Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Golden Ring of Russia

Christianity came to Russian in 998 AD and enjoyed an almost a thousand-year reign before the Communists introduced and successfully converted the vast majority of the populace to “scientific atheism.” Of which I happen to be a follower.

Unfortunately, as it always happens during turbulent times, the mutinous masses took to physical destruction of everything church-related: buildings, statues, artifacts, even culinary recipes perfected by monks over hundreds of years. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, together with the Kremlin monasteries and other numerous parish churches, fell victim to the communists' use of dynamite on objects of beauty. Russian Orthodox clergy refused to pledge loyalty to the Soviet regime. Many bishops and priests immigrated to Yugoslavia to set up a Russian Orthodox Church in exile. Most of those who stayed met their deaths in Stalin's labor camps where even Jesus was unable to save them. More than one generation was raised “godless,” snubbing all things religious. For them, the desecrated and ravaged church edifices were nothing but a bunch of broken old shacks.

During Gorbachev's perestroika, the pendulum slowly started swinging the other way. The abandoned monasteries were recognized as national assets and historical treasures. Millions of rubles and dollars were raised for restoration projects. Thousands of artists and historians were employed to restore the places of worship to their original glory. 
Encircling Moscow like a necklace, the twelve ancient cities form an open air museum boasting their recently restored monuments of Russian architecture, including kremlins, monasteries, churches and the famous Tzar Bell, the traditional Russian orthodox structures differ in design from their Greek counterparts and European cathedrals – they feature unique onion-shaped domes that usually come in fives: a larger bulbous form in the center and four smaller ones around it. The theories of the onion origin range from the artistic, “the Mongolian influence,” to the utilitarian, “a shape that prevents snow from piling on the roof.” Often churches were surrounded by massive walls inside which the villagers would hide from potential enemies.

Unlike Italy, Russia hadn’t been blessed with white marble but instead had plenty of trees, which is why the majority of its churches have wooden exterior and numerous wooden icons. Gold is often the prevailing color as it is thought to resemble the Heavenly Kingdom. Most Russian Orthodox churches have an iconostasis, which separates the nave from the holy altar. Covered with icons, the iconostasis is meant to impress the worshippers with its beauty and enable them to achieve spiritual divinity. The ceilings often portray Christ as a Pantocrator – The Ruler of All.


While the divinity aspect permanently fails on me, the beauty of the ancient Russian places of worship is unforgettable. A few years ago, we, as a family, took a four-day bus tour visiting the golden dozen one by one. We learned a lot about architecture, history, and the art of painting icons. We savored the hearty monastery food and drank medovuha (honey wine) in a local brewery. We also took about a thousand pictures. I hope you enjoy them. There is a reason why Jeffrey Tayler of the Atlantic Monthly once called The Golden Ring “a respite from the capital and an immersion in the past.” It is a rich and artful past, which for many transforms into a mystifying and heavenly present.

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