urban plan and civic architecture is an outstanding example of the interchange
of cultural and architectural influences between Western Europe and Russian Empire."
- UNESCO World Heritage List
Russia’s earliest leaders truly seemed to be created from the stuff of legend. Consider, for instance, Yaroslav, the son of Russia’s first Christian grand prince, Vladimir the Great. This prince faced early in his career the task of suppressing a hostile pagan tribe on the Volga River who raided merchants bringing good past their bend of the river. After Yaroslav arrived with a force to restrain these river pirates, the villagers released their secret weapon, a sacred bear with a taste for human warriors. The prince, however, merely grabbed an axe and with it dropped the great beast in one blow. When considering that this leader would later be remembered as “Yaroslav the Wise,” this early fete of perhaps unthinking bravery in the year 1010 truly appears remarkable.
Because of this event, the city of Yaroslavl, founded on the site of Yaroslav’s battle with the bear, maintains a coat of arms that features a bear carrying an axe. At first, the city served as an outpost of the principality of Veliky Rostov, a river port further down the Volga. Later it became its own princely state, a vassal under the pre-Mongol Russian grand principality in 1218. After Kiev was sacked in 1242, Yaroslavl grew rapidly in importance, eventually rising to the role of becoming Russia’s political, economic, cultural, and technology center. As such, it became a favorite target of Russia’s enemies, the Tatars and the Lithuanians, and many refugees of these sorts of raids fled to Tver, Nizhny Novgorod, and the eventual capital of all Russia, Moscow.
Still, despite all the raids, much of the city’s great sights remained almost untouched, set securely in a triangle defined in part by the junction of the Kotorosl and the mighty Volga rivers. This is where visitors will find the most picturesque of the city’s monuments to the past: the Church of Ilya (or Elijah) the Prophet, the Church of the Archangel Michael, and the Alexander Nevsky Chapel. Another important cultural treasure is the city’s art gallery, set in the old Governor’s Building. In 1998, it was recognized as the Russian Museum of the Year, and holds today a collection of some 60,000 icons, masterpieces of visual arts, sculpture, and handicrafts, some dating as far back as the 13th century.
This mid-sized city of 600,000 is well-situated, with converging highway, rail, and river connections. Four hours out from Moscow by train, service is relatively frequent between the two cities. The city and surrounding region also boast a fine collection of famous sons and daughters, among the latter of which the most famous is the world’s first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova (born about 10 miles west of the city). As such, the city is rightfully proud.