For the May holidays, I was lucky enough to be invited by my former roommate to spend a few days in her hometown of Veliky Novgorod. It would be my first time travelling outside of Moscow with a Russian companion, and I was looking forward to the kinds of experiences I would have travelling with someone who is more intimate with the area and the culture than I am. I was not let down; my visit to this ancient city was everything that I had hoped for.
Novgorod may not be the most exciting tourist destination, given its small, sleepy, and provincial nature, but after months of fast-paced life in Moscow the idea of going to such a place was very appealing to me. I turned out to be not the only person who felt this way. Leaving Moscow in any direction on the first day of the May holidays is a major headache, but the motorway to St. Petersburg was especially busy. Somewhere in the Tver region, the traffic jam became so bad that our friend who was driving decided to take a short cut by leaving the motorway and driving on the narrow, unpaved roads that wound through the surrounding countryside. In some places the road would go through tiny villages with wooden houses and chickens roaming about, and in others it would completely disappear as it passed through a freshly plowed field. I couldn’t stop looking out the window at the passing sights, and taking in everything I could about this unique detour.
When we finally got to Novgorod, I was ready to see the sights. I had taken a medieval Russian literature class a couple semesters before, so I was already familiar with some of the history behind this ancient city. We visited the kremlin first and my friend began to tell me all of the stories she knew. She pointed out the bird resting on a cross on top of the Cathedral of St. Sophia, which upon seeing the brutality of battle involving Ivan the Terrible and his oprichniki, turned to stone out of grief. As we walked along the top of the kremlin wall, I looked down into the deep ditch that once served as a moat, and my friend told me that in the winter this is a popular spot for sledding. We finished our explorations of the city across the Volkhov River where many old churches stand. My favorite by far was the Church of St. Parasceva, built in 1207. The main church building has been preserved and through the old brick walls snake narrow passageways that are fun to explore.
Not all of Novgorod’s places of interest are located within the city. The next day we took a bus out to Vitoslavlitsy Village Museum. Here, amid the birch tree forests along the shores of the Volkhov, wooden churches, houses, and storage buildings are preserved to show how Russians of old used to live. Some of the interiors of the houses were set up to reflect how they may have looked in different seasons. There were many ingenious tools that the villagers made out of only the materials available to them that helped them survive many warm summers and cold winters. Inside one of the churches, a group of male singers sang old folk songs. Later, we took a boat down the river, passing the beautiful St. George’s monastery, to Prince Rurik’s Hill Fort. This is the location of the “old city”, to which Novgorod is considered new. It was here that Rurik became the first ruler of a Russian state. The crumbling brick ruins of the Cathedral of the Annunciation are not closed off to the public, so visitors are free to walk around and touch this thousand-year-old monument.
My time in Novgorod was very special. I felt like I was transported back in time to when Russia was young. Living in Moscow, I have grown to appreciate the Russian culture that exists today, but by visiting Novgorod, I feel like I learned a lot more about the foundations of this culture. I highly recommend doing as I did and experiencing this history firsthand.
Kat Alberti came to Moscow from the University of Texas at Austin. During the May holidays, Kat’s Russian friend invited her to come along on an adventurous journey. Kat had taken a medieval Russian literature class so she was prepared for Russian peculiarities. Visiting Veliky Novgorod gave Kat an opportunity to feel the foundations of Russian culture. Kat shares her experience of exploring the city and recommends to go there and to discover how Russians of old used to live.