Veliky Ustiug: Northern Jewel

April 19, 2010 William Brumfield
The Vologda territory in the Russian North possesses a special charm, with its forested landscapes and old towns along river trading networks that once carried Russia's wealth to both the West and Siberia. The faded glory of these historic settlements is still evident in the churches, great and small, that dot the countryside. Among these towns, Veliky Ustiug has a particularly rich history and culture. It is located in the northeastern corner of the Vologda region at the confluence of the Sukhona and the Yug, which merge to form a third river, the Northern Dvina. This network of three navigable rivers spread throughout northern Russia in a major transportation route that attracted the earliest Russian settlers here, apparently by the middle of the 12th century. The mercantile city of Novgorod sent its pioneering traders to the region and lay claim to the area until the middle of the 15th century. Veliky Ustiug ultimately cast its lot with Moscow and became an important military post.

Photos © by William Brumfield
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Veliky Ustiug also witnessed the vigorous development of the Russian Orthodox Church. 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. Stephen subsequently became a bishop, and was eventually canonized.

Despite the severe northern climate and the great distances between major settlements, Ustiug grew and thrived in the 16th century, especially with the development of trade between Russia and England and Holland during the reign of Ivan the Terrible. After the return to prosperous trade with Western Europe in the 17th century, Ustiug's merchants and churches acquired wealth that created most of the town's early brick churches. Foremost among them is the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God, whose form dates primarily from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Dormition Cathedral is surrounded by six other churches to form an ensemble known as Cathedral Court and the adjacent Archbishop's Court. Together with the cathedral bell tower, they form the dominant feature in the town's landscape and are dramatically situated on the high left embankment of the Sukhona River. Cathedral Court is the appropriate place to begin a walking tour of Ustiug, with its quiet streets, neighborhood churches, and the Archangel Monastery, with its rich church art.

The most remarkable example of the late baroque in Ustiug is contained at the Trinity-Gleden Monastery, on the opposite side of the Sukhona River at Gleden. The main church, dedicated to the Trinity, was built in the late 17th century. Many years later a new merchant donation enabled the construction and painting of a splendid iconostasis (1776 and 1784), whose exuberant carved figures in the baroque style reflect the town's ties with St. Petersburg.

To the north of Gleden is the village of Dymkovo, with its well-preserved wooden houses and two churches - St. Sergius of Radonezh (1739-47) and the larger St. Dmitrii (1700-1709)- located on the right bank of the Sukhona opposite Cathedral Court. Either side of the river offers excellent views of churches and houses on the other bank, example of the sense of ensemble that characterizes the unique environment of historic Ustiug.

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