August 11 – 17, 2017Vol. 19, No. 10

A Kotlas Centennial: Feasts, Festivities, and Fireworks

The Annunciation Cathedral, as seen from the Vychegda River, in Solvychegodsk.

by Gregor Smith

In June, four residents of the Belgrades flew to Russia to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of Kotlas, Greater Waterville's sister city. The four travelers were Mark Fisher of Oakland, John and Lisa Fortier of Belgrade, and Gregor Smith, also of Belgrade.

The group flew out of Boston on June 4, and arrived in St. Petersburg the next day. After four days of sightseeing, they got on a train for a 23-hour ride to Kotlas. Two hours after arriving in Kotlas, they attended the grand opening of a new park along the river, a short walk from the railroad station. This new park, constructed next to an existing WWII memorial, features pre-cast concrete dinosaurs for children to play on, a replica of a Viking ship for them to play in, and paved walking paths for people of all ages.

The five cupolas, or "onion domes" of the Annunciation Cathedral.

After lunch, the group traveled by van and by ferry to Solvychegodsk, a picturesque village 15 miles northeast of Kotlas. The area's saltwater springs were literally the source of wealth for the Stroganov family, which is best known in this country for its recipe for preparing beef. Starting in the 16th century, the family built some 13 Russian Orthodox churches in Solvychegodsk, three of which remain, and one of which the group visited.

Construction of this church, the Annunciation Cathedral, began in 1560. It was originally a private church for the family. Its most remarkable feature is the elaborate iconostasis with five rows of paintings of the saints. This wall of icons separates the sanctuary from the altar. No longer a working church, the building is now a museum.

The modest log cabin where Stalin lived during his second exile to Solvychegodsk, in 1911.

Besides being known for its churches and the famous family that founded them, Solvychegodsk was also a place of exile. One of its earliest "guests" was an uncle of poet Alexander Pushkin. In the early 20th century, many Marxists were sent there, including Vyacheslav Molotov, as in "Molotov cocktail," and most famously, Joseph Stalin. Stalin was first sent to Solvychegodsk after his arrest in 1908, but he escaped in 1909, was recaptured and sent back to Solvyechegodsk in 1910, and escaped for good in 1911. The group visited the modest log home where Joseph Stalin lived during his second stay; the house is now a museum.

The anniversary festivities in Kotlas took place the following day, on Sunday, June 11. The day opened with a 10 a.m. parade of representatives of various schools, organizations, companies, and institutions. Our group marched with the Waterville Committee, the sister city organization in Kotlas, directly in front of a large contingent of men and women smartly dressed in sport coats and military uniforms with ribbons and medals, holding red flags with hammer-and-sickle finials, and carrying a red banner with a likeness of and quote by Lenin. At first, I thought that they were Communists, but was assured later that they were railroad workers, of which there are many in Kotlas. (The Communists did march in the parade, but symbolic of their reduced status in Russia, they were less numerous, 16 or so, and they came dead last, after one other political party.)

A contingent of Kotlas railroad workers marched behind us in the parade.

The parade ended in the town square, a large paved area in front of city hall, which still sports a two-meter, bust of Lenin in profile built into the front of the building, watching over activities in the square below. As each parade group entered from the side the square, an announcer from the stage set up opposite city hall call out its name. The group then made a U-turn and dispersed when it reached the edge of the square. Various dignitaries then gave speeches and area child and young adult dancers recreated the history of Kotlas in a carefully choreographed pageant. I was amused when they got to the 1950s and started bopping around the square to a recording of "Rock Around the Clock," sung in English.

After the end of the festivities in the square, the Greater Waterville group walked to a restaurant called "Bowling," which included a bowling pin in its sign on top of the building. On the way, they passed through a street market that seemed to stretch on for kilometers and watched a chainsaw sculpting demonstration, i.e. where the artist uses a chainsaw to carve a sculpture out of a log.

A historical pageant in the town square.

After lunch, they saw part of pantomime performance of a fairy tale with the actors dressed in oversized — and probably very hot — Styrofoam costumes and then visited the municipal museum to view exhibits on the history of Kotlas, starting with its earliest inhabitants — dinosaurs! It's hard to believe that millions of years this land that is as far north as Anchorage, Alaska once had a tropical climate that supported fourteen different species of "giant lizards."

That evening, the sojourners attended a gala dinner at a local karaoke club, "Joy." They were among a hundred or so invited guests, which also included past mayors of Kotlas, the governor of the Archangel Region, the bigger-than-Texas province of which Kotlas is a part, and the Polish consul general from St. Petersburg. The day ended with fireworks over the river at 11:00 p.m.

John Fortier's arm is "mauled" by one of the dinosaurs in the new park along the Northern Dvina River in Kotlas.

After the centennial celebrations, the Greater Waterville delegation stayed in Kotlas for another four full days. During that time, they visited a chiropractic care center and got free massages at an affiliated spa; toured a K-12 boarding school, a post-secondary technical college, and an art and music school that offers afterschool programs for children and teens. They made excursions to Turovets, a settlement across the river from Kotlas where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in a clearing; to Krasnoborsk, hometown of the painter Alexander Borisov (1866 – 1934) who was internationally famous in his own day for his paintings of snow and ice; and Velikiy Ustyug, which like Solvychegodsk is famed for its churches, but is an older and larger town with nearly all of its historic houses of worship intact.

For more information about Kotlas and the sister city partnership, one may visit the website of the Kotlas – Waterville Area Sister City Connection at

John Fortier (kneeling) and Gregor Smith pose with freshly carved wooden sculptures. John his wearing his trademark safari hat, which he had painted yellow. This hat and his height made him easy to spot in crowds.

Two pantomime horses pose after their performance in the park.