Sergiev Posad 2019

Sergiev Posad is a city of slightly more than 100,000 people that is 75 km to the north-east of Moscow. Unlike the other cities on my list, I am not going to say much about Sergiev Posad’s socioeconomic status. I was there for a day, and it was filled up with purely “touristic” things. As in Kolomna, the population has declined by 10% since the end of the end of the Soviet period, when it was called Zagorsk (in honor of the Jewish revolutionary Mikhail Zagorsky, whose main accomplishment seems to have been spreading Bolshevik propaganda amongst Russian POWs in German captivity during WW1). During the late Soviet era, the city was a major center of chemical weapons production, which was shuttered down during the 1990s.

On the bright side, Sergiev Posad appears to one of the major epicenters of Russia’s drive to restore its previously neglected and/or destroyed historical legacy. The churches are in much better condition than they were even just five years ago. Frescoes have been restored or repainted. Dirt paths have been paved over, at least in the tourist areas. And with the ROC now declaring its intention to make Sergiev Posad into the Vatican of global Orthodoxy, we can expect to see these transformations accelerate even further.

Our adventure didn’t get off on the very best footing. Our train took us to Fryazino, a small town away in the middle of nowhere, instead of Sergiev Posad, which was 40 km away. This wasn’t our fault, since at least a couple dozen other passengers faced the same problem – it was obviously a screw-up on the part of the people who were manning the information displays in Moscow. To add insult to injury, the turnstiles wouldn’t let us leave the station, since our tickets were for Sergiev Posad; this would have necessitated buying a second pair of tickets right at the station. Nor was continuing by train an option, since there was no route to Sergiev Posad; continuing by rail would necessitate a return trip to Moscow.

Since Russian Railways were too sovok to refund our tickets, to apologize, or even let us out, the stranded passengers also solved things the good old sovok way by climbing over the station fence and across the rail tracks [see photo]. My companion was uncomfortable about climbing that fence, so we stormed the turnstiles instead. Fortunately, Yandex Taxi (Russia’s Uber) is cheap, so we got the rest of the way by car.

Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius

Entrance to the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, the heart of the Russian monastic tradition.

As in Veliky Novgorod, one starkly noticeable thing was the proliferation of Chinese tourists on package tours.

I found it rather amusing that there were signs telling Russians and Chinese to be quiet – the latter in extra large characters – but not for Anglophone tourists.

The Refectory Church was constructed in the late 17th century. The building was close to a ruin a decade ago. Since then, it was restored, including the indoors frescoes.

The Trinity Cathedral (1422–1423) [left] is the oldest building in this complex. It houses the relics of St. Sergey of Radonezh (1314-1392), a hermit who played a crucial role in Russian history.

Sergey left Moscow to seek God in the forests outside the city. But his solitude was soon interrupted, as a growing stream of monks trickled out to join him. The community of ascetics in the forests soon developed a settlement (posad) around it.

This would subsequently form a template – a “killer app” of monastic core, armed camp, trading settlement – around which the colonization of the Russian North and beyond would subsequently occur. This was in contradistinction to the old ways, in which monasteries were attached to particular cities.

Sergey blessed Dmitry Donskoy before the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380.

The Bolsheviks closed the Lavra in 1920, and destroyed its bells in 1930. They also wanted to destroy the relics of St. Sergey of Radonezh, but were thwarted in their plans by a conspiracy of Orthodox priests, who hid them away until the Lavra was reopened in 1946. The Russian theological, mathematician, and scientist Pavel Florensky martyred himself to keep the secret of where the relics were hidden.

The Dormition Cathedral.

Tomb of the Patriarch Alexis I, who reached a “reconciliation” with Stalin on the permitted role of the Church in Soviet life in return for absolute loyalty to the Soviet state.

Guest Izba

The “Guest Izba” (Гостевая изба) is a very nice restaurant offering Russian and local cuisine. The windows made from mica are a cool authentic touch (this colored mineral was used instead of glass in windows in medieval Russia).

Sergiev Posad streets

Here are some typical streets in Sergiev Posad.

The Sergiev Posad Museum-Zapovednik was closed in preparation for an exhibition when we were there, so we went on straight to the Abramtsevo Museum-Reserve (see below). You can easily get there by railway or taxi from Sergiev Posad.

The Eternal Flame in Sergiev Posad.

The lake close to the Lavra.

Abramtsevo Estate

The Abramtsevo Estate was a 19th century center for the national/Romantic strain of the Russian visual arts. Its initial owner, Sergey Aksakov, had Nikolay Gogol over as a regular guest. After his death, it was bought by Savva Mamontov, a wealthy railroad tycoon who wished he had had the time and money to master the arts himself, and thus used his wealth to sponsor existing artists instead. Members of the artistic collective that hung round the estate during the summers included Ilya Repin, Mikhail Nesterov, Viktor Vasnetsov, and Vasily Polenov, and Mikhail Vrubel.

