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Road to Suzdal
Shot history of the town
Historic buildings

To the right on the sloping meadows along the little river Mzhara we can see a large number of small burial mounds, for this was Suzdal's cemetery in the early days. Under these mounds are buried the people who lived in Suzdal in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries at the time of Yuri Dolgoruky and his grandson Georgi and built the town's ancient ramparts and beautiful cathedral.

Although the proud Suzdal boyars held that their town, the bastion of their power and source of their wealth, was older than Vladimir, the two towns actually appeared about the same time. Suzdal grew up on the fertile arable land which attracted Russian settlers to these parts who founded many villages here in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

A number of these old settlements, which abounded along the banks of the Kamenka, a tributary of the Nerl, formed the basis of what was later to become the town of Suzdal. Traces of them have been found during exca­vations on the site of the Suzdal kremlin and elsewhere. The peasants who came here from the Smolensk and Novgorod areas in search of land and a free life did not enjoy these blessings for long: here, too, they and their lands quickly fell into the hands of rich men, themselves formerly peasants, who helped the tribute-collectors from the Kievan princes to carry off the fruits of the peasants' labours. As early as 1024 there was a peasant uprising "throughout these lands" led by the pagan priests, against those who were attempting to impose a feudal order on this previously free community. The extent of this rebellion was so great that the Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise came in person to suppress it with his men. The name of Suzdal occurs for the first time in the account of this event. It is, however, clear from the account that Suzdal referred to an area rather than an actual town.

In 1054 the lands of Rostov and Suzdal became part of the possessions of Prince Vsevolod, the son of Yaro­slav the Wise, and this brought an increasing number of boyars from the south who deprived the hitherto free peasants of their land and liberty. The Prince's men-at-arms began to settle in the area and soon afterwards the Church started to establish its authority there. This period saw the introduction of Christianity in these parts. A bishopric was established in Rostov, but at the beginning of the 1070s a new, even stronger wave of popular uprisings broke out over the whole of the Volga region right up to the area around Lake Beloye in the north, during the course of which the first bishop of Rostov, Leontius, was killed.

Shortly afterwards, at the end of the eleventh century, the first wave of bitter internecine struggles broke out between the feudal princes for possession of the rich northeast lands which had been allotted to Vladimir Monomach. By that time Suzdal already possessed a royal residence. Prince Oleg forced his way into Suzdal from the Klyazma, which was still unfortified, and set fire to the "town" (i.e., the wooden fortifications). All that survived on the other side of the River Kamenka was the residence for visitors from the Monastery of the Caves in Kiev and its wooden Church of St. Dmitri.

These events accelerated the transformation of the small settlements along the River Kamenka into a forti­fied town. It was placed at a sharp bend in the river where the population was most dense. A deep moat was cut across the isthmus turning the river loop into an island, the edges of which were fortified with earth ram­parts topped by wooden walls.

We do not know the exact date when the fortress was built, but it was evidently at the very end of the twelfth century when Vladimir Monomach erected the first non-wooden buildings in the northeast lands here -the large brick Cathedral of the Assumption and the royal residence beside it. Suzdal also appears to have been the capital of the lands ruled over by Vladimir's son, Yuri Dolgoruky. It was visited by envoys and mer­chants and attacked by hostile armies. In 1107 the Volga Bulgars were put to flight beneath the walls of the fortress.

The new fortress was heavily populated. The ordinary townsfolk lived huddled together in dug-outs with roofs raised above ground level that gave them the ap­pearance of the burial mounds in the cemetery. Among these hovels rose the timbered mansions of the rich in­habitants, and the whole fortress was dominated by the cathedral and the royal residence, which must have seemed very imposing in comparison with the other dwellings. The sharp divisions in feudal society were vividly highlighted in the old Suzdal fortress.

