Veliky Ustyug: city of cultural monuments, explorers and Grandfather Frost
by Olivia Kroth
Every December when the year draws to its close, Veliky Ustyug comes into sight, especially for children awaiting Ded Moroz, Grandfather Frost. The town of 35.000 inhabitants is located in the northeast of Vologda Oblast, at the confluence of the Sukhona and Yug rivers. Downstream they form a single waterway called the Northern Dvina. Veliky Ustyug is the hometown of three famous explorers of Siberia. Today, it is mainly a tourist attraction because of its architectural monuments.
Ded Moroz Museum in Veliky Ustyug
On New Year’s Eve, Ded Moroz brings gifts to Russian children. He is awaited eagerly all over the Russian Federation. On the 7th of January 2008, President Vladimir Putin visited Ded Moroz’ residence in Veliky Ustyug, where he was greeted and shown around by an elderly man with a long white beard, clad in an ankle-length coat with white fur trimming. He told the President that he had already received one million visitors and two million letters since the founding of the Ded Moroz Museum, in 1998. It comprises Ded Moroz’ personal rooms, a gift shop, library and study. The surrounding park has a size of 42 hectares, complete with winter garden and sleighing slopes for children.
In the 19th century, Ded Moroz and his granddaughter Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, became popular figures in Russian music and art. Nicolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) created fifteen operas, one of them is “Snegurochka” (1880), a musical fairy tale with Russian folk music and ballet. This opera consists of a prologue and four acts. The story deals with the opposition of eternal forces in nature. Rimsky-Korsakov characterized the townspeople particularly with folk melodies. The work was first presented on the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, in 1882.
The Russian painter Victor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (1848-1926) also made use of the theme. In 1885, he created theatre decorations for Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “Snegurochka”. In 1889, Victor Vasnetsov painted “Snegurochka” in oil. His Snow Maiden is standing alone in a snowy winter wood, wearing a long white fur coat and fur hat. Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin (1876-1942) was another Russian-Soviet painter who elaborated the motif. In 1942, he died of cold and starvation during the Siege of Leningrad by the Nazis. Ivan Bilibin worked for the theatre and illustrated books. His illustrations of Russian fairy tales have gained worldwide fame, including “Snegurochka”.
History of Veliky Ustyug
The town was first mentioned in written documents in 1207. In the 15th century, it developed into a commercial centre. The churches and convents of Veliky Ustyug are excellent examples of northern Russian architecture. The town owns 152 historical monuments. Of touristic interest are the Assumption Cathedral (1619), Ascension Church (1648), Archangel Mikhail Cathedral (1653), Saint Prokop Cathedral (1668), Saint Vladimir Gate Church (1682), Epiphany Church (1689) and Saint George Church (1696). The modern day town has a shipyard, jewellery factory and several food production plants. However, its main industry is tourism which received an immense boost, in 1998, when Veliky Ustyug was named the residence of Ded Moroz.
Icon “Annunciation of Ustyug”:
Three explorers born in Veliky Ustyug
Three famous explorers of Russia’s Far East were born in Veliky Ustyug. Yerofey Pavlovich Khabarov (1603-1671) was a native of Veliky Ustyug. In 1625, he began exploring Siberia. In 1632, he reached the Lena river where he founded a farm and some saltworks. In 1645, he explored the Amur river. When he reached the upper Amur, in 1650, he built winter quarters for his men at the northernmost point of the river. Yerofei Khabarov defeated local tribes, as well as Manchu and Korean warriors who disputed the area with him.
He was the first man to draw a chart of the Amur river. The city of Khabarovsk in Siberia, located near the Chinese border, is named after Yerofey Khabarov. The explorer died in Irkutsk Oblast, in 1671. His descendents now live in Stavropol.
The second explorer from Veliky Ustyug was Semyon Ivanovich Dezhnov (1605-1673). In 1630, he was recruited for service in Siberia as a Russian government agent. He served eight years in Tobolsk, then in Yakutia. In 1639, he founded the settlement of Yakutsk and married a Yakut woman. In 1641, he sailed to the Kolyma river and built a settlement at the easternmost Russian frontier, in 1643.
In 1648, Semyon Dezhnov sailed around the Chukchi Peninsula with 120 people. He discovered the easternmost cape of Asia which was named Dezhnov Cape after him. He found a walrus rookery and collected two tons of walrus ivory, very precious goods for trading. In 1659, Semyon Dezhnov went to Moscow to remain in the Russian capital until his death, in 1673.
The third explorer born in Veliky Ustyug was Vladimir Vasilyevich Atlasov (1661-1711). A farmer of Cossack origin, he was the first Russian to explore the Kamchatka Peninsula. Atlasov Island, an uninhabited volcanic island at the southern tip of Kamchatka, is named after him. In 1697, Vladimir Atlasov led a group of 65 Cossacks and 60 Yukhagirs on an exploration trip to Kamchatka, where they erected two forts along the Kamchatka river. These served as fortified traders’ posts for Russian fur traders.
Vladimir Atlasov was the first Russian to describe the region and its inhabitants in great detail. Later he also explored the Kuril Islands, which belong to the Russian Federation thanks to him. Vladimir Atlasov died on the Kamchatka Peninsula, in 1711.
Atlasov Island at the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula:
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Southern France. Her blog: