The Tourist Periphery: Russia’s Golden Ring Cities
James C. Pearce
First a motoring route during the late Soviet era, The Golden Ring got its name from journalist Yuri Bychkov. Asked to title his article in Sovetskaya Kul’tura for their road trip from Moscow, around these ancient cities, across the Volga and back, Bychkov got inspiration from the Kremlin’s Ivan the Great Bell tower on a rainy Moscow day (byli budto zolotym maslom vymazany; ‘as if they were smeared with golden butter’). It was not a previously lost concept from Russian history or folklore, but its conception as a tourist route came shortly after.
‘The Golden Ring Project’ became a response to both the Soviet state’s initiative to expand tourism and calls for preservation of historic buildings by social organisations. In contemporary Russia, it remains one of the most popular routes for both foreign and domestic tourists by marketing a tranquil vision of pre-revolutionary Russia; one with wooden houses, churches and picturesque landscapes. They were reimagined and considered the Russian heartlands, both geographically and symbolically. And yet, the greatest paradox of The Golden Ring is that had it not been for the Soviet government, the ‘cradle of Russian civilisation’ as we know it would not exist.
The Golden Ring comprises of Suzdal’, Vladimir, Kostroma, Yaroslavl, Velikii Rostov and Sergiev Posad, though sometimes includes Pereslavl-Zalessky, a former bishopric, and Ivanovo. Both are in the same geographical location and have a similar socio-economic status, whilst occupying a similarly important place in Russian history. These heartlands north-East of Moscow were once the spiritual centre of Orthodox Christianity, key to the gradual formation of the Russian state and its historical continuity. Some were ancient capitals and mentioned in The Primary Chronicle – Suzdal’ as early as 1096. Others had a peculiar specialness to Grand Princes, Metropolitans or the tsars.
Today the Golden Ring hosts several UNESCO world heritage sites, yet the socio-political status of the towns has declined, and all are in need of socio-economic development. Despite being the cradle of Russian culture, as Bychkov noted, The Golden Ring does not feature prominently in the school history curriculum or ‘preferred’ mainstream national history, let alone many national conversations. Historical enquiry is also somewhat limited in the English language.
Despite its modern popularity, the region’s ‘golden age’ was rather short-lived. It began as the easternmost region of Kyivan-Rus shifted power away from Kyiv, which was unable to control the surrounding regions due to succession problems and steppe invaders. That power eventually consolidated around the fortress city of Vladimir – founded in 1108 according to The Primary Chronicle. Protected by lush forests, it was safe from steppe invaders and its location along important rivers meant that trade boomed as it was rich in resources like timber, furs and fish.
Following the Mongol takeover in 1240, its power vanished and moved back westwards to the city of Moscow, which led the liberation of Russian lands. Yet, the importance of Vladimir and the Golden Ring is central not just to Russian history, particularly that of state power, but the Orthodox Church’s past. Moscow, the centre of Russian power and spirituality, came from Kyiv; the Grand Princes and Metropolitans kept ‘Kiev’ in their title whilst residing in Vladimir. Moreover, as the legend goes, the Rurikids shared a connection with the Roman Emperor Augustus through the ominous figure Prus – and if questioned was confirmed by Ivan III’s marriage to the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor. This claim put the Russian ruler on the same footing as the Habsburg monarchy as did Constantinople’s recognition of his new title ‘tsar’. Further, Russia at this time was the last free Orthodox nation and Christianity’s most easterly point, giving Moscow its sense of a special mission.
As Moscow rose, the regions of the Golden Ring were gradually absorbed under Muscovite rule. The Metropolitans left the town of Vladimir for Moscow, where its Grand Princes were now crowned, and the remains of Aleksandr Nevsky were transferred in 1703. Some technically did not have town status for centuries after, whereas others shifted to regional capitals with a diminished status and significance. On the eve of February 1917, Vladimir was more famous for carpenters than its ancient gold top churches hosting sacred artefacts. Many of Suzdal’s great frescos still sit in the Tretyakov Gallery and Kostroma lost its special protectorate status after being devastated by a fire in 1773.
In the first years of Soviet rule these towns’ street names were changed, as were some of the actual names; Sergiev Posad became Zagorsk and Lenin decreed that the town’s iconic monastery be converted into a museum of folk art and textiles. The 1920s and 1930s saw many of their churches and monasteries completely destroyed or abandoned, with the majority of new construction consisting of housing. Those not abandoned were lucky to be used for storage. After Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign and enthusiasm for urban modernisation, a lot of valuable architecture was neglected further. It was not until the Brezhnev era when these cities would re-emerge and birth their modern identities.
Bychkov worked at Sovetskaya Kul’tura in the early 1960s, specializing in art history and literature, and became one of the founders of the ‘All Russian Society for the Protection of Monuments of History and Culture’ (VOOPIK), which would take a leading role in the development of what we now understand as ‘The Golden Ring’. VOOPIK was a vehicle for mobilizing public support of much needed architectural preservation. This mass-membership, voluntary organization was established in 1965, following a shift in policy towards preservation at the start of the Brezhnev regime. Preservationists, including architects, notably the Moscow branch of the Union of Architects (Moskovskoe otdelenie Soiuza arkhitekturov) writers and artists, had lobbied unsuccessfully for a decade during the Khrushchev era for permission to set up such an organization. VOOPIK fostered a sense of both local and national belonging and attempted to carve out and promote these to foreign tourists. However, as Sheila Pattle notes, tourism became a convenient stopgap use for religious buildings.
