Monday, September 06, 2010

Russia, Day 2: Uglich

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I've been swamped with work since my return from Russia, so I'm just now getting down to going through my photos.

When I last left you, we had just finished our first full day in Russia and were on a boat heading away from Moscow on the Volga River, as part of a tour of the Golden Ring, a circle of medieval towns on the Volga River northeast of Moscow.

I resume now with our second full day. After nearly 24 hours of traveling on the boat, we reached our first stop on the Golden Ring, the town of Uglich, at 12:45 PM. Founded possibly as early as the 10th century but certainly by 1148, Uglich was an important town in medieval times. It is now a quiet, charming town of about 40,000, about 150 miles north of Moscow.

In the photo above, you can see Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) as we gathered at the door to disembark.

We (or, more precisely, the Metropolitan and the rest of us) enjoyed a fantastic welcome from the local church of Uglich. Our entire trip had been meticulously planned both by the Friends of Mount Athos' organizers and the Patriarchate of Moscow, of which we were guests.

The planning and hospitality were immediately apparent at our reception. The bishop and then the rest of us were greeting with bread and salt by a traditionally dressed young girl (see the photo above). Each of us took a turn ripping off a small piece of the loaf, dipping it in the little bowl of salt, and eating it.

The bishop was also given flowers, while a live band played traditional music as we got off the boat (see photo above).

Since our group of 60 was so big, we were split into two groups. The first stop for my group was the Museum of Modern Orthodox Art. The main exhibit at this small museum was the work of the recently reposed Fr. Sergei Simakov, who spent the last 15 years of his life as a parish priest in Uglich. His work focused on religious themes and combined elements of secular art with elements of icon painting. For example, the figures in the painting would be painted in an iconographic style, but the rest of the painting would be in a secular style. I noted here his large painting of St. Sergius of Radonezh blessing Dimitry Donskoy to go fight the Tartars at the Battle of Kulikovo, and giving him two monks to help him. This, I noticed throughout our trip, was a very common theme in the popular imagination.

Our next stop was the picturesque Church of St. Dimitry "on the Blood," a colorful church sitting on the banks of the Volga River. You can see it in the photos above and below. The church you see dates to 1692, but a church has been on that spot since the death in 1591 of the Passion Bearer St. Dimitry, the 7-year-old son of Ivan the Terrible, and the last scion of the Rurik dynasty.

This was a pivotal event in Russian history, as it marked the beginning of great uncertainty and unrest over claims to the throne, known as the infamous "Time of Troubles."

What probably happened is that Boris Godunov, brother-in-law and regent for Ivan the Terrible's older son, Feodor, had the boy killed in a grab for power. The young boy was found with his throat slit on this spot in Uglich. The plan worked, as Godunov was able to assume the throne in the vacuum created by the end of the dynasty. Official investigators, sent by Godunov, determined the boy had accidentally fallen on a knife and slit his own throat.

This is a fascinating event in Russian history, which gave rise to not one, but three successive Dimitry impersonators, all of whom claimed some other little boy had been killed instead while they were whisked away in the night.

Inside, the church was decorated with large, very baroque 18th century murals of the Creation of the World, and Adam and Eve's banishment from Paradise, which featured many Renaissance-style nudes. Apparently, this was the inspiration of Catherine the Great. The church was only used three times a year--on St. Dimitry's birthday, his day of death, and the day of his canonization.

Next we stopped at a church dedicated to the Theophany. During the Soviet period, its domes were removed and it was turned into a movie theater showing adult films. (I noticed throughout this trip that the communists were very creative in finding ways to dishonor the Church.) The people, however, seemed to feel this was a step too far, and the church was quickly turned into a museum, which seemed to be the standard solution during the Soviet period.

It is still today a museum. We went in and were treated to a wonderful free mini-concert from a singing group of 6 young men, who sang 4-part versions of the Lord's Prayer and one other traditional piece. The bass voice was remarkable and incredibly low. The group then sells its CDs afterwards to support itself.

We then went next door to visit the prince's wooden palace, which now serves as a museum. Perhaps the most interesting exhibit was that related to a local saint. Here we saw the small coffin he had carved for himself, as well as some of his possessions, which you can see in the photos above and below. These include, above, a long cord with small, hard, and very sharp knobs that was apparently used for self-flagellation. Below we see the heavy iron vest that the saint wore under his clothes as an added burden. It weighs 35 pounds.

Next we walked over to the nearby Cathedral of the Transfiguration which was built in 1713 (see photo above). Its, interior, again, was decorated in a baroque style.

So far, all we had seen was within the city's kremlin. I had always associated this word with "the" Kremlin in Moscow, but apparently it just means "castle." Each ancient city had its own fortified city center. The walls of Uglich's kremlin are no longer visible, but we were still able to see many of its buildings. The local clergy representative who was accompanying us, Igumen Nikolai, then took us to his parish, a very tall and narrow steeple church dedicated to both the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the icon of Our Lady of Kazan (besides the parish church on the bottom floor, there is also a second, smaller chapel directly above it on the second floor of this very tall church.) There we venerated several wonderworking icons of the Mother of God, which the local hold very dear. Interestingly, they varied greatly in style and date--one being an old, Byzantine style icon and another being a very baroque icon from the 19th century.

We were then taken a bit out of town to the men's monastery of the Resurrection. After this whirlwind of sights and sounds, the monastery was a welcome relief. They provided us with a tea break, featuring sweet tea, a slightly alcoholic black currant juice, and various pastries. They also had locally made jam, which one is supposed to put into one's mouth plain, and then drink the tea through the jam. Or at least this is what one person who seemed to know told us.

After our tea, we saw a bit of the monastery, which, like most church buildings in Russia, was only recently turned back over to the church. Built in 1674-1677, there is a lot of physical renovation going on now. There is also a need, of course, to restock its monastic population. The enormous monastery now has only four monks, but 10 novices. Above is a photo from inside the courtyard of the monastery.

Our next stop was the Alexeyevski Women's Monastery, founded in 1371 by St. Alexei, Metropolitan of Moscow. The monastery was renamed in honor of its founder after the latter's canonization. Above is a photo of one of the churches that the lively abbess, Mother Miropiya, took us to see. This enormous monastery, again, was just recently returned to the Church, and is now undergoing extensive renovation. There are currently 10 nuns.

On the way back into Uglich, there was a stop at a bank so that people could exchange money. In front of us, we saw the (again enormous) Theophany Women's Monastery, which is (again) being renovated. It currently does not have its own nuns, but is being operated by the 10 nuns from the St. Alexei Monastery we just visited. This fortified monastery occupies half of a central city block in the modern city of Uglich, and has three churches, dating from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, respectively.

We then had a little free time in the modern town of Uglich, which most of us used to stock up on necessities. In the photo above, you can see two of the good friends I made on the trip--my fellow Americans Steve and Mother Nectaria (McLees), editor of the Road to Emmaus journal--as we made our way across the street to get supplies for the boat. Most importantly, Mother Nectaria found a small electric water kettle with which we Americans were able to have decent American-style filtered coffee on the boat. :)

We got back to our boat around 7:00 PM and sailed off immediately for our next destination. Above is a photo of Uglich as we sailed away. The red church on the left is the St. Dimitry on the Blood Church, while the church to the right is the Transfiguration Cathedral we visited.

That, then, is the close of my second full day in Russia. We were fortunate to have a small room at the bow (front) of the boat with big glass windows. We met there, and Metropolitan Kallistos led morning and evening prayers there. This was the scene as we said evening prayers that night.

For more photos from the second day, click here.

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