William C. Brumfield
Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University

Solvychegodsk: The Capital of the Stroganovs Empire

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 springs.
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 Russia.
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 by 1693.
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