on USSR / Russia · travel

Revisiting Arkhangelsk, the Dying City

Arkhangelsk

I came back from Arkhangelsk with ruined winter boots – they still use salt to make the roads less slippery there, well, if you dare call them roads! It’s weird how familiar a city looks when you travel there for the third time already. Although it’s been already 2 years since my last journey, I could hardly see any difference. This city IS dying… Pushing away its past and thoughtlessly building ugly future. However, there’s at least something left from the original Arkhangelsk yet (be quick to see it!), something that you could hardly say about Chelyabinsk or Novosibirsk.

Arkhangelsk

When you talk about Arkhangelsk it seems you have to employ a lot of ‘it used to be’ in your story. It used to be a major sea port on the Northern Sea Way. It used to be a merchants’ paradise with goods from Holland, Germany and England coming in through the port. It used to be a center for timber industry. It used to be a growing industrial city and port during the Soviet times – which of course sent most of its wooden architectural past into the ‘used to be’ category.

Arkhangelsk

Arkhangelsk celebrated its 400 years anniversary in 1984 (430 years today), although there was a large monastery in the 12th century (Archangel Michel monastery gave the name to the city). The city itself was founded by the order of Ivan the Terrible in 1584, which makes Arkhangelsk older than St Petersburg or Petrozavodsk.

Arkhangelsk

And yet it has preserved so little of those times that there’s hardly any ‘face’ left to it. Give it some more time and you would barely believe this city is old. You would rather rank it between those faceless Soviet creations which are now ‘adorned’ with the modern – but not necessarily nice – buildings, where happy owners finally find their running water, hot bath, central heating and en-suite toilet.

Arkhangelsk

Remember that ‘robot’s head’ building in Kaliningrad? This one is no less famous and has also become a symbol of the city, which proudly appears everywhere from the souvenirs and magnets and walls of honoured people to children’s drawings in schools (not some blown-up church, not the ancient pre-Peter-the-Great 17th century Merchants’ Yard, not anything else…).

Arkhangelsk

It used to be (yep) the tallest building in the region and it is still the tallest in Arkhangelsk (24 floors). Built for some mysterious project organizations, it is now used as an office building + radio stations are housed there. Can be seen from anywhere in the city, especially with the illumination (the colours change constantly, moving round the top of the tower). Wanna see it in 3D? Here.

Arkhangelsk

When I look at this sort of bath-like Soviet buildings (our old 1960s bath has similar ‘legs’ and after all these white plates can only remind you of a bath or a hospital!) – and we have a number of them in most of the Soviet-affected cities, I do try to understand what the architects and the people approving the project were thinking. Hmmmm… But then, take a look at what we’re building now? Any better you think?

Arkhangelsk

This marvel is on the Severnaya Dvina (Northern Dvina) riverside, and here is the historic place where the city began, called Pur-Navolok:

Arkhangelsk

It looks particularly spooky when the night falls – the daylight period is so short, it seems the city has a constant night. But then during summer months, it has longer and more spectacular White nights than in St Petersburg!

Arkhangelsk

I have little to tell you about Arkhangelsk. I did not try sochni there, although we did try some baked stuff. So, out of the ‘to-be-seen’ list:

  • decent postcards – failed. And this is the third time that I fail to find postcards there!
  • post office – check
  • market – failed
  • local history museum – done
  • dairy products and baked stuff – they have a variety of yogurts and tasty rye kovrizhka (sort of flat bread or gingerbread) from a baker who’s called Komar (Mosquito in Russian)
  • local specialités – see above. Mom also tried a more or less traditional fish bun
  • old town – there’s this Chumbarova-Luchinskogo Street (a revolutionary of course) where they ‘preserve’ the old houses. More of these are scattered all over the city in various states.
  • bookstore (my new point) – in the best Soviet traditions (with a special book lift) in that house on bath-like legs. Bought some wooden souvenirs and a book of fairy tales by the local author & painter Pisakhov (the stories were turned into one of the best cartoons in USSR!)

Arkhangelsk

Be sure that the central square is called after Lenin, has Lenin’s statue and the bath buildings all over, as well as the vysotka (high-rise) or else karandash (pencil) as the locals call that 24storey building.

Arkhangelsk

But if you want something authentic, try the touristy (yes, there ARE tourists in Arkhangelsk!) Chumbarova-Luchinskogo Street. Most of the old buildings are uglified with some bank or restaurant signs but you can still get closer to that old Arkhangelsk there.

Arkhangelsk

Just be careful walking around these houses in winter!

Arkhangelsk

This street is long and is quite beautifully decorated in the night time (read: most of the day time).

Arkhangelsk

But what distracted us there was the constant music playing in the street from some shop, often interrupted by some commercial. You can find such disturbances in St Pete too but the overall level of noise is so low in Arkhangelsk that you notice this straight away.

Arkhangelsk

Have never seen such a ladder hidden inside this sloping part of the building anywhere else! We found quite a number of such old houses all over Arkhangelsk, probably something like a typical scheme. These wooden houses are mostly 100-110 years old and smell of cats.

Arkhangelsk

To summarize Arkhangelsk:

Arkhangelsk

or better this:

Arkhangelsk

This building is no longer inhabited but just shows you the state of the things.

Arkhangelsk

Along with lots of photos I usually bring back home from a trip some audio recordings from a street musician or the waves of the sea. In Arkhangelsk I made two recordings in the Trinity Church, a reconstructed church on the Severnaya Dvina embankment:

A sacristan reading (or singing) some psalms:

A priest and the choir:

Arkhangelsk

This time of the year it gets dark in Arkhangelsk at about three (and the dusk falls at about 1 p.m.), so I have a limited amount of photos and most of them are this bluish winter colour. It’s a pity I didn’t have chance to photograph the newly restored Merchants’ Yard (Gostiny Dvor) which is a white-washed fortress-like building with a rather curious recently opened local history museum.

Arkhangelsk

They have really un-Soviet-museum-like exhibits there – not yet dusty and not ordered in such a way that they make you yawn (I was yawning because I was tired : ). You see, one of my favourite museums in St Petersburg was the dusty ethnographic museum with its models and costumes and wooden utensils, so you can guess I was pleased to see something similar but, well, less dusty. Like this kitchen in a monastery model or this super-white model:

Arkhangelsk

You see, Arkhangelsk is close to the White sea and the Solovetsky monastery, so there was a lot about these connections. Yep, the Solovki monastery is that very monastery transformed by Stalin into a gulag, a prison camp, but there was nothing about it at the museum. However, there was this room in one of the towers all decorated in a fairy tale style, where children can dream away and play. And the fortress-like walls are now used as a gallery connecting various exhibition rooms. Nice work! Though we were the only visitors that evening… Then we hopped on pazik (a familiar name for PAZ buses), the most widespread means of transport in the city and we were off to the airport.

Arkhangelsk

When we were walking in the city, trying to find our way through treacherously slippery streets covered in ice and water, we – to our surprise – noticed (and thanked God!) that the city still has narrow wooden paths built over the street – they keep you from drawing in the mud or slipping over the ice. Feels like in a village, especially in those streets with gradually dying wooden houses. Well, wanna see the rest of the authentic Arkhangelsk? Get there before it is all gone – better in summer when the beach along the Dvina river doesn’t look THAT out of place : ) to experience the real White nights and sigh over the city that there is no more.

G.

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