Solvychegodsk: The Capital of the
Russian North, architecture, history of Russia
Travelers in Russia soon learn to expect the unexpected, and the more
one moves from the usual tourist routes, the greater the possibility for surprise. Some of
these architec-tural visions seem to have been abandoned, while others have been repaired
for parish use by the Orthodox Church, and still others are under the protection of museum
work-ers with dwindling resources. Every corner of the Russian provinces has its
treasures, usually abandoned and neglect-ed.
In all my travels through Russia, however, no sight has seemed more improbable that the
ensemble of churches built by the Stroganovs in the northern town of Solvychegodsk
(Arkhangelsk oblast'). Although I had read the scholarly literature and knew of the
churches' significance, study can only go so far in preparing for the visual impact of
such unique and grandiose buildings.
Entering Solvychegodsk, which has some 4,000 residents, is one of those experiences that
transport back to the 19th century. One-story dwellings, usually of wood, mingle with low
brick structures of the town's few Soviet-era enterprises and workshops. The first Russian
settlements in the area probably arose in the fourteenth century with the support of
Novgorod, whose explorers and traders would have recognized the value of a site near the
crossing of two major river routes: north to the White Sea and east to the Urals. The
Stroganovs did not arrive 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
18th and 19th centuries, the town became a small resort, known for its mineral waters and
At the beginning of this century there were at least twelve-brick churches here, of which
eight 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
in proud glory-one a 16th-century gem dedicted to the Annunciation and the other an
elabo-rately decorated 17th-century monument dedicated to the Presentation of the Virgin.
The inevitable question is: Why were such grand struc-tures built in so remote a location?
The answer lies not far from the Presentation Cathedral, in a salt spring now cov-ered
with a small log tower (a replica of the earlier Stroga-nov stockade). The area is replete
with such springs, as well as a small brackish river, the Usol, and a salt lake, the
Solonikha. Indeed, Solvychegodsk means "salt of the Vy-chegda*. We now take the
production of salt for granted, but it must be remembered that in the medieval era, it was
one of the most valuable of commodities, without which life itself would have been
impossible. In this part of the Russian north, the energetic, ruthless Stroganovs created
a salt monopoly in the 16th century that brought them enormous wealth.
Far from being a provincial village, Solvychegodsk at that time was the center of a
private empire, firmly devoted to the Muscovite tsar. To their great credit, the
Stroganovs spent immense sums on the arts and crafts in the north during the 16th and 17th
centuries. To this day historians speak of a " Stroganov sty Ie" in arts ranging
from music to architecture, which appeared wherever the Stroganovs had major operations,
from Solvychegodsk to Nizhnii Novgorod to Perm in the Ural Mountains.
The patriarch of the dynasty, Anika (or, more formally, loanniki) Stroganov (1497-1570),
was in most respects a miser and a cruel master. It is reported that he had workers in
Solvychegodsk flogged to death for minor offenses. But it was he who began the lavish
Stroganov patronage of the arts. His wealth was incalculable. Indeed, Ivan the Terrible
allowed Stroganov to maintain an army of his own and to exploit the wealth of vast areas
of the Urals and Siberia, in return for which the domains of the tsar would be greatly
expanded at relatively small expense. The major coup in this policy occurred around 1580,
when, after several years of planning, Stroganov launched the famous expedition by the
cossack leader Yermak, which defeated the Siberian khan Kuchum near the Irtysh River.
Although the Russians subsequently suffered some local reverses, and Yermak himself was
killed in a surprise attack in 1585, his "conquest* opened the great expanses of
Siberia for Russia.
But let us return to Solvychegodsk. Anika Stroganov's primary contribution to Russian
architecture is the Annun-ciation Cathedral, the last of the great masonry churches of the
Russian north during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Work on the cathedral began in 1560
and was apparently concluded in the early 1570s, although it was not to be for-mally
consecrated until 1584.
The form of the Annunciation Cathedral is highly idio-syncratic. Instead of the four
interior piers typical of such large churches, there are only two, a design that gives the
building a truncated appearance from the outside. Nonethe-less, the church has the five
cupolas usual for major church-es in the sixteenth century. The Stroganov master builders
(whose identity is unknown, although evidence suggests that they came from Rostov),
managed to place the main dome directly over the two massive interior piers, while the
four flanking domes rest on a system of vaulted arches. A large apsidal structure for the
altar serves to buttress the east wall, where the load stress is greatest.
At the northwest corner of the cathedral's exterior gal-lery, there originally stood a
magnificent bell tower with its own altar. The largest of its twelve bells weighed over
three tons. Unfortunately, the tower gradually fell into disrepair, and it was replaced in
1819-1826 by the current neoclassi-cal bell tower, which overshadows and defaces the form
of the medieval church. Few of the original Stroganov bells survived.
Another unfortunate, but typical change, involved brick-ing in the curved spaces between
the semicircular gables at the top of the cathedral and installing a simple sloped roof.
Many medieval Russian churches underwent this change in the 17th and 18th centuries, so
that the roof could be more easily maintained; but it deprived these great buildings of a
picturesque form echoing the shapes of the cupolas.