Urgent renovations were required, as were new kinds of tourist practices and an investigation into the political consequences of opening-up these cities. Anything connected to the Romanovs needed careful consideration – the Ipatievsky Monastery in Kostroma for example – and showcasing the achievements of Soviet socialism and some narrative of a Soviet national identity was also a must. This was rather difficult because The Golden Ring’s symbols and images consist mostly of churches and monasteries. The compromise was different tour categories were introduced and this practice remains in place today: historical-revolutionary, cultural, archaeological, folk decorative applied art and natural therapeutic sights. Certain Russian heroes from pre-revolutionary times (Aleksandr Nevksy and Ivan Susanin) were used in local exhibitions to promote Soviet patriotism in scripted narratives handed out to the tour guides, and some included stops at factory complexes. Soviet citizens also embarked on different tours than foreigners. In fact, the Golden Ring route was initially set up for foreigners to provide somewhere new and boost profits. Thus, The Golden Ring took on two competing identities, showcasing Ancient-Rus’ and Soviet modernity through a controlled narrative transmitted to tourists in a not always consistent way, since each town had to square their histories differently.
Approved in 1969, the first tours set off in 1971 and The Golden Ring underwent a period of intense cultural and infrastructure growth right through until the end of the 1980s. More factories, schools, higher education institutions, TV and radio stations were opened along with hotels, cafes, and restaurants for their new visitors, not to mention roads and ferry rides across the Volga to Kostroma. Though hard to get exact figures, interest in The Golden Ring was modest at best. Tourism undeniably increased in the 1970s and 1980s, but to call it an explosion would be misleading. In 1974, the first survey of tourists from capitalist countries cited that the ‘history and culture’ was their primary reason for visiting the USSR. It may have had a small impact in encouraging foreigners to increase their stay but ascertaining that is incredibly difficult. For domestic tourists, The Golden Ring provided somewhere different and as unique as Central Asia and the Baltics. It would become a retreat from the modern socialist world, into an authentically restored, pre-modern past, where visitors could re-engage with Russia’s spiritual roots.
Today, these cities and surrounding regions are experiencing depopulation; 75% of Russia’s population now lives in urban centres, with an additional four million migrating to its biggest cities annually. Cities with populations fewer than 500,000 have been the biggest losers in this regard. The largest Golden Ring city (Vladimir) has a little under 300,000 inhabitants. Moscow’s economic attractiveness and opportunities lures the region in closer. Average salaries remain low (depending on the city 20-30,000 rubles a month) but prices are often comparable to Moscow. Public services are underfunded and many local communities are as rural and isolated as they were before 1917.
In a sense, the lack of modernisation and proximity to Moscow serves to maintain its own regional identity to generate both financial and political capital it would otherwise lose. Building is hard and legally impossible in some cases. Many buildings are historically listed, UNESCO or otherwise, and cities like Suzdal’ have strict height restrictions. Ivanovo has become one of the most deprived towns in the Russian Federation. Once a town full of merchants, industrialists and workers, when the USSR collapsed, its textile industry dried up. Today Ivanovo is a town of service industries, engineers, professors, and salespeople.
The region remains stuck somewhere between its golden age and rebirthed Soviet identity. Like in the Soviet area, it is an economic asset that still features prominently in the tourist industry. However, they remain on the periphery of Russia’s socio-economic priorities. In an effort to boost domestic tourism, Rossiya 1 along with the Ministry of Culture released a travel documentary series in 2017, which recycled parts of The Kremlin’s patriotic history narrative at a time of declining foreign tourists. Redevelopment funds of $1.5bln were promised to Russia’s historic towns for renovation designed to increase domestic tourism and increase living standards, but the pandemic and war in Ukraine put this on hold.
The Golden Ring Project was a lot more than its creators intended and tourists realize. It was a textbook case of Soviet memory politics and a reflection of the changing narrative in the national history. It also coincided with changes in public opinion. A growth in Russian nationalism associated with the regions, increased church attendance, a general opening up of the USSR and need for domestic tourism all occurred alongside it, but the idea of what these cities were simply had to be redefined for tourism. The Golden Ring’s creation brought about new and improved roads, service sector jobs and facilities for the locals. Most important to remember, however, is that The Golden Ring has always had a significant place in Russian history and is worthy of further historical enquiry.
James C. Pearce is a historian and author based at the College of the Marshall Islands. His book The Use of History in Putin's Russia was published by Vernon Press in 2020. His current book project concerns the history of Russia's Golden Ring Cities.
 Na Zolotom Kol’tse sideli…’ Strana, 8 July 2011, available at <http://strana.ru/journal/2644154 accessed 03/01/2020  Suzdal’ is actually a masculine noun and was once pronounced with the ‘zh’ (ж) sound; ‘Suzhdal’’.  The Tales of Prince Vladimir, Moscow’s first history completed during the reign of Ivan III noted the connection, though the evidence is lacking.  Sheila Pattle, Forging The Golden Ring: tourist development and heritage in the late Soviet Union, Slavonic and East European Review, 2011.  Bagdasrian et al., Sovetskoe Zarzerkal’e, p.154  ‘Rural Russians are moving to cities to escape the impoverished regions’, bne, November 16 2020, available at < https://www.intellinews.com/rural-russians-are-moving-to-cities-to-escape-the-impoverished-regions-196707/>., accessed 18/01/2021.  Nadir Kinnosiyan, State Led Metropolisation in Russa’, Urban Research and Practice, 10:4, 2017, p.457  Ivanovo: A City In Search of a New Identity, The Moscow Times, available at <https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/10/29/ivanovo-a-city-in-search-of-a-new-identity-a67959> accessed 08/06/21