"Damp Area with Firs and Bushes"
// Russian Life, November 1997
Hidden in a lightly populated expanse between Vologda and Veliky Ustyug, along the
peaceful Sukhona river, is Totma, an 860-year-old architectural marvel.
As William C. Brumfield shows, the small town, once an economic and political powerhouse,
is quietly struggling to reclaim its centuries-old treasures.
Among the many treasures of the Russian North, Totma must rank as one of the most peculiar
to the modern visitor. Located on the Sukhona River midway between Vologda and Veliky
Ustyug, Totma is a sleepy settlement 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
Whether one approaches by road over rolling fields and forests, or from the wide valley of
the Sukhona River, the appearance of Totma's tall spires on the landscape produces a sense
of amazement. This apparition can be incredible on a sultry summer morning, and even more
impressive on a bitterly cold (-30_ C), sunny day this past January, when the towers
reached above the plumes of ice haze and smoke from hundreds of snow-draped wooden houses.
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 comes from ancient preslavic, Permian words that meant
"damp area with firs and bushes" Yet present-day Totma is not near the Totma
River, which flows into the Sukhona some 17 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
Today salt is so taken for granted that we forget how valuable a commodity it was 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. 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 salt production.
One enterprising monk, Feodosy Sumorin, saw the potential for further development at the
new settlement and, in 1554, founded a monastery nearby, on the Pesya-Denga River. He
immediately applied to Moscow for a waiver of the tax on salt, and received a charter in
1555 from Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible). Not surprisingly, the Savior-Sumorin Monastery soon
became one of the most important and wealthiest Orthodox institutions along the Sukhona
River, even though it consisted almost entirely of log buildings until the end of the
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 rebuildings of the church. Another church, built
along the massive east wall of the monastery, is now only a gutted ruin. 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. In its imposing, late-
classical forms, now abandoned and with its interior stripped, this church reminds in a
curious way of ruined nineteenth-century mansions in the southern parts of the United
States. Under current circumstances, the restoration of these monumental structures is
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. One assumes that many of them were gathered during the
period of collectivization in the early 1930s, when so many northern farmsteads were
effectively destroyed. Whatever their origin, the collection conveys an air of a vanished,
But let us 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 Afanasy
and his son Grigory. Just as they did elsewhere in the North, the Stroganovs gained a
monopoly on salt production by ruthlessly undercutting any competition (with the exception
of the protected monasteries), and by rendering valuable services to the Muscovite tsar.
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 Soivychegodsk, to the north ofVeliky Ustyug.
Salt was not the only source of wealth for this northern region. Furs 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, after
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. Its extensive warehouses not only represented the growth of foreign imports, but
also increased trade with Siberia through river networks, pioneered by the Stroganovs.
In 1565, during the infamous oprichnina [see Russian Life, January 1997), 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. 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 and commercial significance of
Totma, which he visited several times during journeys to the all-important port of
Arkhangelsk. In one of the most colorful and revealing anecdotes about the young tsar, it
is told that, on one visit to Totma, his insatiable curiosity about crafts and trades (and
his desire to measure his strength) led him to insist on trying the difficult, dangerous
work of salt refining. (This was, after all, the tsar who had worked in a Dutch shipyard.)
Having boiled down the solution in the large pan to obtain the required amount of salt,
Peter insisted on receiving the standard pay for this infernal work.
Ironically, with the founding of St. Petersburg in 1703, 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. But the effects of these changes were long in
coming. During the eighteenth century, certain local merchants 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 [see Russian Life, luly 1997] 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 eighteenth century supported the
building of a number of brick churches of striking design, with large bell towers and
unusual decorative patterns on the facades. These churches, and the nearby Savior-Sumorin
Monastery, were designed to present an imposing view from 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, in others as sites for museums.
However, the restoration proceeds sporadically, and petty vandalism has undone some of the
The most imposing of the monuments is the Church of the Entry into Jerusalem (photo, page
35), built in 1774-94 with funds provided by the brothers Grigory and Peter Panov,
merchants who were involved in the trade with "Russian America."
Churches of this type in Totma were designed without interior piers, and their height was
dictated not only by aesthetic considerations, but also by the fact that they actually
consisted of two churches, the lower of which was used in winter and the upper in the
summer. 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. The bell tower attached
to the vestibule in the west echoes the vertical lift of the main structure. During the
Soviet period, the church and its tower were deprived of domes, which have since been
restored. Work on the interior proceeds much more slowly. A local historian reported that,
in view of the town's role as a river port, there were plans to use the renovated church
as a museum to merchant shipping.
The nearby Church of the Nativity of Christ shows similar decorative and structural
features, but its appearance is quite different. 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. In fact, this
building, like a number of other eighteenth-century brick churches in Totma, was
constructed in two phases: the lower, winter church was built in 1746-48, and the upper
one was added in 1786-93. The lower church thus serves as a base for the great height of
the upper structure, but the design is so ingenious that the fusion usually goes
unnoticed. A freestanding bell tower, completed in the 1790s, was razed in the Soviet
period. The church is now under restoration, but the scaffolding around it seems unlikely
to come down anytime soon.
Other restoration projects include the Dormition Church, whose present form dates from
1800. Its bell tower, constructed in the 1790s, literally overshadows the main structure,
which now contains a small but attractive museum with local icons. In good weather, it is
possible to climb to the top of the tower for a superb panorama of Totma, the Sukhona, and
the surrounding countryside. Be warned, however, that the stairs are very steep, narrow,
and worn. As of this writing, one church has been reopened for active parish use: the
Church of the Trinity in Green Fishers' Quarter, near the Sukhona River. 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 Fyodor
Titov, a free peasant. Its cupolas, demolished during the Soviet period, are once again in
place, and its ornamented brick walls again gleam with a coat of white paint.
In addition to its eighteenth-century architecture, Totma has been widely known for crafts
such as wood carving and metal working (especially the niello technique of ornamental
inlay with a blackened silver alloy). 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 cornices. 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 soulless brick apartments with no relation to the existing
neighborhood. To be sure, Totma is better preserved than most, 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,
perhaps the town will retain its harmonious relation to the surrounding landscape. Yet
lack of development carries its own burdens. Despite the beauty of this region, life is
difficult here, particularly in the long winter months. The road network is improving, but
transportation by land is still primitive and river traffic has practically ceased. In
such rural areas, the delivery of goods and services, as well as improvements in the
living standard, will in no small measure depend on new roads.
In the meantime, the seasons proceed in eternal cycles that determine so much in rural
communities. Few visitors to the town realize that it has a small local newspaper, The
Totma News. Such newspapers are crucial to the formation and support of democratic
institutions in Russia, and this one is no exception. Exploits of the local amateur soccer
team appear next to election results, news of local citizens, and harvest figures. There
is also a police chronicle. But most interesting is
the local advice column, which informs of the best fishing areas, and the best times for
making preserves and cutting linden branches for the bathhouse. Totma lives.
William C. Brumfield is Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University. A leading
authority on Russian architecture and an accomplished photographer, he is a regular
contributor to Russian Life".