Veliky Ustyug

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Veliky Ustyug

Population: 31,664

Main industries: niello work on silver, birch bark carving, weaving, tourism

Mayor: Fyodor Khabarov

Founded in 1147

Interesting fact: Veliky Ustyug is the birthplace of a number of famous explorers: Semyon Dezhnyov, the first European to sail the Bering Strait, Vladimir Atlasov, the first Russian to explore the Kamchatka Peninsula, and Alaskan explorer Mikhail Buldakov.

Helpful contacts: the Veliky Ustyug administration’s culture and tourism department (74 Sovietsky Prospekt; +7 81738-2-72-51)

Another place that claims to be Santa Claus’ hometown: Rovaniemi, Finland, whose Santa Claus Village (+358 16-346-270; santaclausvillage.info) in the Arctic Circle also offers guests seasonal tours, including Christmas exhibitions, a Santa park and trips to Santa’s magical post office.

The Russian north has always held a fairy-tale appeal for its wooden architecture, historical monuments and expanses of forest, marshland and lakes. Nestled in the northeastern corner of the Vologda region, the town of Veliky Ustyug is no exception.

Though a small settlement of some 30,000 people, it boasts a venerable historical pedigree and enjoys a special cachet among tourists after being designated the "hometown" of Ded Moroz in 1998.

A figure akin to Santa Claus in the West, Ded Moroz (or Father Frost) traditionally brings presents to children on New Year's Eve. Snegurochka (or Snow Maiden), his granddaughter, typically accompanies him at Russian Christmas celebrations.

After being originally declared "an ally of the priest and kulak" following the 1917 Revolution, Ded Moroz made something of a comeback from the 1930s onward, though donning a blue coat so as not to be mistaken with the bourgeois Santa Claus or detract from the revolutionary importance of the color red.

It is fair to say that the decision to name the town Ded Moroz's official residence, taken by former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and the Vologda regional administration, has had a dramatic impact on Veliky Ustyug — not least by injecting a new lease of life into its flagging tourist industry and by making its post office one of the busiest in the world. It has also put the town in direct competition with the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland, which boasts an equally impressive number of visitors and a 50-year plus history. Despite this, there appears to be little friction between the two towns — a delegation from Finland amiably visited Veliky Ustyug to take part in a tourism conference earlier this year.

Major Business

Severnaya Chern (1 Ulitsa Uglovskogo; +7 81738-2-22-70; vologda.ru/~chern) is a major producer of finished silver goods. Its factory, which manufactures more than 1,000 handcrafted items, employs about 500 people in the town. Though much of the marketing and distribution is coordinated from major cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, the company keeps its main factory in Veliky Ustyug, where local craftsmen have specialized in niello work on silver since the 17th century.

Between 1998 and 2000, the number of tourists visiting the region rose from 2,000 to 32,000 a year and has kept on growing. By 2009, more than 200,000 people had visited Ded Moroz's Votchina (Russian for "estate"). Similarly, Veliky Ustyug's post office claims to have answered more than 1.2 million letters addressed to the blue-coated gift-giver.

The Ded Moroz legend now exerts such an influence over town life that the imaginary figure even makes a prominent public appearance in the summer months, typically taking to a float as part of celebrations in the town's annual parade.

For MT

Fyodor Khabarov,
Acting mayor

Q: What is Veliky Ustyug’s greatest asset?
A: Without doubt, its people: It’s been that way throughout time. The glory and fame of Veliky Ustyug has been earned by many generations of its inhabitants. The world map is marked by the feats of our native explorers.

About 20,000 townspeople left to fight on the front lines in World War II, almost 11,000 of them died defending their motherland.

The clear historic past, beauty and individuality of Veliky Ustyug’s architectural monuments, carefully protected by centuries of townspeople, the traditions of its craftsmen and wealth of its local culture and art still arouse sincere astonishment and respect among the town’s many visitors.

Q: How would you like to see Veliky Ustyug develop?
A: The goals of Veliky Ustyug are to actively develop entrepreneurship, increase the pace of housing construction, develop tourism, provide infrastructure and relocate residents living in dangerous and dilapidated housing. Our main task is to improve the quality of life of our townspeople by creating comfortable conditions for them to live in and to attract additional investment in the town’s economy.

Q: To what extent has the town’s designation as the hometown of Ded Moroz affected town life?
A: An ambitious task stands before Veliky Ustyug — turning it into a modern tourist center in the north of our country. This is a large-scale project, but even now it is possible to say without exaggerating that Veliky Ustyug is famous throughout Russia. You see, it’s the home of the Russian Ded Moroz!

