William C. Brumfield
Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University

"Hidden Jewel of the North" // Russian Life, July 1997

Veliky Ustyug, located in the northeastern corner of Vologda oblast, is one of those provincial Russian towns that seem in some ways miraculously untouched by time. That is an illusion, of course, and as the city (population about 36,000) prepares to celebrate its 850th anniversary this summer, problems of the present day are very much in evidence: budgetary crises, the cessation of passenger train service and most river transport, economic stagnation, unpaid wages. Yet, over its long history, Veliky Ustyug has learned to cope with adversity and rebound in a new affirmation of its independent spirit.

In part, this resilience is due to the town's strategic location at the confluence of two large rivers, the Sukhona and the Yug, which merge into a third - the Northern Dvina. Indeed, the name Ustyug means the "mouth of the Yug," and the epithet Veliky, or "great, " was added at the end of the sixteenth century, to signify the city's importance as a commercial center. This network of three navigable rivers spreads throughout northern Russia in a major transportation route that attracted the earliest Russian settlers here, apparently by the middle of the twelfth century. The mercantile city of Novgorod sent its pioneering traders to the region, and, until the middle of the fifteenth century, Novgorod lay claim to authority over the area. Veliky Ustyug ultimately cast its lot with Moscow, however, and became an important military post for the expanding Muscovite state.

For most of the medieval period, Ustyug's history was far from tranquil. As early as the beginning of the thirteenth century, there are records of its participation in campaigns against the Volga Bulgars, and, at the end of that century, the inhabitants successfully rose against Mongol tax collectors and established de facto independence from Mongol authority - a rare event at so early a date [Russia's decisive battle against the Mongols, at Kulikovo field, did not take place until 1380 - Ed.].

Veliky Ustyug also had its peaceful accomplishments. In addition to being a center of trade, the town had a vigorous Russian Orthodox Church presence. One of its most remarkable spiritual leaders, St. Stephen of Perm, began missionary activity as early as 1379 among non-Russian indigenous tribes eastward to the Ural Mountains. For one tribe, the Zyrians, he devised their first alphabet, in order to translate religious texts. Stephen subsequently became a bishop, and, after his death, was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. His memory is still greatly revered in Russia, and especially among residents of Ustyug.

Having been a part of the Rostov principality for most of its early history, the town joined the domains of the grand prince of Moscow at the end of the fourteenth century. As a result, it was frequently attacked by forces loyal to Novgorod between 1391 and 1425, and, in return, Veliky Ustyug launched a number of raids against Novgorodian outposts along the Dvina River. Although this conflict does not appear to have been terribly destructive, medieval chronicles recorded a number of colorful details concerning the struggle to control these northern territories and their great natural wealth. For example, as a result of the siege of the town in 1425, Veliky Ustyug was compelled to pay Novgorod a ransom of 50,000 squirrel skins and 240 sables - a considerable tribute in that most valuable of forest resources.

During the fifteenth century, Veliky Ustyug was heavily involved in a struggle among rival princes for the throne in Moscow. The details of that complex and prolonged struggle, whose destructive chaos long remained in Russian memory, can be found in a history survey. Suffice it to say that Ustyug ultimately emerged on the winning side by the middle of the century, and gained still further importance as Moscow's outpost in the north.

Despite the severe northern climate and the great distances between major settlements, Ustyug grew and thrived in the sixteenth century, particularly with the development of trade between Russia and England and Holland during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Although it now seems quietly provincial, the town was then a bustling river port, whose central parts were protected by a log fortress wall.

Like most northern towns, Ustyug was built almost entirely of wood, and fire was a constant menace. As a result, there are no surviving churches from before the middle of the seventeenth century. But, despite periodic fires, the residents always rebuilt with the same pluck and determination that had maintained their independence in earlier times. Indeed, during the interregnum known as the Time of Troubles at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the town, although damaged, successfully repulsed one major raid and then participated in the campaign that led, in 1613, to the enthronement of Michael, first tsar of the Romanov Dynasty.

