Blagoveshchensk: Russia's anchor on the Amur River

Architectural historian and photographer William Brumfield marvels at the resilience of this Far East Russian city and gives a brief overview of its rich history.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Russian chemist and photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky developed a complex process for vivid, detailed color photography.

Mozhaisk. Cathedral of St. Nicholas. East facade with Gothic Revival decoration. Summer 1911

His vision of photography as a form of education and enlightenment was demonstrated with special clarity through his photographs of architectural monuments throughout the Russian heartland.

Blagoveshchensk. View across Amur River toward Chinese city of Heihe. June 15, 2002

St. Nicholas Cathedral in Mozhaisk

An excellent example is the small town of Mozhaisk, which Prokudin-Gorsky visited in the Summer of 1911 as part of a project to document sites connected with the centennial of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia.

Blagoveshchensk. Headquarters of Amur Society for Shipping & Trade (1910-12). June 13, 2002

He was particularly taken by the festively decorated St. Nicholas Cathedral, located at the town’s highest point (the former Mozhaisk Kremlin). 

Former Residence of Military Governor, Lenin Street 144. Built in 1909-12. Now House of Culture. June 13, 2002

Construction of a new St. Nicholas Cathedral began in the late 18th century and culminated in the early 19th century in an exuberant Gothic Revival style patronized by Catherine the Great in the late 18th century.

City Hall, Lenin Street 133. In its core, the building was originally a mansion built in 1890s for the gold trader Gleb Larin. During post-war expansion, the building doubled in length and gained a third floor. June 14, 2002

Tellingly, the Mozhaisk cathedral was designed by Aleksey Bakarev, a pupil of renowned architect Matvey Kazakov, who built much of the Gothic Revival fantasy at Catherine’s imperial Tsaritsyno estate near Moscow.

Gothic Revival reaches the Far East

Although the Gothic Revival style waned in the middle of the 19th century, it never disappeared and was often applied in the design of mansions for wealthy entrepreneurs, especially in the Moscow area.

Amur Street. Left: former Ivan Churin & Co. Department Store No. 2 (Amur Street 199), built in 1899, expanded 1910. Right: Platonov Brothers Store (Amur Street 197), built in 1900 for brothers Mikhail & Stepan Platonov, leading supporters of the local Molokan community. June 15, 2002

Indeed, the enduring appeal of the Gothic Revival spread to the distant reaches of the empire, exemplified by the brightly painted ‘Mauritania’ Trading Rows in the center of distant Blagoveshchensk, on the Amur River almost 8,000 km east of Moscow.

Former Kunst and Albers Department Store (1894), Lenin Street 165, main entrance. Now Amur Regional History Museum. June 13, 2002

Blagoveshchensk-on-Amur is not one of the more notable destinations in the Russian Far East. That status belongs to Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. Nonetheless, Blagoveshchensk has, since the 1850s, anchored Russia's critical southern boundary with Manchuria along the Amur, whose Chinese name is ‘Heilongjiang’ (‘Black Dragon River’). 

Clashes with the Chinese

Russian Cossacks and explorers had attempted to gain control of the north (left) bank for the Amur as early as the 1640s. Yet, following the prolonged siege by Manchu forces of the Russian Albazin fort on the Amur in 1685-1686, Russia was compelled by the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) to abandon the area north of the Amur and retreat west beyond the Argun River, which merges with the Shilka to form the Amur.

A. A. Urmancheev & Sons Department Store (1911-12), Lenin Street 157. Upper part of central facade with Art Nouveau decoration. June 13, 2002

Not until the mid-19th century did substantial Russian forces return to occupy the territory under the leadership of Governor-General Nikolai Muravyov, subsequently given the title ‘Amursky’ for his role in acquisition of the territory for the Russian Empire. China, weakened by the Taiping Rebellion and the Second Opium War, was compelled to recognize the Russian presence by the Treaty of Aigun (1858), which ceded to Russia vast arable lands north of the Amur.

Birth of Blagoveshchensk

F. F. Korotaev Store, Amur Street 191. Built at beginning of 20th century in an extravagant form of Style Moderne. June 14, 2002

The town of Blagoveshchensk (from the Russian word for Annunciation) was founded that same year near the point where the Zeya River empties into the Amur. Its population expanded gradually, largely on the basis of active trade and transportation along the Amur and its western tributaries in Russia. By 1897, the town had 33,000 inhabitants, as well as a substantial Chinese community. In the Summer of 1900, the town was shelled by Chinese insurgents across the Amur River during the Boxer Rebellion. Fearing an internal threat, Russian authorities expelled the Chinese inhabitants of Blagoveshchensk.

 N. V. Kositsyn & Sons Store, Pioneer Street 26. Built in 1912 for yet another Molokan merchant. June 13, 2002

Although not situated on the Trans-Siberian Railroad (a 110-km spur from the main line was completed only in 1915), Blagoveshchensk flourished in the early 20th century, not only through trade, but also by virtue of the surrounding fertile agricultural land and the presence of gold deposits, which created a local gold rush (the gold assayer's building still stands in the center of town).

