By William C. Brumfield

At the southwestern corner of Arkhangelsk province stands another small town with monumental architectural relics from a distant past.  The trading routes from Kargopol along the Onega River to the White Sea have long since lost their significance, salt is no longer a major commodity for this region, and even the local forest products industry has suffered.  In these difficult economic times the local tourist trade has withered, if not entirely disappeared.  Subsistence-level agriculture is about all the area can sustain, apart from state-subsidized jobs in the town itself.  Only Kargopol's remarkable white stone churches remind of the its former wealth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries--and many of these landmarks are in a perilous state of disrepair.

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.<<1>>  Most specialists would agree, however, that this small town of some 12,000 inhabitants is one of the oldest settlements in the Russian north, perhaps founded in the twelfth, or even eleventh, century.  The principality of Novgorod, the most important and vigorous commercial center of medieval Russia, probably sent its traders and explorers through this area, although there is no specific evidence of their founding a settlement.<<2>>

Eventually, the favorable location of the site, near Lake Lacha and the origins of the Onega River, attracted the attention of neighboring principalities such as Belozersk and Vologda, as well as Novgorod, which exercised overall authority in the area during the early medieval period. The first known historical reference to Kargopol is a mention of its prince, Gleb, who fought with the Muscovite grand prince Dmitrii in his victory over the Mongols in 1380.  Subsequent references to the town occur in the mid-fifteenth century.<<3>>  With Moscow's subjugation of Novgorod at the end of the fifteenth century, the Kargopol lands came into the domains of Ivan III, and by the 1560s the town had become an important center in the realm of Ivan IV (the Terrible).<<4>>

In many ways, Kargopol remains a place of the sixteenth century, and its dimensions are much the same now as they were four or five centuries ago.  Yet very little has remained from that time, primarily because of a fire in 1765 that leveled much of the town 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 stately progression along the wide Onega River.

Within this open natural landscape, Kargopol adheres to a regular grid plan dating from the reign of Catherine,<<5>> although the basic groupings of churches that define the dominant points in the townscape took shape in the medieval period.  At the mid-point of that plan, near the Onega River, is the town's oldest, and most important, architectural monument, the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ, begun in 1552 and completed ten years later.(θλ. 1-1, 1-2)  Its appearance has changed much since then, first in 1652 by the building of the chapel of Saints Philip and Alexis attached to the north facade, with a raised porch and flanking staircases.(1-3, 1-4)  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.<<6>>  These additions encumber the structure, and over the centuries it has literally sunk into the ground to a depth of at least a meter, as the earth around it accumulated.

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, soaring white structure, with its five domes, now seems encumbered from all sides.  The fire also caused great damage to the frescoes that once covered the interior.  The domes, being made at least in part of wood, caught fire, and what part of the wall paintings that survived the flames and smoke succumbed to the elements when the church stood unrepaired for five years.  The walls are now covered in whitewash, with only a small patch of the original frescoes remains above the west wall.  What remains of the icon screen is also post-1765.  One curious element that survived on the interior is a cast-iron arm extending from the brick cylinder supporting the main dome.  From its hand descends the chain that supported 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-storied bell tower, initiated in 1767 by Iakov Sivers, the Governor General of Novgorod Province, as part of a plan to resuscitate the town after the great fire.  With its mixture of baroque and neoclassical elements, the bell tower was approved by the town as a monument in honor of Catherine the Great, although the empress never visited Kargopol.(1-5)  Because of difficulties in obtaining building materials, construction of the tower lasted from 1772 to 1778.<<7>> Its completion endowed Kargopol with an imposing point of orientation not only for the town's main streets but also from the Onega River.

The northwest part of the Cathedral Square is occupied by the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin, built in 1802-08 in a severe, archaic style that complements the other churches of this central architectural ensemble.  The church is now used a museum gallery displaying traditional crafts and the work of contemporary Kargopol artists such as Valentin Shevelov.

On the eastern part of Kargopol, near the old earthen fortress and a few hundred meters from the central New Marketplace, stands the large limestone Church of the Resurrection, built at the end of the seventeenth century in a style reminiscent of Russian cathedrals two centuries earlier.(θλ. 2-1, 2-2)  As with many other towns in the now 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, if not before, and so little support is available to maintain what is left. For example the Resurrection Church, which gave its name to the square surrounding it, had another church (the Most Merciful Savior) flanking it and an imposing log church nearby.<<8>>  Now all that remains of this ensemble is the Resurrection.

Not far from the Resurrection Church rises the capacious Greek-style dome of the Trinity Church, one of the earliest Russian examples of the neo-Byzantine style.  Begun in 1790 and completed in 1802, the Trinity Church also gave its name to a square that had another church (St. John the Divine; not extant) as part of its ensemble.  Now the Trinity Church houses the main folk crafts exhibit of the local history museum.<<9>>  The great space beneath the dome has been used to remarkable effect in displaying regional handicrafts and art.

On the other, western, side of Kargopol there is a similar grouping of churches, including the remarkable Church of the Annunciation, completed in 1692.(3-1)  Records indicate that the architect was a certain Shakhnov, and that the young Peter I contributed 100 rubles to its construction.<<10>>  Also built of local limestone, the large windows of the Annunciation Church are surrounded with carved surrounds that are so rich in detail and fanciful in imagination, that the master art historian Igor Grabar wrote at the beginning of this century that they rivalled the palaces of the early Florentine Renaissance.<<11>>  Indeed, we might have expected to see them in the Moscow Kremlin at the end of the fifteenth century; but Moscow has nothing like this.  The apse of this church, with its blind arcade, is incomparable.

