Saturday, September 22, 2012

Pskov: День своего убийства

Me outside the Pskov Kremlin
So as usual I have failed to keep the blog up to date, but I am going to try and post twice this weekend to 1. make myself feel better about missing last weekend and 2. try and write about everything that has been happening in the past couple of weeks.  The big thing that has happened since my last post was our trip to Pskov. Pskov is an ancient Russian city located near the Estonian border.  The city is old, having first appeared in Russian history over 1,100 years ago, when some prince or other is recorded as having married one Olga of Pskov.  I'm a little hazy on the facts, but from what I remember, Olga eventually became the queen of Kievan Russia and is now considered a saint.  Since then, Pskov has had a rather bloody history, even by Russian standards.  The city was attacked by just about everyone under the sun, including the Livonian knights, the Teutonic knights, the Finns, the Swedes, the Poles, and the Nazis.  The city was captured several times, most notably the Teutonic knights in the 1240's, but they were expelled by Russian forces under Saint Alexander Nevsky, Grand Duke of the Novgorodian Republic.  In the 1400's, the city was laid siege to 26 times within the space of a century.  The city still has a lot of the marks of all those wars, including the foundations and several restored sections of the city's ancient walls (at one point the city had five rings of walls), the ancient Kremlin, and at one corner, a series of sapping and counter-sapping tunnels built during a Polish assault on the city in the 1500's.  To make a really long story slightly shorter, the city withstood pretty much everything until the Nazis invaded in 1941.  Usually in the case of WWII, the Nazis destroyed most everything they could get their hands on, but in Pskov, that wasn't the case.  The city, while heavily damaged in the initial invasion, was only really destroyed when the Red Army retook the city in 1944 (a fact that most tour guides ignore or are reticent to talk about).  The Red Army bombarded the city for days before they retook the city and in the process leveled nearly 80% of the city.  By the wars end, a city with an original population over 200,000 was reduced to 250.
The wedding
Our trip to Pskov was significantly less violent.  To get to Pskov is a bit of a hike though, over six hours on a bus, so a significant part of our excursion was spent either waiting for, getting on, or sitting in a bus.  We arrived in Pskov last Friday around 3 PM.  The first day we went a tour of the Kremlin and then took a bus tour of the city.  The tour was was interesting (that giant first paragraph more or less sums up what we learned) and was relatively uneventful with two exceptions.  The first was at the beginning of the tour, when two of my friends and I were outside our hotel taking pictures of the Kremlin from across the river.  Right outside of our hotel was a group of benches, on which were sitting several homeless people (or so it would appear) who were clearly rather drunk, a feat that in Russia is rather unsurprising.  As we walked past one called out "We're celebrating!" What they were celebrating was absolutely unclear, since last Friday was not a holiday known to any of us.  We decided that the only real possibility was the celebration our imminent kidnapping and dismemberment in one of the many nearby abandoned buildings.  As such, we rather quickly moved on, since the area in front of the hotel played home to several stray dogs, a social caste in Russia which I have traditionally had a rather poor relationship with.  The second thing was a wedding that was taking place in the Kremlin's church at the same time we were taking our tour.  While it was often to get to watch part of the actual ceremony, the wedding party then proceeded to loudly take pictures at every area we wanted to go to, and then drove around the area continuously honking their horns which was more than slightly annoying.  The day ended with an evening get together of everyone in the program.  We drank tea and played games, most of which were games traditionally played by Russian school children.  While it was slightly corny, I had a great time.  The best part of the evening was the most enjoyable, in my perhaps somewhat biased opinion.  We played a game of musical chairs, which as a kid was a game I hated since I never won (contrary to what you may believe, being tall is not in a game that involves sitting down quickly); however, through a combination of determination and progressive (others might be inclined to use other, more abusive terms like "shady" or "cheating", but I think those are unecessarily negative terms, don't you?) tactics and won!  I got a nice little mug with pictures of sites in and around Pskov, I don't know what I am going to do with it, but who cares, I won!!!!

Печеры Monastery
A sign saying "Izborsk", about the most interesting thing the castle had to offer...
The second day we went to a monastery whose name roughly translates as the Pskov cave-monastery.  The monastery began centuries ago with Orthodox monks living within the caves of the area.  The caves are unique, they are apparently the exact right level of humidity and heat that they naturally mummify bodies.  As far as I can gather, the bodies from monks that are centuries old as still in the caves.  The most interesting part of the monastery's history (also the bloodiest) is the story from the time of Ivan the Terrible.  Ivan, as you may be able to guess, was the not the nicest of guys, and at one point suspected the abbot of the Pskov monastery of treason.  Ivan had the abbot beheaded, and his headless corpse carried to one of the shrines (my translation of what the tour guide said is a little unclear).  The path is now called the road of blood, and there is a ceremony each year to commemerate it, in which the path is lined with flowers.  The second part of the day we went to Izborsk, an ancient fortress near Pskov.  I was singularly disappointed with Izborsk.  I've always wanted to go see a real ancient castle but Izborsk was a cold, wind swept mud puddle with half a wall and a tower that you couldn't go in.  Alas alack, you can't win 'em all.  Anyway, that about raps up my trip to Pskov, tomorrow I am going to try and post again tomorrow and try to focus on more of my regular life, but we'll see!

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