The Cradle of Russia: Frozen in the Golden Ring
Story by Antonia Malchik

A writer who occasionally visited her parents' native home of Russia as a child sets off on an independent trip from the capital to the land of her father in the dead of winter.

Vladimir at dawn

The cold slapped my uncovered face. A small, steep hill shadowed the train that had brought me 125 miles from Moscow to Vladimir. From the top, sun glanced off a gold church spire, the steeple an anomaly in a countryside pocked with Russian Orthodox onion domes.

"Excuse me," I said to a scarf-swathed woman who was waddling toward the hill, her hips constricted by a quilted coat, "Can you tell me where the bus station is?"

The woman tilted her head at the sound of my accent, which seemed to have deteriorated over the years. "Of course, dyevushka," she said, showing a crooked collection of gold teeth.

Dyevushka: How many more years would Russians call me "girl?" The woman gripped my upper arm and turned me toward the hill. Her red, rough hands were bare, even in minus ten Fahrenheit.

"Where are you going?" she asked.


"Ah, Suzdal," and she went off in a stream of high-pitched, enthusiastic Russian. Even among Russia's Golden Ring villages, Suzdal's beauties were exceptional.

On my bookshelves at home, burrowed between Lonely Planet guides and a tattered Dostoevsky, is a pretty, hardbound book titled Around the Golden Ring of Russia. The pamphlet-sized book was printed in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and its English translation is written in elegant, classic language that reminds me of the kind of newspaper snippets my Louisiana-born great-grandmother used to glue into her scrapbook during the Edwardian era: "Miss Elinor Whitehouse writes to her sister from the Alps of Switzerland," where Miss Whitehouse uses lots of semi-colons and curly adjectives to describe the local cathedral. Semi-colons abound in this little book, which calls Russia's Golden Ring "a metaphor charged with meaning."

Spaced at intervals of around 40 miles, the Golden Ring villages cover over 600 miles northeast of Moscow. Their diminutive centers and numerous onion-domed churches bear the weight of Russian history during the time of Mongol invasions, when Moscow was only a frontier outpost. These towns had their own princes, their own kremlins, and their fierce struggles for power. "Here," says my little book, "is the cradle of Russia."

I was in my father's country. His people, his history. Born in the Ural Mountains toward the end of the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, he'd left the Soviet Union in the early 1970s with my American mother and wasn't allowed back for almost twenty years. I was fourteen the first time I stepped off a train in a slushy Moscow March, fourteen the first time I met my grandmother, who spoke no English. Fourteen when I first learned to string together letters in Cyrillic and eat roasted sunflower seeds sold by an old babushka, who poured them into a newspaper cone while sitting on an upturned bucket. Fourteen when I fell in love with this country and discovered a yearning to belong to it, along with the aching sense that I never would.

author's father Russia

When I think of this ache, this desire, I am reminded of the day we left the Soviet Union, shortly before Yeltsin's coup in 1991. We were riding the train back to Helsinki, the first leg of a journey retracing, for my younger sister and me, American lives that had splintered. At the border before entering Finland, Soviet guards boarded the train to collect customs documents, and, inevitably, loot. From our compartment they confiscated a necklace of twisted gold, which a Finnish businessman had been bringing back for his wife. My mother had wanted to help him hide it in an empty chocolate bar wrapper, but he gambled on honesty and lost.

In another room down the corridor, a Russian woman had been playing her violin on and off for hours. My last memory of the Soviet Union, before the train crossed the border, was of the woman standing in the dusty field, hands outstretched, crying, as the guards walked away with her violin.

That had been over half a lifetime ago, but that image pops up every time the yearning to belong creeps over me. Her hands outstretched in a desperate plea.

Saint Dimitry in Valimir

To the Golden Ring in Winter

By the time I made the trip to Suzdal, my parents were divorced and remarried, my father living full-time in Moscow. I had always, since I was a child, seen this country through the filter of others, first through my parents' rare and spare stories that didn't fully fit in our small-town Montana life, then later slingshotting between Moscow and St. Petersburg, visiting family and favorite museums, and stopping at little in between.

