Solvychegodsk: Empire of the Stroganovs

Of the many treasures of the Russian North, few seem as improbable as the town of Solvychegodsk (population 4,000), located on the north bank of the Vychegda River not far from its confluence with the Northern Dvina. Despite its sleepy appearance, Solvychegodsk contains two of the most elaborate examples of religious architecture and applied arts in all Russia.

Photos by William Brumfield
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The first Russian settlements in the area were probably constructed in the 14th century with the support of Novgorod, whose explorers would have recognized the value of a site near the crossing of two major river routes: north to the White Sea and east to the Urals. As Moscow expanded during the 16th century, the northern river network became an crucial transportation artery for trade. Wealthy entrepreneurs such as the Stroganovs, who arrived in the middle of the 16th century, received privileges from the Muscovite state to establish and maintain settlements in the area.

The main source of their wealth was salt, which in the medieval era was one of the most valuable of commodities. In fact, Solvychegodsk means "salt of the Vychegda," and the area is replete with salt springs, as well as a small brackish river, the Usol, and a salt lake, the Solonikha. The Stroganov’s salt monopoly brought them enormous wealth, and Solvychegodsk became the center of their private empire.

The patriarch of the dynasty, Anika (Ioanniky) Stroganov (1497-1570), began the family’s lavish patronage of the arts. His wealth—made from salt refining, trade and the exploration of Siberia—was incalculable. Ivan the Terrible allowed Stroganov to maintain his own army of his own and to exploit the wealth of vast areas of the Urals and Siberia, in return for expanding the domains of the tsar.

Anika Stroganov's primary contribution to Russian architecture is the Annunciation Cathedral, begun in 1560 and apparently concluded in the early 1570s, although it was not formally consecrated until 1584. Its design is idiosyncratic, with only two interior piers, yet it has the five cupolas usual for major 16th-century churches. The structure originally culminated in arched gables ,whose outlines are still visible beneath a four-sloped 18th-century roof. In 1819-1826, the original bell tower at the northwest corner was replaced by an oversized neoclassical bell tower.


The interior walls of the Annunciation Cathedral were painted with frescoes in the summer of 1600, as noted in an inscription at the base of the walls. They were subsequently overpainted in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly after a fire damaged the interior in 1819. A restoration effort begun in the 1970s and still ongoing has uncovered original frescoes on the west wall. The centerpiece of the Annunciation Cathedral was an elaborate five-tiered iconostasis, originally installed by the end of the 1570s. Its present form dates from the 1690s, although the royal doors leading to the altar were donated by the Stroganovs at the beginning of the 17th century.

The florid style of the Stroganov school of religious art culminated in Solvychegodsk with the late 17th-century church at the Monastery of the Presentation of the Virgin. Its patron, Grigory Stroganov, acquired a dominant position in the Stroganov mercantile empire and later figured prominently in the political and cultural changes effected by Peter the Great. In 1688, he commissioned a new cathedral to replace one of wood in the monastery (founded in 1565) that formed part of the family compound at Solvychegodsk. Although the church was not consecrated until 1712, some of the lower parts of the structure were already functioning by 1691, and the basic construction was completed by 1693.

The Presentation Cathedral is distinctive for many reasons, not the
least of which is the carved limestone decoration on the brick facades, which are also decorated with polychrome tiles. During the 18th century, the gallery—originally an open terrace—was enclosed in a brick arcade with an intricate limestone cornice (now partially obscured).

The soaring interior of the Presentation Cathedral is created by a vaulting system of paired arches that support the large structure and its five cupolas with no free-standing piers. The effect is one of bright spaciousness, intensified by the lack of frescoes. All attention is focused on the elaborately carved seven-tiered iconostasis, created by Grigory Ivanov in 1693. The icons within the Presentation Cathedral were painted on canvas instead of treated boards in a western style by a Stroganov painter, Stepan Narykov. Rarely has a small parish received such lavish premises.

As new trading routes led to a decline in its significance in the 18th and 19th centuries, the town became a small resort, known for its mineral waters and springs. At the beginning of the 19th century, there was still sufficient commercial activity for the Pankov merchant family to build a grand neoclassical mansion there. Solvychegodsk was subsequently used by the tsarist government as a place of exile. The local Museum of Political Exile includes a log cabin where Iosef Dzhugashvili (better known as Josef Stalin) spent one of his many northern exiles.

The Soviet period inflicted much damage on the cultural heritage of Solvychegodsk. Of the town’s twelve brick churches in existence at the beginning of the 20th century, eight were destroyed and two others left in ruined state. But the jewels in the crown, the two Stroganov "cathedrals," still stand in their monumental glory.

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