The fortress had three gates. The posad grew up grad­ually outside the Ilynsky Gates in the eastern ramparts, bounded on the east by the small river Gremyachka. On the high bank where the Gremyachka joined the Ka-menka stood a twelfth-century monastery dedicated to St. Cosmas and St. Damian, the patron saints of black­smiths. The north side of the posad was protected by an artificial moat which almost joined the Kamenka with the Gremyachka. Shortly before the Mongol inva­sion the posad, which covered an area twice that of the fortress, was surrounded by earth ramparts with a very strong timber stockade containing three main gates. In 1207 the Convent of the Deposition of the Robe was erected outside the northern gates. The second entrance led to the source of the Gremyachka, and through the southern gates passed the road to Yuri Dolgoruky's residence in the village of Kideksha, where a fortified castle with its own white stone church was erected in 1152 near the mouth of the Kamenka only a few years before Andrei Bogolyubsky built a similar castle at Bogolyubovo.

The growing power of the prince presented a serious challenge to the rich boyars of Suzdal, but a third force was also beginning to emerge in the form of the ordi­nary townspeople. After Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky was killed by the boyars in 1174, the townspeople supported his successors in their struggle against the boyars. Dur­ing the reign of Vsevolod III and his successor Georgi the town was re-fortified (1192) and the old cathedral built by Vladimir Monomach was first repaired and sub­sequently completely re-built (1222-1225). As we shall see later, this building shows very clear traces of indi­genous styles and traditions which heralded the subse­quent flowering of the arts in the Vladimir lands.

In February 1238 Suzdal was captured and burnt by the Mongols, but the town managed to survive this disaster and by 1262 its inhabitants were able to support an heroic, but futile uprising against the invaders by the towns of northeast Russia. A number of new monasteries grew up around the town in the thirteenth century. The Trinity Monastery was founded in the north not far from the Convent of the Deposition of the Robe. On the high bank of the Kamenka in the northwest the Monas­tery of St. Alexander appeared, traditionally associated with the name of Alexander Nevsky. Then there was the Monastery of the Presentation in the south on a bend in the river Mzhara and the Monastery of St. Basil in the east on the Kamenka. This increased number of monas­teries shows that even after being devastated by the Mongols the arable land around Suzdal was still rich enough to attract the attention of the Church which seized it from the peasants. At the same time the loca­tion of the monasteries at strategic vantage points around the town suggests that their wooden stockades served as defensive outposts for the town fortress.

Suzdal grew in importance in the fourteenth century, when the Suzdal-Nizhny Novgorod principality enjoyed a brief period of power. The capital of the principality was the rich town of Nizhny Novgorod on the Volga, but Suzdal also continued to expand and acquire new buildings. In the middle of the fourteenth century the Nizhny Novgorod princes Boris and Andrei founded the Convent of the Intercession on the low-lying right bank of the Kamenka and the Monastery of Our Saviour on the steep left bank immediately opposite. The latter was subsequently renamed Spaso-Yevfimiev after its first abbot Yevfimi was canonised. Both of them reinforced the town's northern defences.

None of their original buildings has survived, since they were constructed entirely of wood. However they did mark the extreme limits of the town, beyond which it has hardly spread to this very day, and also provided sites for the splendid architectural ensembles erected in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

A few isolated facts suggest that the cultural life of the town revived somewhat in the fourteenth century. In 1377 the famous Laurentian chronicle was compiled by the monk Lavrenti at the order of Dionisi, bishop of Suzdal and Nizhny Novgorod, who also had icons and other precious objects brought from Constantinople to Suzdal. In 1383 he commissioned a magnificent canopy richly decorated with niello work, enamel and gold. Specimens of icons from the Suzdal monasteries show this art to have been highly developed, drawing on the traditions of the pre-Mongol period and making an impor­tant contribution to the flourishing art of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Russia.

