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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Treasure Trove Of Ancient Churches

To this day, historians are unable to agree on when Kargopol was founded and what its name means, although there are many competing answers to both questions. But this small town of around 12,000 people, located in the southeastern part of the Arkhangelsk province, was probably founded in the 11th or 12th century.

A few centuries ago, Kargopol was one of the most important settlements in the Russian north. But by the 19th century, the trading routes along the Onega River to the White Sea had lost their significance, and Kargopol no longer monopolized the northern salt trade. Today, the local tourist trade has decreased substantially because of new economic difficulties.

The area can sustain only subsistence-level agriculture, with some state-subsidized jobs in the town itself. Only Kargopol's remarkable white stone churches hint at its former wealth in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even though many of these landmarks are in a state of disrepair, their cumulative effect is impressive, particularly in a setting that has preserved its historic scale.

One of the charms of Kargopol is its concentration of museums and architectural landmarks within an easily accessible area. The town's dimensions are much the same now as they were in the 16th century. In 1765, however, a fire leveled much of Kargopol and severely damaged even its stone churches. When the town was subsequently rebuilt, the construction of log houses was prohibited in the immediate vicinity of churches, both for reasons of fire safety and as an aesthetic measure to allow a clearer view of the white stone churches, which unfold in beautiful progression along the wide Onega River.

Within this majestic natural landscape, Kargopol adheres to a regular grid plan dating from the time of Catherine the Great, with blocks of one- and two-story log houses, most of which are covered with plank siding. As is typical for Russian wooden houses, the window surrounds are elaborately carved, and the eaves are covered by decorative cornices. In this town of merchants, craftsmen, clerics and clerks, the carved decoration of wooden houses reflected a modest prosperity and way of life deeply rooted in tradition.

As you stroll through these little streets of wooden houses, the town's dominant landmark comes easily into view: the bell tower of the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ. The cathedral itself is the oldest structure in Kargopol, and in some ways the most imposing. Built from 1552 to 1562, the cathedral has been much modified since then. In 1652, the chapel of Saints Philip and Alexis on the north facade, with a raised porch and flanking staircase, was added. Shortly thereafter, a similar structure was attached to the south facade, and a large porch and staircase were added to the main entrance on the west facade.

The severity of the 1765 fire caused cracks to appear in the Nativity Cathedral walls, which were subsequently reinforced with large bulwarks at the corners. Thus, the original, graceful, white structure with its five domes is encumbered from all sides. The fire also damaged the frescoes that covered the interior. The domes, made in part of wood, also caught fire, and the portion of the wall paintings that survived the flames and smoke eventually succumbed to the elements, as the upper part of the church stood open to the sky for five years. The walls are now covered in whitewash, with only a small patch of the original frescoes visible above the west wall. What remains of the iconostasis is also post-1765. One curious element on the interior is a cast-iron arm that extends from the brick cylinder supporting the main dome. From its hand descends the chain that once held the central chandelier of the church.

With the replanning of the town after the fire, the area around the cathedral was cleared to form the so-called New Marketplace, bounded in the northeast by the Church of the Nativity of John the Baptist, built before the fire, between 1740 and 1751. Although austerely simple in form, this church, with its extended baroque cupolas, soars above the surrounding landscape. The centerpiece of the New Marketplace ensemble (also referred to as Cathedral Square) is a large, three-story bell tower, built in 1767, with a mixture of baroque and neoclassical elements. The lower part of the tower was intended to serve as a triumphal arch for Catherine the Great.

Although Catherine's visit never took place, the bell tower serves beautifully as a point of orientation for the town's main streets. The northwest part of the Cathedral Square is occupied by the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin, built in 1802, in a severe, archaic style that merges well with the rest of the ensemble.

On the eastern part of town, near the old earthen fortress and a few hundred meters from the New Marketplace, stands the large limestone Church of the Resurrection, built at the end of the 17th century in a style reminiscent of Russian cathedrals two centuries earlier. As with many other towns in the impoverished Russian north, it is now difficult to imagine the wealth needed to create such churches and their interiors. So much has been lost in recent decades -- and before -- and so little support is available to maintain what is left. For example, the Resurrection Church, which gave its name to the adjacent square, had another church flanking it and a beautiful log church nearby. Now it is all that remains of this ensemble.

Nonetheless, the centuries-long efforts of craftsmen and builders are still much in evidence. Not far from the Resurrection Church rises the enormous Greek-style dome of one of the earliest churches in Russia to be built in the neo-Byzantine style. The Trinity Church, begun in 1790 and completed in 1802, also gave its name to a square that had another church as part of its ensemble. Now the Trinity Church houses the main folk crafts exhibit of the local history museum. The great space beneath the dome has been used to surprising effect in displaying local handicrafts and art.

On the western side of Kargopol stands a similar grouping of churches, including the extraordinary Church of the Annunciation, which was completed in 1692. Also built of local limestone, the church's large windows are framed with carved surrounds that are so rich in detail and fanciful in imagination that the art historian Igor Grabar wrote at the beginning of this century that they rivaled the palaces of the early Florentine Renaissance. Indeed, we might have expected to see them in the Moscow Kremlin at the end of the 15th century, but Moscow has nothing like this. The apse of the church, with its blind arcade, is simply incomparable. Another enigma of the Russian north: Who devised and executed these marvels?

