William C. Brumfield
Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University

Vologda - a Northern Beauty // "Russian Life", September 1997

Among the many cities of Russia provinces, few have greater natural beauty than Vologda) with its historic center, marked by cathedrals and parish churches, situated on either side of the winding, picturesque Vologda river.

At the same time, a visit to Vologda, which is readily accessible by train from both Moscow and St. Petersburg, reveals the many challenges of a difficult social and economic transition experienced by most provincial cities in Russia. Vologda is the administrative capital of a large region, or oblast, of the same name, yet it can also be considered the cultural capital of what is historically known as the "North."

Vologda is not, in fact, the largest city of the region. That honor belongs to Cherepovets, although both cities have slightly over 300,000 residents. Cherepovets is the leading industrial center of Vologda oblast and has survived relatively well on the basis of heavy industry that developed after the Second World War - in particular chemical plants and specialty steel mills. Vologda, on the other hand, has depended more on its role as a white-collar, administrative center, and as we shall see, this has been a mixed blessing.

Vologda's dim origins go back at least to the twelfth century, when the area was explored and colonized by traders and settlers from Novgorod, located some 500 kilometers to the west of Vologda and one of the most important economic centers of medieval Russia. By the end of the fourteenth century, Moscow had its own agents in the town; and a century later, after a prolonged, complicated struggle, Vologda and its surrounding territory were taken into the Moscow principality. By the middle of the sixteenth century, Vologda had become the trading and administrative center in northern Russia. It served as the primary distribution point for rapidly increasing trade with England, and subsequently Holland, by way of Arkhangelsk and the Dvina river.

In the immediate area of Vologda the oldest architectural ensemble is the Savior-Prilutsky Monastery, established in 1371. The monastery was supported by Moscow's grand prince Dmitrii lvanovich (Donskoi) as one of the first bulwarks of Orthodox Moscow in the rich but difficult terrain surrounding Vologda. The original buildings, including the main church, were of logs. After its destruction by fire, the Cathedral of the Savior was rebuilt in brick from 1537-42 with substantial support from Moscow. In 1541, the young Ivan IV issued a decree releasing the monastery from all taxes for a period of five years. Larger than the churches at St. KiriU and Ferapontov Monasteries, the Savior Cathedral shows similarities to the main Kremlin cathedrals; yet it also displays distinctive elements that link it to its northern predecessors.

In Vologda itself, all buildings were of wood until the reign of Ivan the Terrible, who in 1565 included the town in his private domain, or oprichnina and initiated construction of a masonry fortress, or kremlin, apparently to serve as his northern residence. After 1571 this enterprise was abandoned and the walls were eventually dismantled; but one important monument remains: the Cathedral of Saint Sophia. Built in 1568-70, it is an excellent, example of midsixteenth-century church architecture based on Aristotle Fioravanti's Dormition Cathedral (1475-79) in the Moscow Kremlin. After the Vologda eparchy expanded its territory in 1571, the Sophia Cathedral was intended to serve as the seat of this bishopric. However, for various political reasons, the cathedral was not consecrated until 1588, after the death of Ivan the Terrible. The huge space of the cathedral interior was completely painted and included major scenes devoted to the life of Christ and Mary, the parables of Christ, and, on the west wall, a particularly vivid "Last Judgement," with elegantly dressed foreigners descending to hell. Although these frescoes are among the best examples of seventeenth century Russian art, and they are relatively well preserved, the museum entrusted with the interior desperately needs additional funds, as do almost all Russian museums. Paradoxically, maintenance of the interior is aided by the fact that services are not regularly held in the cathedral, which thus escapes the wear of large numbers of worshipers and the darkening associated with votive candles.

With the exception of the Sophia Cathedral, Vologda throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries remained a collection of log structures, more than once devastated by fires. In addition to these natural disasters, the city was sacked in 1612, during the Time of Troubles. Nonetheless, Vologda's strategically important position assured its continued existence on a scale that impressed foreign merchants and emissaries, some of whom left drawings of its expanse of church towers and log houses. With the recovery of the city in the 1620s and its increasing wealth, masonry construction appeared more frequently as a partial antidote to the ever present danger of fire.

Beyond the central ensemble of the Sophia Cathedral and the Archbishop's Court, with its eighteenth-century baroque Chambers of Archbishop Joseph Zolotoy, Vologda expanded in all directions to accommodate its several precincts devoted to commerce, crafts and administration. Of the several brick buildings constructed by foreign merchants and by monasteries during the seventeenth century, most have disappeared; but a number of the neighborhood parish churches from the eighteenth century remain, rising in a beautiful design over the wooden dwellings that surround them.

