In the czars' shadow

THE old approach would have been by boat on the Moscow River. The tall spire of the Church of the Ascension, and the brilliantly colorful, fantastically shaped roofs of the royal palace, must have stirred anticipation from a considerable distance away. Guests disembarked and were carried for a while by coach. Then they strolled through the fields and up the steep riverbank. Before they came to the impressive, stone-built front gateway, they would pass close by the church. It was sited as if it had grown out of the sloping ground at the top of the bank, the small octagonal lantern perched on the peak of its tent-shaped tower like a lookout commanding the entire panorama of curving river and wide water meadows.

Today's rather plebeian arrival at Kolomenskoye - once a summer palace for the czars, now a public park, conservation area, and museum - is from the other side, first by metro and then 15 minutes on foot, skirting puddles and scuffing fallen leaves. But this walk takes you along an intriguing road, not much used, bordered now and then by apartment blocks of charmless utilitarian demeanor, the spaces between them of indeterminate status, possibly children's playgrounds, possibly farmland.

This road's very ordinariness seemed extraordinary to me. These are Russian leaves, I kept thinking, here is a Russian fence post. Here I am in Moscow all by myself, walking down this road, with scarcely a person around - a woman pushing a perambulator, a couple of workmen tinkering with an ancient truck, a man being greeted ecstatically by two dogs overeager for dinner. None of them was aware of me or each other. Nobody, I thought with a certain glee, has any idea precisely where I am.

I was quite proud of finding my way around. Now I was keeping in my sights the cluster of blue, bulb-shaped cupolas, just showing above the trees in the distance. Cyrillic street names were profoundly baffling. This was orientation by landmarks.

It is strange how strong the afterimage of this particular road has proved to be. I think I found it exciting, not only because I felt really away from the crowd for the first time since arriving in Moscow, but because it almost seemed like countryside, this semi-urban area 10 kilometers southeast of the Kremlin. I found out later that Kolomenskoye had in fact been absorbed into the expanding Russian capital only in 1960. Its sense of being ``outside'' still lingers.

Coming nearer to the blue domes, I passed an orchard. Peasants with head scarfs were picking apples. Then on the right, through a Sleeping Beauty tangle of shrubbery, brambles, and nettles, there was an old wooden house, shuttered and obviously empty.

Turgenev's ``A Month in the Country'' or Chekhov's ``Uncle Vanya'' might have used this setting - a motley assortment of inhabitants, long since vanished, slumping disconsolately in their wicker chairs round the steamy samovar, tense with laissez faire. Are they laughable or pitiable, these characters, so preoccupied with their passionate, wishful unexpectancies?

Finally I reached the entrance to Kolomenskoye. I didn't realize it at the time, but this is actually the back gate. A long avenue of lime trees, planted 160 years ago, leads from this gate, with its remarkable timber roof, to the front gate. Again it wasn't until later I found out that it was on the now grassy ground between these two gates that the amazing old wooden palace complex was once spread out. The only evidence left today of what it was like is a model in the museum, 1/40th of the original size.

The blue onion domes that had been my lodestar belonged to the charming mid-17th century stone Church of Our Lady of Kazan. That has been preserved. The Blue Guide says it is ``still used for service.'' But the rest of the palace, except for its gateways, fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished by order of Catherine the Great.

It is, however, what exists on the river side of the front gate that I found astonishing.

It was a little like coming on the tower, baptistry, and duomo of Pisa without prior knowledge or warning. And also without milling crowds of other tourists. Only two other people wandered among these white architectural monuments that late afternoon, one sketching them - the water tower, the bell tower, and above all the Church of the Ascension. The place was shared between us and the jackdaws, though it was clear these noisy, dark birds knew they were the true inhabitants.

It is the earliest tent-shaped church to be built of stone in Russia. It belongs to the early 1530s. Previously this particularly Russian form had been achieved only in wood.

The word ``ascension'' is more than apt. Everything about this building suggests liftoff.

It was closed (I don't know why), so I was forced to experience it from the outside only, as something to move around, but to move into with the eye only. Its exterior, however, is a rich complex of inward spaces. It is a giant sculpture, its lowest regions virtually honeycombed with arches. From the sloping ground, three entrances are reached by three stairways, angled like arms from the central body. Each stairway is canopied by a flat, sloping roof. These rising planes lead the eye with energetic emphasis to the verticality of the central tower.

This dominant tower then absorbs the whole intention of the building in one vigorously articulated upward surge. The base of the tower is square, though broken into many facets by columns interspersed with sharp arrow-shaped decorative arches and topped by three overlapping tiers of ogee arches, or kokoshniks, like sections of onions that have been halved and then sliced from stem to root. These natural, leaflike forms draw upward and inward to the eight-sided drum of the tower, and above that the ``tent'' roof with its crisscross of bead decoration climbs to its peak.

Altogether this building is a concatenation of austere and patterned forms, every part of it contributing to a single, determined skyward thrust. No wonder Hector Berlioz in the mid-19th century ``gasped in awe'' at such a ``paragon of beauty.'' To him it seemed ``an architecture of a new kind.''

But a Russian chronicler centuries earlier had actually preempted his admiration. He wrote simply: ``That church was so high and beautiful that Russia had not seen the like of it before.''

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