In 1430, in the lands of the ancient, almost epic country of Bjarmaland (a civilization centered around Perm and the shores of the river Dvina and the White Sea), which for a millennium had traded with Persia and Khoresm (present day Central Asia), the Russian salt industry appeared along the Kama river.
Over time, the town founded there--Solikamsk (which means, literally, "salt of the Kama river")--gained the name "salt capital" and developed into one of the most beautiful of Russian towns. In the 17th century, local craftsmen built stone churches without equal in the richness of their decor. The intricate carvings of their porticoes and moldings were a joyful, resounding embodiment of the Russian Soul. In fact, for someone interested in comprehending this mysterious essence, the churches and palaces of Solikamsk offer no less enlightenment than the famous Rostov kremlin or the wooden splendors of Kizhi.
Thankfully, the city's most valuable historic monuments survived the ravages of the Soviet era. But the fairytale town itself has practically disappeared, the center having been built over with scruffy five-story apartment blocks.
And yet, the losses are still reversible. If the city had a specific development plan, aimed at reclaiming the riches of its past, it would in time become famous not only in Russia, but in the wider world. For there is also a lush wilderness here--sunsets over the Usolka river are simply unbelievable, and Solikamsk is surrounded by a number of beautiful old towns: Usolye, Cherdyn, Nyrob. Yet there seems little hope of a renaissance. Even back in 1916, a travel guide to the city wrote: "In the progeny of Solikamsk we see few signs of inspiration, enterprise or concern for their town. Does this not evidence a wasting away of local residents' spirits?"
Today, in the very center of Solikamsk, the lace Krestovozdvizhensky (Risen Cross) Church (1698) is dying. Parishioners began to renovate it, took off the roof and then ran out of money. Ask whomever you like: the eparchiate of the church, the department of culture or the city administration, and each points their finger at someone else, trying to sort out exactly whose responsibility this is. There is no settling the dispute: in December of 2005, the head of the city was convicted of exceeding his authority and to this day the city is between leaders, which only aggravates the predilection for disorder.
The local paper announces gleefully that "the central square has donned a new asphalt coat." Yet in the center there is not a single acceptable restaurant. Even in the hotel there is nowhere to get a bite to eat, yet the cost of the room does include an adult movie channel. In the evenings, the hotel turns into something like a seaside bordello.
The city's singular, readily apparent achievement seems to be the development of an inexpensive taxi trade.
In point of fact, the difficulty with Solikamsk's preservation efforts lies in the fact that only cultural workers and religious leaders are concerned with turning this commonplace regional center into a renowned city. And both groups are small and act independently of one another. At present, they are distracted by legal proceedings regarding property transfer. The church has staked a claim to the recently-restored Bogoyavlensky (Epiphany) Church, which has belonged to the museum fund since the 1930s.
Nelli Savenkova, head of the historical department of the Solikamsk Museum of Local Culture, was indignant on the issue of property transfer: "The eparchiate is acting rather unpleasantly. Generally speaking, we have, to a limited degree, been fulfilling their missionary work for many years. Just where was a Soviet person able to find out anything about Christianity? Basically, in museums, where museum workers saved sacred objects under the pretext of their being elements in an exhibition on atheism. …