Two hundred kilometres east of Moscow lies the fortified hilltop town of Vladimir. Not the biggest of cities, it nonetheless has a special place as one of the traditional capitals of the Rus’ and also a centre of Christianity. Even today, a charming if slightly quiet provincial town (though very accessible from Moscow by fast and efficient Lastochka train), the sheer density of churches is striking, as well as the amount of money being spent on their restoration (when one might suggests the infrastructure could do with more of that cash…).
The traditional view was that the city was founded at the start of the twelfth century, and named Vladimir-on-Klyazma for Vladimir Monomakh, the prince of Rostov-Suzdal. More recently, there has arisen a school of thought that it actually dates back to the late tenth century and was named after Vladimir the Great, father of Russian Christianity, but in all honestly this is probably as much as anything else driven by a desire to give the place the most illustrious lineage possible. Either way, it was clearly a vassal-town of Suzdal (and Rostov), and a defensive bastion. It is built on a hill above the Klyazma river in a region that, as the photo below shows, is flat out to the horizon, hence its value in that latter role.
However, in the 12thC, it became increasingly important as a political and religious hub, becoming dominant within the Vladimir-Suzdal principality under Andrei the Pious (1157–1175). He oversaw a massive white stone building programme, which saw the city’s walls strengthened and acquire the Golden Gate, as well as the Cathedral of the Dormition and a new palace at Bogolyubovo (in which, ironically, he would eventually be assassinated by some of his own boyars). Russian. Georgian and European (especially German) masons and other specialists flocked to Vladimir, bringing with them new ideas, and taking away tales of the new city’s glories. Andrei even tried to petition the Patriarch of Constantinople to found a new metropolitanate in Vladimir, distinct from that of Kiev. This was rejected, but demonstrates both Andrei’s ambitions for his city and also the interconnectedness of political and religious power.
Then came the Mongols, and Vladimir’s importance made it a key target. When it resisted, it was besieged and sacked, suffering a terrible fire that gutted many of the new buildings. While the title of the Grand Prince of Vladimir remained a much-prized honorific, it was essentially a dynastic vanity plate, symbolic rather than carrying with it specific power. Vladimir recovered as a city to a degree, especially thanks to its brief period as the seat of the metropolitans of Kiev and All the Rus’, until the See was moved to Moscow in 1325.
In the time of Mythic Russia (see p. 110), Vladimir is a respectable second-rank city, but its real significance is as an anchoring site of Orthodoxy. Here the veil between physical world and the Otherworlds is at least a mastery thinner, especially inside the great cathedrals, and the Otherworlds are absolutely shaped by Orthodox iconography. The Cathedral of St Demetrius, for all its dvoeverie ways, is one of the greatest shrines to St Dmitri in all the Rus’ lands, and many a warrior and would-be general will come to spend a night in prayer (and gift the clerics on the side, too) in the hope of winning the saint’s blessing.