Russia: The Russian village that's like a living Christmas card

There are two ways to reach Father Frost's house: by train, or with the fairies. No one told me about the fairy express, so I've come to Veliky Ustyug from St Petersburg along the just-as-fantastical-sounding trans-polar railway.

The provincial outpost in Russia's north-west appears, superficially, to be a crumbling citadel set astride the Sukhona River. But the weatherboards sagging on its periphery conceal a town flush with merchants' mansions and alight with the domes of cathedrals that escaped destruction during the Soviet era.

The Christmas spirit is conjured by the ensemble of 17th-century cathedrals encircling the town square. It positively vibrates from the profusion of fairy-tale turrets, bell towers and bling-lacquered domes arising from these structures – some of Russia's best-preserved Eastern orthodox architectural constructions.

I climb the creaking spiral staircase to a turret protruding from the Church of Procopius of Ustyug, and behold from behind its gold-foiled domes a wash of green landscape spiked with steeples and bisected by a silver thread of river. In winter, the river freezes shut, snow quilts the roads and powders the trees and embanks the basilicas, turning the town into a living Christmas card.

But it's summer now, and the groundwork is being laid for a festive Christmas. Beyond Veliky Ustyug's embellished skyline, deep in a taiga forest, Russia's Father Frost (known as Ded Moroz) is working his way through children's Christmas letters. He is determining who has been naughty and who has been nice.

I find Ded Moroz sweating beneath flamboyant gowns and beaming from within a voluminous cloud of beard. He hasn't always lived in this wooden cottage: in 1998, Moscow's mayor proposed locating the Russian folk hero's estate in this expanse of forest on Veliky Ustyug's outskirts; the fortunes of the once-thriving river port had declined after trade was diverted to the Baltic Sea in the 18th century, and it was hoped such publicity would reverse its bad fortune.

And so it did. For Russian children so adore Ded Moroz, they travel from all over Russia to see him – even in the depths of winter, when the temperature drops to minus-36 degrees. As many as 7000 arrive in Veliky Ustyug every day between New Year and January 7, the day on which the Eastern Orthodox Christmas falls. Ded Moroz is waiting for them, presents in hand.

I imagine the winter crowds as I glide through the 12 rooms of Ded Moroz' house, quiet now in summer: one contains a snow labyrinth, another is filled with Christmas trees created by his fans (including one cleverly constructed from plastic forks); there's a dressing room hanging with his lavish outfits, a wall papered in photos of him with famous people (including Russian President Vladimir Putin) and a bedroom with its tower of herb-filled pillows – one for each day of the week.

Inside the estate's post office, stacks of neatly bound letters await Ded Moroz' attention. More than 200,000 envelopes are delivered here each year – from all over Russia, from Malaysia and Mongolia and the US; each one contains a request for a special gift.

Advertisement

But what about those who were naughty, I ask?

"Everybody gets a present eventually," Ded Moroz assures me.

But he seems to possess a mischievous streak himself. For while good children receive their gifts immediately, he says, eyes twinkling, "the naughty kids must wait."

TRIP NOTES

Catherine Marshall travelled as a guest of Intrepid.

MORE

traveller.com.au/russia

FLY

Qatar Airways flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Doha, and daily from Canberra to Doha via Sydney, with connections from Doha to St Petersburg. See qatarairways.com

TOUR

Veliky Ustyug is one of the stops on Intrepid's Russia Highlights New Year journey and its Footsteps of the Reindeer Herders Expedition. Prices start from $2435 per person and include overnight train travel to Veliky Ustyug. See: intrepidtravel.com/au