Brumfield W.C. Traveling an Ancient Salt Road // RUSSIA PROFILE. 2006. July. P. 28-30. (Issue 6. Volume III)

By William Craft Brumfield


Traveling an Ancient Salt Road

In the popular imagination, virtually all Russia is "north" - cold and imponderable. Yet within this immense Eurasian landmass, there is a region traditionally known as the Russian North that includes territories located along a water network extending from the White Lake - Beloye ozero - to the White Sea - Beloye more. Of special interest are the contemporary regions of Vologda and Arkhangelsk, Despite the cataclysms of the twentieth century, this area of the Russian north still lays claim to a deeply rooted cultural coherence created by those who settled in its forests and moved along its rivers.
     The north is considered by some to be a stronghold of "pure" Russianness, yet it contains a rich ethnic and cultural variety derived from the complex interaction of history and geography.
Inhabited by Finnish tribes before the arrival of the first Slavic explorers and traders from Novgorod, it served as a retreat and place of spiritual solace for the avatars of Muscovite monasticism during the 14th and 15th centuries. At the same time, the wealth of its forests and lakes, as well as its position astride trading routes north to the White Sea and west to the Baltic, led to the creation of towns that themselves became repositories of traditional Russian values and arts.
     As in the past, the Russian North of today is a study in contrasts, from immense swaths of largely uninhabited territory, to the industrial giants of Cherepovets (steel and chemicals). Severodvinsk (shipbuilding) and the outskirts of Arkhangelsk (paper mills). Extracting valuable natural resources is also an increasing part of the economies of the Arkhangelsk and Nenets regions. The larger question is whether Russia, as a modern industrial power, can sustain - or is even seriously interested in sustaining - the remnants of a traditional culture that was so distinctively a part of Russia's past. The evidence at this point is contradictory. Nonetheless, there are fascinating parts of the historic Russian North that continue to live. Most of them are accessible to visitors and well worth exploring.
     The gateway to the north, and ultimately to the port of Arkhangelsk, is the city of Yaroslavl, whose seventeenth-century churches form one of the most glorious chapters in the history of Russian architecture. Although the art of Yaroslavl had a great influence on the forms of northern Russian churches, Yaroslavl is more properly a part of central Russia, both geographically and culturally. At Yaroslavl, the Volga River, which begins to the northwest of Moscow, turns southeast to form part of a major water-based shipping route to the Caspian Sea. In the other direction, the path to the White Sea and the port of Arkhangelsk proceeds due north from Yaroslavl through the city of Vologda, one of northern Russia's most important historic and cultural centers.
Vologda's origins go back at least to the 12th century, when the area was explored and colonized by traders and settlers from Novgorod, which is located some 500 kilometers (300 miles) to the west of Vologda and was one of medieval Russia's most important economic centers. By the end of the 14th century, Moscow had its own representatives in the town; and a century later, after a prolonged, complicated struggle, the city of Vologda and its surrounding territory were incorporated into the Moscow principality. By the middle of the 16th century, Vologda had become the major 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 Northern Dvina River.
     Vologda was built entirely of wood until the reign of Ivan IV (the Terrible), who in 1565 included the town in his private domain and initiated the 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 mid-16th-century church architecture based on Aristotle Fioravanti's Dormition Cathedral (1475-79) in the Moscow Kremlin. For various political reasons, the cathedral was not consecrated until 1588, after Ivan's death. Its glorious array of frescoes were painted by artists from Kostroma at the end of the 17th century. Fortunately, this national landmark is in relatively good condition. Indeed, the majority of Vologda's churches still stand, although extensive vandalism during the Soviet period reduced some of them to mere shells.