The Annuciation Cathedral was the first large brick structure at Solvychegodsk, where all
other structures, sec-ular and sacred, had been built of logs. The contrast would have
been stunning, with the brilliant walls and cupolas soar-ing above the surrounding log
structures - including as many as twenty log churches - at the steep north bank of the
Vychegda. By virtue of its stout walls, the lower part of the building served as a place
of refuge and storage for espe-cially valuable goods, such as fur pelts. Of course the
most valuable items were the church objects created with stun-ning mastery by the
Stroganov workshops. These include embroidered fabrics, chalices, jewel encrusted Bible
covers, and enameled images. The quality of Stroganov masters be-came known throughout
The interior walls of the cathedral were painted with frescoes in the summer of 1600, yet
they were overpainted in 18th and 19th centuries, particularly after a fire dam-aged the
interior in 1819. Although a restoration effort since the 1970s has uncovered original
frescoes on the west wall, most of the first paintings are irretrievably lost. The
center-piece of the cathedral was an elaborate five-tiered iconosta-sis (icon stand),
originally installed by the end of the 1570s with more than 70 icons, few of which remain.
The iconosta-sis was rebuilt more than once in the 17th century, and its present form
dates from the 1690s, although the Royal Gates leading to the altar were donated by the
Stroganovs at the beginning of the 17th century.
Indeed, at just that time Solvychegodsk underwent its most serious crisis, as a result of
the Time of Troubles, a dynastic interregnum with numerous claimants to the throne in
Moscow between 1598 and 1613. At first the Stroganovs were far removed from the fighting
and even profited from it; but as the threat of total Russian disintegration became
greater, the Stroganovs contributed substantially in both men and money to the most stable
forces. Then, in January 1613, a detachment of some 3,000 Poles and renegade cossacks
surprised Solvychegodsk and managed to capture part of it by storm. Although the
Stroganovs were firmly defended in their walled compound, the main trading district around
the Annunciation Cathedral was sacked, as was the cathedral itself. However, with the
founding of the Romanov dynasty in 1613, the Stroganovs maintained, and even expanded,
many of their privileges at Solvychegodsk.
Over a century after the completion of the Annunciation Cathedral, the Stroganov style in
church architecture reached its culmination in the Church of the Presentation of the
Virgin at the Presentation Monastery, founded in 1565 by the three sons of Anika
Stroganov-Yakov, Grigory, and Se-myon. All of the monastery buildings, including the
church-es, were originally of logs until the end of the 17th century, when work began on a
magnificent new church.
Its patron, Grigory Dmitrevich Stroganov, had in the 1680s acquired a dominant position in
the family's mercan-tile empire, and would soon figure prominently in the polit-ical and
cultural changes effected by Peter the Great. Like his ancestors, Grigory had manifold
interests in the applied arts, and under his patronage the Stroganov workshops con-tinued
to produce artistic objects for church use. In 1688 he commissioned a new church for the
monastery that formed part of the family compound. Although the church was not consecrated
until 1712, some of the lower parts of the struc-ture were already functioning by 1691,
and evidence of work on the iconostasis suggests that the basic construction was completed
The Presentation Church is distictive for many reasons, not the least of which is the
elaborately carved limestone decoration on the brick exterior. In addition to columns,
window surrounds, and scallop shells of limestone (appar-ently carved in Moscow), the
facades were also decorated with colorful ceramic tiles. There have been some changes to
the exterior, particuarly in the 18th century when the gal-lery-originally an open
terrace-was enclosed in a brick and limestone arcade with an intricate cornice (now
obscured by an awkward sloped roof).
The greatest structural achievement of the Presentation Church, however, is its interior
vaulting system, which sup-ports the roof and its five cupolas with no free-standing
piers. Instead, the superstructure rests on a system of two sets of paired arches
springing from supports in the center of each wall and intersecting beneath the main
cupola drum. It is an amazingly bold design (again, by an unknown build-er) and the first
use of this system for a church so large, with openings for all five cupolas.
The effect is one of bright spaciousness, intensified by the lack of frescoes on the
walls. All attention is focused on the magnificent seven-tiered iconostasis, so
luxuriantly carved as to defy the imagination.
In this rare case we know the name of the master-Grigo-ry Ivanov-and the date-1693. The
icons themselves are un-usual for their strong western characteristics. Not only are they
painted on canvas, instead of the treated boards of medieval icons, but they are also done
in a western style by a Stroganov painter, Stepan Narykov, who is thought to have studied
abroad. Fortunately, the icons are in a relatively good state of preservation.
What keeps the Stroganovs churches standing as mag-nificent displays of Russian art?
Solvychegodsk seems so small and remote, and museum funds are so limited even for normal
upkeep, not to mention major preservation problems. For example, the Annunciation
Cathedral is now dangerous-ly close to the north bank of the Vychega, which could
even-tually cause a weakening of the foundation unless the bank is reinforced.
Yet the director of the Solvychegodsk Museum complex, Alexei Bilchuk, not only showed me
the buildings under his care, but also spoke of plans for expanding the museum's
activities. With government funds so restricted in Arkhan-gelsk province, tourism seems to
be the main hope for the monuments of Solvychegodsk, which include the abandoned but still
impressive Church of the Savior (17th and 18th centuries) and the large neoclassical
Pyankov mansion, built in the early 19th century. The mansion is still partially used as a
sanatorium, and could be converted into a tourist hotel, if the demand materializes.
What the future holds for Solvychegodsk is unclear. Can a place so remote ever develop as
a tourist center? This vast area is still covered with forest, and the location of one of
Russia's largest paper mills at nearby Koryazhma shows where the real economic power lies,
despite its environmental pollution. Perhaps one day this industry will assume a role as
sponsor in Solvychegodsk.
In the meantime the problems in maintaining the trea-sures of Solvychegodsk are daunting,
and one must ap-plaud the spirit and determination of their curators. Like the boatmen who
continue to make a hard living on these rivers, valiant museum workers have held on to
protect the history of their region-and its vanished empire of the Stroganovs.
Brumfield W. C., 2000