24 October 2022// Russian Arctic exploration dates back way further than the times of fearless seafarers who braved the icy seas, hardy dogsled mushers, and heroic scientists who floated on floes of ice. First to enter the land of endless winter were the dashing cossacks, streltsy and scribes, led by voivodes who had grown up on horseback with a sabre by their side. The Russian rulers got interested in the East in the 15th century; their faithful servants began building forts there to enforce their rule. Pustozyorsk, a blace where one may still touch history today, appeared during those times.
20 km north of Naryan-Mar, in the lower reaches of Pechora, a historical and cultural monument, the Pustozyorsk burg, is located. Centuries ago, the first Russian city beyond the Arctic Circle, Pustozyorsk, stood there. It was founded in the late 15th century, when by order of Grand Prince Ivan III, a fourthousand-strong army led by voivodes Semyon Kurbsky, Pyotr Ushaty, and Vasily Zabolotsky-Brazhnik went beyond the Urals. Having reached the shores of Pechora by the autumn of 1499, they started a fortress, which was destined to play an outstanding role in the development of the new lands. Pustozyorsk had become Russia's most important outpost in the development of Siberia and the Arctic.
The first residents of Pustozyorsk were mainly servicemen and soldiers recruited from the Pomors. Soon enough, a numerous adventurers from Dvina, Pinega, Mezen, Ustyug, Vym, and Vychegda, and then from more distant provinces, came rushing to the banks of Pechora.
Since its foundation, Pustozyorsk had become the centre of the entire Pechora region and its official capital. Among the responsibilities of the Pustozyorsk voivodes was the collection of yasak (tax in furs) from the indigenous inhabitants of these lands. They often abused the power given to them, bringing the 'Samoyed people', as the Russian settlers called the Nenets, to despair. The Samoyeds would often come to sack the fortress in retaliation. The first recorded attack on Pustozyorsk happened in 1644. Brutal punitive measures would be taken, but they scarcely helped, as raids did not stop throughout the 18th century. Samoyeds had repeatedly captured supplies and the treasury, and set Pustozyorsk ablaze.
These intermittent clashes did not interfere with commercial development, though. In the second half of the 16th century, the Pustozyorsk Baptismal Fairs became very famous, attracting both Nenets of the European, Ob, and Yenisei North and merchants from Pomor towns. At fairs, Samoyeds sold fish, furs, vemison, and game, or exchanged them for grain, fabrics, metal items, hemp, and household equipment.
The period of the Russian Empire's conquest of Siberia and the North is unique and distinctive. It is comparable to the era of North American exploration, when hundreds of pioneers set out to tame the immense prairies. For resourceful people, advancing East spelled centuries of freedom, never-seen-before prospects... and lethal dangers along the way.
In the 17th century, Pustozyorsk became a centre of international trade. In summer, foreign ships would come here; there were even a customs office and a 'hut for foreigners'. However, the growing influence of outsiders did not suit the interests of Tobolsk voivodes. They regularly complained to the Czar about huge losses suffered from the penetration of foreign merchants into Russian lands.
In 1620, the voivodes had their wishes granted: Czar Mikhail Fyodorovich issued a decree to close the Mangazeya Sea Pass to Siberia, Ob, and Yenisei, and, most importantly, banned all trade relations of residents of the North and Siberia with foreign merchants. The only exception was made for Arkhangelsk.
Since then, Pustozyorsk had lost its role as an international trading port and its former importance. The population of the transpolar town began declining rapidly. However, Pomor ships still would come to overwinter in the town on their way to the Ob, should they come across impassable ice in the Yugor Strait or Kara Sea. Teams of the Great Northern Expedition set sail from Pustozyorsk, and the town's residents were members of many well-known Arctic research parties.
In the early 18th century, Pustozyorsk contributed to the formation of the Russian oil industry. The first attempts to develop the oil business in Russia are connected with the transpolar fortress. On the River Ukhta, locals had long been collecting oil for their own needs, such as wheel lubrication. However, industrial extraction was only started here by order of Peter the Great.
In the 18th century, another crushing blow was delivered on Pustozyorsk. After the conquest of the Kazan Khanate, new, more convenient routes to Siberia were paved. In 1704, Peter the Great prohibited the use of the ancient Chrezkamenny land route through the Ural Mountains. The transpolar town was left way off the main trade roads, and its decline was inevitable. In 1762, on the order of Catherine the Great, the Pustozyorsk fortress was knocked apart, and the logs were consumed as firewood. In 1780, the Voivodeship Chancellery and the military garrison were moved to Mezen.
At the onset of the 20th century, Pustozyorsk was reduced to a small northern village with just over 200 permanent residents. In 1924, it lost its urban status. By 1951, there were only 28 people still living there, and in 1959, just six. In 1964, the last home was moved from there to the neighbouring village of Ustye. By 1967, Pustozyorsk was completely deserted and officially declared extinct. In 1974, the abandoned Pustozyorsk burg was included on the list of historical and cultural monuments protected by the state. On November 5, 1991, the Pustozyorsk Historical and Nature Museum Complex was established.
In 1993, the museum got its own building in Naryan-Mar, formerly the Shevelyov House. This two-storey wooden house was built in Pustozyorsk in the late 19th – early 20th centuries by the local resident Nikolay Shevelyov. In 1933, it was dismantled and transported on rafts to the region’s capital. In March 2005, the permanent exhibition Face and Soul of the Northern House was opened there, and in February 2015, the exhibition From the Pustozyorsk Subsoil, dedicated to archaeological finds in the ancient town, was introduced. In December 2011, the museum was renamed the Pustozyorsk Historical, Cultural, and Landscape Museum-Reserve. The museum includes not only the Pustozyorsk burg but also part of the village of Ustye, 5 km from the extinct town, where only the historic cemetery has been preserved. At Ustye, you can see the wooden Transfiguration Church. It was built in Pustozyorsk in 1837 and moved to the nearby village after the town had fallen into squalor. It is the only temple left from Pustozyorsk, once abundant in churches. In 1964, a memorial sign was erected at the Pustozyorsk burg – a stone stele made with foundation stones of the Transfiguration Church, dismantled by that time.
If you like this article, consider subscribing to our newsletter. We will send you the most interesting stories.
Port, sea and the history of the North Sea Route
What to see in the city founded in 1526
Visiting Old Believers in the Komi Republic