Sometimes you feel as if you have landed in a fairytale, and sometimes that happens even when you are not in a theme park.
That feeling stole over me as I walked through the town of Suzdal, which is about 200 kilometers from Moscow, a few weeks ago. As the last stop of a trip that had taken me to the equally unreal worlds of Documenta in Kassel and Art Basel, my meeting in this little village offered a fitting third episode to a sojourn marked by the old and the disused turning into art.
Suzdal is certainly old. The first mentions of it go back to the 11th century. At one time, the town of now barely 10,000 had considerable power, but over the centuries it has faded into a village. What sets it apart from other Russian villages are the hundreds of churches and monasteries; the combination of a long history, former glory, and its location in Russia’s heartland. The monasteries are walled compounds, while the churches exhibit a combination of architectural elements that run the gamut from Eastern orthodox onion domes to a severe neo-classicism.
An equally formal market square dominates the town’s center, and several other neo-classical buildings dot a center that looks designed for a major regional hub. In-between you walk past a ramshackle collection of houses, some of them of a generic kind, some of them festooned with elaborately carved window surrounds and other decorative elements. After a day in Moscow and a long trip through sprawl and industrial cities with vast housing estates, Suzdal feels as if it is from another era.
It has been like this for a long time—so long, in fact, that it is said that John D. Rockefeller came through in the 1920s and helped restore the first set of churches. (I have to admit I have not been able to verify this.) The idea was to turn Suzdal into a tourist attraction that would function for Russia much the same way Colonial Williamsburg does in Virginia.
That never happened, but the idea is still alive in the town’s gossip. While we were there, we met with city officials, who are trying to figure out how to improve tourism and fix up the town. Improved transport links are a major priority (it takes about four hours to get there from Moscow, either by car or by train). The local infrastructure also could use some fixing up, as could just about every building aside from a few churches.
You get a sense that what would work would be to put a fence around the whole place and charge admission, in the manner of a theme park, in order to finance these improvements. Yet that seems a shame, as part of what makes Suzdal so charming is the fact that it is not a coordinated and spic-and-span place, but a bit of a mess with a few jewels in it.
Reflecting on my reaction to the probable theme park future, it made me realize that my desire to preserve Suzdal is exactly that, reactionary—a sense that to sanitize and protect it would mean removing it from the cycles of production and consumption, and replacing “real” life with a version in which time and place are frozen. That is what we do in museums and other cultural institutions, so why not do it there? And why should Russia not have its own Williamsburg, so it can understand at least one version of its past?
I would come back, and so would countless more people than make the trek out there now—even if the Russia they would see would be one reused and recycled for tourist enjoyment.