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Tracing Russia's Past and Present in Vologda

In the popular imagination, most of Russia is north, cold and imponderable. Yet within this vast territory, there is a region to the northeast of Moscow, between Yaroslavl and Arkhangelsk, that has a cultural coherence created by those who settled in its forests and moved along its rivers and lakes during the middle ages. Even this limited area, sometimes considered a stronghold of "pure" Russianness, contains ethnic and cultural variety derived from a complex interaction of history and geography. Inhabited by Finnish tribes before the arrival of the first Slavic explorers and traders, it served as a place of retreat and spiritual solace for the avatars of Muscovite monasticism during the 14th and 15th centuries. At the same time the wealth of its forests and lakes, as well as its position astride trading routes north to the White Sea and west to the Baltic, led to the creation of towns that would become repositories of Russian traditions in the arts and crafts.


The cultural and administrative capital of this region is Vologda, which during the 19th century gained notoriety as a place of exile for political prisoners. It also gained the attention of ethnographers and of artists such as Vasily Kandinsky, who traveled through the area as a student in 1889. What he saw of peasant crafts during this expedition would have a profound effect on his artistic career -- and on the development of modern art.


With the coming of railroads to the north during the last three decades of the 19th century, Vologda became an important transportation and commercial center. At the same time the beauty of its architecture attracted a growing number of artists and critics, who saw in this provincial town something timeless and unspoiled.


Today this territory is exposed to the same economic and social pressures as the rest of Russia's provinces but, like the others, Vologda region must face its own specific problems within the general transformation occurring throughout Russia. Vologda is not, in fact, the largest city of the region. That honor belongs to Cherepovets, although both cities have slightly over 300,000 residents. Cherepovets, the leading industrial center of Vologda region, has survived relatively well on the basis of its heavy industry -- in particular chemical plants and specialty steel mills.


Vologda, on the other hand, has depended more on its role as a white-collar, administrative center, and this has been a mixed blessing.


Although the city has little of the pollution associated with heavy industry, its administrative importance has resulted in certain fundamental, fateful changes in urban planning. Long-time visitors to Vologda can remember a time, in the '60s, when it still preserved the charm and sense of proportion that so impressed artists at the beginning of the century. Of course there had been depredations during the Soviet era, when 15 of the city's 55 churches were destroyed. But at least the central districts retained a harmonious scale.


In the '70s and '80s, however, a large area in central Vologda was cleared in order to accommodate a new regional administrative complex, whose centerpiece is a massive, multi-storied office building out of scale with its surroundings. In view of the heavy-handed administrative "culture" of the late Soviet period, this dominating structure was no doubt deliberately intended as an expression of power; but it proved to be a miscalculation, and to this day the building is often referred to with derision. Furthermore, some preservationists claim that this project established a mind-set whose attitudes continue to undercut attempts to preserve what is left of historic Vologda and, in particular, its wooden houses. Passions run high on these issues, and for the past few years there has been a heated debate on the role of preservation in the development of the city center.


Whatever the outcome of this clash of opinion, Vologda still has its major landmarks, whose architecture serves remarkably as a record of history and a reflection of a venerable cultural heritage. Vologda's dim origins go back to at least the 12th century, when the area was explored and colonized by traders and settlers from Novgorod, located some 500 kilometers west of Vologda and one of the most important economic centers of medieval Russia. By the end of the 14th century, Moscow had its own agents in the town; and a century later, after a prolonged, complicated struggle, Vologda and its surrounding territory were taken into the Moscow principality. By the middle of the 16th century, Vologda had become the trading and administrative center of northern Russia. It also served as the primary distribution point for rapidly increasing trade with England, and subsequently Holland, by way of Arkhangelsk and the Dvina River.


Vologda was built entirely of wood until the reign of Ivan the Terrible, who in 1565 included the town in his private domain, or oprichnina, and initiated construction of a masonry fortress, apparently to serve as his northern residence. After 1571 this enterprise was abandoned and the walls were eventually dismantled; but one important monument remains: the Cathedral of Saint Sophia. Built in 1568-1579, it is an excellent example of mid-16th century church architecture based on Aristotle Fioravanti's Dormition Cathedral (1475-79) in the Moscow Kremlin.


After the Vologda eparchy expanded its territory in 1571, the Sophia Cathedral was intended to serve as the seat of this bishopric. However, for various political reasons the cathedral was not consecrated until 1588, after the death of Ivan the Terrible.


