A Golden Opportunity: Part One
If you were one of the lucky ones who managed to make it to Saint-Petersburg and remain here in the midst of the chaos of the past few years, congratulations! As some of my fellow writers here at HSE Illuminated have pointed out, studying “abroad” whilst continuing to live in one’s own home has proven to be a unique experience for the many who have had no other choice but to live through it. I would like to think that I speak for all of them when I say to those who somehow found a way to come to Saint-Petersburg in spite of all the barriers, that I sincerely hope you have been able to enjoy all the museums and palaces, bridges and canals that Peter’s great city on the Neva has to offer.
Another round of praise is deserved by the international students - particularly those who hail from more tropical locales - who have successfully weathered the winter season in the northernmost metropolis in the world. There is a certain degree of irony in my words, as on the day of my writing this article, the third of April, there have been intermittent snow-showers on and off throughout the day, a day in which the outside temperature, try as it might, was unable to eclipse zero degrees Celsius. As a foreigner myself who has spent the last three winters here in Saint-Petersburg, I can guarantee you that winter does indeed give way to spring eventually, even here, and that we are not more than a few week away from being rewarded for our stalwart perseverance with green leaves and warm, sunny days.
For many of us, the welcoming glow of the coming sun evokes a feeling of adventure and reawakens a longing for the open road and new horizons. Borders, both physical and metaphorical, likely remain between you and many of the first few exotic places on your “to-go” list. But worry not, for if you are here in Saint-Petersburg, there is plenty more to see beyond the city and its surrounding satellites. Russia is still the largest country in the world, after all, and although the Kamchatka Peninsula and Lake Baikal might still lie just out of reach, a savvy, budget-wise traveller can satisfy their wander-lust and then some without even having to cross the Urals.
In the ancient times before the consolidation and centralisation of the Russian state around the grand metropolis of Moscow, countless smaller city-states and principalities to the north and east squabbled and skirmished with each other, trying to cement themselves as the rightful successor to Kiev as the capital of all the lands of the Rus. We know now, of course, that this struggle was eventually won by the Moscovites, who would not only incorporate all their competitors into their domain, but spread the lands of the Rus to oceans east and west, and seas white and black. After the Revolution, during the Soviet period, Moscow not only regained its status as official capital city, but also became the symbolic capital of a social movement that would impact global politics for the better half of the 20th century. Its status as official and symbolic capital would see Moscow continue to centralise and expand, becoming the largest city on the European continent in the process, a superlative it still claims to this day. It was also during this period, however, that the cities whose might Moscow had overcome to achieve its vaunted position would undergo a certain revival of their own.
Starting in the 1960s, while brave men and women were being launched into the stars and looking to the future, a different project was taking place in the cities of old Russia, one that would instead revolve around looking back to the past. The endeavour to renovate and cultivate these cities into a route specifically meant for tourists was given the name “the Golden Ring” by its progenitor, Soviet historian Yuri Bychkov, in his 1967 essay in the November edition of Sovietskaya Kultura newspaper. This new route would provide an opportunity not only for Russian citizens to explore their historical roots, but for citizens of the other Soviet Republics, the Warsaw Pact countries, and beyond to see a more green and peaceful side to Russia beyond the industrialised metropoles of Moscow and Saint-Petersburg.
Dotted with glistening white bastion walls, verdant birch trees, and shining golden onion domes, the route also boasts several UNESCO World Heritage sites, and has modernised significantly since the transition from the Soviet era to modern Russia. For those weary of the bustling streets and crowded metro stations of urbanised life, a trip around the Golden Ring is the perfect way to escape from it all, and catch a breath of fresh air. There are eight primary cities that make up the traditional route of the Golden Ring, but there is neither an official list nor requisite order in which they must be visited, allowing each tourist to customise their journey around old Russia to match their own individual constraints and interests. These cities are far enough from Moscow to allow the eyes and lungs to rest and rejuvenate, but close enough to the capital - and to each other - to not tire out the traveller or exhaust their budget on transportation costs. Be sure to stay tuned for part two of this article mini-series, so you can start planning your next trip to the beautiful cities of the Golden Ring!