William C. Brumfield


      There are many settlements in the Russian north whose architectural monuments reflect an earlier period of economic prosperity and strategic importance that has since decreased, or vanished altogether: Belozersk, Kargopol, Velikii Ustiug, Solvychegodsk. Among these treasures of the north, Totma must rank as one of the most distinctive to the modern visitor. Located on the Sukhona River midway between Vologda and Velikii Ustiug, Totma is a small town of some 10,000 souls, and yet from its midst there rise some of the most dramatic forms of church architecture to be found anywhere in the north. Even before arriving in Totma, there are examples of impressive architecture in the surrounding countryside, such as the late eighteenth-century Church of the Resurrection in the village of Tsareva. Now empty and percariously perched on a high bank above the Tsareva river, it still retains its imposing neoclassical form (Photo 1).

      Whether one approaches Totma by road over the rolling fields and forests to the west or from the wide valley of the Sukhona River, the appearance of these tall spires on the landscape calls forth a sense of wonder. I have traveled to Totma on sultry summer mornings, when the apparition of its churches shimmers above the surrounding fields. But I have found Totma most remarkable in the winter, for example on a bitterly cold (-30 degrees Centigrade), sunny day in early January 1997, when the church towers reached above the plumes of ice haze and smoke from hundreds of snow-draped wooden houses (Photo 2). Despite the inevitable pace of change in the twentieth century, Totma has miraculously managed to preserved something of the scale and aura of an earlier era in which its towering white churches formed one of Russia's most distinctive ensembles.

      Totma has long attracted the attention of travelers and scholars, and the architecture of the town's eighteenth-century architecture churches has been extensively studied by a number of Russian specialists (1). Nonetheless, certain topics remain to be explored in depth, in particular the relation of Totma's monuments to eighteenth-century church architecture in northern towns such as Velikii Ustiug and in settlements of the Urals and Siberia, such as Solikamsk (e.g. Church of John the Baptist), Eniseisk, and Irkutsk.

      The first known mention of Totma is 1137, ten years earlier than the first recorded reference to Moscow. As is often the case in Russia, the name of the town derived from the nearest river, which in turn derives from ancient pre-Slavic, Permian words that meant "damp area overgrown with bushes and firs "(2). Yet present-day Totma is not near the Totma River, which flows into the Sukhona some seventeen kilometers downriver (i.e., to the northeast). Apparently the original settlement was sacked in 1539 by a raid of Kazan tartars, and the survivors chose to resettle at a more favorable location upriver near salt springs and deposits that would form a major source of the region's wealth. "Totma" remained the name of the new town, situated at the confluence of the small Pesya-Denga River with the Sukhona (3).

      Today salt is so common that we forget its central value as a commodity in the medieval world. The Totma salt works, among the earliest in Russia, consisted primarily of crude, shallow iron containers of a meter or more in diameter that held the salt solution to be boiled down over open fires (4). By the middle of the sixteenth century Totma had become a major center of salt refining, which helped support those favored monasteries in the Vologda region that received tax exemptions from Moscow for the production of salt. The Savior-Prilutskii Monastery sent one of its monks, Feodosii Sumorin, to supervise salt production in Totma.

      Feodosii saw the potential for further development at the new settlement, and in 1554 he founded a monastery nearby, on the Pesya Denga River. Having received the permission and blessing of his former superior at the Savoir-Prilutskii Monastery, he applied to Moscow for a waiver of the tax on salt, and received a charter in 1555 from Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) (5). Not surprisingly, the Savior-Sumorin Monastery soon became one of the most important and wealthiest Orthodox institutions along the Sukhona River, despite the fact that it consisted almost entirely of log buildings until the end of the eighteenth century. Indeed, its surviving monuments were built after the churches in the center of Totma; but rather than return to the monastery, the text will now present a brief survey of the monastic ensemble.

      The monastery still stands, with its much-damaged but imposing ensemble, about a kilometer beyond the western fringe of Totma. Its first brick church, dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Savior, was completed in the 1680s, but that early structure has long since disappeared beneath later rebuilding of the church (6). Another church, the Dormition of the Mother of God, was built in 1870 along the massive east wall of the monastery and is now only a gutted ruin, with fragments of its apse remaining (Photo 3). The grandest of the monastery's surviving structures is the palatial Ascension Cathedral, built and expanded over a period of three decades, from 1796 to 1825 (Photo 4). Although a partial restoration has restored the exterior of its imposing late classical forms, the church remains abandoned, with its interior stripped (Photo 5, 6). Under current circumstances, the preservation of these monumental structures is very much in question (Photo 7).

