Velsk: Preserving the culture of Russia's northern forests
Photographs by William Brumfield
Although its livelihood depends primarily on modern transportation and forest development, the northern town of Velsk (current population about 23,500) has become an important center for the study of traditional arts and crafts.
Indeed, its regional history museum is considered one of the best in Russia's provinces. Traditional culture in the Russian North has often been associated with once prosperous villages where folk crafts flourished.
The pace of modern development has severely depleted such villages, and regional centers such as Velsk have attempted to gather the fragments.
The oldest preserved reference to Velsk dates to 1137, yet it is likely that a settlement existed much earlier near the point where the small Vel River flows into the Vaga (now in the extreme southern part of Arkhangelsk Region).
As an important left tributary of the Northern Dvina, the Vaga River offered a favorable connection to vast reaches in the north. The area's many small rivers and lakes also provided an ample source of fish and wildlife.
Like most settlements in the north during the early medieval period, Velsk fell within the orbit of the major commercial center of Novgorod. By the late 15th century, however, the region was absorbed into the rapidly expanding territory of Muscovy during the reign of Ivan III (the Great). Velsk and its forests soon proved a reliable source of income for Moscow's princes.
How to get there
To get to Velsk take the regular train from Moscow (Yaroslavsky railway station) following to Vorkuta or Syktyvkar and take off in Velsk.
In the early 17th century, this prosperity vanished during the Time of Troubles, a dynastic interregnum that devastated much of Russia with civil strife and foreign occupation. Like many northern communities Velsk provided support to expel Polish forces from Moscow in 1613.
But Velsk itself was left vulnerable to marauders who overcame a nearby fort and sacked the settlement and its Church of St. John the Merciful.
Gradually, the settlement revived through the ample resources of local forests. Especially valuable was the extraction of pitch, or pine tar, obtained by reducing pine wood under high temperature to charcoal and resin.
Pitch was essential in many ways, including the sealing of boats, barrels and other vessels. It became one of Russia's main northern exports, primarily to England, where it was called "Archangel tar" (after the port of Arkhangelsk).
Production of pitch began in Velsk in the 16th century and grew steadily thereafter. Its importance to the local economy was officially acknowledged during the reign of Catherine the Great, when Velsk - like many other Russian towns - gained a coat of arms. Its shield proudly displays a barrel, with black pitch spilling from the top.
During the 19th century, the Velsk region was included in the Crown Estates, managed especially for the imperial family. This gave a relatively favorable status to the peasants who lived and worked on the land.
Velsk also benefited as an important way station on the Moscow-Arkhangelsk road. With modest prosperity, this provincial corner gained a pleasant appearance that included number of well built wooden houses for merchants and officials. Fortunately, a number of these houses have survived. Like many northern towns, Velsk also served as a place of political exile.
The center of town had its commercial buildings, one of which - the red-brick Sobolev Building (1913) - has been expertly converted for use by the Regional History Museum.
Among the churches of Velsk, one has survived with little change: the attractive wooden Church of the Dormition, built in the 1790s at the town cemetery. Velsk also had a large Cathedral of the Transfiguration, begun in 1898 and consecrated in 1913.
Closed after the establishment of Soviet power, the structure was substantially remodeled in the 1930s to serve as a House of Culture. There are now proposals to restore the building for church use.
Following the turbulence of the revolutionary years, the forests once again provided the basis for economic revival in the early 1930s. During the same period, the Velsk region became one of several northern relocation areas for peasants who had been forcibly uprooted during the collectivization of agriculture. Their existence was harsh and often amounted to little more than forced labor.
Transportation links through Velsk improved dramatically with the completion in 1942 of a rail line extending from Konosha – on the mainline to Arkhangelsk – and Kotlas on the Dvina River. From Kotlas, the rail line extended almost 750 miles northeast past Pechora to the coal mines of Vorkuta.
Today Velsk continues to play an important transportation role. The region's forest products are shipped out by rail, and the town remains a major stop on the long Moscow-Arkhangelsk highway. Nearby villages continue to feel the impact of demographic shifts that have led in some cases to depopulation.
Nonetheless, memories of old traditions remain, along with a few parish churches - most in an abandoned state.
One historic village, Bereznik, is picturesquely located on the Vel River and is partially maintained by the Velsk Regional History Museum.
In addition to a wooden firehouse and tower built in the early 20th century, Bereznik has a large 2-story log dwelling that dates from the late 18th-century.
This "kurnaya izba" was built for use during the long winters and has been remarkably well preserved as part of a functioning farmstead.
The local educational system also encourages positive attitudes toward traditional culture. Of special interest is the active "Berendei" program, which teaches folk crafts to young students.
Those who progress to an advanced level are able to sell their work.
Many of the visitors to the Berendei workshop are travelers for whom a stop at Velsk is a welcome relief on the long roads of the Russian North.