The Mamontov family played an active role in many of these artistic creations.

Their ultimate fates were rather tragic. Both of Savva’s sons died in relative youth, as did his daughter Vera (the subject of the famous “Girl with Peaches” painting; while the original is at the Tretyakov Gallery, there is a reproduction at the estate museum). The tycoon himself lived just long enough to see his estate expropriated by the Bolsheviks, who would subsequently portray him as an exploiter for building Russia many of its railways.

The road back to the railway station, recently built to connect it to the Abramstevo estate. (A few years ago this was a dirt track).

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. Please keep off topic posts to the current Open Thread.

    You can find all my travel posts here.

    My personal website has a list of all of my travel reviews here.

  2. Anatoly,

    Your recent excursions are my vicarious summer vacations. Many thanks.

  3. Thulean Friend says

    What a gem. I’d visit Russia but the visa hassles are just a mess for an EU national. It also seems we are in the early pangs of an incipient Chinese tourist surge in some of these places across Russia. 10 years from now, some of these smaller gems could be overrun by Chinese and other tourists, the way many smaller Czech, Austrian and Italian villages have. Not sure if that’s entirely a blessing if it were to happen.

  4. Mr Karlin, I hope that one day someone publishes a book of your travelogues, with your photographs. They are all worth preserving.

  5. While on the topic of Russian tourism, does anyone know how prevalent Giardia still is in Russia? My sister went to Russia some years back and got Giardia, and I did hear that the water in Russia makes it a high risk of getting it there.

  6. I’d visit Russia but the visa hassles are just a mess for an EU national.

    That is no longer a good excuse not to visit.

    Starting October 1, 2019, tourists can visit Russia’s cultural capital and the surrounding region by e-visa, with no consular fees.
    A decree to that effect was signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    Applicants need to fill out a form on the website of the consular department of the Russian Foreign Ministry and upload a photograph; there is no consular fee. The application can be made no later than four and no earlier than 20 days before the expected date of entry.

    The visa is valid for stays in St Petersburg and the surrounding Leningrad Region for up to eight days. The purpose of travel can be tourism, business, or humanitarian reasons.

    The list of countries whose citizens can apply for a St Petersburg e-visa will be published on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by October 1.

    In early July, e-visas for travel to Kaliningrad and Kaliningrad Region were introduced for citizens of 53 countries.

  7. The Big Red Scary says

    I got it the first time I came to Russia, but haven’t had it again, and I’ve lived now in Russia for many years. You are most likely to get it from unboiled well water, so just don’t do that, even for brushing teeth.

  8. The Big Red Scary says

    “Florensky martyred himself”

    This is an awkward choice of words.

    To clarify, Florensky got in trouble after writing in a book on relativity that superluminal geometry was the geometry of the Kingdom of God and was eventually shot, perhaps for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of St. Sergei of Radonezh.

    Following the links in the Russian wikipedia article on Florensky turns up very interesting history. Not only was Florensky himself quite an extraordinary character, his descendants were eminent Soviet scientists (geochemistry, planetology, ecology,…), and at least some of them seem to have remained faithful Orthodox Christians.

    AK: Have you come across the Florenskys in the context of “Russian cosmism”?

  9. even for brushing teeth

    Are the locals more immune to this, or do they all have to boil water for even brushing teeth?

  10. noice

  11. Are Chinese tourists viewed as poorly in Russia as in the West? I understand the concerns, but have to remember these were dirt poor peasants just a generation ago, civility wasn’t high on the priorities in the first place and cultural mores were annihilated by Maoism.

    Also has there been any movement on changing Soviet placenames? Sverdlovsk seems like a no-brainer given its namesake’s role in the Romanov’s murders.

  12. Bardon Kaldian says

    Florensky was a controversial figure. Although I think he got many things wrong, he was doubtless a strange mixture of a hero, martyr, genius, visionary & a bit “off”, to be charitable.

    I’ve read a book (probably there are more, but I am not aware of them) on a mixture of math & mysticism in Russian milieu, but it has not much on Florensky (Egorov & Luzin are “heroes”), and it is at best mediocre (click on a photo > get > download):

    These works I haven’t read:

  13. AquariusAnon says

    When I was in Sergiyev Posad, something like 80-90% of all the tourists there were Chinese. It felt just like China in fact. And yes, they are very loud, so loud that they managed to drown out the Orthodox Mass going on. Some even managed to have a picnic right inside the church grounds.

