In the footsteps of Kargopol toys
Maria Egorova
Kargopol’s Tourist Information Centre manager

In the footsteps of Kargopol toys

When visiting the Arkhangelsk Region, it is difficult to deny yourself the pleasure of visiting the ancient town of Kargopol located on the left bank of the Onega River and known primarily for the traditional Kargopol toy made there. Maria Egorova working at the town’s Tourist Information Centre told the Ecotourism Expert about the attractions of Kargopol and its environs.

- First of all, please tell us where such an unusual name comes from?

Indeed, the name of the town still remains a toponymic mystery. Most likely, the word “kargopol” is of Finnish origin, according to one version it means “bears’ area” and according to another version, it means “crows’ field”.

According to legend, the town was founded in 1146 by Prince Belozersky during the development of the northern lands by Veliky Novgorod. Today, Kargopol is an open-air museum, where not only the monuments of white-stone architecture and wooden architecture of the 16th-19th centuries are preserved, but the urban planning popular in the times of Catherine II as well. The most significant is the architectural ensemble of the Cathedral Square with the Cathedral Bell Tower rising in its centre, and there are old houses and shops of merchants and townspeople.

The history of Kargopol is also very interesting. In ancient times, the town supported Novgorod in the struggle against Moscow for the northern lands, and in the Time of Troubles at the beginning of the 17th century, the Kargopol fortress was repeatedly attacked by enemy’s detachments, but was never taken. Echoes of some significant events for the country can be found today in the names of town’s streets. For example, the Onega River embankment was named after Alexander Baranov, a native of Kargopol and the first ruler of the Russian colonies in Alaska.     

The Onega River and the embankment are one of the main attractions of the town and an important part of its history. A trade route ran along the Onega River, connecting Novgorod with the northern areas rich in salt, furs and fish. Kargopol was one of the largest trade hubs in Russia. Salt and produce from the sea and river were supplied from this town.

- Now, Kargopol is best known as the birthplace of Kargopol toys ...

Indeed, Kargopol clay toys are our traditional craft. Red clay (terra rossa) that is well suited for modelling and pottery was mined in these places. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 46 potters in the Kargopol area. Everyone, including adults and children, made souvenir decorative plates in Kargopol. And they used the remains of the clay to make figurines such as whistles and toys for kids.

The most common figurines are women in bouffant floor-length skirts looking like ‘bells’, men with ‘spade’ bushy beards, and domestic and wild animals like horses, cows, birds, deer, and bears. Some of the toys depicted fantastic creatures. The most famous of them is an epic hero Polkan, kind and protecting who looks like a centaur because the upper part of his body looks like a human’s one, and the lower part - like a horse’s one.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the craft received a new development, meaningful clay toys appeared showing the scenes from village life like hunting and fishing, rinsing clothes, working in the forge, harvesting, and festivities. Today, bright Kargopol toys of various shapes and colours are wonderful gifts and souvenirs. And those who would like to immerse deeper in the history and peculiarities of creating clay masterpieces, are welcome to visit the Bereginya Folk Crafts Centre and the Shevelev Family Museum. The All-Russian Festival of folk craftsmen of Russia is also held in Kargopol annually that attracts craftsmen from different parts of our country.

- Can tourists try their hand at making toys?

Of course, there is such an opportunity at the Shevelev Family Museum and at the Bereginya Folk Crafts Centre. We are constantly developing an interactive direction in tourism. In addition to creating toys in Kargopol, the tourists can take part in a variety of workshops, photo shoots in folk costumes, and in gastronomic programmes. One of the most significant projects for our Arkhangelsk Region was the opening of the interactive Teterka Museum in the village of Oshevensk last year. A ‘teterka’ is a ceremonial cookie made from rye flour and baked in Kargopol on the day of the spring equinox, and later on, they began to use teterkas in wedding ceremonies.

By the way, the village of Oshevensk, as well as the town of Kargopol, are included in the Association of the Russia’s most beautiful villages and towns thanks to their exceptional cultural and natural heritage.

- How can Kargopolye be of interest to ecotourists?

Not far from Kargopol, at the junction of the Kargopol and Plesetsk districts of the Arkhangelsk Region and the Republic of Karelia, the Kenozero National Park is located. This specially protected natural area is interesting because the history and culture of the Russian North have been preserved there.

In 2004, the Kenozero National Park was included in the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves List. There are almost 300 rivers and lakes in the Kenozero National Park, and about 30 species of fish and more than 260 species of birds inhabit this area, many representatives of the flora and fauna inhabiting the Park are included in the Red Data Book of Russia and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

We invite enthusiasts of ecotourism to the trails and routes in the protected area, the map of which can be obtained both at the Information Centre of the Kenozero National Park and at the Tourist Centre of Kargopol. In addition, numerous ethnographic programmes have been organized, the tourists can visit unique wooden temple complexes, groves in the protected area, and an eco-farm, go fishing, boating, and enjoy the amazing nature.

Tourists are always welcome to Kargopol at any time of the year, but especially during the white nights, when they can admire the magnificent views of the town and architectural monuments around the clock, delve into the atmosphere of peace, silence and charm.