A Russian Switzerland
By Anton Razmakhnin
Zvenigorod, once the tsar's house of prayer, is now becoming glamorous home resort for Russian elite
When one wakes up too late on Saturday or Sunday morning, Zvenigorod is one of a few Moscow suburban towns where a wannabe province explorer can still salvage the day. It is just a one hour drive from Moscow via the New Riga highway, which is among the best motorways in the country, so one can catch the sun still shining. Though Zvenigorod cannot boast the same aura as a totally preserved historic place (like Tarusa, Rostov or Yelets), visiting the town can somehow suggest historically and philosophically-bound thoughts.
Zvenigorod is not too far from Moscow - in fact, it is very close. It was even in medieval times, due to its location on the Moscow River that enabled easy travel. Its prime location has dictated the town's lifestyle since Moscow emerged as the center of power - but chances are that Zvenigorod is even older than Moscow itself.
At least, notes on its foundation have not yet been discovered in medieval chronicles. What is, however, well-known is that the name Zvenigorod (literally "bell-town") was derived from one of the ancient Russian towns that existed near Kiev before the fateful Tartar invasions of 1230-40s. That is actually the way princes of northern Russian lands made their principalities "familiar" to them, born and brought up in Kiev. Anyway, the town was founded before 1237 and was initially a small fortress on a small hill now called "Gorodok," i.e. the Town.
Naturally, Zvenigorod had its own Kremlin, a small fortress of ground and wood with several towers. The ground walls still exist, and you can even still walk on them. In the middle of the fortress stood a small, wooden cathedral. Later, in about 1400, the stone Assumption cathedral was built here by Prince Yuri: Zvenigorod for several decades became an independent principality. This cathedral is now the oldest and the most interesting sight of Zvenigorod, one of the earliest artifacts of Moscow architectural styling. On one hand, its white one-domed body with several circular arches on top of it is characteristic for all Russia, and the proportions resemble older churches of Vladimir and Suzdal; on the other hand, some decoration elements seem to be borrowed from the West, e.g. semi-columns on the facade. It's quite a surprising thing to see in Russia half a century before Italians were invited to erect and decorate the imperial Moscow Kremlin, but there thy are. Inside, there are fragments of paintings mad
e by Andrei Rublev, the most famous Russian medieval painter. Unfortunately, many of the frescos by Rublev were mostly eliminated during numerous interior repaintings.
As time went on, Zvenigorod became an integral part of the Moscow state and by the beginning of the 17th century it lost its military value. Moreover, river traffic was also down considerably, as good roads to the West were built.
Zvenigorod was quite a miserable sight at the time, but faith was the force that saved the town. Literally - that was initially the faith of Savva, disciple of St. Sergius of Radonezh, and later confessor to the Russian tsars.
As the 17th century was the golden age of state-bound Orthodoxy, Zvenigorod returned to glory thanks to the monastery of St. Savva. The proximity to Moscow made it possible for tsars and boyars to easily travel here, just like they could to the more famous monastery of St. Sergius in Sergiev Posad. The individual preference of each tsar decided which they preferred. Alexei Mihailovich "The Quietest," for example, preferred St. Savva's. He was a frequent guest here, and even a special small palace was built for him within the walls of the monastery.
Today the ensemble of Savva's Storozhevsky monastery, created in the time of Alexei Mikhailovich, is the most visited sight of Zvenigorod.
To see it, one should drive a bit beyond the town; after having parked, walk atop the hill (yes, it requires some physical exertion) and enter the monastery. So far, the collections of the local museum are still located in the premises, but soon they will be moved and the monastery will become solely a monastery again.
The oldest building of St. Savva's is the church of Holy Virgin's Nativity (1405). Among other objects to see, the palaces of tsar and his wife should be mentioned, carefully restored to their state of 17th century. The characteristic feature of them is their bright colourful decoration; in fact, there is something existentially interesting in placing tsar's palace within the walls of a monastery.
Last but not least, the walls and towers of St. Savva's are worth paying special attention. Note that the gate closest to the bottom of the hill (and the parking place) is always closed, as this is the entrance for Tsar and Patriarch. In fact, the modern versions of both are still paying visits here, so the gate is open several times a year.
Others also wish to make this area home. Dachas and luxurious cottages erected here make many say Zvenigorod is a kind of "Russian Switzerland." Whether that's an apt description, the place is pretty enough to visit. The only thing you shouldn't search for here is the aura of untouched history.