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A Lens on Russia's North

By William Brumfield | HUMANITIES, May/June 2001 | Volume 22, Number 3

For nearly twenty years, William C. Brumfield has been venturing into Russia to capture its history as told by its architecture. Recently his photographic odyssey took him to Arkhangelsk Province, whose landscape is studded with neglected wooden churches and stone monasteries.

The new Russians have their Mercedes and Cherokees, but for the true connoisseur of the Russian road, the ultimate machine is the UAZIK, Russia's closest equivalent to the classic Jeep. Four-wheel drive, two gear sticks, two gas tanks, taut suspension, high clearance. Seat belts? Don't ask. The top speed is one hundred kilometers per hour, but it is rare to reach that when driving over the rutted tracks and potholed back roads for which it was designed.

No place in Russia has more of such roads than Arkhangelsk Province, a vast territory that extends from the White and Barents Seas in the north to its boundary with Vologda Province to the south. A combination of poverty, government default on a local and national level, and distances that exceed those of most western European countries have created some of the worst roads in European Russia. And there is little hope for improvement in the foreseeable future.

Hence the UAZIK, whose name derives from the acronym for Ulyanovsk Auto Factory, located in the city of Ulyanovsk on the Volga River. Comfortable this machine is not, but an experienced driver can take it over rutted ice tracks in the middle of a snowstorm and not miss a beat. I am not such a driver, and I have only a vague idea of how the contraption works. My job is to keep my cameras ready and scan the horizon for onion domes. But in my travels throughout the Russian north, the UAZIK has performed superbly.

Roads were an afterthought in the Arkhangelsk territory. Settlers, hunters, and traders moved primarily over a network of rivers, lakes, and portages that defined the area as a geographically distinct cultural entity. Indeed, the settlement of this part of northern Russia, its gradual development and its eventual assimilation by Muscovy were based on a paradoxical set of circumstances. Its forests, rivers, lakes, and the White Sea itself promised considerable rewards to those capable of mastering the area; and yet the remoteness of the north, the relative paucity of arable land—usually limited to certain river plains—and the length of the harsh winters discouraged population growth. Those who succeeded in settling the area during the tenth through the thirteenth centuries proved to be sturdy, self-reliant framers and craftspeople, a mixture of Slavs and Finnic tribes.

Moscow colonized the area during the next two centuries, and by the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, the Northern Dvina river system had become Russia's major route east to the Urals and west to England. Although the significance of this network declined after the founding of St. Petersburg in 1703, the north again functioned as a critical artery during the Second World War and the submarine race of the cold war.

Nowhere is the former wealth of this area more evident than at Solvychegodsk, which was once the capital of a Stroganov trading empire. Getting to Solvychegodsk is not a simple matter. Coming from the historic town of Veliky Ustiug, some eighty kilometers to the south, one must cross to the east bank of the Dvina, along whose length there are no permanent highway bridges until Arkhangelsk, where the Dvina flows into the White Sea six hundred kilometers to the north. There is a pontoon bridge across the Dvina just south of the grimy city of Kotlas, located at the confluence of the Dvina and Vychegda Rivers. In winter, cars also use a track plowed across the thick ice of the Dvina. Both routes wind through the industrial detritus of Kotlas before reaching a ferry across the Vychegda.

A ferry in this area typically consists of a small barge capable of carrying one or two vehicles. Along the deck are benches for hikers and bikers. Power is provided by a motor launch lashed to the side of the barge. In July 1996 I arrived at the landing on a chilly Sunday morning, and no one seemed certain that there would be a ferry at all. But after an anxious half-hour, a few people with packs appeared; and shortly thereafter we could see the ferry making its way toward our bank. When we offered to pay the ferrymen, they refused with gruff good humor: "Today is the National Day of the River Fleet." To prove the point, they turned up the radio's rousing music of Russian river shanties. The ride was choppy, but it was an ideal way to see this northern river, cold and windswept like the landscape. On the opposite side, the barge ramp clanked down, and vehicles plunged onto the sandy bank. A rutted track led through flat, marshy fields with small villages, and finally connected with a graveled road to Solvychegodsk.

Entering the town of some four thousand residents is another of those experiences that transport one back to the nineteenth century. One-story dwellings, usually of wood, mingle with the low brick structures of the town's few Soviet-era enterprises and workshops. The merchant dynasty of the Stroganovs did not arrive in the area until the middle of the sixteenth century, and soon thereafter, the town was founded. As new trading routes led to a decline in its significance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the town became a small resort, known for its mineral waters and springs.

At the beginning of this century there were at least twelve brick churches here, eight of which were totally destroyed in the Soviet period, and two others left in various states of damage. But the jewels in the crown, the two Stroganov "cathedrals," still stand relatively unscathed. The earlier is a sixteenth-century cathedral dedicated to the Annunciation, and the other is an elaborately decorated seventeenth-century church dedicated to the Presentation of the Virgin.

