July 01, 1997

Hidden Jewel of the North

Like a stunning chrysalis preserved in a drop of amber, Veliky Ustyug survives in northern Russia, little touched by the 850 years of history it marks this month. And, as William C. Brumfield reports, this is largely attributable to the city’s indomitable spirit.

Veliky Ustyug, located in the northeastern corner of Vologda oblast, is one of those provincial Russian towns that seem in some ways miraculously untouched by time. That is an illusion, of course, and as the city (population about 36,000) prepares to celebrate its 850th anniversary this summer, problems of the present day are very much in evidence: budgetary crises, the cessation of passenger train service and most river transport, economic stagnation, unpaid wages. Yet, over its long history, Veliky Ustyug has learned to cope with adversity and rebound in a new affirmation of its independent spirit.

In part, this resilience is due to the town’s strategic location at the confluence of two large rivers, the Sukhona and the Yug, which merge into a third — the Northern Dvina. Indeed, the name Ustyug means the “mouth of the Yug,” and the epithet Veliky, or “great,” was added at the end of the sixteenth century, to signify the city’s importance as a commercial center. This network of three navigable rivers spreads throughout northern Russia in a major transportation route that attracted the earliest Russian settlers here, apparently by the middle of the twelfth century. The mercantile city of Novgorod sent its pioneering traders to the region, and, until the middle of the fifteenth century, Novgorod lay claim to authority over the area. Veliky Ustyug ultimately cast its lot with Moscow, however, and became an important military post for the expanding Muscovite state.

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