      The visual dominant of the Savior-Sumorin Monastery was its large bell tower, rebuilt over the main entrance between 1800-1840 to a height of some 35 sazhens. Its second floor contained the Church of St. John Chrysostome. Damaged by fire in the summer of 1917, the bell tower was only partially repaired, and structural problems eventually led to its demolition.

      The Savior Sumorin Monastery also contains an excellent, if little-known museum of folk crafts from the Totma region, with hundreds of examples of traditional wooden implements for farming and household use. The collection had its origins at the beginning of this century, when regional historians began to understand the value of these folk implements, often beautifully decorated. The collection was greatly expanded in the 1970s and subsequently, partly as a result of an increased interest on the part of local museums, but also, indirectly, a reflection of the depopulation of northern villages and farmsteads. Whatever their origin, the collection conveys an air of a vanished, self-reliant culture (7).

      Let us now return to the early history of Totma. The other major force in the development of Totma's lucrative salt works was a branch of the Stroganov family, headed by Afanasii and his son Grigorii. Just as they did elsewhere in the north, the Stroganovs gained a near monopoly on salt production by ruthlessly undercutting any possible competition (with the exception of the protected monasteries), and by rendering valuable services in return to the Muscovite tsar (8). In this way, the Totma Stroganovs prospered throughout the seventeenth century, although they did not build magnificent brick churches like those endowed by Anika Stroganov, head of a larger Stroganov empire at Solvychegodsk, to the north of Velikii Ustiug.

      Salt was not the only source of wealth for this northern region. The hunting and sale of fur-producing animals also played a significant role. Indeed, the official state seal of Totma displays a black fox on a gold background, indicative of the importance of the fur trade to the local economy. And with the opening of trade with England and Holland during the latter part of the sixteenth century, through Arkhangelsk on the White Sea, Totma became a major river port and trading center, whose extensive warehouses not only represented the growth of foreign imports, but also the increased trade with the Urals and Siberia through river networks pioneered by the Stroganovs.

      In 1565, during the oprichnina, Ivan the Terrible included Totma in his own domains, and he visited the town several times between 1566-1571 during his frequent stays in Vologda, which he apparently wished to make his northern capital. Fortunately, Totma escaped the devastation of the latter part of Ivan's reign, as well as the Time of Troubles at the beginning of the 1600s. Throughout the seventeenth century the town maintained its steady prosperity, aided by privileges granted by the tsar's court.

      Like Ivan before him, Peter the Great valued the strategic commercial significance of Totma, which he visited several times during his journeys to the strategic port of Arkhangelsk. It is said that during a visit to Totma the young tsar insisted on handling the difficult, dangerous work of salt refining as a measure of his strength and as a result of his insatiable curiosity about practical crafts and trades. Having boiled down the solution in the large pan to the required amount of salt, Peter insisted on receiving the standard pay for this work (9).

      With the founding of St. Petersburg in 1703, however, Peter would irrevocably change the direction of trade between Russia and the west and with it the arteries that supplied these northern towns with their wealth. Nonetheless, the effects of these changes were long in coming. During the eighteenth century certain local merchants such as the Panovs showed remarkable enterprise in exploring distant territories, and by the end of the century, a number of expeditions to Alaska were funded in Totma. Indeed, a Totma resident named Ivan Kuskov founded California's Fort Ross in 1812 and served as its first commandant. His modest log house in Totma has been converted into an attractive, informative museum (10).

      The wealth that flowed into this community during the eighteenth century supported the building of a number of brick churches of striking design, with large bell towers and baroque decoration in a distinctive scroll pattern formed in brick. These churches, and the nearby Savior-Sumorin Monastery, were designed to present an imposing view to the river, rising as they did above the wooden settlements around them. Fortunately, a few of these landmarks are being restored - in some cases for use by the Orthodox Church and in others as sites for museums.

      Unfortunately, the restoration proceeds sporadically, and petty vandalism has undone some of the repairs.

