"The Russian village is the field in which all our national culture, our ethics, morality, philosophy, and, if you like, our wonderful language have been nurtured," Soviet writer Fyodor Abramov, one of the patriarchs of village prose, said about his native northern countryside. Today, interest in half-forgotten settlements is being revived thanks to rural tourism; and the Arkhangelsk Region, which has been chronicling the Russian village for centuries, is becoming one of the popular destinations.
Here the old northern churches and monuments of wooden architecture retain their appearance unchanged, and the locals stick to the traditional way of life, as they did 200 years ago. Among the archaic districts of the Arkhangelsk Region, Pinega and Mezen, the lands to the east of the Northern Dvina, stand out in particular. The Pomor culture has been preserved here in almost unchanged form: in the villages you can find traditional houses-ships and houses-yards – whole multi-tiered complexes united under one roof. And in some places, even the wooden sidewalks typical of these places have been preserved.
Local guides will help you plan a route through ancient villages: you definitely can't do without a good guide and a car familiar with the Russian off-road. Some settlements are only accessible either in winter or in summer – by water. However, it is this relative isolation from the modern world that allowed the local villages to preserve their atmosphere. We’ll tell you about the five most beautiful of them.
Pinega: Northern Pastoral
200km from Arkhangelsk towards Mezen – and you are in the heart of the Pinega land. Historically, this area was called Zavoloch. Back in the 11th century, Novgorod merchants who were settling the Russian North in search of furs dragged boats between the Pinega River (the basin of the Northern Dvina) and the Kula River, which flows into the White Sea. By the way, the toponym Pinega originated here as well: once it was the name for the so-called water areas that shortened trade routes. Today there is a village here, once an uezd, which is older than Moscow. And around, the vast forest expanses of the Pinega Reserve, a unique cluster of karst caves.
The center of the village is considered to be the Volodins quarter: several houses of the Pinega merchants Volodins have been preserved here. At the end of the 19th century, the brothers founded a number of factories and a passenger river shipping company here – their ships sailed along the Mezen until the middle of the last century. A local history museum was opened in one of the merchant houses with the exhibits on the history and culture of the Pinega townspeople. Nearby is the Karst Museum, a collection of samples of dolomites and limestone collected in the reserve. It is not possible to get into the reserve itself, but a small part of the protected area is open to tourists: eco-paths meander between century-old larches and bizarre forms of karst relief – funnels, stone cirques, and buttes.
The multifaceted landscape is the calling card of the Pinega lands. The road here passes through karst walls: it seems as if you are driving through a fairy tale tunnel that gives way to the sections of road. 10km from the village there is another interesting object – the Pinega Mountains, the highest place in the area. Here lie the ruins of the Bogoroditsky Monastery of the beginning of the 17th century; fragments of frescoes are still preserved on the walls. The stone skeleton of the monastery with the collapsed roof looks quite mystical in the nature which is gradually gaining the upper hand over the creation of human hands.
Kimzha: Open-air Museum
In the bend of the Mezen River in the distant 16th century, sprouted a small village, which later became famous throughout the region as a center of ornamental copper casting. Two unique post windmills have been preserved here, which have become part of the landscape museum complex "The Northernmost Windmills of the World". They are distinguished by "inverted" support pillars made of larch – wide at the base and tapering upwards. In 2010, the mills were restored and re-launched, and the Museum of Milling was opened inside one of them.
Along the roads you can find Pomor houses-ships, crooked barns, and sacred crosses, and in the center of the village there is a restored wooden church of the beginning of the 18th century. Picturesque nature complements the landscape that looks as if it is straight out of impressionist canvases: a few years ago, Kimzha was included in the list of the most beautiful villages in Russia.
Kiltsa: The Izba Kingdom
If you go up the Mezen from Kimzha, on the left bank you will find another village from the list of the most beautiful – Kiltsa. Its treasure is well-preserved Pomor log cabins with carved roof ridges and ornamental platbands. Each facade is a real work of art, and the design features can be called classics of the Pomor architecture. The harsh northern climate put the need for heat preservation at the forefront. For this purpose, log cabins were put here according to the "house – yard" system, where living spaces and outbuildings were combined under one roof. They could include cellars, barns, areas for livestock, shipbuilding, and even vegetable gardens.
Another historical value of the village is memorial crosses, which were usually placed in memory of some event or as a sign of promise. Since ancient times, the Pomors considered such crosses as amulets, and the tradition of tying embroidered scarves over them as a reinforcement of protective properties persists today.
Verkola: Literary Heritage
Before the arrival of the Novgorodians to the Pinega region, the local lands were inhabited by Finno-Ugric tribes, hence the unusual name of the village, which loosely translates to "a hill for drying fishing nets". Verkola is the birthplace of Fyodor Abramov, who, along with Vladimir Soloukhin, Vasily Shukshin, and Valentin Rasputin, became a prominent representative of village prose. The plots of Abramov's novels about the difficult life of a peasant from the Russian North unfolding against the background of post-war life the writer drew from the expanses of his small homeland. Verkola became the prototype of the village of Pekashino in his famous tetralogy "Brothers and Sisters", based on which the film saga "Two Winters and Three Summers" was filmed.
A literary museum was opened in the house where Fyodor Abramov was born. Inside there are exhibitions of books, photographs, and archival documents related to the life and work of the writer, as well as works by Pinega artists illustrating the leitmotif of his work. Every year in the summer, thematic events are held here. The most prominent was the festival "They are Cocking Hay in Pekashino..." – a local haymaking festival with traditional games and treats. By the way, Verkola was also named one of the most beautiful villages in Russia for its literary and historical context.
Kulogory: Out of Time
On the high bank of the Pinega, from where a colorful panorama of the flood meadows of the winding northern river opens, two rows of houses are huddled. During the white nights, this place attracts lovers of northern romance: until two o'clock in the morning you can admire the sunset here, and after two – start to meet the dawn.
Behind the houses, the Kulogorskaya Troya, a gallery of three caves connected into one, is hidden from prying eyes. It is the largest karst cave system in the subarctic zone in the European north. In winter, the entrances are covered with fields of stalactites, and, having been here once, you will not recognize these places another time: every year the caves freeze differently. The length of the underground passages is more than 20km, and they are explored to this day. Here, for the first time, the RGS speleologists, led by Oleg Minnikov, chairman of the Leningrad Branch of the Russian Union of Speleologists, deployed and tested a comprehensive underground space monitoring system, which was later included in the maintenance of the cave route of Ruskeala Mountain Park.
The starting point for a trip to the villages of the Arkhangelsk Region is the thematic, cultural, and landscape park "Golubino". The forest hotel, stylized as a nobility manor, is located on the banks of the Pinega River, surrounded by famous karst caves and protected taiga nature.
The rooms and cottages are decorated in the style of a country house, that came straight out of the pages of Turgenev's novels. On the territory there is a restaurant with local cuisine, a sauna complex, and a visitor center where you can organize a trip around the area. In winter, along the enfilades of ice caves to the ice-free waterfall of the Holy Spring, the road to which goes along the old wooden bridges. Skis, snowmobiles, and even reindeer sleds are used. The summer program includes cruises, rafting, and fishing.
It can be difficult to get here along the shore, especially in the off-season, when an already difficult road can flood. Locals call their roads alive and advise to inquire about the condition of the path immediately before departure. Nevertheless, there is always a risk that the Pinega roads might let you through in one direction and, in a couple of days, not let you out on your way back. However, even such difficulties create a special flavor of the Russian North, difficult at first acquaintance, but remaining in the souls of travelers forever.