By William Brumfield


     Whatever the season, the Russian north possesses a special charm, with its forested landscape and old towns along river trading networks that once carried Russia's wealth to the West and to Siberia. The faded glory of these historic settlements is particularly evident in the churches, great and small, that dot the countryside in various states of disrepair. They are at their best, perhaps, in the late summer, when the mosquito swarms have diminished and the sunlight is still rich and warm. (Photos 1, 2,)
      Among these towns, Velikii Ustiug, located in the northeastern corner of Vologda province, is one of those provincial settings that seems miraculously untouched by time. That is an illusion, of course, and while the city (population about 36,000) celebrated its 850th anniversary last summer with much gusto, problems of the present day are much in evidence. The budgetary crisis and unpaid wages take their toll here, just as in any other Russian town. Yet, over its long history, Veliky Ustyug has learned to cope with adversity and rebound in a new affirmation of its independent spirit.
      In the past, this resilience was due to the town's strategic location at the confluence of two large rivers, the Sukhona and the Yug, which merge into a third--the Northern Dvina. Indeed, the name Ustyug means the "mouth of the Yug," and the epithet Velikii, or "great," was added at the end of the sixteenth century to signify the city's importance as a commercial center. This network of three navigable rivers spreads throughout northern Russia in a major transportation route that attracted the earliest Russian settlers here, apparently by the middle of the 12th century. The mercantile city of Novgorod sent its pioneering traders to the region, and until the middle of the 15th century Novgorod lay claim to the area (1).
      However, Veliky Ustyug ultimately cast its lot with Moscow and became an important military post. In this capacity Ustyug was involved in numerous conflicts during the medieval period. As early as the beginning of the 13th century, there are record of its participation in campaigns against the Volga Bulgars, and, at the end of that century, the town successfully rose against Mongol tax collectors and established de facto independence from Mongol authority--a rare event at so early a date.
      Velikii Ustiug also witnessed the vigorous development of the Orthodox Church. One of its most remarkable spiritual leaders, St. Stephen of Perm, began missionary activity as early as 1379 among non-Russian indigenous tribes eastward to the Ural Mountains (2). Stephen subsequently became a bishop, and was eventually canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. Other local saints include Procopius of Ustyug and John of Ustyug, both of whom have churches dedicated to them in the town's central Cathedral Court (see below). These churchmen are still greatly revered by local patriots.
      Despite the severe northern climate and the great distances between major settlements, Ustyug grew and thrived in the 16th century, especially with the development of trade between Russia and England and Holland during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Although it now seems quaintly provincial, the town was then a bustling river port, whose central parts were protected by a log fortress wall.
      Like most northern towns, Ustyug was built almost entirely of wood, and fire was a constant menace. As a result, there are no surviving churches from before the middle of the 17th century. But despite periodic fires, the residents always rebuilt with the same determination that had maintained their independence in earlier times. Indeed, during the interregnum known as the Time of Troubles at the beginning of the 17th century, the town, although damaged, successfully repulsed one major raid and the participated in the campaign that led, in 1613, to the enthronement of Michael, first tsar of the Romanov Dynasty.
      After the return to prosperous trade with Western Europe in the seventeenth century, Ustiug's merchants and churches acquired wealth that created most of the town's early brick churches. The main cathedral, dedicated to the Dormition of Mary, was built in brick during the 1550s, but had to be rebuilt a century later, after a major fire damaged the walls. (Photos 4, 5) A wealthy local merchant family, together with Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, provided the money for the rebuilding (3). In the eighteenth century, the Dormition Cathedral was modified still further and acquired an elaborate icon screen. The cathedral is now nearing the end of a successful restoration, but its iconostasis is stil covered in scaffolding, and the interior can be seen only with special permission (4).
