Uglich kremlin: Bright beacon on the Volga River

How the Church of Tsarevich Dmitry and the Prince Chambers have changed throughout the centuries.

Uglich. Church of St. Tsarevich Dmitry

At the beginning of the 20th century the Russian chemist and photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky devised a complex process for vivid, detailed color photography. His vision of photography as a form of education and enlightenment was demonstrated with special clarity through his photographs of architectural monuments in the historic sites throughout the Russian heartland.

Logistical support for Prokudin-Gorsky’s project came from the Ministry of Transportation, which facilitated his photography on Russia’s waterways and expanding rail network. His trips along the Volga River in 1910 and 1911 proved especially productive.

Palace (Chambers) of Uglich Princes, west view. Left: Church of Tsarevich Dmitry. Late summer 1910.

In the late summer of 1910, Prokudin-Gorsky traveled on the Volga from Uglich to Gorodets. His visit to Uglich provided a bounty of photographs, but, unfortunately, his collection at the Library of Congress contains none of the original glass plates from Uglich. Their fate is unknown, and they were most likely broken during the tumult of the collection’s pre-World War II history.

However, Prokudin-Gorsky made contact prints from the magenta segment of his 3-exposure glass negatives, and the Uglich monochrome prints proved to be of excellent quality. My own visits to the town occurred over a two-decade span from 1987 to 2007.

Palace (Chambers) of Uglich Princes, southwest view. July 30,  1997.

Of all the provincial towns photographed by Prokudin-Gorsky in the upper Volga basin, perhaps none possesses a more dramatic reputation than Uglich, located 200 km northeast of Moscow. It was here that Ivan the Terrible's eight‑year‑old son Dmitry met a violent death in May of 1591, an event that would ultimately play a role in plunging Russia into years of destructive chaos.

An ancient, but modest town

There is no verifiable date for the founding of Uglich, but archeological evidence suggests that it existed by the middle of the tenth century. Its location at a bend in the Volga is considered to have provided the name, derived from the Russian ugol, or angle.

Palace (Chambers) of Uglich Princes. North view with stairway created by N. Sultanov. August 9, 1987.

From 1216 until 1605 Uglich was the center of a minor feudal principality. Indeed, it was the last such principality to be absorbed into the Muscovite state. It is also the only principality to have preserved at least remnants of the princely palace, located within the small fortress, or kremlin.

A modest structure by European standards, the brick palace (palaty in Russian) was originally built in the 1480s for Prince Andrey the Large, younger brother of Moscovy’s Grand Prince Ivan III (the Great), Archeological evidence suggests that it was a long one-story building elevated over a low ground floor. The death of Tsarevich Dmitry — who was also Prince of Uglich — occurred just to the north of the palace.

Church of Tsarevich Dmitry

Much of the palace was razed at the turn of the 18th century to provide brick for the construction of the neighboring Transfiguration Cathedral. Only the adjoining structure containing the throne chamber survived, albeit in a state of disrepair. Repairs at the beginning of the 19th century led to the loss by overpainting of earlier rare fresco scenes from the Book of Proverbs.  

A dramatic history

As the tercentenary of the death of Tsarevich Dmitry approached in 1891, funds were allocated to undertake a major renovation directed by the Petersburg architect Nikolay Sultanov, a leading proponent of the late 19th-century Russian Revival style. Sultanov imaginatively added embellishments such as the decorative porch and entrance on the north side. Prokudin-Gorsky’s view shows the west side, with the porch only dimly visible. I was able to photograph the structure from both sides.

Church of Tsarevich Dmitry

It was near the palace that Tsarevich Dmitry—Ivan the Terrible's son by his non-canonical marriage to Maria Nagaya - met his demise. The circumstances of his death remain unclear, but a commonly -accepted version has it that the fatal knife wound was associated with an epileptic fit during a game that involved throwing knives.

Another version says that the child was murdered by companions, who were killed by an enraged crowd when they saw his body. This, in turn, gave rise to a popular and enduring legend that considered the tragedy a murder instigated by the cunning Boris Godunov (1551?-1605), who held de facto power in Russia during the final years of the reign of Tsar Feodor (1557-98), the last of the Ryurikovich dynasty. An investigative committee reported that the death was an “accident”; but following the accession of the Romanovs, the death was attributed to Godunov. In the 19th century, certain prominent historians began to question the “anti-Godunov” version.

Church of Tsarevich Dmitry. West view with bell tower over main entrance. Late summer 1910.