So much has been achieved over the decade that Veliky Ustyug has been considered the hometown of Ded Moroz. The town has changed for the better before everyone’s eyes. It’s becoming more appealing, developing, being built. Our certainty in the future success of this program is confirmed by the fact that this program is a federal one, and that means it receives considerable government investment.

— Alexander Winning

But scratch the surface, and you will find that there is much more to Veliky Ustyug than seasonal tours and Christmas cheer. The town is blessed with one of the finest architectural ensembles in all of the Russian north — all the more impressive since uncontrollable fires successively wiped out many of the town's oldest wooden buildings, necessitating repeated reconstruction efforts.

In particular, Veliky Ustyug prides itself on its centuries-old Orthodox Christian churches, of which there are more than a dozen dating to the 16th and 17th centuries in the center alone. Among the most memorable are the 1648 Church of the Ascension, the late 17th-century Church of St. Nicholas and the 1760s Church of St. Simeon the Stylite. The town's Cathedral Court houses the 17th-century Assumption Cathedral — the first such stone construction in the Russian north, notable for its needle-like bell tower — and six other churches dedicated to local saints that occupy a prominent position on the left embankment of the Sukhona River.

Nearby, the Mikhailo-Arkhangelsky and Trinity-Gleden monasteries complete Veliky Ustyug's religious heritage, and the 19th-century mansions of Alaskan explorer Mikhail Buldakov and merchant Grigory Usov add a sense of grandeur and history to the town center.

Aside from the town's architectural monuments, Veliky Ustyug stands out for its folk traditions and local craftsmen, who practice techniques pioneered by their fathers and grandfathers before them. Historically, the town is known for its leather and enamel work — but it is the town's silversmiths who really made a name for themselves, earning commissions from Russia's imperial capital St. Petersburg. Their chosen technique, niello work on silver, lives on to this day, with the Severnaya Chern company still a major local employer, selling finished silver goods at home and abroad.

Today, Veliky Ustyug retains a quiet, peaceful charm. While its population has been in decline since 1980, its sleepy streets lined with 18th- and 19th-century houses have been well preserved and make for excellent viewing as part of a picturesque walking tour. Located on the confluence of the Sukhona and Yug rivers — both tributaries of the Severnaya Dvina River and the last of which gives the town its name, which translates as "mouth of the Yug" — Veliky Ustyug also enjoys a scenic location, relatively far from large cities and surrounded by unspoiled landscape.

In this way, whether visiting in search of an authentic Christmas experience, to marvel at the town's religious architecture or to enjoy a spot of peace and quiet, Veliky Ustyug makes for a great destination all year round.

What to see if you have two hours

If other commitments are likely to whisk you away, head to the Cathedral Court, the perfect place to start a brief walking tour of Veliky Ustyug. Take in the churches that surround you before strolling along the town's embankment, where the Buldakov and Usov mansions are located.

Turning your back to the Sukhona River and heading north, you should cross Sovietsky Prospekt until you reach Krasnaya Ulitsa. The town's principal street, it offers views of the Smolnikovskoye Lake and the chance to pause before yet more sightseeing.

For MT

Tatyana Muromtseva,
General director,
Ded Moroz company

Q: What are the greatest advantages of Veliky Ustyug as a tourist destination?
A: Here the Russian winter starts noticeably earlier, and it is just how tourists imagine it. The weather over this whole period is unchanging. The persistent snow cover from the middle of November to March is what particularly pleases visitors. The northern summer is not especially hot, but it charms with its warmth and sun, the green of its forests and meadows, its harsh beauty and the power of its rivers that shake off their icy covering for half of the year.

Veliky Ustyug is also a unique open-air museum town, whose history spans more than eight centuries. We have preserved a whole host of wonderful architectural monuments from the 17th to 19th centuries. The embankment of Veliky Ustyug, which has preserved its historical appearance, represents one of the most picturesque views in all of European Russia.
And, of course, another great advantage of the town is that the main wintertime magician in Russia — Ded Moroz — lives here!

Q: What are your favorite places in and around Veliky Ustyug?
A: There’s no better summer excursion, in my opinion, than a trip to Opoki. Summer is really the best time to explore the neighboring area.

