demolished and almost burnt to the ground. So why is the town worth seeing now?
For lovers of Russian antiquity, history, literature and architecture, a trip to Staritsa promises a lot for both hearts and minds. Here you find that unique combination of peace and vastness, slowness and spaciousness, deliberateness and immensity that is peculiar to Russia.