Why were such grand structures built in so remote a location? One answer lies not far from the Presentation Church: in a salt spring now covered with a small log tower is a replica of the earlier Stroganov stockage. The area is replete with such springs, as well as a small brackish river and a salt lake, the Solonikha. In fact, Solvychegodsk means "salt of the Vychegda." We now take the production of salt for granted, but in the medieval era, it was one of the most valuable commodities. In this part of the Russian north, the Stroganovs created a salt monopoly in the sixteenth century that brought them enormous wealth, and Solvychegodsk became the center of a private empire.

Although miserly in most respects, the Stroganovs spent immense sums on the arts during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The term "Stroganov style" indicates elaborately ornamented forms in music, icon painting, and architecture, as well as in the applied arts—a style that appeared wherever the Stroganovs had major trading operations, from Solvychegodsk to Nizhny Novgorod on the Volga River, to Perm in the Ural Mountains.

The most lavish example of Stroganov architecture is the main church of the former Monastery of the Presentation of the Virgin. During the winter, services in the church are held only in the warmer, south gallery. In March 1998, however, Father Vladimir, the young priest of the parish, allowed me into the main sanctuary after noon services on a bright Sunday. The interior was intensely cold, but the sunlight streaming through the high south windows dramatically illuminated the iconostasis. I hurriedly fumbled with my cameras to take as many shots as possible, and within minutes I was perspiring, despite the cold.

In the winter the Vychegda ferry does not operate, and on this early March day we skidded in our UAZIK upriver toward a frozen pontoon bridge at Koriazhma, a former monastic settlement now notorious as the site of one of Russia's largest paper mills. The town itself is pleasant enough; but in warmer weather the smell spreads for dozens of kilometers, and pollution is ever present.

From this far southeastern corner of Arkhangelsk Province, it is possible to shuttle by train 250 kilometers due west to the other side of the province. At Konosha junction, the track merges with the mainline north to the city of Arkhangelsk. But there is no reason to rush, because the southwestern region around the town of Kargopol contains some of Russia's best- preserved ancient villages.

Kargopol is another formerly wealthy trading center that time and fortune have passed by. Like Solvychegodsk, it is not easy to reach. The trains stop at Nyandoma, a singularly graceless town whose main occupation, apart from the railroad, is the local forest products industry. From Nyandoma Station, regular bus service runs to Kargopol, one hundred kilometers to the west. The other, faster, possibility is to hire a private car for a hefty fare that can be split with other passengers. On my first trip, at the end of February 1998, I chose the car, since my train arrived at two o'clock in the morning. It proved a mixed blessing: five people crammed into a small Zhiguli, whose driver played an endless, mediocre pop rock tape at ear-splitting level as we careened over a snowy road at eighty to a hundred kilometers per hour.

After an hour and a half, I stumbled out of the car into a snowdrift while the driver took my money, vaguely pointed in the direction of Kargopol's one hotel, and drove off. The isolation I felt was intensified by the dull roar the rock tape had left in my head. Although the hotel turned out to be only a block from where I stood, I was so disoriented that it took another half hour of wandering and disturbing law-abiding citizens before I desperately rang the bell at the small and very discreet two-storied hotel. A concierge appeared with an electric kettle and a space heater, and I—the only guest in the hotel—was escorted to a room on the second floor.

Kargopol still preserves the feel of a northern provincial town of the eighteenth or nineteenth century. By 1900 it had approximately three thousand residents and twenty- two churches, including those of wood, as well as two monasteries. Like other ancient Russian towns that were bypassed by railroad construction, Kargopol became a backwater. Unfortunately, this fact did not save many of its monuments of art and architecture after the revolution. During the Soviet period, half of the town's churches vanished through neglect or demolition.

Yet, however difficult the struggle is to preserve the legacy of historic architecture in Kargopol itself, the crisis is still more acute in the villages of the surrounding region, renowned for some of the best examples of log architecture and folk art in Russia. On a gray day in late February, I had my first view of these abandoned rural treasures as Viktor Sheludko and his wife took me over snow-covered lanes in a Niva vehicle of respectable age. When we got to the village of Oshevensk, sixty kilometers to the northwest of Kargopol, there was a moment of uncertainty about whether we could enter: the pine logs of the wooden bridge were being replaced. But enough remained to allow one lane of traffic, and we passed over the beautifully designed structure.

Oshevensk was a prosperous village, and it is now one of the better preserved, with local inhabitants renting some of the log houses to summer visitors. Here the mobility of new Russia gives hope to otherwise neglected rural settlements. Oshevensk contains not only the small Chapel of St. George, which is now under restoration, but also the log Church of the Epiphany (1787), with its "tent" tower over the sanctuary and detached bell tower. The interior is one of the largest among wooden churches in this area, and its icon screen and braced, painted wooden ceiling, known as a nebo, or heaven, are staggering in their extent and color. I was informed by Olga Stepanovna, who keeps the keys, that regular worship services are not held here, but women from the community frequently gather on Sundays to sing hymns in this church.

