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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Miles From Petersburg And Still in Its Shadow

Only a hundred miles south, and therefore ever in the shadow of St. Petersburg, Novgorod, one of Russia's oldest towns, is many things the Northern capital is not. It is small and quiet, homey and unassuming; it is very old and very Russian. Once proudly titled "Gospodin Velikiy" (The Grand Sir) Novgorod, the city -- not to be confused with its much younger namesake Nizhny Novgorod -- now sometimes has to humbly remind itself of its identity.


A short two-day trip I made recently to Novgorod left a mosaic of impressions.


The Beresta Palace Hotel -- which belongs to the Marco Polo chain and is the only Western-class hotel in all of Russia outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, with its state-of-the-art European furnishing, standards and prices -- sits there deserted and unattended. Imported down to the last nail, including the shifting security teams from St. Petersburg, it remains a cry in the wilderness, a reminder of the optimism of the early reform years and in a way a litmus test for the future.


Some of the city officials have been heard complaining that there is hardly any use in keeping the hotel in its present form. I guess we all know too well what this may mean.


Novgorod's proximity to St. Petersburg is in a paradoxical way doing a disservice to the city. Hardly anybody stays for the night. An ensemble of medieval churches and monasteries can be seen in one day, night life is nonexistent and there is nothing to lure a tourist into staying over.


Detinets Restaurant in the Kremlin offers a few uniquely old Russian things like medovukha, a slightly alcoholic honey drink, and sbiten, a tea-like hot drink of mixed herbs and honey. Our lunch there was fortunately quiet, but an electric keyboard and a drum-set looming from the balcony threatened to turn this otherwise cozy medieval environment into a sound nightmare come nightfall.


But, boy, there are things to see in this city. The Kremlin with its Sophia Cathedral and the bell-like sculpture for the millennium of Russia magnificently tower over the Volkhov river. Yuriyev Monastery offers a breathtaking view of the Ilmen lake and the monumental 12th-century St. George's Cathedral. In the open air museum of Russian wooden architecture you can poke around in a peasant's izba with its Russian oven, icons and utensils.


But Novgorod is caught in an unfortunate paradox. Tourists won't come for any longer than a few hours unless there is a developed infrastructure, but there can be no additional funds for developing the infrastructure than tourism revenues provide.


In the old Russian tradition, the city quietly lives and quietly hopes. There is not much it can do on its own but wait for history to bridge the gap between the Beresta Palace Hotel and its unrestored churches.