Veliky Ustyug has a great historical significance and in the past was one of the major cities of Russian North. Whereas it preserved some of the past urban structure and many of the architectural monuments, it was completely deprived of its leading role, and is currently merely a tourist attraction. It is served by Veliky Ustyug Airport.
The town of Veliky Ustyug was first mentioned in a chronicle in 1207. In 1212, Mikhaylo-Arkhangelsky Monastery was founded. It was a part of the Vladimir-Suzdal Principality (in contrast to the neighboring lands, most notably Totma, colonized by Novgorod). Thus Veliky Ustyug created the only obstacle to Novgorod’s trade with the North, as the Sukhona and the Notrthern Dvina were the main waterways connecting Novgorod with the White Sea. Clashes between Novgorod and Ustyug became regular, especially throughout the whole 14th century. In 1328, Ustyug was annexed by the Grand Duchy of Moscow.
The town was not immediately affected by the Mongol invasion of Rus’ in the 13th century; however, its rapid growth in the second half of the century was due to influx of refugees from Central Russia. In the 15th century, Veliky Ustyug became notable for the war between Vasily II of Moscow and his cousin Dmitry Shemyaka, which left Northern Russia deserted. Shemyaka took Veliky Ustyug in 1450, drowned in the Sukhona those citizens who refused to accept him as a prince, and made the town his residence for two years, until he was driven off by the forces of Vasily. In the 15th century, the town had a great military importance and became the base for the operations against the Finno-Ugric peoples. In 1613, during the Time of Troubles, Veliky Ustyug was besieged by Polish troops but never taken. Located at the junction of important trade routes, the town turned into a significant commercial and industrial center in the 16th and 17th centuries. Veliky Ustyug area was the birthplace of the explorers Semyon Dezhnyov, Yerofey Khabarov, Vladimir Atlasov, and of St. Stephen of Perm. Veliky Ustyug lost its key role as a river port with the diminishing importance of the Sukhona River route for trade between China and western Europe, which started with the foundation of Saint-Petersburg in 1703, whereby the trade was diverted to the Baltic Sea.
The 16th and 17th centuries were also the time of the highest rise of the culture in Veliky Ustyug, in which the town acquired a national-wide significance. The town is known for its remarkable handicrafts, such as silver filigree, birch bark fretwork, decorative copper binding, and niello. The town developed a distinct manner of icon painting, Ustyug icon painting. In the 17th century, Veliky Ustyug was a major producer of tiles, which are still visible on many Ustyug churches and also were sold to neighboring towns of the Russian North.
In the course of the administrative reform carried out in 1708 by Peter the Great, Veliky Ustyug was explicitly mentioned as one of the twenty towns included into Archangelgorod Governorate. From 1719, it was the center of Ustyug Province, one of the four provinces of the Governorate. In 1780, the governorate was abolished and transformed into Vologda Viceroyalty. The latter was abolished in 1796, and Veliky Ustyug became the center of Velikoustyugsky Uyezd of Vologda Governorate. In 1918, the town became the administrative center of the newly established Northern Dvina Governorate. In 1924, the uyezds were abolished in favor of the new divisions, the districts (raions).
In 1929, Northern Dvina Governorate was merged into Northern Krai. The krai consisted of five okrugs, one of which, Northern Dvina Okrug, had its administrative center in Veliky Ustyug. In July 1930, the okrugs were abolished, and the districts were directly subordinated to Northern Krai. In 1936, Northern Krai was transformed into Northern Oblast, and in 1937, Northern Oblast was split into Arkhangelsk Oblast and Vologda Oblast. Veliky Ustyug remained in Vologda Oblast ever since.
Veliky Ustyug, in contrast to the majority of historical Russian towns, managed to preserve almost all of its architectural and cultural monuments. This was in a great part due to the efforts of the local intellectuals grouped around the Regional Museum, and most notably of Nikolay Bekryashev, the museum director from 1924 to 1938. This group managed to convince the authorities that the churches and old buildings have a historical significance and must be handed in the museum rather than demolished.