After the collapse of the Suzdal-Nizhny Novgorod principality in 1392 Suzdal ceased to play an active po­litical role and entered a period of decline. The old cathe­dral collapsed in 1445 and was allowed to stand in ruins for more than eighty years. Lying off the main trade routes, the town with its many monasteries retained im­portance only as a religious centre which, together with Vladimir, had contributed a great deal to the cultural and political traditions of the new Russian capital Mos­cow. The church authorities were constantly creating new saints, and discovering new sacred relics belonging to local saints in order to increase their hold on the credulous populace. During the fifteenth and sixteenth cen­turies the monasteries were richly endowed with land by the Moscow rulers and nobility. Their possessions en­circled the town on all sides. Large stretches of land on the outskirts were named after the monasteries. Their sacristies became full of precious jewelry and metal-work which are the pride of many a museum today. As early as the first half of the sixteenth century large stone buildings were erected in the Convent of the Interces­sion, the Convent of the Deposition of the Robe and the Spaso-Yevfimiev Monastery. This revival of stone archi­tecture in Suzdal was a reflection not only of the grow­ing wealth of the monasteries, but of the increasing im­portance of towns and urban trades in general, including building. Moscow builders came to Suzdal and set up a brick-kiln on the banks of the Kamenka instructing the local builders in the making and use of brick. The town's sixteenth-century architecture demonstrates an original fusion of Muscovite and old Suzdalian styles.

Its importance as a religious centre was increased by the fact that it became the centre of the rich Suzdal bishopric in the fourteenth century, which was turned into an archbishopric at the end of the sixteenth. The bishop's residence and a new episcopal stone church stood in the kremlin next to the rebuilt cathedral.

During the sixteenth century urban dwellings spread out to the west of the kremlin on the opposite side of the Kamenka where there were a number of monaste­ries. The kremlin itself now had fifteen towers and seven wooden churches, five of which stood along the eastern ramparts. Together with the cathedral, which still re­mained the town's largest building, the tent-shaped spires of the fortress towers and the tall silhouettes of the wooden churches formed the architectural heart of the town.

Inside the ramparts of the posad there were another fourteen wooden churches concentrated mainly in the centre. There were five churches almost in a row on the market place. Two more stood at the north gates, two at the east gates, and groups of two and three by the Ilyinsky Gates leading into the kremlin. In addition to these buildings in the kremlin and posad there were the monasteries around the town with their twenty-seven churches. The plan in 111. 60 gives one a good idea of the amazing number of monasteries and churches in this comparatively small town. In 1573 Suzdal possessed only 414 homesteads. No other old Russian town had such a high proportion of church buildings. It is interest­ing that as late as the seventeenth century the religious habits of these comparatively few inhabitants showed strong traces of pagan traditions. Weddings took place at night and the parents of the bride and groom brought food and wine into the church itself where the wedding feast was held. Dancing and singing went on until morn­ing with the clergy taking part.

Suzdal suffered heavily during the Polish invasion of 1608-1610 which left only 78 homesteads in the posad. In 1634 the Crimean Tartars looted the town, and in 1644 the section of the posad adjoining the kremlin was completely destroyed by fire. Finally, in 1654-1655, half the town's population of 2,467 was wiped out by the plague. But the townspeople suffered almost equally from the tyrannical oppression of the church. A petition from the Suzdal tanners describes how Archbishop Jo­seph sent a band of boyars one dark night in 1630 to rob the tannery and steal hides from the river. The wives and children of the tanners started to ring the bells of the nearest churches and the alarm brought the towns­people rushing into the streets. "That's a fine thing you're doing, robbing your own townspeople," they shouted only to be threatened with the loss of their homes and their heads into the bargain. It is small wonder that the town hardly grew at all: the number of home­steads increased by only one hundred in the seventeenth century.

In spite of this poverty and stagnation a new phase of building started in the 1630s. Not surprisingly this was initiated mainly by the bishop and the monasteries using their vast resources of wealth and unpaid serf labour, but the townspeople in the posad also began to erect their own buildings.

During the seventeenth century the magnificent stone buildings of the mighty bell-tower and huge Archbi­shop's Palace were erected by the kremlin cathedral. In 1645 a Moscow architect, Nikifor Beklemishev, pro­vided the kremlin with new walls and towers. The Suz­dal monasteries also built new stone churches and walls which now rivalled the town's old architectural centre, the kremlin. In the posad and the settlements outside the town the wooden churches were replaced by stone ones. This remarkable spate of building kept the brick-makers busy at their kilns on the clay banks of the Kamenka. It saw the emergence of the highly talented local archi­tects, Ivan Mamin, Ivan Gryaznov and Andrei Shmakov, who erected some real architectural masterpieces at the end of the seventeenth century. In spite of all this, however, the town itself remained a poor small wooden one which consisted of only 540 homesteads in 1711.

