October 01, 1999

Tozhok: Provincial Treasure

For all of the changes, positive and negative, wrought by this century in russia, the central russian provinces still contain towns that seem to have survived the onslaught of faceless architecture and industrialization. Kaluga and Kolomna, both on the Oka River south of Moscow, are prime examples, although they too have recently felt the heavy hand of modern development. However, few provincial towns can rival Torzhok, situated on the Tvertsa River in Tver Province, for the quiet beauty of its landscape. Its many stately churches, houses, and old shops seem derived from an earlier epoch of prosperous estates and gentry culture. Indeed, the modest, intimate scale of its central streets belies the fact that the town has a rather sizeable population of 50,000 inhabitants.

Situated some 60 kilometers to the west of Tver and near the mid-point of the highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, Torzhok is among the oldest settlements in central Russia. The earliest recorded mention of Torzhok appears in an ancient chronicle under the year 1139—earlier than the putative founding date of Moscow, 1147. As in the case of Moscow, there were probably Slavic settlements on the site by the 10th century, and the town’s oldest monastery, dedicated to Saints Boris and Gleb, is considered to have been founded in 1038. Yet, by the iron logic of written documents, the first reference to Torzhok in 1139 is taken as the date of the town’s founding.

From the outset, Torzhok’s favorable location made it a place of active commerce. Its very name comes from the word for “trading site,” and the town was closely connected to the leading center of early medieval Russian trade, the city-state of Novgorod (see Russian Life, Oct/Nov 1998). Merchants from Torzhok provided Novgorod with much of its essential grain, and it is estimated that by the beginning of the 13th century, as many as 2,000 Novgorodians regularly visited Torzhok to conduct trade. The town also served as a defensive bulwark in Novgorod’s southeastern territory.

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