At nearly 4,000 kilometres the Volga is the longest river in Europe. From the canal that links it to the river station in Moscow it flows north for 200 km to the town of Rybinsk, where it changes direction and begins its long southward journey to the Caspian Sea. Seventy-five km downstream from Rybinsk it flows through Yaroslavl, a medium sized city with a population of 600,000 and a thriving industrial infrastructure. Until we docked there on our trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg I had never heard of Yaroslavl yet it was once the second largest city in Russia, a leader among the cities of the “Golden Ring,” and for a while the country’s de facto capital.
Strategically located at the confluence of the Volga and Kotorsl Rivers it has been an important trading centre and port ever since Prince Yaroslavl the Wise settled there in 1010. According to legend the prince converted the local heathens by killing their sacred bear with his battleaxe. He established the Christian church in his new city and went on to build a wooden fort on the spit between the two rivers. His fort grew into one of the busiest ports on the Volga, attracting merchants from throughout Russia who settled there and grew rich on trade with the Middle East and Europe. Although it was sacked and burned to the ground by the Mongols in 1238 and languished under Tatar rule for the next hundred years, the city bounced back during the 16 th and 17 th centuries to become one of the largest and wealthiest cities in all of Russia. Many of the merchants who prospered there used their wealth to build churches and monasteries, competing with one another and with Moscow to create ever bigger and more elaborate structures. In 1750 they also built Russia’s first theatre on the banks of the Volga.
In honour of its founding prince the modern city of Yaroslavl has adopted the image of a bear wielding a battleaxe as its coat-of-arms, and has carefully preserved the legacy of its 17 th century golden age of prosperity. The old buildings are as bright and vibrant, both inside and out, as the day they were built and the city’s theatre continues to showcase the best of Russia’s performing arts.
Standing on the top deck of the Kirov as we come in to dock I can see many more onion-shaped domes, gilded church spires, and patches of green parkland than factories or high-rises. Yaroslavl may no longer rank among Russia’s largest cities but it is certainly one of the most beautiful.