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Volga churches: windows on Russia's past

TO appreciate the richness of Russia's history, a visitor need look no further than the vast nation's Russian Orthodox churches.

A cruise down the Volga River, perhaps Russia's most important natural lifeline, shows churches of all shapes, sizes, and conditions. Most stand as tributes to the Czarist era, while a few serve as monuments to the folly of the Soviet Communist experiment.

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These days, clerics hope the churches - many of which are being restored and reopened - will serve as symbols of national revival after decades of Communist mismanagement.

It is along the Volga that foreigners can perhaps best appreciate the role of Orthodoxy in the development of the Russian state.

For example, at Uglich (about 150 miles down river from Moscow via a canal linking the capital with the mighty river) one comes across the tiny church of Dmitry of the Blood. According to legend, the church stands on the site where Prince Dmitry, the son and heir of Ivan the Terrible, was murdered in 1591.

The event left the fledgling Russian empire without a natural line of succession and set up a period of upheaval. Known in Russia as the Time of Troubles, the political instability and warfare lasted for more than two decades until the Romanov dynasty was established.

The first Romanov czar, Michael, lived at the Ipatiev monastery in Kostroma, about 180 miles by river from Uglich, when he was named czar in 1613.

Also on the monastery's grounds sits a museum to the 300-plus-year reign of the Romanovs that ended with the murder of Nicholas II and his entire family in the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg in 1918.

Not far from the monastery, an open-air display of wooden architecture, including some excellent examples of wooden churches, stands on the Upper Volga.

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Near Nizhny Novgorod, one of Russia's most important industrial centers (about 150 miles down river from Kostroma), is the sunken Kalyazin monastery, perhaps one of the best examples of the misguided Soviet attempt to dominate nature.

Under dictator Josef Stalin, a series of dams were built on the Volga, as the Soviet government sought to harness the Volga's hydroelectric potential to fuel industrialization. Little thought was given to the project's impact on the local population and environment.

The dams left great swaths of land, including that on which the monastery stood, under water. Today the monastery's bell tower is still visible, languishing in the middle of the dam's reservoir.

Just beyond Nizhni Novgorod, the Makarev monastery offers an excellent glimpse of a fortress-church. The monastery was built in the 14th century by Orthodox priests as a base of operations for converting the Tatars, who occupied the lower reaches of the Volga from Kazan to Astrakhan.

The Makarev monastery, and others like it, developed into important trading posts in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, and thus became sites of extraordinary wealth. Today, little of the gilt and glitter that adorned the churches in the monastery remains, robbed by looters down through the ages.

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