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20 Aug, 2010 09:31

Kargopol – home of clay toys and monument to medieval architecture

The small town of Kargopol, known as an important trade center in the XVI century, is located a thousand kilometers north of Moscow. Now its ancient arts and medieval architecture are the things that keep the town alive.

Frozen in time, Kargopol is older than Moscow as its history dates back as far as the eleventh century.

Its stone churches and centuries-old wooden houses once owned by rich merchants stir the imagination. Once, Kargopol was one of the wealthiest towns in Russia thanks to bustling trade by the Onega River.

But Kargopol began to fade into obscurity when sea trade was moved to St. Petersburg and, later on, when railroads were built that bypassed the town.

Life there is simple, quiet, and for the most part not that much has changed here over the last few centuries.

“Some have automatic machines but they still come to rinse their things in the river after they have washed them in the machine,” said a resident Elizaveta Sheveleva. “The river makes the linen feel fresher.”

Today, there is no real industry in Kargopol, so people have to make do with what they do best – making clay toys.

“This is our main work and means of support,” craftsman Vladimir Shevelev told RT. “These figurines are my life now. I can't picture my life without them.”

It is thanks to Vladimir’s parents that the once dying craft was restored in the 1960s. They call it “peasant art” – potters used to make clay dishes and used leftover clay to make toys for children.

Tourists flock to their home especially for these handmade pieces of ancient local culture and to get their hands dirty as well.

Yet Kargopol's got more to show for itself than just clay figurines.

“As far back as I can remember, five generations of my family have been involved in some form of art,” recalled Elizaveta.

Art brought back smiles and color into a place otherwise left behind by history.

Always on the lookout for a sturdy piece of history are the people of Malye Karely, the largest open air museum in Russia.

They have managed to save some of the majestic and ancient wooden structure s typical of Kargopol.

The massive wooden constructions were brought to Malye Karely piece by piece, then reassembled and restored there. It was an intensive labor of love for the museum's team of restorers.

“Most houses in the north are built from pinewood, but the windows of this one are made of fir,” explained wood restorer Sergey Sobacjev. “Fir dries out and disintegrates over time. We want to preserve this and restore what can be restored.”

For Vladimir, it is enough that their family restored a piece of Kargopol's history, and are keeping it alive. After all, a no-frills way of life is all they have known.

Professor William Brumfield, who specializes in Russian Art and Architecture, told RT more about Kargopol’s traditional crafts.

“Many different forms of the crafts are still practiced here – that is a major part of what draws tourists to Kargopol,” he said. “And the town also exports what it makes; its artists go to other cities and other countries… Also, there are master weavers here, hand looms and so forth.”