      The Dormition Cathedral is surrounded by six other churches to form an ensemble known as Cathedral Court and the adjacent Archbishop's Court (Photo 3). Together with the cathedral bell tower, they form the dominant feature in the town's landscape and are dramatically situated on the high left embankment of the Sukhona River. Cathedral Court is the appropriate place to begin a walking tour of Ustyug and its delightful riverfront, which offers some of the most picturesque views in all of European Russia.
      Apart from the Dormition Cathedral itself, the most impressive church in the Cathedral Court area is dedicated to Procopius of Ustiug, completed in 1668. It, too, has been modified over the centuries, but still retains its decorative cupolas with gilded crosses. Although formerly a part of the city museum, the church has now been returned to active parish use and its interior, with iconostasis, can only be seen during or after worship services.
      Up river from this site stand the partially restored churches of the Prophet Elijah and Leontii of Rostov, as well as the grand building of the former Buldakov mansion. But the main historic district lies in the opposite direction, down the river embankment, where one soon finds two of the city's best late 18th-century mansions. One of them, recently repainted light pink with white trim, originally belonged to the merchant Usov. It now houses the main collection of the Veliky Ustyug State Historical Art and Architecture Museum (director: Antonina Andreeva). Their competent staff includes specialist guides such as Yury Petrovich Ivanov, who can be of help in gaining admission to churches not yet open to the general public.
      Despite the current difficult economic times, progress in preserving the city's architecture is clearly visible. Two decades ago, the Church of St. Nicholas Gostinnyi (late 17th and early 18th centuries), with its remarkable free-standing bell tower, was still being used as a saw mill. Because of its convenient location on the bank of the Sukhona River, logs could be pulled directly into the church. The St. Nicholas Church has since been beautifully restored on the exterior. (Photos 6, 7, 8,) It is now used as an icon museum and as a gallery to display the work of local painters, of which there seems to be an unusually large number (5). Not only does Ustiug have an active school for the arts, but it seems that artists are drawn to the town because of the beauty of the landscape and the relatively well-preserved architecture of the historic central districts.
      One of the defining spaces of the town center is the main shopping street, Uspenskaia, which runs parallel to the river embankment and has so little traffic that it is often used as a pedestrian promenade. The street is lined with 19th-century houses and shops. (Photos 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23) One such building is called Severnaia Chern, which sells one of the town's specialties--niello work on silver. Although the development of St. Petersburg lessened the importance of Ustiug as a center of transportation and trade, it continued to prosper as a mercantile center and became renowned as a center of crafts such as leather and metal working, as well as the making of fine enamel objects. In particular, its silversmiths developed skills in a technique known as niello, and their objects were in much demand not only in the north but in St. Petersburg itself. Indeed, some of their finest items were purchased by the imperial court.
      Farther down the river is another grouping of historic monuments, including the highly decorated Church of the Ascension. (Photos 9, 10, 11) Built in 1648-49 in the style of a Moscow parish church, it is the oldest structure in the town to survive in its original form, and is now part of the local museum. In addition to other religious objects, the interior of the church's main space still has its soaring icon screen, beautifully preserved with all of its provincial baroque ornament. Furthermore, the Ascension Church, like many Russian Orthodox churches, has additional chapels attached to the main structure. In this case the Resurrection Chapel, which can be reached by ascending the beautiful exterior stairway, rivals the main part of the church, with frescoes and its own, smaller iconostasis.
      The same district also has the baroque Church of St. Simeon the Stylite (1760s), with a highly-ornamented, detached bell tower. (Photo 12) This church, which looks as though it had been transported from central or southern Europe, can be approached through lanes that wander between small wooden houses and gardens. In such areas one gets a sense of what the town might have looked like in the 18th century. This church is not yet open to the public; but from the west, or embankment side, the St. Simeon Church forms a picturesque silhouette, especially when seen from the river--as does much of the center of town.
      Although river cruise traffic has vanished almost entirely on the Sukhona, one can still take a ferry boat across the river for an excellent view of Ustiug's left embankment. There are even rumors, emanating from the tourist office of the Vologda regional adminstration, that it might one day be possible to travel on a small river cruiser from Vologda or Totma to Velikii Ustiug--at least during the late spring and early summer, when there is sufficient water in the Sukhona River to avoid grounding in a channel that has not been properly dredged for years.
