Bringing Russia’s Rural Past to Life
Published: January 16, 2013 (Issue # 1742)
The wooden houses in Verkhniye Mandrogi are built in a traditional style and include a number of guesthouses that can accommodate about 150 people in total.
Verkhniye Mandrogi, a cozy, peaceful village surrounded by water and woods, is connected to the rest of the world by just one bumpy earth road. The empty muddy streets of the village, its exclusively wooden houses and characteristic smell of woodsmoke recreate the leisurely rural atmosphere and peaceful way of life of an old village in Russia’s north.
The village, located on the banks of the Svir River some 300 kilometers northeast of St. Petersburg, was founded 16 years ago as an eco-stop (a stop in natural surroundings) for tourist cruise ships traveling between Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega, northern Russia’s two largest lakes. The name Verkhniye Mandrogi was taken from an old village that was located on the site until the 1940s, when it was burned down during World War II.
Sergei Gutsait, the initiator of the project, was once on a cruise along the Svir River and found the conditions of the existing eco-stops rather poor. He then came up with an idea that would be advantageous both for tourists and for him as an entrepreneur.
“The village initially was planned as a Russian Disneyland, an entertainment center based on the fairy tales and operas of the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov,” said Vitaly Vasilyev, director of the St. Petersburg Center for Humanitarian Programs, who was involved with the project in its early phase.
“But with time the idea transformed into something more global — not an artificial reconstruction, but a real modern village populated with real people,” he added.
Artisans and craftsmen from all over Russia were invited to live and work here, including one of the main creators of the village’s original style, woodcarver Yury Gusev. It is Gusev to whom Verkhniye Mandrogi owes its colorful, fiendish images of dragons and other unidentifiable fearsome creatures, which don’t really stem from traditional Russian art themes.
The atmosphere of a real Russian village from a bygone age was brought to Mandrogi a little later, when authentic wooden houses from the cities of Vologda and Arkhangelsk were delivered in sections and then reassembled. Nowadays this part of the settlement, called the Old Village, is the most interesting, since the interiors have been recreated with the addition of original Russian peasant paraphernalia.
The only stone building in the village is a mansion created in the style of a 19th-century landowner’s house — a residence for VIP guests.
“Now we’re also working on one of the most long-awaited projects — the transportation of an old village church to Verkhniye Mandrogi,” said reception manager Galina, who introduced herself only by her first name, saying that in their “rural, democratic way of life” they don’t use surnames.
“It will be a functioning church with a priest, like in any typical Russian village,” she said.
Today Verkhniye Mandrogi is a unique settlement as well as a commercial enterprise with a population of about 100 people. There are more than 50 different constructions on the site, including a kindergarten and a school for employees’ children. In summer the population doubles when more craftsmen come here to work during the holidays.
During the navigation season, between two and 14 cruise ships disembark daily at the village.
YELENA MINENKO / SPT
Nelya, a weaver, gives a demonstration of her ancient craft on a working loom.
“At first it was just a stopover, but when some guests who came by ship wanted to stay longer, we started building small inns and guesthouses,” said Galina.
“Today we can house 150 people at any one time, and most services are aimed at guests visiting for several days,” she added.
The main centers of attraction are workshops of different craftsmen located mainly in the Old Village. Nelya, a weaver from Ukraine, works in the house of the Old Believers, a religious group that broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church after a schism in 1666. The interiors of the authentic house are full of original exhibits that people can touch, unlike in most ethnographic museums.
“I live here permanently, but my daughter studies in the city and comes to help me with work in summer,” said Nelya.
In the center of the main room — heated by a large white Russian stove — there is an old but functioning weaver’s loom, behind which Nelya demonstrates the weaving process and performs master classes.
Nelya’s husband Vladimir works in the woodcarving workshop and specializes in elaborate wooden toys typical of northern culture: Birds of happiness.
“I’ve been working with wood since long before I was invited here,” he said. “I am self-taught; in the North where I’m from almost everybody knows how to work with wood from childhood.”
Other houses are occupied by a blacksmith, potters, engravers and painters.
The only means of transport in the village is simple open-air carts drawn by horses, which are taken care of by Vladimir Yerofeyich, a groom from Pskov with an impressively large beard. His stables are home to about 20 thoroughbred horses and one fat, disdainful cat.
“In summer we take tourists from cruise ships around the village on a kind of sightseeing tour,” said Yerofeyich, as the locals call him.
To provide food for guests, small farms have been created: Cows, rabbits, quails and ducks are bred on the territory.
“We have our own pickles and preserves, we bake our own bread and famous Mandrogi pies and make cranberry drinks and liqueurs,” said reception manager Galina.
Guests to the village can enjoy traditional homemade food and drink.
The meals here are very heavy, as they often are in Russian homes, although food is not included in the cost of accommodation, which ranges from 2,600 to 45,000 rubles ($85-$1,490) per night.
One of the must-sees is a vodka museum celebrating the one thing to be found in every Russian settlement. The Mandrogi vodka museum was the first of its kind and is now the biggest in Russia. Visitors can try different kinds of vodka and learn about the complex customs associated with drinking it.
“Verkhniye Mandrogi is an exemplary product of the tourist business — in all other similar complexes everything is made out of cardboard, it’s not real, just semblance,” said Vasilyev.
“The aim was to draw talented people to the village, settle them here and provide them with a salary that they would never get in the backwoods — it’s a really socially responsible business,” he added.
The craftsmen who create their works here live on the money that they make from sales.
“We don’t hide the fact that we are a commercial project offering elite recreation, and we are not aimed at reviving traditional crafts and folk culture,” said manager Galina. “Our main purpose is to entertain our guests and show them different Russian crafts and trades.”
Those seeking a genuine experience of Russian peasant life will not find it in Verkhniye Mandrogi, with its comfortable accommodation, electricity, sewage, water systems and Wi-Fi. Instead, Mandrogi offers something of its own — a stylized resort in beautiful natural surroundings, high-class service and diverse entertainment rooted in the old Russian way of life.
How To Get There
From St. Petersburg, Verkhniye Mandrogi can be reached by car (a drive of around five hours) or by train, with further organized transfer by car (there are several trains to Podporozhye, close to Mandrogi, from St. Petersburg’s Ladozhsky Railway Station every day). The return transfer by car to the station costs 1,800 rubles ($60).
Many river cruise ships also make a three- to four-hour stopover at Mandrogi.cellar.