     The Vologda region is extraordinarily rich, with interesting historic towns surrounding it like a necklace. To the north are the monastic complexes at Kirillov and Ferapontovo, which contain some of the best examples of late medieval art and architecture in all of Russia. Of the many other attractive choices, the best is to the northeast, where good roads lead to Totma, a sleepy settlement of some 10,000 on the Sukhona River, which contains some of the most dramatic forms of church architecture in the north. Whether approaching by road over rolling fields and forests or from the wide valley of the Sukhona River, the appearance of these tall spires on the landscape provokes a sense of amazement.
     The first known mention of Totma is 1137 - 10 years earlier than the first recorded reference to Moscow. The town was rebuilt in the 16th century near the salt springs and deposits that would form a major source of the region's wealth. Today salt is so taken for granted that it is easy to forget how valuable a commodity it was in the medieval world. By the middle of the 16th 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 the production of salt,
In the 18th century, Totma's river trade was augmented by the arrival of merchants active in the Russian-American Company, which for a few decades reaped fabulous wealth from the fur trade. Indeed, the first commandant of California's Fort Ross was Ivan Kuskov. His log house in Totma is now preserved as a museum, and his grave can be visited at the Savior-Sumorin Monastery.
The northeast road from Totma leads to Veliky Ustyug, one of the most picturesque of the historic northern towns. Veliky Ustyug (population about 36,000) is located at the confluence of two rivers, the Sukhona and the Yug, which merge into a third - the Northern Dvina. "Ustyug" means the "mouth of the Yug", and the epithet Veliky, or "great", was added at the end of the 16th 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 12th century.
     Veliky Ustyug is especially rich in the number of its surviving churches, which are evidence of the town's importance as a center of Orthodox missionary activity. The most renowned of its spiritual leaders was Stephen of Perm, who began missionary activity as early as 1379 among non-Russian indigenous tribes eastward to the Ural Mountains. He subsequently became a bishop, and was eventually canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.
     Indeed, Veliky Ustiug provided much of the leadership and talent that carried the Russians beyond the Ural Mountains into the most distant reaches of Siberia. There are few more pleasant views of Russia's past than a leisurely stroll on a late summer's evening along the Sukhona embankment, with its array of domed churches and the houses of prosperous merchants from two centuries ago.
     Moving north from Veliky Ustyug along the Dvina River, you enter the territory of the contemporary Arkhangelsk region. The former wealth of this area is nowhere more evident than at Solvychegodsk, the one-time capital of the Stroganov trading empire. Although the first Russian settlements in the area were probably sponsored in the 14th century by Novgorod, the merchant dynasty of the Stroganovs arrived in the middle of the 16th century. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Stroganovs built churches that were lavishly decorated from their immense wealth, based initially on the salt trade. The term "Stroganov style" denotes elaborately ornamented forms in music, icon painting, and architecture, as well as in the applied arts - it was a style that appeared wherever the Stroganovs had major trading operations, from Solvychegodsk to Nizhny Novgorod on the Volga River, to Perm in the Urals. As new trading routes led to its decline in the 18th and 19th centuries, the town became a small resort known for its mineral waters and springs.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were at least twelve brick churches in Solvychegodsk, eight of which were totally destroyed in the Soviet period; two others survived in partial disrepair. But the two Stroganov cathedrals still stand relatively unscathed - one a 16th-century structure dedicated to the Annunciation, and the other an elaborately decorated 17th-century church honoring the presentation of the Virgin.
     The incongruousness of such grand structures in so remote a location is partially explained by the name of the town itself: "Solvychegodsk" means "salt of the Vychegda." The area is replete with salt springs, as well as a small brackish river and a salt lake. The Stroganovs created a salt monopoly here in the 16th century that brought them enormous wealth, and Solvychegodsk became the center of their private empire. From this southeastern corner of the Arkhangelsk region, it is possible to travel by train 250 kilometers (150 miles) due west to the other side of the province. At Konosha junction, the track merges with the main line heading north to Arkhangelsk. But there is no reason to rush, for the southwestern region contains some of the most well-preserved ancient villages in all of Russia. An hour west of the train station of Nyandoma, the town of Kargopol is another formerly wealthy trading center that was bypassed by the railroads, leaving it a backwater that still has the feel of a northern provincial town of 100 or even 200 years ago. By 1900, its 22 churches and two monasteries rather strangely coexisted with some 3,000 inhabitants. During the Soviet period, half of the town's churches perished from neglect or demolition. Yet enough has remained, at least on the exterior, to give an impression of the rich artistic culture of the past. Despite economic difficulties, Kargopol, like many other northern towns, has managed to support a series of summer festivals devoted to traditional Russian arts and crafts.
