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Veliky Ustyug – city of cultural monuments, explorers and Ded Moroz

A lot has been written and said about Crimea, the Kerch Strait and Russia’s conflict with neighbouring Ukraine which has been dominating the news lately. Russia, however, is a lot more than only Crimea, its latest acquisition after the Crimean people’s referendum, in 2014. Of course, the Crimean peninsula is Russia’s jewel in the Black Sea but there are many other beautiful places in the Russian Federation, worth while a visit.

Every December, 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 not only of Ded Moroz, a Russian version of Santa Claus, but also of three famous Russian explorers of Siberia. Today, this beautiful small town in the Russian heartland 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. The Ded Moroz Museum, founded in 1998, 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 with folk melodies. This opera 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. Its main industry is tourism which received an immense boost, in 1998, when Veliky Ustyug was named the residence of Ded Moroz.

Three explorers born in Veliky Ustyug

Three famous explorers of Russia’s Far East were born in Veliky Ustyug. The first was Yerofey Pavlovich Khabarov (1603-1671). In 1625, he began exploring Siberia. When he reached the Lena river in 1632, he founded a farm and saltworks. In 1645, he went on to explore the Amur river. 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 also 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. Semyon Dezhnov sailed around the Chukchi Peninsula with 120 people in 1648 and 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.

From Veliky Ustyug to the Russian Far East with Kamtchatka, there are many interesting spots for tourists to visit. Russia is rich in history and beautiful landscapes. Hopefully not only Crimea, but also the Russian Far East and the beautiful little town of Veliky Ustyug, home of Grandfather Frost, will attract more visitors from western countries in the near future.


Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow.

Her blog: https://olivia2010kroth.wordpress.com 

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Veliky Ustyug, the home of Ded Moroz, Grandfather Frost

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New Year’s tour to Veliky Ustyug, visiting Ded Moroz – with beautiful Russian folk music

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