January 01, 1999

Treasure on the Onega

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. Most specialists would agree, however, that this small town of some 12,000 souls, located in the southwestern part of Arkhangelsk province, is one of the oldest settlements in the Russian north and was probably founded in the 11th or 12th century. A few centuries ago, it was also one of the north’s most important settlements, although that is difficult to imagine now.

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. And today, the local tourist trade has substantially decreased because of new economic difficulties. Logging and subsistence-level agriculture are about all the area can sustain, apart from state-subsidized jobs in the town itself. Only Kargopol’s remarkable white stone churches remind of its wealth in the seventeenth and eighteenth 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.

Kargopol is not a particularly easy place to reach. 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 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, 90 kilometers to the west.

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