Indeed, some would argue that the real distinction of Vologda is its wooden houses, many of which still survive, albeit under constant threat of demolition. A few neoclassical examples from the early nineteenth century have been preserved and converted for use by cultural organizations and museums. These houses typically have a portico or a raised central bay and pediment known as a mezonin (not to be confused with the English use of the word "mezzanine"). The plank siding of the houses obscures the fact that they are log structures, occasionally of considerable size.

During the nineteenth century, Vologda 11 gained notoriety as a place of exile for U political prisoners. Among its most famous inhabitants-in-exile were: Peter Lavrov, a revolutionary populist exiled to Vologda Province from 1867 until 1870, when he escaped to Paris; and Joseph Djugashvili (Stalin), who was exiled to Vologda and the surrounding towns three times between 1909 and 1912, Each time he was able to escape after a few months, a leniency that would have been unthinkable under his Gulag system. By fitting coincidence, another of Vologda's most famous residents was the writer Varlam Shalarnov, son of a Vologda parish priest and author of Kolyma Stories, one of the most searing indictments of the Stalinist Gulag. Shalarnov was deeply attached to Vologda, to which he devoted a book of reminiscences entitled The Fourth Vologda, and his memory is greatly respected there.

Indeed, for all of its reputation as a place of exile during the nineteenth century, Vologda also gained the attention of ethnographers and of artists such as Vasily Kandinsky, who traveled through the area as a student in 1889 and gained impressions of the region's art that would later affect his work as a painter. With the coming of railroads to the north during the last three decades of the nineteenth century, Vologda became an important commercial transportation center. At the same time, the beauty of its architecture attracted a growing number of artists and art historians who saw in this provincial town something timeless and unspoiled.

B y the turn of this century, Vologda had a number of educational and cultural institutions, as well as a large train station and new hotels such as the Golden

Anchor. Yet it remained primarily a town of log buildings, such as the growing number of multi-family wooden houses of two or three stories. These were often elaborately decorated to suit the wishes of the owner, and some were designed with carved ornaments reflecting the influence of the Russian equivalent of Art Nouveau. Many of these wooden houses remain, with distinctive features such as protected entrances and second-story loggias.

Unfortunately, the effects of decay and neglect are often evident, and there are too few resources for renovation. The dilapidated appearance of these solidly built and crafted structures only serves to reinforce the arguments of those for whom such buildings are an outmoded, dangerous encumbrance. Ironically, the practice of applying plank siding has contributed in contemporary Vologda to the loss of structures worthy of preservation: a client who no longer wishes to maintain a log building will rebuild it in brick and hide the fact by recreating the plank siding. Others would argue that this is a reasonable approach in a modern urban environment, with stricter fire codes and greater demand for comfort and convenience.

Today Vologda is exposed to the same economic and social pressures as the rest of I Russia's provinces, yet Vologda faces its own specific challenges within the general transformation occurring throughout Russia. Although the city has little of the pollution associated with heavy industry, its administrative importance has resulted in certain fundamental, fateful changes in urban planning. Long-time visitors to Vologda can remember a time, in the 1960s,

when it still preserved the charm and sense of integrity that so impressed artists at the beginning of the century. Of course there had been depredations during the Soviet era, when fifteen of the city's approximately fifty churches were destroyed. But at least the central districts retained a harmonious scale.

In the 1970s and 80s, however, a large area in central Vologda was cleared in order to accommodate a new regional administrative complex, whose centerpiece is a massive, multi-storied office building quite out of scale with its surroundings. In view of the heavy-handed administrative "culture" of the late Soviet period, no doubt this dominating structure was deliberately intended as an expression of power; but it proved to be a miscalculation, and to this day, the building is often referred to with derision. Furthermore, some preservationists claim that this project established attitudes that continue to undercut attempts to preserve what is left of historic Vologda and, in particular, its wooden houses. Even an open park dedicated to the conservation and display of traditional wooden architecture, located to the north of the city, now languishes for lack of funding.

Passions run high on these issues, and for the past few years there has been a heated debate on the role of preservation in the development of the city center. Whatever the outcome of this clash of opinion, Vologda must protect and maintain a proper setting for its major landmarks, whose architecture serves as a record of history and a reflection of a remarkable cultural heritage.