November 01, 1997

Damp Area with Firs and Bushes

Hidden in a lightly populated expanse between Vologda and Veliky Ustyug, along the peaceful Sukhona river, is Totma, an 860-year-old architectural marvel. As William C. Brumfield shows, the small town, once an economic and political powerhouse, is quietly struggling to reclaim its centuries-old treasures. Photographs by the author.

Among the many treasures of the Russian North, Totma must rank as one of the most peculiar to the modern visitor. Located on the Sukhona River midway between Vologda and Veliky Ustyug, Totma is a sleepy settlement of some 10,000 souls. And yet, from its midst there rise some of the most dramatic forms of church architecture to be found anywhere in the north.

Whether one approaches by road over rolling fields and forests, or from the wide valley of the Sukhona River, the appearance of Totma’s tall spires on the landscape produces a sense of amazement. This apparition can be incredible on a sultry summer morning, and even more impressive on a bitterly cold (-30o C), sunny day this past January, when the towers reached above the plumes of ice haze and smoke from hundreds of snow-draped wooden houses.

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