      The oldest surviving church in Totma, the Church of John the Baptist (1738-40), now exists in fragmentary form. Huddled in the shadow of the Church of the Entry into Jerusalem (see below), only the lower story of the main sanctuary has survived (11). Nonetheless, the remaining structure provides significant information about the form of Totma churches before the appearance of a distinctive Totma style. The same can also be said about the Church of the Resurrection (1744-49), whose entire basic structure has survived, although without its octagonal upper part and cupola (12). These churches show considerable resemblance to typical parish architecture as defined in Moscow in the latter part of the seventeenth century, with such features as decorative window surrounds (13).

      The earliest known appearance of what can be called a distinctive Totma style, is the Church of the Resurrection in Varnitsy, located on the northeastern fringes of the town (14) (Photo 15). The lower part of the building dates from 1743-50, while the upper part was added in 1772-75, thus establishing a precedent for the Totma practice of erecting tall church structures in two stages. The lower stage still exhibits stylistic features from the preceding century, but the upper part displays the clear delineation of basic form (including simple window surrounds), with elaborate brick facade decoration in the cartouche form, the most visible feature of the "Totma baroque."

      In the center of Totma, the tower-like Church of the Nativity of Christ demonstrates the rapid development of the local style (Photo 14). Instead of the traditional five cupolas with a bell tower in the west, the structure is highly centralized, with an elongated series of octagons rising above the main structure in the manner of a spire. The refectory and porch are modest in comparison with this soaring vertical emphasis. This structure was also built in the two phases: the lower, winter church dates from 1746-48, and the upper church was added in 1786-93 (15). The lower church thus serves as a base for the great height of the upper church; but the design is so accomplished that the fusion of structures usually goes unnoticed. A free-standing bell tower, completed in the 1790s, was razed in the Soviet period. The Russian Orthodox Church has now reclaimed the building for worship in the center of Totma, and the walls are now free of the restoration scaffolding that once surrounded the exterior of the church.

      The next example in the series of Totma masterpieces is the Church of the Trinity in Green Fishers' Quarter, near the Sukhona River (Photo 16). Like the Nativity Church, it was erected in two phases (1768-72 and 1780-88), with funds provided by the merchant Sergei Cherepanov. Records show that the master builder was a certain Fedor Titov, a free peasant (16). In its basic form it returns to the pentacupolar design traditional for seventeenth and eighteenth-century church architecture (as with the Resurrection Church at Varnitsy), but with the distinctive Totma emphasis on structural verticality and brick facade ornament. The structure of the Trinity Church is now in very good condition, after having been recently restored to active use for the local Orthodox parish (Photo 17). Its cupolas, demolished during the Soviet period, are once again in place, and its whitewashed brick walls, with the distinctive Totma barogue scroll ornamentation, again gleam with white paint.

      The most imposing of the monuments is, perhaps appropriately, the one Totma church constructed in a single phase. The Church of the Entry into Jerusalem waserected in 1774-94 with funds provided by the brothers Grigorii and Peter Panov, merchants who were involved in the trade with "Russian America" (Photo 8). Even though built in one phase, this church follows the practice of creating two places of worship, the lower of which was used in winter and the upper in the summer (Photo 9). All churches of this type in Totma were boldly designed without interior piers, and their height was dictated not only by aesthetic considerations, but also by the fact that they actually consist of two churches, one above the other (Photo 10). The narrow pilasters that segment the facade and emphasize its height, the elaborate scroll work between the window courses, and the detailing of the cornice and cupola drums are executed with a remarkable sense of proportion (Photo 11). The bell tower attached to the vestibule in the west echoes the vertical accent of the main structure (17) (Photo 12).

      During the Soviet period, this church and its tower were deprived of domes, and the interior was gutted after the war, when the building was adapted for use as a bottling plant for alcoholic drinks (Photo 13). The domes have since been restored, although work remains to repair the iron crosses above the cupolas. The more austere lower church has been adapted for use as a museum of Russian seafaring, in view of the town's role as a river port. The main task, however, is the renovation of the upper church, once the most splendid in the Totma region. This work proceeds very slowly, and a complete restoration would require immense resources, particularly because only fragments of the once lavish iconostasis have survived.