The Annunciation Church now stands abandoned, as does its neighbor to the north, the eighteenth-century Church of Saint Nicholas, so austere in its whitewashed cube as to look strangely modern.  It originally had five cupolas, of which all but the central one were removed during the Soviet era.<<12>>  Together, these churches formed Old Marketplace, which was marked on the north by yet another church, the Nativity of the Virgin, completed in 1682.(4-1)  Although smaller than the Resurrection, it too has carved limestone decoration, and the structure is perfectly balanced by two chapels attached to the north and south facades. Alferova derives the complex, miniature plan from Moscow parish churches of the period.<<13>>  This is now Kargopol's one functioning parish 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 Savvatii, completed in 1819 for a visit of Tsar Alexander I.<<14>>  The classical style and rotunda dome suggests a Roman temple, or a grand estate house in the Russian provinces.  In fact this church was one of the town's wealthiest in the nineteenth 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.  It should be noted that 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, such as Suzdal, Kargopol became a backwater.<<15>>

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.  And unlike Suzdal, Kargopol does not have  major population centers nearby and road networks that would encourage large-scale tourism and its economic support. For the time being, however, Kargopol has retained much of its nineteenth-century ambience, with blocks of one and two-storied log houses, most of which are covered with plank siding.  Although the window surrounds are not as elaborately carved as in central Russia, the decorative elements and proportions of the houses reflect a traditional aesthetic sensibility rooted in the modest prosperity of this town of merchants, craftsmen, and scribes.  Yet the harsh winters take their toll on these structures, which require a constant maintenance that is often beyond the means of the population.

0However difficult the struggle to preserve this artistic legacy in Kargopol itself, the situation is even worse in the villages of the surrounding region, renowned for containing some of the best examples of log architecture and folk art in Russia.  Here, as elsewhere in Arkhangelsk Province, photographs are all too often our only record of historic architecture and its environment.  The threat is particularly serious for the region's remarkable log buildings, such as the ensemble of eighteenth-century churches at the villages of Oshevensk (5-1) and Liadiny (6-1, 6-2, 6-3).

Traveling through the Kargopol region, one sees a curious paradox. On one hand, there are clearly insufficient resources to preserve the region's remarkable architectural and cultural heritage. On the other hand, the region astounds with the remaining wealth of log architecture in its villages. Not only in Oshevensk and Liadiny, but also in smaller villages such as Bolshoi and Malyi Khalui (7-1, 7-2, 7-3, 7-4, 7-5), Gar (8-1), Bolshaia Shalga, and Krasnaia Liaga. Alas, each year brings new losses. The wandering photogapher can only preserve what time has left.


1. A summary of various explanations (some of them fanciful) of the name "Kargopol" is presented in G. P. Durasov, Kargopol'e: Khudozhestvennye sokrovishcha (Moscow:  Sovetskaia Rossiia, 1984), p. 8. According to Durasov the most likely explanation is connected with the presence at this site of fertile, arable land for grain crops--an unusual feature for this area of the Russian north.

2. A survey of the sparse historical information concerning Kargopol's origins is presented in G. P. Gunn, Kargopol'e-Onega (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1989). pp. 15-16.  See also:  Durasov, Kargopol'e, p. 8; I. A. Bartenev and B. N. Fedorov, Arkhitekturnye pamiatniki russkogo severa (Leningrad:  Iskusstvo, 1968), p. 105; and G. V. Alferova, Kargopol' i Kargopol'e (Moscow, 1973).

3. A summary of medieval references to Kargopol is contained in Durasov, Kargopol'e, pp. 8-9.

4. The earliest detailed information on Kargopol dates from the reign of Ivan IV, who had a census of the town compiled in 1561-62 and included Kargopol among his person domains (the oprichnina) in 1565.  See O. V. Ovsiannikov, Liudi i goroda srednevekovogo Severa (Arkhangelsk: Sev-zap. kh. izd., 1971), pp. 291-99.

5. The genesis of the new town plan is discussed in M. N. Kriuchkova, "Sobornaia kolokol'nia goroda Kargopolia:  legendy i fakty," in N. I. Reshetnikov, ed., Kargopol':  Istoricheskoe i kul'turnoe nasledie (Kargopol:  Kargopol'skii muzei, 1996), p. 92.

6. On modifications to the cathedral, see Durasov, Kargopol'e, p. 19; and Alferova, Kargopol', pp. 41-42.

7. Recent research on the construction of the bell tower is presented in M. N. Kriuchkova, "'Podobno traianovoi kolonne...'," in Moskovskii zhurnal (1997)11: 32.

8. On the former ensemble at Resurrection Square, see Gunn, Kargopol'e-Onega, pp. 30-32, 39.

9. The development of the Kargopol Museum is surveyed by L. I. Sevest'ianova, "Iz istorii obrazovaniia i razvitiia Kargopol'skogo muzeia," in Reshetnikov, ed., Kargopol', pp. 11-15.

10. Alferova, Kargopol', p. 67.

11. I. Grabar', Istoriia russkogo iskusstva, vol. 1 (Moscow: Knebel', 1909), p. 14.  See also Gunn, Kargopol'e-Onega, pp. 26-30.

12. A photograph of the St. Nicholas Church as it appeared before the revolution is reproduced in Kriuchkova, "'Podobno traianovoi kolonne...'," p. 35.

13. Alferova, Kargopol', p. 59.

14. Gunn, Kargopol'e-Onega, pp. 39-41.

15. A lively account of life in pre-revolutionary Kargopol is contained in F. K. Dokuchaev-Baskov, Kargopol (Arkhangelsk:  Pravda Severa, 1996).  The articles in this volume were originally published in 1912-13 and edited for re-publication by V. Ia. Deriagin.

NOTE: A complete gallery of the photographs included in this article can be found here.