The village of Staraya Ladoga,
with its population of just over 2000, lies on the left bank of the broad, deep River
Volkhov, 128 kilometers from St. Petersburg. Most philologists connect the name of the
village with the Ladozhka River, tracing the derivation of the word to its Finn-Baltic
origins: in Baltic geographical termination, the word "lataka" or
"lata-ga" means a stream, a ditch or a boggy marsh. This settlement is not widely known, but it is a very special place, steeped in
tradition, and at the same time extraordinarily beautiful.
History has been made in these parts on more than one
occasion: it was from here that Prince Rurik was summoned to govern Rus; the celebrated
road "from the Vikings to the Greeks" passed through the town; Staraya Ladoga
was a contender, along with Kiev, as the burial place of the prophet Oleg; it was from here
that the 20 year-old Prince Alexander, son of Yaroslav (later called "Nevsky")
led an army of Novgorodians into battle with the Swedes in 1240; and St. Petersburg's founder,
Tsar Peter I, assembled troops here for his decisive assault on the fortress of
"Oreshek". Many legends also surround Staraya Ladoga. Two of them are totally
incredible - the existence of an underground passage leading from the fortress under the
River Volkhov, and the story of the golden coffin in which Rurik the Viking is supposed to
have been buried.
The main "sights" of Staraya Ladoga
are on the left bank of the Volkhov, in an area divided into northern and southern
sections by the Ladozhka River. The settlement's historic center is the mighty stone
fortress with its five towers, built in the late 15th and early 16th centuries on a
promontory, formed by the above-mentioned rivers. The fortress now houses a museum and is
currently undergoing restoration; the whole of the west wall has been reconstructed, with
its formidable towers that reach 24 meters in diameter. The towers adjoining the river,
which have not yet been restored, are fascinating; in addition to the fact that their
structure can be clearly seen, you can also go inside them (albeit with care). The
fortress walls offer a spectacular view of Staraya Ladoga.
There is perhaps no other place in North-West Russia with so many ancient monuments in
such a small area. In the village and its environs there are majestic burial mounds from
pagan times, Rurik's Settlement, Ladoga Fortress, the 12th century Church of St. Nicholas,
the 16th century Church of St. John the Baptist, the 18th and 19th century monasteries and
many other important sights. Researchers link this town with the Holy Apostle Andrew, who traveled
north from the steppes of Scythia in the first century AD.
The town of Staraya Ladoga, called simply Ladoga until 1704, was founded by the Slavs in the
mid-8th century and was once one of the ten largest Russian cities. It is first mentioned
in the chronicles of 862 that three Varangian brothers were summoned from the town to be
Princes of Rus. Staraya Ladoga must therefore be considered to be one of the three ancient
capitals of the Russian state, along with Kiev and Moscow.
On the south side of the fortress courtyard is St. George's Church (12th century), one of
the oldest surviving buildings in the Russian North; it has become widely known for its
incomparable frescoes, in particular one entitled "The Miracle of St. George and the
Dragon". Parts of the frescoes have unfortunately been lost, but what remains has
been cleaned and can be seen in its original radiant colors.
To the south-west of St. George's Church is the wooden
Church of St. Dmitry Solunsky; it is now part of the museum and contains various displays.
The Convent of the Assumption stands to the north of the stone fortress; it contains
dozens of stone and wooden buildings, surrounded by a brick wall. In the 18th century
Peter the Great's first wife, Evdokia Lopukhina, was incarcerated there. Today the
convent's principal place of interest is the Assumption Cathedral, built in the 12th
century and reconstructed in the 17th.
On Malyshev Hill, on the northern out-skirts of the village, there is yet another church -
the Church of the Birth of St. John the Baptist, built in 1695; it is a wonderfully
graceful building, in absolute harmony with nature. From a distance, the snow-white church
appears to be hovering over the slope.
St. Nicholas' Monastery marks the boundary of Staraya
Ladoga. A legend connects it with the name of Alexander Nevsky and his victory over the
Swedes at the Battle of the Neva, though there is no documentary evidence to support this.
The multi-tiered, octagonal, tent-shaped 18th century bell-tower, with its special place
for the bell ringer, has recently been restored. The monastery also features the Holy Gates,
leading to Volkhov: they are intricate and outwardly very secular. Next to the gates is
the quaint, unusual Church of St. John Zlatoust (designed by Alexey Gornostayev and built
between 1861 and 1873). Although decorated in the Old Russian style, it strongly resembles
a Romance basilica.
Staraya Ladoga will shortly be celebrating its 1250th anniversary - in 2003, at the same
time as St. Petersburg celebrates its 300th anniversary. Preparations for the event are
already under way; the hope is that within a couple of years the ancient capital of Rus
will become a major center for museums, tourism and Christianity. Staraya Ladoga can be reached by train from St. Petersburg's Moscow Station to
Volkhovstroy (just under 3 hours' journey), then by bus (10 km).