Why is Opoki so close to my heart? It’s because this is the place where the bank of the Sukhona River is formed of especially beautiful cliffs about 60 meters high and on a 70-degree incline. The bank of the river is so steep and sharp that it reminds you of the mountain rivers of the Urals. What’s more, the Veliky Ustyug region is blessed with many more sites of natural beauty — here there are six nature reserves.

In the town itself, the Cathedral Court is closest to my heart. This is the old center of the town, the focal point for its Orthodox Christian saints. This is where Veliky Ustyug’s main cathedral stands.

Q: How does it feel making children’s dreams come true with Ded Moroz?
A: For me, it’s no more than a duty.

Q: What’s the most outlandish request you’ve heard children ask Ded Moroz?
A: A girl from Ulyanovsk once composed her request in eight pages of rhyming verse. The content itself wasn’t that unusual. She asked for happiness and good health for her family and that Ded Moroz would help them out in their difficulties. But how beautifully it was written!

— Alexander Winning

Running parallel, Ulitsa Pokrovskogo should be your final stop — here you'll find another cluster of religious buildings, including the Mikhailo-Arkhangelsky Monastery, alongside Krasnoarmeiskaya Ulitsa, which will lead you back to the Cathedral Court where you set off.

What to do if you have two days

For the more leisurely visitor, a visit to the Veliky Ustyug State Historical Art and Architecture Museum (62 Naberezhnaya Ulitsa; +7 81738-2-35-76; ustjug.museum.ru) is a must. The museum's exhibits chart the development of Veliky Ustyug and the surrounding area through local archaeological artifacts and more recent historical documents. True to the town's traditions, its main collection includes an especially impressive collection of niello work on silver, enamel objects and carvings on birch bark.

If you long for a change of scene, then a short excursion to the nearby village of Dymkovo may be the solution. Although its attractions are similar to those of its better-known neighbor, its wooden houses and 18th-century churches are set in a still sleepier setting. Dymkovo also offers excellent views of Veliky Ustyug and the Cathedral Court in particular from the right bank of the Sukhona River.

How to organize a trip to see Ded Moroz

The Ded Moroz tourist business (85 Sovietsky Prospekt; +7 81738-2-23-04; oao-dedmoroz.ru) specializes in arranging excursions to the Votchina complex, some 12 kilometers from Veliky Ustyug. The company offers a range of tours, each with different prices depending on the length of your stay and time of year you choose to visit.

Day trips include all meals, transfers and activities and cost about 3,000 rubles ($100) before Dec. 15, rising to 4,000 rubles for adults between Dec. 15 and 31.

Longer trips can last as long as three days and include overnights stays in Votchina, with the company's flagship tour stretching over New Year's Eve and incorporating ice skating, snowmobiling, folk traditions, staff performances, a tour of Veliky Ustyug, all meals, accommodation and transportation. This package costs about 20,000 rubles per person for adults and children alike.

Where to eat

Given its size, Veliky Ustyug is unlikely to be a major hit with gourmands. But locals recommend Restoran na Uspenskoi (72 Sovietsky Prospekt; +7 81738-2-20-64), a Soviet-style restaurant offering affordable, tasty fare on the town's main street. Here a meal for three people, excluding alcohol, comes to about 1,000 rubles ($32).

Where to stay

Since being named the "hometown" of Ded Moroz, the town's accommodation infrastructure has expanded remarkably. Now, the pick of the lot is probably Hotel Dvina (104 Krasnaya Ulitsa; +7 81738-2-03-48; hotel-dvina.ru), owing to its comfortable rooms and central location near many of the town's architectural sites. Here rooms can cost between 1,100 rubles ($35) for a single and 2,300 rubles for a double.

Another option close by is Hotel Sukhona (12 Krasny Pereulok; +7 81738-2-15-13; hotelsuhona@vologda.ru), set in a 1970s building. Rooms start at 1,300 rubles for a single to 3,400 rubles for a double.

How to get there

Veliky Ustyug is relatively difficult to reach for much of the year, although dedicated coaches and trains do run from Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vologda during the Christmas period. The town's airport only receives occasional flights from Vologda and is in a state of disrepair. For this reason, making the 1,022-kilometer trip by train is the best option.

Services heading to Kotlas leave regularly from Moscow's Yaroslavsky Station, where you'll have to change trains or hop on a one-hour bus to Veliky Ustyug. A one-way ticket for the 18-hour trip to Kotlas should cost upward of 900 rubles ($30) for economy class and 2,500 rubles or more for cabin class.