Spending all of my time in these two cities skewed impressions of this gigantic bear of a land: experience became dominated by the murders of bankers and human rights activists, the Mafiosi and corrupt policemen badgering my father's small Moscow-based coffee roasting company, and the hive like structure of life in a city filled with thousands of fifties-era apartment buildings. But there is life and rhythm and struggle spread all along its vast breadth, no matter how tightly Moscow and St. Petersburg try to gather the skirts of the land closely to their waists.

View in Moscow

I owed Russia the courtesy of getting to know something more than those two cities: Moscow, the glitz-crazed and poverty-riddled capital; and St. Petersburg, the European-style metropolis whose design remained stamped with a bygone era.

My father and his wife couldn't see why I needed to go, especially on my own. "Wait until the weekend," said my stepmother. "We will get someone from our office to go with you." An option that defied the point. I wanted to know the land, at least one wrinkle of it, for myself.

Although, if I were being truthful, what I really wanted was for it to know me. To accept me as one of its own.

After purloining Around the Golden Ring of Russia from my father's bookshelves, I finally chose Suzdal, a shred of a village that the little Soviet guidebook described as the pride of Russia, with over thirty churches, several monasteries, and fantastical, ornate architecture.

I spent the morning bundled on a train heated only by equally bundled commuters. A group on the padded bench across the aisle downed several liters of Polish beer and a bottle of vodka. I gave up turning the pages of my Russian detective novel with gloved fingers; a shot of vodka didn't seem such a bad idea.

Russian trains and busses rarely announce stops, but their timing is still exact, decades after drivers and conductors stopped being shot for arriving as much as a minute late. A fact that would have helped more if I'd remembered to check the time of arrival. As the train neared the three-hour mark, I began asking the woman across from me, each time we slowed, "Is this Vladimir?" After the third time she said, shortly, "I'm getting off at Vladimir, too. I'll tell you when we arrive."

"Spasibo," I mumbled, and we stared out the window like lovers having a tiff until the train slowed once again. "This is Vladimir," she said finally. I followed her off the train and around the blocky suburban station, heading to the bus terminal for a bus to Suzdal.

The Superlatives of Suzdal

Boar hunting carvings in FranceIn the twelfth century, the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality was the seat of powerful Kievan princes and the dynasties they founded. Trade routes and political battles centered on these towns. Even little Suzdal was, for a time, the capital of Mother Russia. My guidebook didn't tell much of the towns' dramatic histories. A Soviet publication, it focused on the details of architecture and the progress of collective farms and factories. The authors found it hard, however, to contain their enthusiasm for Suzdal, "heir to the Kiev of the great princes...mother of the Russian cities."

The abrupt warmth of Vladimir's bus station turned the immense timetable covering one entire wall blurry in my glasses. Vladimir's small train and bus stations were nodes reaching out to the villages and factory districts sprinkled among the enormity of Siberia, connecting them to Moscow's fist. I craned my neck to find Suzdal among the seemingly thousands of listings marching down the wall in small print.

Russia has never been adept at making life easy for foreigners. Read any history book, or one on Russian culture or philosophy, and you'll find a steady theme of xenophobia and mistrust. The Russian soul, it is said, has never recovered from the oppression of the Mongol Hordes, the ravaging Batu Khan and his armies. Russians have had a horror of invasion and encirclement since the 1200s. The transportation network isn't run for the ease of foreigners, but rather seems designed to keep their movements confused and hampered.

While I tried to decipher the faded wall of bus timetables, I fought off petty fears of my own inability to travel alone without getting hopelessly lost. I couldn't remember feeling like this when, say, I had been in Turkey in my early twenties. My friends and I had unloaded ourselves at Istanbul airport at one in the morning with no plan, no guide, no idea what we were going to do next, and rather under-dressed for March. Clueless, planless, and sadly sweater-less in snowy Istanbul, I never worried about where to go, what to do, or how to accomplish those ends.

That was years ago. Now, here I was, alone in the frozen Russian countryside—appropriately dressed but still cold—and somewhere in the interim I had picked up a load of anxieties that I feared would find me spending the day huddled in the warm hotel with a novel.

I finally bought a ticket to Suzdal and boarded a truncated bus that looked like something dragged out of Eastern European trenches. Not much different from Russian roads in winter. I tapped my fingers together as the driver swore at the ignition. On his third try the bus jerked to life. Purple tinsel swayed over his seat. The bus pulled toward the outskirts of Vladimir's bread factory district.

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