The Rising Bear

Yaroslavl is an ancient town of Russia, named after its founder, Prince Yaroslavl later called the Wise. Located in central Russia at the confluence of the Volga and Kotorosl (or Strelka) rivers, littered with onion-domed Russian orthodox churches and other architectural extravaganzas, the city is a gem in the so-called Golden Ring of Russian cities. Yaroslavl also enjoys the advantage, of being the meeting point of the Trans-Siberian and the Moscow-Archangelsk railway lines, as well as major highways.

The city, with a population of 650 000, is the capital of the prosperous Yaroslavl oblast. The region is a sovereign subject of the Russian Federation, with a population of 1.5 million and a territory of 36 000 square kilometres. Other important cities are Rostov, the cradle of Christianity in Russia and older still than the capital, Pereslavl Zalessky, the cradle of Peter the Great's navy, and Uglich, the cradle of the Romanov dynasty which felled the Ruricovichs in the 16th century.

Yaroslavl was founded in 1010. Its silver coat of arms shows a standing bear holding a golden pole-axe, and the shield's history dates back to the time of the foundation. According to legend, Prince Yaroslav killed a bear at the exact spot where he later built the fortress that grew into a city. The bear was sacred to the people of the area, and the prince's act supposedly subdued their pagan ways. Yaroslav had indeed been wise: The fortress was a great success, for steeply rising banks from the surrounding rivers and the deep Bear Ravine proved a natural protection.

In 1224, the building began of the what is now the city's oldest place of worship, the Cathedral of Transfiguration. Only fifteen years later, Yaroslavl was invaded and burned by the Tatar-Mongols, who apparently no fortification could resist. Several uprisings against them failed, one which gave name to a nearby hill - Tugovaya Gora, the hill of sorrow. Finally a unified Russian army led by Prince Dmitry of Moscow succeeded in driving the Mongols away.

Yaroslavl grew as a crosspoints of trade routes, offering mainly a river port to Volga, but also providing a starting point for inland journeys. The prosperity reached its peak in the 17th century, when Yaroslavl was second only to Moscow. Distinctive Yaroslavl schools of architecture and painting emerged at this time, most notably in the numerous religious frescoes, where Christian themes are combined with daily life depictions and folk art. Treasured products from the region, such as jewelry, linen, embroideries, icons and various pottery and wood articles, were exported to many other parts of the world.

In this golden age, a great many beautiful churches with colourful tiles and decorative brickwork were erected. Tolchkovsky Church of John the Baptist and the church of Elijah the Prophet are the greatest of them all. The city can also be proud of housing the unique manuscript to the ancient Lay of Igor's Host, discovered in the Spasso-Preobrazhensky monastery in 1790. The confused medieval layout of the city was changed in the 18th century, substituting narrow, winding street with broad roads and squares. Elinskaya Square became the centre from which all the main roads stretched like rays, much like Place de Charles de Gaulle in Paris.

Eventually, all lucky stars have to fade. Yaroslavl became eclipsed by the czar's new town, St. Petersburg. With the trade diminishing, Yaroslavl began developing its industry instead, and did fairly well, although the glory of old was gone. Nothing much significant happened during the Communist era. But in 1993, a monument to Yaroslav the Wise was erected on Bogojavlenskaya square.

Perhaps the bear will rise again.

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