Fortunately, the Vologda Cathedral of St. Sophia has been well-maintained. Yet, despite obvious concern for its preservation, there have been dubious modifications to the area surrounding the cathedral. A well-intended but ill-advised decision led in 1987 to the erection of a monument to poet Konstantin Batyushkov and his horse on a small plaza between the approaches to the cathedral and the banks of the Vologda River.


One of the most talented poets of Russia's early 19th-century "Golden Age," Batyushkov had a long connection with Vologda, and he is buried at the Spaso-Prilutsky Monastery to the north of the city. No one would begrudge him a monument, but placing this oversized sculptural group so close to the cathedral has a jarring effect that breaks the union between the cathedral and its natural setting.


The huge space of the cathedral interior was completely painted and includes major scenes devoted to the life of Christ and Mary, the parables of Christ and, on the west wall, a particularly vivid "Last Judgment," with elegantly dressed foreigners descending to hell. Although these frescoes are among the best examples of 17th century Russian art, and are in a relatively good state of preservation, the museum entrusted with the interior desperately needs additional funds, as do almost all Russian museums. Paradoxically, maintenance of the interior is aided by the fact that services are not regularly held in the cathedral, which thus escapes the wear of large numbers of worshippers and the darkening associated with votive candles.


With the exception of the Sophia Cathedral, Vologda through the 16th and early 17th centuries remained a collection of log structures, more than once devastated by fires. In addition to these natural disasters, the city was sacked in 1612, during the Time of Troubles. Nonetheless, Vologda's strategically important position assured its continued existence on a scale that impressed foreign merchants and emissaries, some of whom left drawings of its expanse of church towers and log houses. With the recovery of the city in the 1620s and its increasing wealth, masonry construction appeared more frequently as a partial antidote to the ever present danger of fire.


Beyond the central ensemble of the Sophia Cathedral and the Archbishop's Court, Vologda expanded in all directions to accommodate its precincts devoted to commerce, crafts, and administration. Of the several brick buildings constructed by foreign merchants and by monasteries during the 17th century, most have disappeared; but a number of brick churches remain, rising in beautiful design over the wooden neighborhoods that surround them.


Indeed, some would argue that the real distinction of Vologda is its wooden houses, many of which still survive, albeit under constant threat of demolition. A few neoclassical examples from the early 19th century have been preserved. These houses typically have a portico or a raised central bay and pediment known as a mezonin. Their plank siding obscures the fact that they are log structures, occasionally of considerable size. Ironically, the practice of applying siding has contributed in contemporary Vologda to the loss of structure worthy of preservation: a prosperous tenant or property owner who no longer wishes to maintain a solid log building simply demolishes it, rebuilds in brick, and hides the fact by recreating the wooden siding.


By the end of the nineteenth century, Vologda witnessed the development of multi-family wooden houses of two or three stories that were often elaborately decorated to suit the wishes of the owner. At the beginning of this century, some were designed with carved ornament that reflect the influence of the Russian equivalent of Art Nouveau. Many log houses remain, with distinctive features such as protected entrances and second-story loggias. Unfortunately, the advances of decay and neglect are often evident, and there are too few resources for renovation. The dilapidated appearance of these solidly built and crafted structures only serves to reinforce the arguments of those for whom such buildings are an outmoded, dangerous relic.


While Vologda must find a way to resolve the issues of preservation and development, smaller settlements in the area face similar problems on a different scale. The town of Totma (population around 10,000) is an excellent example. A few years ago you could still take a river boat down the Vologda River to the Sukhona, which led in a northeasterly direction to Totma. For centuries, the water network was the main form of communication in this territory, and prosperous towns presented their best side to the river. Under current conditions, the state can no longer subsidize river transportation, but it has decided to expand the road network in this area, with notable progress. Without good roads, the area's farms and villages will decline still further, and Totma is a town that depends upon agriculture for its existence.The first recorded reference to Totma is 1137 -- 10 years earlier than Moscow. During the 16th century it became a major center of salt refining, which brought considerable wealth to local monasteries and to the Stroganovs, who rapidly gained control of this lucrative enterprise. Totma's prosperity increased further not only through its position on the trading route to the White Sea, but also through trade with Siberia. Some local merchants showed special interest in exploring distant terrain, and by the end of the 18th century, a number of expeditions to Alaska were funded from Totma. Indeed, a Totma resident named Ivan Kuskov founded California's Fort Ross in 1812. His log house in Totma has been converted into a modest, but attractive museum.


