Russia · Travel

Our, and Russia’s, first Kremlin

Having learnt just enough Russian to recognise the word gorod (town, city) in the name Veliky Novgorod, the town four hours south of St. Petersburg (by train) we’d be stopping in overnight on our way to Moscow, I wondered what the nov- prefix meant. Indeed, what did Veliky mean?

Eoin and the dragon
Eoin and the dragon

Well, turns out nov means ‘new’, which is odd, because the city is one of the oldest in Russia. For over 1000 years there has been a settlement there. In fact, it’s one of the foundational cities of the Russian state. The Veliky part means ‘great’, which is more fitting. It has the oldest Kremlin in the country. If ones considers Kremlins to be unique to Russia, then that makes Veliky’s the oldest one in the solar system, and possibly even further afield. If that’s not greatness, I don’t know what is.

I know what you’re thinking: isn’t there just The Kremlin, the one in Moscow? Nyet. (That’s Russian for no.) From what I understand, a Kremlin is just an old fortified city, and looking at Veliky’s, the well-known Cite of Carcassonne would qualify as a fine example, if, say, Russia were to invade France in a brazen Kremlin-grab.

Millennium of Russia Monument Veliky Novgorod
Millennium of Russia Monument

A rickety apartment on the top floor of an apartment block was ours for a song. The sheer friendliness of the owners and the proximity to the aforementioned Kremlin redeemed it for us. All we had to do was walk out onto the main avenue outside our block, turn right, and walk in a straight line for about ten minutes. Voila! Our, and Russia’s, first Kremlin.

Within the walls of the Kremlin, one quickly comes across the dark, foreboding Millennium of Russia Monument. It was put up in 1862 to celebrate, yes, one thousand years of the Russian State. “An event traditionally taken as a starting point of Russian history is Rurik’s arrival in Novgorod,” a notice nearby said. Some eighty years later the Nazis dismantled the Monument, intending to whisk it away to Germany to be melted down for munitions, but it was restored to public view when the Red Army regained control of Novgorod.

Beach on the Volkhov, Veliky Novgorod
Beach on the Volkhov, with the Kremlin walls behind

There’s only so much you can tell from a cursory glance at a map, so we hadn’t anticipated stumbling upon a sandy beach full of bathers on the far side of the Kremlin, but on the west bank of the Kremlevskiy bridge, at the point where the Volkhov river parts company with the city and drains into lake Ilmen, that’s exactly what we found. Add in the brilliant sunshine and the ice cream vendors, and sure we could have been in the Mexican riviera. There, the dive bombers had been pelicans. Here, it was arctic terns that hovered metres above the surface before plunging into the shallows amongst the swimmers.

Swimming in the Volkhov, Veliky Novgorod
Swimming in the Volkhov

In both of the pictures above, to the right of the Millenium Monument, and over Tina’s shoulder, you can see the golden dome of the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, a beautiful mishmash of meringue-topped turrets surrounding the iconic golden dome. And it’s the star of the main photo of this blog post too. Inside the cathedral the usual damp, candle-reeking darkness of your typical cathedral was a welcome respite from the heat of the day.

I mentioned Rachmaninov in the last post – he’s probably the most famous son of this city, unless there’s some footballer or rapper I don’t know about. His music has never moved me the way Tchaikovsky’s or Shostakovich’s has, but on a walk around the parklands surrounding the Kremlin we were never going to pass such a striking sculpture by without paying our respects.

Rachmaninov. He may or may not be big in Japan, but he’s huge in Veliky Novgorod

As I mentioned earlier, this visit to Veliky was just an overnighter, a quick stop on the way to Moscow. There was something about train travel in Russia that we had to get out of our system (we’d arrived from Finland by train), so we’d lined up an overnight train to take us from Veliky to our final destination in Russia: Moscow. Maybe that was because when you talk to people about Russia, one thing that keeps popping up is the Trans-Siberian Express, so, without being aware of it, you get primed to prefer train travel. Whatever the reason, at 9pm on our second day we made our way to the city’s mercifully small and easily managed train station, got on board our train, found our compartment, and settled in for the night. It was still broad daylight when we pulled the blinds down about an hour later, heading south-east towards the great city.