Unfortunately, the Annunciation Church now stands abandoned. Just to its north is the whitewashed cube of the 18th-century Saint Nicholas Church, so austere as to look modern. Together, these churches formed Old Marketplace, which was marked on the north by yet another church, the Nativity of the Virgin, completed in 1680. Although smaller than the Annunciation, it too has refined decorative carving, and the structure is perfectly balanced by two chapels attached to the north and south facades.This is now Kargopol's one functioning Orthodox church. The town could hardly support another in these times.

At the western edge of the original town boundaries, on a rise that passes for a "hill," stands the latest of Kargopol's churches to have survived: the Church of Saints Zosima and Savvaty, completed in 1819 for a visit of Tsar Alexander I. The classical style and rotunda dome suggest a Roman temple or a grand estate house in the Russian provinces. This church was one of the town's wealthiest in the 19th century because of the extensive forest lands it possessed. The building has been renovated and is now used as a branch of the local history and art museum, with an interesting display of icons and other church art, including carved wooden images of saints such as Nicholas of Mozhaisk. Some of Kargopol's best icons are now in museums throughout Russia, including the Hermitage and the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.

By the turn of this century, Kargopol had approximately 3,000 residents and 22 churches (including those of wood), as well as two monasteries. Like other ancient Russian towns that were bypassed by railroad construction (Suzdal is the primary example), Kargopol sank into a legendary torpor. Unfortunately, this did not save its monuments of art and architecture after the Revolution. During the Soviet period, half of the town's churches vanished through neglect or demolition.

But however difficult the struggle to preserve this artistic legacy in Kargopol itself, the situation is even worse in the countryside, renowned for containing some of the best examples of log architecture in Russia. Many of them now exist only in photographs. Nonetheless, there are still villages within a 100-kilometer radius of Kargopol that contain major landmarks.

The closest to Kargopol is the village of Saunino (five kilometers from town), with its tent tower Church of St. John Chrysostome (1665; renovated in the early 20th century) and an adjacent bell tower. The keys to the church are held by a hale and hearty village elder. When I entered the church, I saw only fragments of the icon screen, but the painted suspended ceiling, or nebo (heaven), still had most of its panels intact. So many of these ceilings have been takenout of country churches for preservation in museums, a difficult and controversial decision.

As impressed as I was by Saunino, the day had even better in store at the village of Oshevensk on the Churyuga River, which you cross over a recently renovated bridge of fragrant pine -- one of the best surviving examples of a wooden bridge in the Russian north. On approaching Oshevensk, you see the grand ruins of the 19th-century buildings in the Monastery of St. Alexander of Osheven, founded in 1453, the year Constantinople fell. Oshevensk was a large village, consisting of three hamlets, and it is still well preserved, with local inhabitants renting some of the log houses to summer visitors.

Oshevensk contains not only the exquisite miniature Chapel of St. George (partially restored), but also the log Church of the Epiphany (1787) with its tent tower over the sanctuary and a detached bell tower. The interior has one of the largest spaces among wooden churches in this area, and its iconostasis and "heaven" are staggering in their extent and color. I was informed by the woman who kept the keys that a priest does not regularly hold services here, but women from the community frequently gather in the church on Sundays to sing hymns. Thus, devotion returns in its purest sense.

The most remarkable monuments of wooden architecture that I have seen during my travels in this area are in the village of Lyadiny, almost 40 kilometers from Kargopol. This extraordinary ensemble consists of three parts: a summer Church of the Intercession (1761, with tall tent tower); a winter Church of the Epiphany (1793), with its panoply of cupolas; and a large bell tower. Both churches have highly distinctive design features, and the combination of icon screen and "heaven" inside the Intercession Church is the most striking that I have seen. Such three-part ensembles of churches were once common in wealthy northern farming communities, but most have disappeared. (Kizhi Island has the most famous of the surviving ensembles.)

Lyadiny has now lost its prosperity. Lidiya Sevastyanova, director of the Kargopol Museum, said the Epiphany Church is in desperate need of repair. Restoring the entire ensemble would require nearly 500,000 new rubles, or slightly less than $90,000. But the Arkhangelsk provincial government cannot allot such sums for these projects, nor apparently can the central government. Yet this is one of the priceless treasures of the Russian countryside. As Kargopol endures this difficult and uncertain time, we can only hope that these masterpieces, and others like them, will find the support needed for their continued existence.

Getting There

Getting to Kargopol requires no small effort. Over the past few years, the paved road network in the area has expanded, and it is theoretically possible to reach the town by road from the south, via Cherepovets and Belozersk. The easier way is to take a train from Moscow through Vologda to Nyandoma, a singularly graceless town whose main occupation -- apart from the railroad -- is the local forest products industry. From Nyandoma Station, regular bus service runs to Kargopol, 80 kilometers to the west. Or a private car can be hired at the station for 60 rubles, which can be split three ways if there are additional passengers.

Where to Stay

Kargopol currently has one small hotel, which has recently been renovated. The hotel, which has a small restaurant, is kept very clean, and some of the rooms have private baths. For information on museums and tours, contact the Kargopol History and Art Museum (tel: 8-81841-2-14-96, Oktyabrsky prospekt 54), an excellent institution whose director, Lidiya Sevastyanova, is able to provide comprehensive guide service.

Where to Eat

In Kargopol, the hotel restaurant is the main place for eating out, but museum personnel can recommend other small cafes in the area.