      This southern district of the town contains a number of small churches that once served the prosperous merchant neighborhoods of this area (Photos 13, 17). The level of this proposperity is reflected in the elaborate ornament of the merchant Shilov's house (ca. 1770), located near the slender vertical form of the Church of Sts. Antonius and Theodosius (Photo 16). All of these areas are in comfortable walking distance from the river promenade.
      One can return to the center of town along another route parallel to the Sukhona River, Krasnaya Street, formerly named Preobrazhenskaia, after the Transfiguration Monastery located just off the street (across from the Sukhona Hotel). Its two surviving churches (17th and 18th centuries) are now under exterior renovation, and their interiors serve as document archives with restricted access. Yet each contains a large, well-preserved iconostasis, and perhaps in the future the churches will be restored to something like normal use.
      Three blocks away is a much larger monastery, dedicated to Archangel Michael and converted during the Soviet era into a technical institute. Some of its five churches are being restored, including the imposing Archangel Cathedral, built in the mid-17th century (Photos 14, 15). Its exterior gallery leading to the refectory church contains a fascinating series of frescoes depicting the meaning of monastic life, and the cathedral interior contains a grand iconostasis in a mixture of baroque and neoclassical styles from the time of Catherine the Great (6).
      The wealth of Velikii Ustiug's merchants in the 18th century supported many donations to monastery churches, some of which gained ever more elaborate iconostases that are fascinating as a northern interpretation of European baroque art. The most remarkable example of the late Ustyug baroque is contained at the Trinity-Gleden Monastery, on the opposite side of the Sukhona River at Gleden, site of the earliest settlement of Ustiug (7) (Photos 25, 26). It can be reached by hiring a private car. The main church, dedicated to the Trinity, was begun in 1659 but completed only in 1690 due to financial difficulties (8).
      A century later, between 1776 and 1784, a new donation enabled the construction and painting of a splendid iconostasis, whose exuberant carved figures in the baroque style reflect the town's close ties with St. Petersburg. Both the form of the iconostasis and its state of preservation are extraordinary, with a full complement of icons painted in a highly-trained, Western academic style that would be quite at home in Catholic Europe (9). All of this presents a great enigma.
      From the Trinity-Gleden Monastery, the view across the river toward Veliky Ustyug is especially beautiful, and reminds of the importance to preserve such settings. On another road back to town from Gleden, one can stop at the village of Dymkovo, with its well-preserved wooden houses and two majestic churches--St. Sergius of Radonezh (1739-47) and the larger St. Demetrius (1700-1709)--located on the right bank of the Sukhona opposite Cathedral Court (Photo 24). From either side of the river, there is an excellent view of the churches opposite--another example of the superb sense of ensemble that characterizes historic Ustyug, with its wooden and brick houses on quiet streets that retain a human scale.
      To be sure, there was serious damage to Ustiug during the Soviet period, as some churches were destroyed in the central district, and an unsightly power plant was built right by the river. But, in comparison with so many other provincial towns, Ustiug still has a sense of historic setting, and new construction has been directed to larger areas outside the central, historic area.
      Whatever the current financial difficulties, there is considerable potential for the development of tourism in Velikii Ustiug. At present economic restructuring has caused a decrease in Russian tourism to national historic sites, and the intrastructure is still lacking to make Ustyug a convenient destination for foreign tourists. That, no doubt, will change. In the meantime the town's most important mission is to preserve the precious legacy of its historic art and architecture--an ensemble that is irreplacable.
      The best way is to go by car through Vologda to Totma, where the road forks. At this point one can take the long route, through Nikolsk, over a reasonably well-paved road (six to seven hours), or one can try the direct route along the Sukhona (the so-called Niuksenitsa road). Both routes go through picturesque countryside. Scheduled bus service from Vologda or Totma is infrequent and still on a trial basis (in every sense of the word "trial").
