Quick Escape: Six Hours in Sergiev Posad
by Stephen Dewar
One of the enduring tragedies of Napoleon’s conquest of Moscow in 1812 was the destruction of the city by fire. With the exception of the Kremlin churches, few buildings of architectural significance survived the blaze that swept through the city upon Napoleon’s arrival. So to witness the splendor of pre-19th century Russian architecture today, you need to get out of town. Sergiev Posad, an 80-minute drive from Moscow, holds a collection of beautifully preserved churches and 700 years of history.
In the 14th century, Orthodox believers called hesychasts — people who believed they attained direct knowledge of God through a life of asceticism and simple, repeated prayer to Christ — played an important role in the Church. The movement attracted many educated and well-born Russians. Among them was the remarkable Sergei of Radonezh, born in 1314 and for many years a hermit in the forest outside Moscow. Sergei’s reputation for holiness and spiritual wisdom attracted many followers and in 1340 he and his disciples founded the Monastery of the Holy Trinity in present-day Sergiev Posad. By the late 16th century it had become the seat of the Moscow Patriarchate and the center of the Russian Orthodox faith. In 1744 Empress Elizabeth formally named it a lavra, a word derived from Greek denoting a monastery of the first rank. Both the monastery — now called the Holy Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius — and the town, are named for Sergei of Radonezh.
The icon master Andrei Rublyov worked here in the 14th century and some of his icons are still in the Trinity Cathedral. A visitor with only a few hours in Sergiev Posad will head straight for the Trinity and spend some time exploring the more than fifty other structures within the monastery walls. The Cathedral of the Assumption in the center of the lavra is breathtaking, and look for the tomb of Boris Godunov. The museum in the vestry of the of the Trinity Cathedral holds a collection of over 120,000 pieces and is one of the greatest historical repositories in Russia. Founded in 1920 it was used as a safe-keeping place for many of the Church’s treasures during Soviet times — an era of frequent persecution when the town was called Zagorsk.
Sergiev Posad is also where the first matryoshka was created over a century ago by Sergei Malyutin, though legend has it that the inspiration came from dolls made by Sergei of Radonezh himself. Sergiev Posad is a small city with a magnificent history and cultural tradition. Thank goodness Napoleon didn’t get that far.
5 THINGS TO DO
- Visit the Toy Museum. Sergiev Posad has a long history of toy-making — the matryoshka was invented here — and today there are still two functioning toy factories and a special school to train toy craftsmen in the region. Have a quick look around the museum, particularly the second floor, and stop by the gift shop near the entrance to pick up a few very affordable handmade wooden toys for friends.
On Prospekt Krasnoi Armii just south of the lavra, in an elegantly crumbling red brick building on the hilltop. Tel. 8 254 44101. Open Wednesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm, except the last Friday of the month. Entrance 25 rubles.
- Drop in on artists Vadim and Olga Vetlin. This charming and talented couple (with occasional help from their three daughters, all young artists) carves and paints wooden sculptures. The Vetlins live in a rambling old wooden house in the village of Semkhoz two kilometers outside Sergiev Posad, and work there in a second-floor studio. They frequently take commissions from folks living in Moscow for carved and painted mirror frames or statues of historical figures. They also sell small sculptures of babushkas in house dresses (like the one on this page) and other provincial Russian personalities. Vadim and Olga are happy to welcome visitors for a cup of tea and a look around their studio.
Village of Semkhoz, 6 Shkolnaya, Call ahead on 8 254 57003 or mobile 8 916 988 4631.
- Spend the day with Yuri and Svetlana Kurilkin, an enterprising local couple who host foreign visitors for a “Russian day” in Sergiev Posad. They stoke a banya for guests and Sveta’s mom prepares abundant traditional meals — which reportedly are accompanied by a healthy dose of vodka. In the summer, Svetlana leads guests on tours of the lavra (in her eloquent English) and often takes groups to a waterfall outside of town or to visit the estate museum at nearby Abramtsevo. In winter, Yuri organizes troika rides and a bonfire in the snowy woods. A day with Sveta and Yuri is ideal if you have guests visiting from abroad and want to show them “real Russia.”
6 ulitsa Vokzalnaya, Tel. 8 254 21870 or Svetlana’s mobile 8 916 692 8094. Call well in advance as they are often booked on weekends. Cost $60 per person, or $65 if you want to be picked up and dropped off in Moscow by their 14-seat Ford minibus.
- Tour the lavra. Even if you’re not an aficionado of Russian church architecture or a medieval history buff, it’s worth taking a tour of the churches inside the monastery. English- language tours are 250 rubles per person and the monk guides recommend booking ahead. Entrance to the monastery grounds is free. Fork over 160 rubles (40 rubles for Russians) to see the museum of church and state treasures in the vestry behind the Trinity Cathedral — and keep an eye out for Ivan the Terrible’s gold and jewels.
Book tours of the monastery on 8 254 45721. The museum, with 600 years worth of treasures, is at 8 254 45342.
- Have a look around the Art Museum. You’ll find folk art and a noteworthy collection of icons from the 14th century on — but also special exhibits by local artists. Sergiev Posad, and Abramtsevo 15 kilometers away, produces an impressive number of artists and many of the more talented ones show their work here.
On the monastery grounds behind the Cathedral of the Assumption. Tickets are 120 rubles.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
If you can, avoid the tour group hordes (and paying Moscow prices) at the restaurant Russky Dvorik just opposite the monastery at 134 Prospekt Krasnoi Armii. Instead, take a 15-minute walk to Traktir, a misnamed quaint cafe serving lunch and dinner to mostly locals at 197/2 Prospekt Krasnoi Armii. Stop for coffee or a beer at Cafe Podval, which is indeed in a basement at 138 Prospect Krasnoi Armii. It has a mock-Soviet- nostalgia interior including maps showing the largest construction projects in the USSR from 1971-1975 as placemats.
There’s one decent hotel in Sergiev Posad: three-star Tatar-owned Russky Dvorik tucked behind the restaurant by the same name at 14/2 Mitkina. The hotel’s 10 rooms, many furnished in “provincial Russian style,” range from $70 to $120 a night. Reservations recommended at 8 254 75392.
HOW TO GET THERE
If you’re traveling by car, leave the city via Prospekt Mira and then take Yaroslavskoe highway. It’s an 80-minute trip. Elektrichki, run about every 25 minutes from Yaroslavsky train station at metro Komsomolskaya. Buy your ticket for 52 rubles inside the station at one of the Prigorodnie kassy windows. No need to buy tickets ahead of time.