Boris Godunov's formal accession to the throne in 1598 gave cause to hope that policies of this vigorous and intelligent ruler would work to the benefit of Russia, as they had during his regency. Yet he was driven by ambition and known for ruthless behavior toward perceived rivals, such as members of the Romanov clan (related to Ivan’s beloved first wife, Anastasia Romanovna).

Rumors of Godunov’s guilt in the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitry undermined his authority, as did political intrigues and a series of natural disasters that led to the recurring threat of famine. Following his death in 1605 and the murder of his family in the Kremlin, there ensured a period of social chaos and incessant fighting known as the Time of Troubles. Only with the accession to power in 1613 of Michael, first of the Romanov tsars, was a modicum of order restored to a devastated Muscovite state, although several more years of fighting and disorder remained.

Church of Tsarevich Dmitry. West view with bell tower over main entrance. July 30, 1997.

Pilgrimage site

Because of the traumatic memories associated with the death of the Tsarevich—and the need for healing—Uglich was filled with churches and chapels. By one count there were thirty churches in addition to the churches in three monastic institutions. (Approximately half of these churches were demolished durin the Soviet period.)

Primary among them was the Church of Tsarevich Dmitry “on the Blood,” so named because of its location at the site of the child’s violent death. In 1606, the year of Dmitry’s canonization, site was marked by a log chapel and then a wooden church in 1630. (In 1606 his remains were reinterred in the Cathedral of Archangel Michael in the Moscow Kremlin.)

Church of Tsarevich Dmitry. Ceramic tile, south facade. August 9, 1987.

As the centennial of Dmitry’s death approached, work began on a brick church with the patronage of the young co-tsars, Peter I and Ivan V. Both were the sons of Tsar Alexis, and they ruled together from 1682 to 1696 at another exceedingly complicated time in Russian dynastic history.

Consecrated in 1692, the church design followed a traditional 17th-century form, with a bell tower arising over the main entrance at the west end of a one-story refectory. Extending from the east wall is an apse that contains the primary altar, said to be located on the very site of Dmitry’s death.

Church of Tsarevich Dmitry.  Northeast view from Volga River. Foreground: washing clothes in Volga River. Right: Transfiguration Cathedral. Late summer 1910.

The main structure, with two levels of windows, is crowned with five cylinders supporting onion domes and ornamental metal crosses. Overlooking the Volga River, the festive structure was painted bright red with white trim. It was also decorated with bright ceramic tiles, particularly visible on the south façade.

Prokudin-Gorsky photographed the monument from all sides, as did I. His northeast view is remarkable not only for the image of the church above the riverbank, but also for its view of women doing wash at the river’s edge. I photographed a similar scene on the Sukhona River near Totma and have included it for its timeless quality.

Veliky Ustyug. Washing clothes in Sukhona River. Background: Dormition Cathedral ensemble. July 23, 1998.

Prokudin-Gorsky also photographed several sacred relics associated with Tsarevich Dmitry inside the church. He did not, however, make wider views of the church interior, which was covered with frescoes painted in the late 18th century. In addition to Biblical scenes, the frescoes included scenes from the life of the Tsarevich. Particularly vivid is the west wall, which displays the “anti-Godunov” version of events on that fateful day.

Although arguments continue about the circumstances of Dmitry’s death, the Church of Tsarevich Dmitry has transcended these quarrels to become the main historic site of Uglich. Visited each year by thousands of pilgrims and tourists, the church stands above the Volga as a vibrant example of Russian art. 

Uglich kremlin ensemble, northeast view from Volga River. From left: Church of Tsarevich Dmitry; Cathedral bell tower; Church of Kazan Icon, Transfiguration August 9, 1991.

In the early 20th century the Russian photographer Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky devised a complex process for color photography. Between 1903 and 1916 he traveled through the Russian Empire and took over 2,000 photographs with the process, which involved three exposures on a glass plate. In August 1918, he left Russia and ultimately resettled in France with a large part of his collection of glass negatives. After his death in Paris in 1944, his heirs sold the collection to the Library of Congress. In the early 21st century the Library digitized the Prokudin-Gorsky Collection and made it freely available to the global public. A number of Russian websites now have versions of the collection. In 1986 the architectural historian and photographer William Brumfield organized the first exhibit of Prokudin-Gorsky photographs at the Library of Congress. Over a period of work in Russia beginning in 1970, Brumfield has photographed most of the sites visited by Prokudin-Gorsky. This series of articles will juxtapose Prokudin-Gorsky’s views of architectural monuments with photographs taken by Brumfield decades later.

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