The eighteenth century brought little to gladden the lives of its inhabitants. In 1719 Suzdal was again destroyed by fire and shortly afterwards another attack of the plague once more wiped out half its population. In 1767 the Spaso-Yevfimiev Monastery was turned into a large prison for religious and political offenders or "crazed convicts" as they were called, a terrible living grave for the free-thinkers of the time that cast a dark shadow on the town.

The state reforms introduced by Peter the Great un­dermined the economic power of the Church and the monasteries and at the end of the century the Suzdal bishopric was abolished. Instead of building ceasing, as one might have expected, it was carried on by the Suz­dal merchants although, according to contemporary re­cords, this was only on "a moderately rich even rather poor" scale. The eighteenth century witnessed the build­ing of many churches rivalling those of the preceding two centuries in their beauty and craftsmanship. They were erected on the sites of former wooden churches, thus preserving the town's architectural topography. In style and spirit they reflected the old Suzdalian architec­tural traditions with a barely perceptible admixture of eighteenth-century features.

The old layout of the town with its long main street that formed part of the road to Pereslavl-Zalessky, Rostov and Yaroslavl, and few side streets was little changed by the 1788 plan for making the town more symmetrical. Some of the streets were slightly straight­ened, but the proposed new areas were never actually built and the town did not expand.

The Suzdalian school of icon painting flourished in the eighteenth century. It included such gifted artists as Babukhin, Rodionov, Popov, Gorshkov and lonin whose icons spread to other regions, winning the inhabitants of Suzdal the popular name of "Suzdal God-painters".

The history of Suzdal began to attract the interest of historians as early as the eighteenth century when the local sexton of the cathedral, Ananiya Fyodorov, com­piled his famous History of the Town of Suzdal which was later added to by works of other local historians.

The town did not acquire any new buildings of archi­tectural value during the nineteenth century. Its first stone civic building, a large covered market, was erected between 1806-1811. To commemorate the victory over Napoleon a bell-tower in Classical style was built between 1813-1819 on an elevated piece of ground in the Convent of the Deposition of the Robe. Opposite the convent a Suzdal merchant by the name of Blokhin erected an almshouse in provincial Classical style. This building, though unremarkable in itself, was symbolic of the fact that Suzdal had become a place for "rejects". Its monasteries were full of people who had withdrawn from the world or been forcibly imprisoned. Political and religious offenders languished behind the walls of the Spaso-Yevfimiev Monastery.

The agricultural character of the town had changed little over the past eight centuries. Most of its inhabitants were engaged in horticulture and market-gardening. Even local people and historians who were familiar with the pro­vincial backwaters of tsarist Russia could not help re­marking on the extreme stagnation of Suzdal. It was described by a nineteenth-century ethnographer from Vladimir as "a town of churches, belfries and towers, superstitious legends, and tombstones".

The Suzdal of today is a veritable open-air museum attracting large numbers of tourists from far and wide. No other town possesses so many splendid specimens of Russian architecture in almost all its stages, whilst re­taining its original character and appearance.

The town as a whole is extremely picturesque. Mag­nificently impressive buildings are blended together with more modest ones to form an ensemble of outstanding beauty and harmony. We shall make a study of the individual features of these buildings and their relation to the whole. We shall also include buildings which have been disfigured or entirely destroyed, for many of them were real architectural masterpieces.

Our knowledge of Suzdal and its buildings has greatly increased over the last decade, mainly due to the work of Alexei Varganov. We are indebted to him for many new discoveries which will be dealt with in detail later on, in particular his research on the cathedral and the archbishop's palace. Several of Suzdal's architectural monuments, such as the Spaso-Yevfimiev Monastery, still await detailed study and restoration.


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