      Other recent restoration projects include the Dormition Church, located next to the Church of the Resurrection on the north bank of the Sukhona. Although originally built immediately after the Resurrection Church in 1749-55, only fragments remain from the early walls. Most of the church was dismantled for a rebuilding in 1800-1808 that produced a modest one-story church. Perhaps this structure was intended as the base for a larger church, in the Totma tradition of two-stage construction. In any event the church was covered with a wooden roof and low dome in the neoclassical style. The main part of the structure now contains a branch of the Totma Museum devoted to religious art (primarily icons) (18). Its bell tower, begun in the 1790s and completed in 1808, literally overshadows the church itself (Photo 18). Its base contains clear examples of the "Totma baroque" use of brick ornament in the cartouche form. In good weather it is possible to climb to the top of the bell tower for a superb panorama of Totma, the Sukhona, and the surrounding countryside.

      Neoclassicism also characterizes what was once the city's main cathedral, dedicated to the Epiphany. The first brick structure of the cathedral (formerly of wood) appeared in 1744-49 and apparently resembled the design of other local churches of that period. Attempts to rebuild the church at the beginning of the nineteenth century eventally led to a fundamentally different, neoclassical structure in 1816-22 (architect: I.A. Focht), which was later substantially modified in 1863-68 (19). In the Soviet period the main domes and cupolas were removed, thus giving it the appearance of a neoclassical house.

      In addition its church architecture, Totma was widely known for crafts such as wood carving and metal working (especially the niello technique of ornamental inlay). Local craftsmen excelled in the production of carved toys, and similar skills can be seen in the decoration of the town's many log houses, with their elaborate carved window frames and cornnices (Photo 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26). On some houses the roofs are edged with intricate metal drain spouts.

      As in other northern Russian towns, the preservation of log houses in Totma has often yielded to the construction of monotonous brick apartments with no aesthetic relation to the existing neighborhood. However, a few small log apartment houses have recently been erected or renovated near the central area. Indeed, Totma is better preserved than most northern towns, partly because changing trade patterns in the nineteenth century and the lack of a railroad led to a decrease in the town's wealth. In view of its small size and an economy based primarily on farming, the town has retained its harmonious relation to the surrounding landscape. At the same time the lack of development carries its own burdens. Tourism has not yet become a realistic basis for the support of large restoration projects, and therefore other economic sources are necessary to sustain not only the life of the community but also the continued restoration work directed by the Totma museum.



  1. Notable recent publications on the architecture of Totma include: V.P. Vygolov, "Arkhitektura barokko v Tot'me," in V.P. Vygolov, ed., Pamiatniki russkoi arkhitektury i monumental'noqo iskusstva (Moscow, 1980), pp. 103-25; G. Bocharov and V.Vygolov, Sol'vychegodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Tot'ma (Moscow, 1983); and D.A. Grigorov, "Tot'ma i ego okresnosti," in A.V. Kamkin, ed. Tot'ma: Istoriko-literaturnyi al'manakh. Vol. 1. (Vologda, 1995), pp. 119-286. Grigorov's study of Totma is actually a book-length manuscript, orginally written in 1915-1929 and prepared for publication here by S. P. Belov. See also G.V. Alferova, Russkie goroda XVI-XVII vekov (Moscow: Stroizdat, 1989), pp. 52, 149, 174, 181-2.

  2. On the derivation of the name "Tot'ma," see A.V. Kuznetsov, "Doslavianskie toponimy totemskogo kraia," in Kamkin, Tot'ma, vol. 1, p. 48.

  3. A description of the Sukhona River network near Totma is contained in Aleksandr Kuznetsov, Sukhona ot ust'ia do ust'ia (Vologda: Ardvisura, 1994), pp. 37-39.

  4. The Totma salt works is described by V.N. Zamaraev, "Solevarenie v Tot'me," in Kamkin, Tot'ma, vol. 1 pp. 63-71; and, in greater detail, by D.A. Grigorov, "Totemskie solianye promysli," in A.V. Kamkin, ed., Tot'ma: Kraevedeskii al'manakh, vol. 2 (Vologda, 1997), pp. 84-131. Grigorov's study was written in 1915 and intended for publication the following year, but economic difficulties brought on by the First World War prevented publication.

  5. A detailed history of the Savior-Sumorin Monastery, and the life of its founder, Feodosii Sumorin, is contained in P. Sawaitov, N. Suvorin, and I. Suvorin, Opisanie totemskogo Spaso-Sumorina monastyria (Vologda: Znamenskii and Tsvetov, 1911). See also D.A. Grigorov, "Tot'ma i ego okresnosti," pp. 224-48; and M. lu. Khrustalev, "Totemskie sviatye," in Kamkin, Tot'ma. vol. 1, pp. 53-57.

