The small settlement of Staraya Ladoga (Leningrad Region) on the Volkhov River is perhaps the oldest Russian city and the first Russian capital. Ladoga (in Swedish Aldeigjuborg) was founded not later than 753. The historians suppose that the genesis of the Russian nationhood is closely tied with this place. The archaeological finds and evidences of the sources enlighten its history. The surviving buildings like the fortress, St. George’s church, tumuli on the Volkhov’s bank and the exhibition of the museum re-create the incidents of the long-ago.
The history of Ladoga begins in the 8th century, when the Varangians (Scandinavian immigrants) and the Slavs came to these lands, peopled by the Finno-Ugric tribes. The town appeared as Scandinavian settlement, later it was taken by the Slav tribe of Slovene. The town was already trading with the neighboring tribes then. Afterwards the town changed hands time and again till the citizens invited the Varangian konung Ryurik to defend the city from the invasions. Ladoga appeared as a trading settlement and it was very rich. Trade route from the Varangians to the Arabs and the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks passed through this place. Ladoga stays near the rapids in Volhkov, which are impassable for the sea ships. The merchants made stops in this port and passed their goods out. The flow of goods from the East and South met the goods from the North. Between the goods transported from the North southwards were arms, wood, fur, honey and amber. The inessentials like spices, jewelry, glassworks, precious textiles, wine and even bread as well followed in return.
In the 12th century Ladoga turns into one of the main Russian fortresses on the western border. It was the Novgorodian prince Mstislav Vladimirovich, who built the first stone fortifications in the year 1114 or 1116. The highness of its walls reached 8 metres, and the thickness – 2 metres. These walls sustained a siege of the Swedes in 1164. According to the legend, the famous St. George’s church in Staraya Ladoga was built in honor of this victory.
The evidence of the legend is unveritable, because the church is mentioned in the chronics for the first time concerning to its reconstruction in the 15th century. The church of St. George and the church of the Assumption are surviving buildings of the second half of the 12 century. Minimum five churches of the same period were detected by the archaeologists. All of them had wall-paintings. This fact demonstrates, firstly, that Ladoga was a prosperous and rich city that time, because the painted stone church is a very expensive thing. Secondly, it points out indirectly, and the sources give verifications, that the population of Ladoga (and not only Ladoga, but Pskov and some other Russian cities as well) was not fully Christianized, though the Christianity became the official religion of the Russian state in the late 10th century.
Staraya Ladoga has partly survived its medieval figure till nowadays. The ruins of fortress built in the 16th century, St. George’s and Assumption churches, the complex of tumuli and the landscape itself leaves nobody cool. The museum exhibition helps to complete the character of the medieval city, where the residents of the different nations and cultures lived and put up. Russian, Finno-Ugric, Scandinavian artifacts, Arabic coins demonstrate the multicultural character of the medieval Ladoga. The St. George’s church survived its decoration, the wall-painting of the last third of the 12th century, reminding both the Byzantine and the north-European art. The art historians are not still sure, if the painters were the Russians, or the Greeks. Anyway, all the letterings are made in Slavic characters.
If you want to experience a full immersion into the middle Ages, visit the historical festival Ladoga historical festival Ladoga, taking place every summer, in June on the territory of the fortress.
To complete, the settlement of Staraya Ladoga is situated in 120 km from St. Petersburg and in 12 km from the town of Volkhov. You can get there by train from St. Petersburg from the Moskovskiy train station to the station of Volkhovstroy and then take the bus 23 or 23A to Staraya Ladoga. If you travel by car, you need the highway St. Petersburg-Petrozavodsk and then the highway A115 (Novaya Ladoga - Zuyevo).