The 'Golden Ring' is a recently coined term that evokes a heroic distant past. Located northeast of Moscow, the Golden Ring is composed of some of Russia's oldest cities, wherein occurred the events that shaped early Russian history.
Towards the end of the 9th century, Slav tribes began to migrate into the hilly forest land of the Volga headwaters. They established small farming communities, eventually absorbing the Finno-Ugric tribes that already occupied the region. These Slav settlements made up the easternmost reaches of the Kyivan Rus principality and bordered the formidable Turkic Bulgar state of the Middle Volga.
Wary of his eastern rival, the Kyivan Grand Prince, Vladimir I, defeated the Bulgars in combat and secured his claim of sovereignty over these Slav tribes. Vladimir then made his son, Yaroslav, the regional potentate, responsible for collecting tribute and converting pagans among the locals. Upon his death, in 1015, Vladimir's realm was divided among his sons, ushering a prolonged period of violent sibling rivalry and fragmented power.
The victors who eventually emerged from this fratricidal competition were the descendants of Yaroslav's son Vsevolod, who had inherited the Rostov-Suzdal principality. As a result, the locus of power in medieval Russia gradually shifted eastward. In this period, the Golden Ring towns prospered and expanded under a string of shrewd and able princes.
In the early 12th century, Suzdal's Vladimir Monomakh founded the fortress city of Vladimir, high above the Klyazma River. He entrusted the eastern lands to his young son, Yury Dolgoruky. In 1125, Yury took the title of Grand Prince and declared Suzdal as the northern capital of Rus. In 1157, Yury's son, Andrei Bogolyubsky, moved the Grand Prince's throne to Vladimir, which grew into the dominant city-state in the region. Andrei and his brother Vsevolod III (r 1176-1212) brought builders and artists from as far away as Western Europe to give Vladimir a Kyiv-like splendour. When the Mongols paid a visit in the 13th century, Alexander Nevsky, Russia's first war hero, rebuilt Vladimir and restored the city's political status.
The heirs of Vladimir Monomakh sought to create a realm that rivalled Kyiv, the cradle of eastern Slavic civilisation. Under the reign of Andrei Bogolyubsky, in particular, the region experienced a building frenzy. Imposing towers, golden gates, fortified monasteries and elegant churches were constructed to match the cultural ambitions of its political rulers. Rostov-Veliky, Suzdal, Vladimir and Sergiev Posad each played an important part in making the Golden Ring the spiritual centre of Russian Orthodoxy.
The heyday of the Golden Ring towns was short-lived. Marauding Mongol invaders overran the towns' realm and forced their princes to pay them homage. With this change in regional politics, the erstwhile lesser principality of Muscovy rose in prominence through its role as the Golden Horde's chosen tribute collector. Gradually, the once proud principalities of the Golden Ring were absorbed into the expanding Muscovite state and reduced in status to another set of provincial capital towns.