     Kargopol is itself surrounded by a number of formerly wealthy villages that have retained something of their artistic heritage. At the village of Lyadiny, some 35 kilometers (20 miles) west of Kargopol, stands an extraordinary three-part ensemble: the 18th-century summer Church of the Intercession, with its tall tent-like tower; the slightly later winter Church of the Epiphany, with its panoply of cupolas; and a large bell tower dating from the 19th century. Such groupings were once common in prosperous northern communities, but most have disappeared. Here, only the Intercession Church still contains remarkable interior paintings, which are now in urgent need of restoration.
     Moving north from Nyandoma, the rail line ends at the city of Arkhangelsk, a once major port that managed during the Soviet period to destroy most of its historic architectural legacy -including the monastery from which the city derived its name. Nonetheless, the Dvina is at its most majestic here. Arkhangelsk also has an excellent art museum, specializing, of course, in Northern Russian art, and two airports.
     No journey through Arkhangelsk Province is complete without a visit to Great Solovetsky Island, part of a chain of islands near the mouth of the Onega River in the White Sea. The islands can be reached by air from Arkhangelsk, but flights are limited, and it is advisable to reserve tickets well in advance. The island chain first attracted the attention of a few hardy monks during a wave of monastic expansion that occurred throughout the Russian north in the late 14th and 15th centuries. A great monastery flourished there in the 16th century, but its fate took a tragic turn in the middle of the 17th century, when the Old Believers refused to accept the liturgical reforms dictated by the Patriarchate in Moscow.
     The monastery was a center of resistance and was only subdued by tsarist troops after a seven-year siege. The subsequent execution of the rebellious monks cast a lasting pall over the monastery, but it was gradually rebuilt until the modern cataclysm of war and revolution handed it a new fate. In 1921 the Bolsheviks expropriated the monastery; two years later, a fire reduced the ornate interiors of the great stone churches to ashes. Lenin soon designated it the site of his regime's prototypical concentration camp - conveniently proximate to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the first great Soviet infrastructure project built by slave labor. Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Dmitry Likhachev have provided definitive accounts of the Solovetsky camp, which metastasized throughout the Soviet Union in the 1930s and was immortalized as the "Gulag Archipelago." Superseded by far larger complexes, the Solovetsky camp closed in 1939, and the territory then served for many years as a military base.
     Attempts to restore the monumental Transfiguration Monastery did not get underway until the 1970s, but work accelerated during perestroika, as students and other volunteers from Moscow streamed northward in the summers to help in the enormous task of renovation. It was re-consecrated in 1992 by Patriarch Alexy II. Although only a few monks live in the monastery, its renaissance is visually stunning. The complex seems eerily to rise from the water, a floating citadel of towers and domes.
     The Solovetsky Islands convey a strange sense of enchantment, whatever the season. But on the long summer days when the sun is not blocked by rain clouds, the monastery is suffused with a fantastic range of solar light that gradually illuminates all sides of the citadel and its churches. On a late summer evening, this light gives added meaning to the monastery's name, the Transfiguration - which is, after all, about a miracle of light.
Despite all its current problems, the Russian North still has the power to convince that legend and history are one, and fortunately, these treasures of the past lie within reach of the intrepid traveler.

William Craft Brumfield is one of the world's foremost authorities on Russian architecture. He is professor of Slavic studies at Tulane University in New Orleans, a member of the Russian Academy of Architecture and a recent inductee into the Russian Academy of Arts.