One of the best examples of art and architecture in the Russian north is located in the small village of Lyadiny, thirty-five kilometers north of Kargopol. This extraordinary ensemble consists of three parts: a summer Church of the Intercession (1761) with a tall tent tower; a winter Church of the Epiphany (1793) with a panoply of cupolas; and a large bell tower from the nineteenth century. Such three-part church ensembles were once common in prosperous northern farming communities, but most have disappeared. Here, only the Intercession Church still contains its combination of icon screen and "heaven," beautifully preserved.

Lyadiny and its state dairy farm have lost even the modicum of prosperity of the Soviet era. The elderly woman who opened the church for us was spirited, but how much longer can she continue her duties? And will anyone take her place? As I photographed the Lyadiny churches, the brief, angry comments of local farm workers who walked by made it clear that preserving these priceless monuments was not one of their priorities. Many villages have lost their churches because of local indifference and vandalism.

Lidiya Sevastianova, director of the Kargopol Museum of History and Art, said that the Epiphany Church at Lyadiny is in desperate need of restoration, and she gave me a line-item estimate of the sum needed to do preservation work for the entire ensemble. The amount was approximately $100,000. The Arkhangelsk provincial government cannot provide such support, nor, apparently, can the central government. I hope that some solution will be found—-and in the meantime I work as diligently as possible with my cameras.

No journey through Arkhangelsk Province is complete without the Solovetsky Islands, situated at the mouth of Onega Bay in the western part of the White Sea. Geographically, the islands form one of the most curious natural environments in Russia. Historically, the very name "Solovetsky archipelago" resonates with both tragedy and endurance, for it was here, in 1923, that the first specially designated concentration camp was established by the Soviet regime. Alexander Solzhenitsyn has provided an incomparable account of that monstrosity, which metastasized throughout the Soviet Union in the 1930s and gave rise to the phrase "Gulag archipelago." Superseded by larger camps, the Solovetsky camp closed in 1939, and the territory became a military base. Attempts to restore the monumental Transfiguration Monastery did not get under way until the 1970s. Only with the reconsecration of the monastery in 1992 did restoration work show notable progress.

The most impressive way to approach the islands is by boat from the Karelian town of Kem. The monastery seems to rise eerily from the water, a floating citadel of towers and domes. For the strong of stomach, there is also an aerial option from Arkhangelsk, on a twin-engine Czech plane. Although less haunting than the approach by boat, the plane provides an unforgettable view of the northern forests—pine, fir, larch, aspen, and birch—merging into the taiga along the White Sea.

There is evidence that the Solovetsky archipelago was settled, or visited, by humans as early as four millennia ago. But not until the beginning of the fifteenth century did the island chain attract the attention of a few hardy monks, who were part of a wave of monastic expansion throughout the Russian north in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The first settlement was ventured in 1429 when the monk Zosima joined forces with Herman, an illiterate hermit who had periodically visited Solovetsky Island. Despite the severe winters, sea currents moderated the climate, and the surroundings provided sufficient food for survival.

The elderly Zosima's death in 1435 brought an end to this first attempt at settlement, but the following year another monk, Zavvaty, returned to the island and founded the Transfiguration Monastery. All three men were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. The great flourishing of the monastery occurred in the sixteenth century under the direction of Philip Kolychev, a Muscovite monk of noble origins who spent twenty-five years at the monastery before being called back to Moscow by a suspicious Ivan the Terrible. Ultimately, Ivan had Kolychev tortured and executed. Kolychev, too, was eventually canonized.

The monastery's fate took another tragic turn in the middle of the seventeenth century, when dissenters known as Old Believers refused to accept certain liturgical reforms. The monastery was a leading point of resistance, and after a seven-year siege by czarist troops, it fell when one of the monks betrayed the fortress through a secret entrance. The subsequent execution of the rebellious monks cast a pall over the monastery, but it was gradually rebuilt over the following centuries-until the modern cataclysm of war and revolution.

After the end of the civil war in 1921, the Bolsheviks expropriated the monastery. Two years later, a mysterious fire spread throughout the stone churches and reduced their interiors to ashes. There are legends regarding who was to blame—the Bolsheviks or the monks themselves—but the result was a once-flourishing island reduced to devastation. Soon thereafter, the archipelago became the site of a concentration camp.

The slow process of healing accelerated during the perestroika era, and in the 1990s, students and volunteers from Moscow came north in the summer to help with the enormous task of renovation. Although only a few monks live in the monastery now, the renaissance is visually stunning. In August 1992, Patriarch Aleksy, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, reconsecrated the relics of the monastery's founders with solemn ceremony, and the restored bells once again rang out.

The Solovetsky Islands convey a strange sense of enchantment. On those long summer days the monastery is suffused with a fantastic range of solar light that gradually illuminates all sides of the citadel and its churches. This light gives added meaning to the monastery's dedication, the Transfiguration—which is, after all, about a miracle of light. Despite its current problems, the Russian north still proves that legend and history are one, and that the treasures of the past are within reach of the intrepid traveler.

About the Author

William C. Brumfield holds an NEH fellowship through the American Council for International Education.