Roads of the Golden Ring: from Moscow to Vladimir along the route of Siberian exile

Of the many roads that leave Moscow, the longest one heads towards the east. The present-day Volga Highway was formerly known as Gorky Highway (named after the city of Gorky, the former name of Nizhny Novgorod during the USSR) and historically known as Vladimir Highway. It was part of the Siberian Route, the longest road on earth, which stretched for thousands of versts (old Russian unit of measurement) to China. The section of this road from Moscow to Vladimir is part of the famous Golden Ring.

Beyond Lake Baikal were the notorious Nerchinsk mines—the «Tsarist GULAG,» where people from all over Russia ended up in hard labor. In that direction, there were a lot of other places «not so remote as they were hard to reach» (a Russian euphemism for a prison). Along Vladimir Highway, criminals and revolutionaries departed Moscow towards the east. There was no public transportation at that time, so they made the journey on foot through the frost and slush wearing heavy shackles on their ankles. Along the highway were transit prisons with banyas and hospitals, but the walk to Nerchinsk took about a year, and not everyone made it to the destination. Vladimirka (nickname for Vladimir Highway) remains in the Russian consciousness as the way to prison or exile.
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There’s not much to remind us of this nowadays. There are fragments of the old roadways remaining in some villages, but it’s not easy to find them. The enormous city of Balashikha near Moscow is primarily known to the capital’s residents for its traffic jams. Leo Tolstoy’s heroine, Anna Karenina, took her own life at the train station at Zheleznodorozhny (formerly Obiralovka). Along the way, you will catch a glimpse of 18th-19th century churches and estates as well as old huts with their intricate wood-carved door and window frames, quite typical for the area around Moscow.

The eastern suburbs of Moscow Oblast (Moscow region) are some of the most densely populated places in Russia. However, this used to be an area of dense forests, in which Old Believers hid after the church schism in the 17th century. Their self-sufficient economy, mutual assistance, and sobriety contributed to the development of trade and crafts in their villages. Beginning with the birth of railroads during the 19th century, wealthy peasants began to build textile factories. Many manufacturers «from the people», having become rich, went down in history as patrons and popularizers of Russian art.

Most of the factories stopped working after the USSR collapsed, but their red-brick workshops and workers’ barracks, water towers, and pipes are still there. Like the avant-garde Soviet monuments of the 1920s, they are reminiscent of the local workers’ participation in the revolution. The best architectural ensembles of old factory Russia have been preserved in Orekhovo-Zuyevo, Noginsk (also home to the world’s oldest Lenin monument), Drezna, Lakinsk, Sobinka, and other cities.
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Just past the border with Vladimir Oblast (region) lies a zone known to Russians as the «101st kilometer». During the Soviet era, convicted criminals were forbidden from settling in the Moscow region after serving their sentences and were not permitted within 100 kilometers of the capital. Thus, in the small towns beyond the 101st kilometer, there arose a peculiar little world of criminals and dissidents, where a thief and a disgraced professor could drink vodka at the same table.

Author Venedikt Yerofeyev vividly described the local customs in his novel Moscow-Petushki, and yes, the town of Petushki («Chickens» in English) really exists. Petushki’s train station has retained its own attraction—the hyperboloid tower built at the start of the 20th century by engineer Vladimir Shukhov.
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