ITMO: Five Ancient Russian Cities with Fascinating Legends

St. Petersburg might be the biggest city in North-Western Russia, but age-wise it has nothing against the 1000-year old cities in this region, their histories blending folklore and facts. How did some of these ancient places come about?

First mentioned in 859

Two brothers – – together with their entourage, went to look for a “new fatherland.” Moving north, they reached a lake called Moysko. The Mutnaya river flowed out of the lake. Divination helped them decide to stay there and they founded a city at the source of the river – Slovensk. They renamed lake Moysko after Sloven’s daughter Ilmer and the river – after Sloven’s son Volkhov. They lived here for a long time, extending their grounds, until a plague came and all the inhabitants fled. Years later, Slavs found this decayed region and decided to found a new city – Novgorod (“new town”).

First mentioned in 862

Not really a city nowadays, but we couldn’t exclude it from the list, as there’s a theory that that’s where came to rule Rus’, which would make Staraya Ladoga – now just a village – the first Russian capital. This theory is supported by several lists from Primary Chronicle, as well as partially by archeological research, which proves that in this region, Ilmenian Slovenes, Finno-Ugric tribes, and Normans were in close contact in this region as early as the 9th century.

First mentioned in 903

One of Pskov’s most famous legends is related to . According to it, Trinity cathedral – the heart of Pskov – was built after she witnessed a sign from God: three bright rays emanated from the sky and joined on a rocky promontory by the river. Olga made the order to build a temple there and predicted that the city around it shall be great. In the 19th century, a St. Olga chapel was erected on the opposite riverbank, where a miraculous sign was shown to the princess.

First mentioned in 1295

There’s a legend regarding Priozersk’s most famous tourist attraction – . According to it, Karelians wanted to find a new place for them to settle in independently from other Finno-Ugric peoples and Slavs. First, they started to build a fortress on Tiuri island but the construction process wasn’t going well. Then, they heard a voice from heaven stating that this location isn’t good for them and they need to travel further via the Vuoksa river, until they hear a cuckoo’s song. They followed the gods’ advice and settled where Priozersk is today. Although probably just a legend, it’s a beautiful explanation for the Swedish (Kexholm – “cuckoo’s hill”) and Finnish (Käkisalmi – “cuckoo’s strait”) names for Korela fortress.

First mentioned in 1166

Unfortunately, this city was turned to ruins during World War II and nowadays, almost nothing reminds us of its many centuries of rich history. Velikiye Luki started with a settlement on river Lovat near its current location. In 1166, this place was first mentioned under the name Luki as the place where came for a meeting with Novgorod boyars.

There’s a legend regarding Ryurik’s bodyguards – who accompanied him to Luki, where they’ve heard about Mal – a famous sorcerer who could predict the future. He had two beautiful granddaughters whom Askold and Dir kidnapped and ran away with them to find new free land for them to rule in. Mal knew secret paths of the region and managed to find Askold and Dir. They’ve asked him why his magic and skills didn’t help him save his granddaughters, to which he replied with a prediction that stated that daughters won’t be returned to him and the outlaws will become rulers but eventually, they will be deceived and stripped of everything. For these words, Mal was killed, but the prediction came true – later on, Ryurik’s heir Oleg tricked Askold and Dir out of the city, killed them and sat on the throne in Kiev. The fate of Mal’s granddaughters is unknown.

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