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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kolomenskoye: The Summer Haunts of the Tsars

MTKolomenskoye, where Monday's dinner for conference participants is being held, overlooks the Moscow River and the southern outskirts of the capital.
Nearly 500 years ago, Moscow was a small walled city surrounded by a few scattered settlements among the forests and meadows. But when summer came, the tsar and his retinue did what today's Muscovites do: They got out of the city.

For many centuries, the summer residence most favored by the great princes of Moscow and the Russian tsars was Kolomenskoye, located to the south of the city on a beautiful spot high above the Moscow River. They weren't the first people to inhabit this site: Archeologists have found settlements here dating back 2,500 years.

"Modern" Kolomenskoye dates to the 13th-century Tatar-Mongol invasion, when Russians fleeing attacks on the city of Kolomna settled here and gave the village its name. Here the Russian armies under Dmitry Donskoi gathered after the victory against the Tatars in the Battle of Kulikovo Polye in 1380. The remarkable Church of the Ascension was built at Kolomenskoye in honor of the birth of a royal heir, Ivan IV ("the Terrible"), who spent many summers here. Peter the Great spent a good deal of his youth rambling through the woods and swimming in the river.

The many palaces that once stood on this site have not survived. The most spectacular was built in the 17th century by Tsar Alexei. Called the Eighth Wonder of the World, it was a twisting, asymmetrical hodgepodge of 270 rooms on several levels under bulbous and pyramidal roofs, domes and gables. In Alexei's time, the Front Gate Tower was flanked by mechanical lions that rolled their eyes, waved their paws and "roared" when guests arrived. The lions were lost, and eventually the dilapidated wooden palace was torn down. Two later palaces were also destroyed.

But in the early 1920s, the art historian Pyotr Baranovsky had the idea of preserving wooden buildings that were decaying in the hinterlands by moving them to Kolomenskoye. This is still a controversial practice. Russian buildings were designed to fit organically into the site where they were built, nestled against a mountain, overlooking a river or standing atop a hill. In an ideal world, Russia's churches, fortresses and residences would be preserved where they stood.

But the world isn't ideal and was particularly unkind to ancient Russian architecture right after the 1917 Revolution, when churches and "outdated buildings" were torn down to make way for the new Soviet architecture.

Over the years, Baranovsky and the museum staff dismantled, transported and rebuilt on the grounds of Kolomenskoye a number of wooden structures. Today there are more than 20 buildings dating back over four centuries; an excellent museum of Russian ceramics, wood carving, icons and everyday objects; and a number of unusual -- and mysterious -- geological formations.

For MT

A scale model of a wooden palace built in the 17th century by Tsar Alexei.

The most interesting of the wooden buildings is the cabin Peter the Great lived in when in the city of Arkhangelsk. It's hard to imagine this nearly 2-meter giant (whose height is marked by a piece of white tape on the wall) nattering around this small, rustic cabin. Nearby are a monastery gateway tower, a mead brewery and a stockade tower. On the path leading to the stockade stands the massive Boris Stone, a 12th-century property marker carved with a cross and the inscription, "Lord, protect thy servant Boris."

The museum collection is displayed in two stone buildings that were once part of the Kolomenskoye residence: the Front Gate Museum -- the original entrance to the estate -- and the Brew House. The highlight of the museum is an exact model (scaled 40/1) that Catherine the Great had made of the Tsar Alexei's wooden palace folly. Mayor Yury Luzhkov has approved plans to build the wooden wonder once again.

By the Front Gate Museum is a simple round stone podium called the Petition Stone, literally the "brow-beating stone." Historians think petitions were brought here for the tsar, but they don't know if petitioners actually "beat their brows" against the stone in a show of deference and humility.

Behind the Brew House is the Stone Maiden, an 11th- or 12th-century grave stone from a Polovtsian burial ground. The stones are near a grove of oaks reputedly planted by Peter the Great.

Michael Eckels / MT

The St. George Bell Tower stands on a hill near the Church of the Ascension.

The masterpiece of Kolomenskoye is the magnificent Church of the Ascension (1532), a unique stone tent-spire church that soars 62 meters over the river. It is undergoing the first serious restoration in its history, so visitors will have to wait two more years before they can enjoy its austere beauty and imagine Ivan the Terrible, sitting on a stone bench built specially for him on a church gallery overlooking the river.

Past the stockade tower is a path that leads down to a gully and then up an incline through the woods to the 16th-century Church of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Historians think it was built by the architects who designed St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square.

The gully itself is reputed to have magical powers. Legend has it that men need only sit for a few minutes on the stone called the Goose to improve their virility. Women who wish to have children should spend some time on the Grandmother Stone.

But no one should spend too much time in the ravine. Pre-revolutionary and Soviet newspapers published reports about people who disappeared here. They re-appeared dozens of years later, all telling the same tale of a bright tunnel of light and "tall furry people."

Kolomenskoye Museum Preserve, 39 Prospekt Andropova; tel.: 115-2768; park compound open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; museums open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Monday.

Michele A. Berdy, a Moscow-based translator and interpreter, writes the Word's Worth column for The Moscow Times and was a main contributor to the Insight Moscow City Guide published in 2006.