Yaroslavl is one of Russia’s most beautiful cities. With its wonderful and inimitable architecture, it is truly the jewel of the Golden Ring of Old Russian cities east and north of Moscow (250 km or 170 miles).
Yaroslavl was founded around 1010 by Prince Yaroslav the Wise (Yaroslav Mudry) of Kiev as a fortress on the site of the ancient settlement of Medvezhy Ugol at the confluence of the Kotorosl and Volga rivers. The chronicles first mention it in 1071.
The choice of location was extremely advantageous from the military point of view. The high steep banks of the Volga and Kotorosl rivers and the deep Medveditsky Ravine with a stream flowing through it formed a natural defense. Approaching merchant ship convoys and enemy forces were clearly visible for many kilometers.
With the breakup of the Old Russian state in the 12th century, Yaroslavl became a guard post on the troubled border of the isolated Rostov-Suzdal princedom.
In 1218, the log city became the capital of the Yaroslavl princedom. The prince’s palace was located there, and other wooden palaces, churches and houses were built around it.
The first stone buildings to appear were the imposing churches in the Kremlin and the Transfiguration of Christ Monastery outside the city. Owing to its location on an important Volga River trade route, Yaroslavl flourished in the 12th and early 13th centuries; but the Mongol-Tatar invasions in the mid-13th century put an end to this burst of prosperity for many long years. Like many other Russian cities, Yaroslavl was burned to the ground in 1238, but did not bow to the enemy.
In 1463, the Yaroslavl princedom became part of the unified Muscovite princedom. In 1612, during the struggle against Polish intervention, the Popular Militia under the leadership of Kusma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky was stationed in Yaroslavl. The all-Russian government body known as the Council of the Land was also established here. As a reward for its active part in uniting Russian forces during the Time of Troubles, Yaroslavl received the right to cut and transport stone and building timber duty-free.
Yaroslavl experienced a construction boom in the early 16th century. A new Assumption Cathedral was built in the Kremlin to replace the ruined 13th-century prince’s church, and work began on a set of beautiful stone buildings decorated with frescoes at the Transfiguration of Christ Monastery. The trading quarter was expanded in the mid-16th century, and the trade and craft villages of Korovniki, Tolchkovo, Streletskaya, and Yamskaya sprang up outside the boundaries of the Fortress City. In the 17th century, Yaroslavl was an important trading (grain, flax, fish, and other goods) and craft center and the second-largest city after Moscow. Yaroslavl stonemasons, carpenters, tanners, and blacksmiths were renowned. Stone construction continued to expand (nearly all the wooden buildings had been destroyed by fire in 1658); and by the mid-17th century, distinctive schools of stone architecture and fresco painting had formed in Yaroslavl. The famous churches of Ilya the Prophet, John the Baptist in Tolchkovo, and a set of buildings in Korovniki with unique frescoes were built during this period. The 17th century was truly the «golden age» of Yaroslavl art, which added one of the most vivid pages to the history of Old Russian culture.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Yaroslavl was an important point on the trade routes between the centralized Russian state and countries of the East (via the Volga) and Europe (through Arkhangelsk, Russia’s only seaport at the time). Foreign merchants had their own «town house» in the city from which they sent goods to Moscow, Kostroma, Nizhny Novgorod, and farther on to Persia.
Construction of the Great Yaroslavl Linen Mill, one of the largest of its time, began in 1722 by decree of Peter the Great.
The city became a major industrial center in the 18th century. It became part of St. Petersburg Province in 1708, became the capital of the same province in 1719, then was made part of Moscow Province in 1727, and finally became the capital of the Yaroslavl governorship (Yaroslavl Province as of 1796). A unique work of Old Russian literature, The Song of Igor’s Campaign, was discovered in the manuscript collection of Spassky Monastery in 1788.
Many Russian cities that became provincial capitals underwent redevelopment in the latter half of the 18th century, changing their appearance considerably. Yaroslavl received its regular layout in 1778. A new city center was built, in which the dominant features were three squares [Ilinskaya, Platsparadnaya (now Demidovsky Square), and Sobornaya (Strelka)] that led from one to the other. New houses and public buildings in the classicist style were constructed, and the Volga embankment was developed (1825-1835). In 1805, nobleman P.G. Demidov initiated and funded the establishment of the Demidov School of Higher Sciences (reorganized into a lycee in 1833 and into a university between 1918 and 1924). Between 1870 and 1898, Yaroslavl was connected by rail to Moscow, Vologda, Kostroma, and St. Petersburg. A railway bridge was built across the Volga in 1903. By 1897, there were 2755 wooden and 1099 stone houses in Yaroslavl, which was considered one of the most beautiful cities of the Upper Volga. There were 77 churches, and branches of the State, Farmer’s Land, Moscow International, and City Public banks, offices, and docks were operating. A city theater, a provincial hospital, and other institutions were opened. There were annual trade fairs, where the main items of trade were glass, porcelain, and glazed earthenware dishes. The most notable industrial enterprises among the 57 operating factories were mills producing cotton and linen thread and fabrics, a tobacco factory, chemical and match factories, and sawmills.
Modern-day Yaroslavl is a versatile city with a large, diversified industrial base and time-honored theatrical traditions. It was in Yaroslavl that F.G. Volkov founded the first professional Russian theater in 1750. The first provincial magazine, The Country Bumpkin, appeared in 1786; and one of the first major provincial newspapers, Northern Territory, whose popularity extended well beyond Yaroslavl Province, began publishing in the late 19th century.
During the planned reconstruction carried out in 1936-1937 and 1965, construction work went on mainly in the east and south in order to preserve the historic part of the city. New streets, parks, and squares were built and monuments were improved and restored.
The oldest part of Yaroslavl is located on a high point called the Arrow (Strelka) at the confluence of the Kotorosl and Volga rivers. The central part of the city preserves the radial-ring structure that formed spontaneously in the 17th century along with the regular development according to the plan of 1778; thus, the main streets fan out from the central square towards the former gates in the city wall.
No other Russian city has so many beautiful works of medieval fresco painting. Yaroslavl artists enriched traditional Christian themes with details of national life, reflecting a new attitude in their work that was understandable to ordinary people.