With the return to prosperous trade with Western Europe in the seventeenth century, Ustyug's merchants and churches acquired wealth that created some of the town's early brick churches. The main cathedral, dedicated to the Dormition of Mary, was built in brick during the 1550s, but had to be rebuilt a century later, after a major fire damaged the walls. A wealthy local merchant family, together with Tsar Aleksei Mikhail-ovich, provided the money for the rebuilding. In the eighteenth century, the cathedral was modified still further. It is flanked by three other churches, of which the most impressive is the Cathedral of St. Procopius of Ustyug, built in 1668. These churches are now being returned to active parish use, although many problems of restoration and maintenance remain.

Despite the hard times, progress in preserving the architecture of the city is clearly visible. Two decades ago, the Church of St. Nicholas Gostunsky (late 17th and early 18th centuries), with its remarkable bell tower, was still being used as a saw mill, because of its convenient location on the bank of the Sukhona River. It has since been beautifully restored on the exterior, and is now used as a gallery to display the work of local painters, of which there seems to be an unusually large number, Not only does Ustyug have an active school for the arts, but it seems that artists are drawn to the town because of the beauty of the landscape and the relatively well-preserved architecture of the historic central districts.

Further down the river, along a street lined with nineteenth century houses and shops, is another grouping of historic monuments, including the highly ornamented Church of the Ascension. Built in 1648-49 in the style of a Moscow parish church, it is the oldest structure in the town to survive in its original form. The same district also has the baroque Church of St. Simeon the Stylite (1760s), with a large, free-standing bell tower. This church, which looks as though it was transported from central or southern Europe, forms a picturesque silhouette when seen from the river - as does much of the center of town. Or one can approach it from the other side, through lanes that wander between small wooden houses and gardens. In such areas one gets a sense of what the town might have looked like in the eighteenth century.

Although the development of St. Petersburg lessened the importance of Ustyug as a center of transportation and trade, it continued to prosper as a mercantile center and became renowned as a center of crafts such as leather and metal working, as well as fine enamel objects. In particular, its silversmiths developed special skills in a technique known as niello, and their work was in much demand not only in the north but in St. Petersburg itself. Indeed, some of their items were purchased by the imperial court.

This wealth was reflected in yet another series of donations to monastery churches, some of which gained elaborate gilded iconostases that are fascinating as a northern interpretation of European baroque art. One of the best examples is Trinity Cathedral at the Trinity-Gleden Monastery, on the other side of the river, at the site of the earliest settlement of Ustyug. The brick cathedral was rebuilt on the site of an earlier church in 1659-1690 (financial difficulties delayed the completion), A century later, between 1776 and 1784, a new donation enabled the construction and painting of a great iconostasis, whose exuberant carved figures in the baroque style reflect the town's close ties with St. Petersburg at this time. From the Trinity-Gleden Monastery, the view across the river toward Veliky Ustyug is especially beautiful, and reminds the viewer of the need to preserve such settings. To be sure, there were losses in Ustyug during the Soviet period, as some churches were destroyed in the central district and an unsightly power plant was built right by the river. But, in comparison with so many other provincial towns, Ustyug still has a sense of historic ensemble, and new construction has been directed to larger areas outside the central area of the city.

There will always be pressures to change such historic ensembles, usually motivated by economic reasons. Yet there is considerable potential for the development of tourism in such a picturesque location. That, too, would bring changes, not all of them positive. But the town must have an economic base on which to survive. Paradoxically, there seems to be less tourism now than formerly. Economic cuts have affected Russian tourism, and the infrastructure is still lacking to make Ustyug a prime destination for foreign tourists. Nevertheless, the road network in this part of Vologda oblast is being expanded, and that will allow more convenient access by bus or car.

Local authorities most certainly intend for the celebration of the 850th anniversary this summer to present the city in a positive light, lya Belozertseva, head of the cultural section for the city and regional administration, confirmed at a recent meeting that plans were moving ahead for a series of concerts and other events in July. Whatever the other uncertainties of the moment, there is no question that the cultural treasures and natural beauty of Veliky Ustyug are among the great resources of the Russian North and should be carefully preserved.