February 01, 1999

Solvychegodsk: Salt City

Travelers in Russia soon learn to expect the unexpected, and the more one moves from the usual tourist routes, the greater the possibility for surprise.  On the fringes of the Moscow suburb of Bykovo, an elaborate pseudo-Gothic church appears like a mirage out of a littered landscape. In the sleepy provincial town of Torzhok, a remarkable seventeenth-century log church, dedicated to the Ascension, rises in a tower of octagons that still stands on its original site above the Tvertsa River.

Some of Russia’s architectural visions seem to have been abandoned, while others have been repaired for parish use by the Orthodox Church. Still others are under the protection of museum workers and their ever-dwindling resources. Indeed, every corner of the Russian provinces has its treasures, most all neglected.

In all my travels through Russia, however, no sight has seemed more improbable than the ensemble of churches built by the Stroganovs at their compound in the far northern town of Solvychegodsk. Although I had read the scholarly literature and knew of the churches’ significance, study can only go so far in preparing for the visual impact of such unique and grandiose buildings.

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