The wealth that flowed into this community during the 18th century supported the building of a number of brick churches of remarkable design. Narrow, but tall, with curious baroque decoration and magnificent bell towers, these churches -- and the nearby Spaso-Sumorin Monastery -- would have composed an impressive scene, rising as they did above the wooden settlements around them. After decades of neglect, some of these superb buildings are being restored -- in some cases for use by the Orthodox Church and in others as sites for museums. However, the restoration proceeds sporadically, and low-level vandalism seems to undo some of the results. Totma could become an excellent tourist center, but so much else has to happen before the town will ever acquire the necessary facilities for tourism.


In the northeastern part of Vologda region is Veliky Ustyug, one of those provincial Russian towns that seem curiously untouched by time. That is an illusion, of course, and as the city (population around 36,000) prepares to celebrate its 850th anniversary this summer, problems of the present day are very much in evidence: budgetary crises, the cessation of passenger train service and most river transport, economic stagnation, unpaid wages. Yet over its long history Veliky Ustyug has learned to cope with adversity and rebound in a new affirmation of its independent spirit.


In part the resilience is due to its strategic location at the confluence of two large rivers, the Sukhona and the Yug, which merge to form a third -- the Northern Dvina. The name Ustyug means the "mouth of the Yug," and the epithet Veliky, or "great," was added at the end of the 16th century to signify the city's importance as a commercial center. This network of three navigable rivers spread throughout northern Russia in a major transportation route that attracted the earliest Russian settlers there, apparently by the middle of the 12th century.


For much of the medieval period, Ustyug was far from tranquil. As early as the beginning of the 13th century there are records of its participation in campaigns against the Volga Bulgars, and at the end of that century the inhabitants successfully rose against Mongol tax collectors and established de facto independence from Mongol authority -- a rare event at so early a date.


Veliky Ustyug also had its peaceful accomplishments. In addition to being a center of trade, the town had a vigorous Orthodox presence. One of its greatest spiritual leaders, St. Stephen of Perm, began missionary activity as early as 1379 among non-Russian indigenous tribes eastward to the Ural Mountains. For one tribe, the Zyrians, he devised their first alphabet in order to translate religious texts. Stephen subsequently became a bishop, and after his death was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. His memory is still revered in Russia, especially among residents of Ustyug.


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. 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 sent forces for the campaign that led in 1613 to the enthronement of Michael, first tsar of the Romanov dynasty.


With the return to prosperous trade with western Europe in the 17th century, Ustyug merchants acquired the wealth that produced some of the town's early brick churches. Among them is the main cathedral, dedicated to the Dormition of Mary, which was rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite the hard time, progress in preserving the architecture of the city is clearly visible. Two decades ago the Church of St. Nicholas Gostunsky (late 17th and early 18th centuries), with its beautiful bell tower, was still being used as a saw mill because of its proximity to the Sukhona River. It has since been restored on the exterior, and is now used as a gallery to display the work of local painters, of whom there is a large number. Not only does Ustyug have an active school for the arts, but one suspects that artists are drawn to the town because of the beauty of the landscape and the preserved architecture of the historic central districts.


There will always be pressures to change such historic ensembles, often motivated by short-sighted economic reasons. Yet there is considerable potential for the development of tourism in such a picturesque location. That, too, would bring changes, not all of them positive. But the town must have an economic base on which to survive. Economic cuts have affected Russian tourism, and the facilities needed to make Ustyug a significant destination for foreign tourists are still lacking. At least the expansion of the road network will permit more convenient access by bus or car.


Local authorities intend for the celebrations of the 850th anniversary of Veliky Ustyug this summer to bring additional support to the city. Ilya Belozertseva, head of the cultural section for the city and regional administration, confirmed at a recent meeting that plans were moving ahead for a series of concerts and other events in July. Whatever the economic uncertainties of the moment, the artistic heritage and natural beauty of Ustyug are among the great resources of the Russian North. Indeed, the Vologda region is rich in the greatest of treasures, those that come from a region's history and culture. Their preservation should be a national, as well as local, priority.





William Brumfield, professor of Russian at Tulane University in New Orleans, is the author and photographer of several books on Russian architecture.

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