William C. Brumfield
Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University

"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 north.

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 the Sukhona.

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 eighteenth century.

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 very questionable.

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, self-reliant culture.

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 repairs.

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".