      Formerly it was possible to take a Moscow-Kotlas train with cars designated for a spur line to Velikii Ustiug. Now one must transfer at Kotlas to a bus or to a small train in order to reach Ustiug. The Ustiug train station, built in better times, is one of the most attractive that I have seen in provincial Russia. It should be remembered that in today's Russia, the availability of scheduled transportation is subject to frequent change.
      Ustiug has a reasonably good hotel, the "Sukhona," which is located in the center of town, a block from the main shopping street (Uspenskaia) and two blocks from the delightful promenade along the Sukhona River. The hotel rooms vary in quality, but all are clean and many have private baths. Some of the deluxe rooms are actually small suites. The prices are quite affordable. Requests for information on this and other tourist arrangements can be referred to the regional cultural office (directed by Iya Belozertseva), whose numbers are (81738) 2-10-28 or 2-17-80.
      The Sukhona Hotel does not have a restaurant, although there is a convenience shop with packaged food just to the left of the entrance. There is, however, an excellent restaurant "Na Uspenskoi," just around the corner on Uspenskaia Street.
      1. For a survey of the history of medieval Velikii Ustiug, see V. P. Shilnikovskaia, Velikii Ustiug (Moscow, 1973), pp. 8-26. Chronicles of the campaigns of Vasilii Kosoi and the Viatchane are contained in Letopis Velikoustiuzhanskaia, ed. A.A. Titova (Moscow 1889), p. 28.
      2. The Vita of Saint Stephen of Perm is one of the most famous vitae of the medieval Russian church. Written by Epifanii the Wise in 1396, the Vita of Saint Stephen of Perm has been the subject of much research, such as: D. S. Likhachev, Chelovek v literature drevnei Rusi (Moscow, 1970), pp.73-80.
      3. An analysis of the architectural ensemble of the Dormition Cathedral in Velikii Ustiug is contained in G. N. Bocharov and V. P. Vygolov, Solvychegodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Totma (Moscow, 1983), pp. 92-117.
      4. On the development of the cathedral's iconostasis, see G. N. Bocharov, "Klassicheskie ikonostasy Velikogo Ustiuga," in G. G. Pospelov, ed., Russkii klassitsizm vtoroi polovinyu 18 - nachala 19 veka (Moscow, 1994).
      5. For photographic documentation of the use of the Church of St. Nicholas as a saw mill, see P. A. Teltevskii, Velikii Ustiug (Moscow, 1977), p. 100.
      6. For a survey of the building of the Archangel Michael Cathedral, see Teltevskii, Velikii Ustiug, pp. 24-26; and Bocharov and Vygolov, Solvychegodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Totma, pp. 196-203.
      7. There is no precise documentary evidence on the date of the founding of the Trinity-Gleden Monastery, but it is obviously one of the oldest monasteries of the Russian north. For possible dates, see Shilnikovskaia, Velikii Ustiug, pp. 113-114.
      8. After the death of the two older brothers, the third, Vasilii Grudtsyn, took an oath to his father-in-law, Filaret (an elder in the monastery), to complete the construction of the cathedral. Vasilii neglected this vow, and only when the hegumen of the monastery turned to Patriarch Yoakim in Moscow did Grudtsyn provide the resources for the completion of construction around 1690. See Bocharov and Vygolov, Solvychegodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Totma, pp. 249-250.
      9. Comments on the iconography of the iconostasis of the Trinity Cathedral and its connection with Western church art are contained in K. Onasch, "Ikonostasy Veilikogo Ustiuga," in V. A. Sablin, ed., Velikii Ustiug: kraevedcheskii almanakh, vol. 1 (Vologda, 1995), pp. 180-194. For information on the identity of the masters who created the icon screen, see Bocharov and Vygolov, Solvychegodsk. Velikii Ustiug. Totma, pp. 255-57.

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