    The good news is that the town of city/town of Sergiyev Posad is completely untouched by the Chinese hordes: you won’t see a single Chinese person walking the streets even 2 blocks away. The buses drop them off right at the church entrance and after their tour, pick them up at the same spot.

  14. anonymous coward says

    cultural mores were annihilated by Maoism

    It’s not like they were cultured under Qing China.

    Also has there been any movement on changing Soviet placenames? Sverdlovsk seems like a no-brainer given its namesake’s role in the Romanov’s murders.

    Sverdlovsk was renamed in 1991.

  15. I am still trying to figure out what that weird thing is that looks like a seat built into the back of a chimney. Is it just some kind of shelf? Or does it have a functional purpose, like storing heat? Or helping to support the chimney?

  16. Perhaps, I haven’t experienced the full brunt of Chinese tourists, but I feel a bit of vicarious pleasure in hearing people complain of obnoxious foreigners that actually leave and go back to their own country. Is there really such a place?

  17. The Big Red Scary says

    I think they are immune, but in my experience it’s really only a problem with streams and with small private wells, and not only in Russia. Our water comes from a well shared by a few hundred houses and I drink it straight from the tap.

  18. Sergey blessed Dmitry Donskoy before the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380.

    It’s a legend invented later. In 1380, Prince Dmitry was cursed by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church (i.e., using the language of Catholicism, an interdict was imposed on Dmitry). Dmitry defeated the Tatars without the help of clerics, so you should not disgrace his name with religious tales.

  19. AltSerrice says

    Another great travel log. Definitely somewhere I’ll be sure to visit. Though the main thing I’m taking away from this is that it sounds like Anatoly has found some companionship…

  20. Philip Owen says

    I visited Sergey Posad in 1994. The town had a research and manufacturing centre for optical engineering, mostly weapon sights sadly. The only building undergoing renovation was the Dormiton Cathedral where there was new silver and gold leaf being put into place. Some was there already. A few worshippers were in front of the altar. The general tone was neglect and dilapidation. The walk around the walls was a mud path.

    I was the only foreigner that I could see. I was astonished to see large numbers of young men in clerical robes, carrying suitcases, being accompanied by their parents. They were the year’s new intake of seminarians. Everyone looked happy and excited. It was clear that the neglected look would not remain.

    Less than 10k away is Khotchkovo. This was the nunnery paired with the monastery. It had just been given back to the church but was still in use as a cultural centre. Some exquisite wood carvings produced in Soviet times by a subsidized wood carved were on sale. Neglect and decay applied to everything without exception, even the churches. There were no gates on the cloister and only mud roads. At the time, three nuns were said to be there. We saw two. They were young and pretty.

    My host in the district lived with his in-laws in a two roomed flat on the Garden Ring in Moscow. 9 people lived in the flat! His mother had a three roomed flat in Khotchkovo to herself. His wife preferred the overcrowding to living with mother-in-law. This attitude that Moscow is superior whatever the inconvenience is breaking down but trains to the exurbs are still not well organized, in contrast to the Moscow Metro and suburban. Tarusa, which does have good trains, has become a haven for creative professionals such as architects. Sergey Posad/Khotchkovo has similar potential if good train schedules can be put in place.

    The Abramtsevo estate was well looked after even in 1994.

    Great photos.

  21. Marshall Lentini says

    It also seems we are in the early pangs of an incipient Chinese tourist surge in some of these places across Russia. 10 years from now, some of these smaller gems could be overrun by Chinese and other tourists,


  22. These are great, thanks!
    Hope to visit someday.
    One thing sort of sad is how flaaaaat Russia seems to. I mean we know there are mountains but they seem to only be off in the either dangerous or hopelessly remote areas.

  23. Russia’s second capital is right next to a mountain range.

  24. Chinese cultural mores were annihilated by the Mongols.

  25. I’m surprised you didn’t mention anything about the Gypsies. On my last visit a few years back, many Russian Orthodox sites, and Sergiev Posad especially, were gathering spots for Gypsy beggars who used the “pious” location to politely shame people into giving them money. It looked like a prosperous business.

    It got to the point where if I was near a church in some town, I had to appear like I was just passing by rather than interested in the building, as one or more of them would otherwise invariably try to catch my eye.

    Also, during my visit it was decided to drive to Sergiev Posad rather than take the train, which was a horrible decision as the highway to there from Moscow was completely clogged.

    There weren’t so many Chinese tourists. Perhaps it was the off-season.

  26. Sven Lystbæk says

    It is actually very easy at least in Denmark where we havea travel bureau specialised in travel to Russia.
    They take care of everything so the only issue is that you need a documented international health insurance.