Bustling trading outpost

Alekseev Women's High School. Founded in 1902 and built in 1910-11. June 13, 2002

The town’s prosperity was reflected in imposing commercial buildings that survive to this day, including department stores, trading centers and flour mills. The most colorful of these structures is the ‘Mauritania’ Trading Rows, erected in 1907 on the Amur River bank. The adjacent city dock received steamboat deliveries of flour, meat, fruits and vegetables that would be processed and sold by shopkeepers in the Trading Rows. 

Men's High School, Lenin Street 104. Built in 1909-12; fourth floor added during reconstruction after fire in 1960. June 15, 2002

It should be noted that Blagoveshchensk also had an American commercial presence, reflected in the “American Lane” in the central commercial district. The primary focus of these enterprises was agricultural equipment for the rapidly expanding grain fields.

20th-century boom & multiple wars

During its early 20th-century construction boom, Blagoveshchensk built educational institutions – for women, as well as men – whose size would rival those of American cities. An especially imposing example is the Women’s High School.

Cathedral of the Annunciation, southeast view. Construction begun in 1997, completed in 2003. Blagoveshchensk takes its name from the Russian word for Annunciation. June 15, 2002

Blagoveshchensk also had houses of worship for many confessions, including Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Molokans (sectarian pietist Christians) and a small synagogue. Although these shrines were closed during the Soviet period, a number have been reopened or rebuilt as Orthodox churches.

Former Prayer House of Molokan Christians. Built in 1905-07; rebuilt in 1960s as a clinic. June 13, 2002

By the 1913 census, Blagoveshchensk had over doubled in size, to some 70,000 inhabitants. This growth and prosperity was severely damaged by the violence of the Russian Civil War, which raged in Siberia until 1921. Until 1920, the city was under the control of White forces, supported by a Japanese occupation contingent. In 1920, Blagoveshchensk became part of the Far Eastern Republic, nominally independent but allied with the Russian Soviet Republic and serving as a buffer between Japan. 

Former Catholic Cathedral of the Annunciation. Built in 1896, with bell tower added in 1911. Building transferred to Orthodox church in 1940s, when it became the Annunciation Cathedral. Now Church of Archangel Gabriel. June 13, 2002

With the withdrawal of the Japanese in 1922, the Far Eastern Republic became a part of the RSFSR (after 1922, the Soviet Union). Tensions again rose to a high level following the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s and continued until the victorious conclusion of World War II in September 1945. 

A blend of old & new

Railroad Station, completed in 1915. June 14, 2002

As the administrative center of the Amur Province (since 1932), Blagoveshchensk, whose current population is around 240,000, continues to occupy an important strategic position in the Russian Far East and forms a free trade zone with the rapidly growing Chinese city of Heihe, situated on the opposite bank of the Amur. Blagoveshchensk has significant potential through expanding economic cooperation with China on both a regional and national level, especially in the major development of energy resources between Russia and China.

Wooden house, Khmelnitsky Street 38. June 14, 2002

At the same time, Blagoveshchensk has managed to preserve much of its architectural environment from a century ago, a time when the energetic young city looked to the future with hope and faith. In addition to imposing commercial buildings, several of the city's early houses, in brick and wood, remain with their ornamental details. 

 Wooden house, Khmelnitsky Street 38. Ornamental solar motif. June 14, 2002

A strong Regional History Museum, founded in 1891, has provided an essential link with the city's cultural heritage. In 1981, the museum was given one of the city’s early brick buildings, constructed in the late 19th century for the Kunst and Albers department store network, which was established by two German entrepreneurs for trade in the new territories of the Russian Far East. 

In conclusion, it is worth noting that the great writer Anton Chekhov visited Blagoveshchensk in late June 1890 as part of his investigative journey to Sakhalin Island. Chekhov wrote about the town glowingly: “I am in love with the Amur and would gladly live here for two years. It is beautiful, spacious, free and warmhearted.”

Former Kunst and Albers Department Store (1894), Lenin Street 165. Now Amur Regional History Museum. June 13, 2002

In the early 20th century, Russian photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky developed a complex process for color photography. Between 1903 and 1916, he traveled through the Russian Empire and took over 2,000 photographs with the process, which involved three exposures on a glass plate. In August 1918, he left Russia and ultimately resettled in France where he was reunited with a large part of his collection of glass negatives, as well as 13 albums of contact prints. After his death in Paris in 1944, his heirs sold the collection to the Library of Congress. In the early 21st century, the Library digitized the Prokudin-Gorsky Collection and made it freely available to the global public. A few Russian websites now have versions of the collection. In 1986, architectural historian and photographer William Brumfield organized the first exhibit of Prokudin-Gorsky photographs at the Library of Congress. Over a period of work in Russia beginning in 1970, Brumfield has photographed most of the sites visited by Prokudin-Gorsky. This series of articles juxtaposes Prokudin-Gorsky’s views of architectural monuments with photographs taken by Brumfield decades later.

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