  6. The construction history of the main churches in the Savior-Sumorin Monastery is summarized in G. Bocharov and V. Vygolov, Sol'vychegodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Tot'ma. pp. 312-18. See also Grigorov, "Tot'ma i ego okresnosti," pp. 232-38.

  7. The former monastery administrative building contains a number of rooms used for storage of folkcraft items held by the Totma Museum. On this and other components of the Totma Museum, see A. Spazhev, "Khronika totemskogo kraevedeniia (1980-1995), in Kamkin, Tot'ma, vol. 2, p. 544. An analysis of carved distaffs held at the monastery is contained in V.A. Pritchina, "Prialki iz sobraniia totemskogo kraevedcheskogo muzeia," in Kamkin, Tot'ma. vol. 1, pp. 105-18.

  8. The most detailed study of the Stroganov operations in the north is: A.A. Vvedenskii, Dom Stroganovykh v XVI-XVII vekakh (Moscow, 1962). Specifically on Vologda and Totma, see pp. 251-73.

  9. Bocharov and Vygolov, Sol'vychegodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Tot'ma. p. 271.

  10. A survey of Kuskov's work in North America is contained in N. A. Chernitsyn, "Issledovatel' Aliaski i Severnoi Kalifornii Ivan Kuskov," Letopis' Severa. vol. 3 (Moscow, 1962), pp. 108-21.

  11. On the Church of John the Baptist, see: Grigorov, "Tot'ma i ego okresnosti," pp. 162-66; Vygolov, "Arkhitektura barokko v Tot'me," pp. 104-6, 108-9, 112-3; and Bocharov and Vygolov, Sol' vychegodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Tot'ma. pp. 275, 278.

  12. On the Church of the Resurrection see Grigorov, "Tot'ma i ego okresnosti," pp. 131-7; Vygolov, "Arkhitektura barokko v Tot'me," p. 106, and Bocharov and Vygolov, Soi'vychegodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Tot'ma, pp. 290-1.

  13. An analysis of seventeenth-century Muscovite church architecture is contained in: William C. Brumfield, A History of Russian Architecture (Cambridge-New York, 1993), pp. 141-200.

  14. On the Church of the Resurrection at Varnitsy, with donations by the Stroganovs, see Grigorov, "Tot'ma i ego okresnosti," pp. 210-22. See also Vygolov, "Arkhitektura barokko v Tot'me," pp. 104, 108, 112-3, 116, 119; and Bocharov and Vygolov, Sol'vychegodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Tot'ma, pp. 310-12.

  15. The Nativity Church is described in detail in Grigorov, "Tot'ma i ego okresnosti," pp. 156-61. See also: Vygolov, "Arkhitektura barokko v Tot'me," pp. 113, 117, 119; and Bocharov and Vygolov, Sol'vychegodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Tot'ma, pp. 281-2.

  16. On the Trinity Church, see Grigorov, "Tot'ma i ego okresnosti," pp. 188-91; Vygolov, "Arkhitektura barokko v Tot'me," pp. 115, 117, 120; and Bocharov and Vygolov, Soi'vychegodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Tot'ma, pp. 285, 289.

  17. On the genesis of the Church of the Entry into Jerusalem, see Bocharov and Vygolov, Sol' vychecrodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Tot'ma. p. 278; and Grigorov, "Tot'ma i ego okresnosti," pp. 165-70. The church's early stylistic features are discussed in Vygolov, "Arkhitektura barokko v Tot'me," pp. 120-25.

  18. On the Dormition Church and its bell tower, see Grigorov, "Tot'ma i ego okresnosti," pp. 131-39; Vygolov, "Arkhitektura barokko v Tot'me," pp. 107-8, 118; and Bocharov and Vygolov, Soi'vycheqodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Tot'ma, pp. 292-3.

  19. On the Epiphany Cathedral, see Grigorov, "Tot'ma i ego okresnosti," pp. 139-47; and Bocharov and Vygolov, Soi'vychecrodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Tot'ma. pp. 273-75.

  20. Totma's secular architecture, including wooden houses, has yet to be studied in detail. See Bocharov and Vygolov, Sol'vychegodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Tot'ma, pp. 295-300.

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