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Tolstoy’s estate and eerie sculptures outside Moscow

Moscow

You don’t have to travel far from Moscow’s bustling heart to find serenity, beauty and history. Noah Sneider heads out from the capital to experience peace and literary inspiration

You don’t have to travel far from Moscow’s bustling heart to find serenity, beauty and history. Noah Sneider heads out from the capital to experience peace and literary inspiration

Noah Sneider | June/July 2017

1 GORKI LENINSKIE ESTATE
35KM
ONE HOUR BY CAR 

Once an aristocratic manor, the Gorki Leninskie Estate was seized after the Russian revolution in 1917 and given to Vladimir Lenin to use as his personal dacha. Following an assassination attempt and a debilitating stroke, Lenin spent most of his last years here, reading, writing and dictating orders from afar.

A museum on site has preserved that stay. Thousands of volumes from Lenin’s library stand on the shelves; his favourite blanket, a gift from his mother, lies on his bed; in the dining room you can even peek at his shopping list from October 1920. The estate itself is an example of Russian neoclassical architecture (the last tsarist-era owners had it remoulded by the prominent architect, Fyodor Schechtel, in 1914).

In a separate exhibition, you can imagine yourself in Lenin’s Kremlin office, complete with his original desk, military maps and portraits of Karl Marx. Ask the guides to open the garage out back, where they keep Lenin’s Rolls-Royce, retrofitted with treaded tyres for the Russian winter.

On the way back, refuel at the food stalls lining the newly reconstructed Danilovsky Market, the site of a minor Moscow culinary revolution. (Pro tip: Bo serves up the city’s best bowl of pho.)

2 SERGIEV POSAD
75KM
ONE HOUR BY TRAIN 

The Troitse-Sergiev Lavra, Russia’s holiest of holy sites, was founded in the 14th century by St Sergius of Radonezh, one of Russia’s most revered saints, and has attracted well-wishers ever since. According to legend, Prince Dmitry Donskoy came here to be blessed before leading a victorious battle against Tatar forces that helped free Russia from the “Mongol yoke”.

Shut for a period during the Soviet era, the monastery was reopened as a museum and functioning spiritual site in 1945. The trip would be worth it just for a glimpse of the stunning blue-and-gold cupolas of the Assumption Cathedral, but more treasures can be found inside the complex: look out for works by Andrei Rublev, Russia’s master icon-maker. For nourishment of the less spiritual kind, the monastery canteens serve delicious fresh pirozhki.

Push on a bit farther north to Abramtsevo, an artists’ colony central to 19th-century Russian cultural life. When Sergei Aksakov, a Slavophile writer, was in residence the manor played host to Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev. Under the later ownership of a railroad baron, Abramtsevo became a gathering place for a circle of artists leading a late-19th-century “neo-Russian” folk revival. They include Ilya Repin, Valentin Serov and Mikhail Vrubel; if you don’t know their work, a stroll through Abramtsevo is the way to get acquainted.

3 VLADIMIR
190KM
90 MINUTES BY TRAIN 

There’s no better way to get a feel for the ancient Russia of onion domes and wooden homes than by travelling along the Golden Ring, a stretch of picturesque old towns north-east of Moscow. Vladimir, accessible by express train, is an excellent option for those on a tight schedule.

Although the city has an industrial crust, its historic centre contains a luscious collection of 12th-century buildings. The highlights are two white-stone churches – the Cathedral of Saint Demetrius and Uspensky Cathedral – and the Golden Gate, the only preserved ancient gate in Russia (don’t miss the military museum tucked up a narrow staircase). Then immerse yourself in the micro side of Russian life at the Museum of Crystal, Lacquer Miniatures and Embroidery inside the Old Believers’ Trinity Church.

Continue your journey along the Golden Ring to Suzdal, some 30 minutes beyond Vladimir. With dozens of golden-domed churches and little in the way of industry, Suzdal has a quaint charm that lends itself to strolling among the grazing livestock and reading by the riverside. Pick up fresh berries, mushrooms and homemade pickles from the babushki gathered at Torgovaya Ploshchad. And if you can’t tear yourself away from arcadia, check in to the Heliopark Hotel, which has cabin-style rooms and an array of Russian banya (steam baths) on the shores of a small lake.

4 YASNAYA POLYANA
200KM
3 HOURS BY CAR 

For fans of Russian literature, little matches the thrill of wandering around the grounds of Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy family estate where Leo wrote “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”. He began his days with a stroll through the birch trees, which is the best way to start your visit.

Inside Tolstoy’s home, everything is as it was when he died in 1910. That the estate survived the tumult of the 20th century is a testament to Russian reverence for his writing. (During the second world war, museum workers sent the exhibits to Siberia before Nazi forces occupied the premises; note the gash German soldiers left on Tolstoy’s leather couch.) On your way out, make the pilgrimage to his unmarked grave in a grove he called the “green wand”.

After your spiritual nourishment, cross the street for the culinary sort at Preshpekt, a cozy café serving Tolstoy-family recipes. For fancier food, check out Mark i Lev, the founding father of Russia’s burgeoning locavore movement, near Tarusa. For an overnight stay, check in to Bolotov Dacha, a sleek, Scandi-style small hotel.

Bookend your literary mini-break with a visit to Anton Chekhov’s old estate in Melikhovo. In summer, his plays are performed in the garden.

5 NIKOLA-LENIVETS
220KM
4 HOURS BY CAR 

Deep in the forest, far from Moscow, might be the last place you’d think to look for contemporary art. But over the past two decades, Nikolay Polissky has transformed a stretch of the Ugra river into one of modern Russia’s most magical locales. His mysterious sculptures – wrought from natural materials and often standing several stories tall – are the art park’s main attraction. But there are also works by other leading Russian artists and architects; Alexander Brodsky’s Rotunda is especially enchanting.

The serenity offers a respite from Moscow’s bustling urban energy. Wander the forest and ponder art by day; rent a tent, pitch it in the forest and toast the stars by a campfire at night. Or opt for a slightly comfier stay in one of the Klever cottages – smartly designed wooden cabins with glass walls. Fuel up with homey Russian fare at Café Ugra or the family-run Ferma, and keep an eye out for local honey and jars of varen’ye (jams).

In the summer, the park plays host to a series of festivals and a steady stream of hip Muscovite visitors. But don’t discount a trip during the winter – especially if you enjoy a spot of cross-country skiing (you can rent skis at reception).

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