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Science Tribune - Article -January 1997


A history of salt production in Russia

Part I : Milestones in the Russian salt industry

Part II : The salt epic in Prikamye

Part III : The Ust-Borovskoy salt-works

Eugene V. Logunov

Institute of History of Material Culture, P.O.Box 65, Ekaterinburg, B-109, Russia 620109.

Part I : Milestones in the Russian salt industry

Because salt production is the oldest branch of Russian industry and has substantially influenced all spheres of life since the birth of the Russian state, it deserves to be studoed in-depth by historians. Much could be learnt from comparisons with salt production, elsewhere in particular in European countries, from both a historical and prospective viewpoint. This article focuses on the history of the Russian salt industry from its beginnings and on salt production at the salt-work facilities in Prikamye.

Throughout history, salt, a commodity used in exchange and trade and a source of national revenue, has played a key role in relations between countries. The struggle for supremacy over salt resources has led to bloody wars such as occurred between the Roman Empire and neighbouring tribes and to uprisings like the 1648 Moscow "salt riot" when the masses revolted against overburdensome salt taxes.

In Russia, salt production is the oldest branch of industry. The origins of the Russian mining industry, which is world-renowned, lie in the salt mines in the north of the old Russian State. This brief survey will describe the main stages in the development of the Russian salt industry and is accompanied by two feature articles describing some of the traditions of the industry :

The salt epic in Pikamye : a history of salt production in Prikamye, a vast region situated in the Eastern part of European Russia, which played a crucial role in the supply of household salt.

The Ust-Borovskoy salt-works : a description of a unique monument of salt-making and industrial architecture in Russia which has been preserved in its original state

Salt production before the 16th century

According to archaeological evidence, the most ancient settlement that produced salt dates back to the second millennium BC and was on the Danilovo lake near the village of Usolye (the Samarsk region, Middle Povolzhye). However, until the birth of the Russian State in the 10th c, the main salt-producing area was the territory next to the Black Sea and the Azovskoye Sea coast. Extraction of salt from sea water on the northern shores was first reported in the Duke Svyatoslav charter at the Sophia Synod in 1137 which provides the earliest mention of Russian salteries equipped with chrens. Chrens, which are rectangular trays made of riveted iron sheets, are the most significant technological development in salt-making and remained in existence until the 1970s.

The Arkhangelsk region (north-east of European Russia) was probably the real homeland of Russian salt production. In the 12th c, the village of Nenoksa, 80 km from present-day Arkhangelsk, supplied not only nearby towns and villages but also central and southern Russia. During this century also, the first primitive salteries were founded in Belomorye and in cities such as Tot'ma and Ledechensk by inhabitants from Novgorod.

During the 13-14th c, production in the northern areas of European Russia - Staraya Russa, the Vychegda river basin, in Balakhna and Seryogovo - rose considerably. The word "salt" began to be incorporated into the names of many Russian cities (Soligalich, Sol'vychegodsk, and Soligorski, Solikamsk and Usolye in Prikamye, Usolye-Sibirskoye in Siberia). By the 15th c there were three major salt-producing regions:
- the Central region (Sol' Galitskaya, Nerekhta, Pereyaslavl'),
- the Novgorod region (Staraya Russa),
- Belomorye (the north-western part of the White Sea coast) which was to become the main domestic supplier for several centuries. Salt from Belomorye, so-called "moryanka", was also in great demand in many European countries to which it was delivered by special salt-ships.

Ownership of salteries in the 16th century

Shareholder associations

At the end of the 16th c, salteries were usually owned by associations formed of 3-16 shareholders coming from townships, the peasantry, and monasteries. For example, in the Central region near Yaroslavl, 199 shareholders owned 19 salteries (5-17 holders per saltery) with monasteries being amongst the biggest holders whereas in the Novgorod area (Staraya Russa) two-thirds of all salteries were state-owned and one third belonged to monasteries.


Many salteries that were owned by towns' people and that helped promote the growth of towns were taken over by force by representatives of the Grand Duke's government and by monasteries. Thus, in 1555 more than 30 salteries in Sumskaya volost were granted to the Solovetsky monastery. The Unezhinskiye and Nyukhotskiye salteries and those on the Vychegda river were also handed over and, by the 15-16th c, the largest monasteries (Solovetsky and Kirillo-Belozersky) owned most of the salteries in Belomorye. The tsarist government exempted monasteries from trading taxes and let them exploit peasants from surrounding villages and settlements, thereby promoting salt-production in the North. In 1433, Grand Duke Vasilii II even issued a special decree forbidding small-holders from digging salt wells near monasterial ones. The monasteries were thus trading in a highly profitable business especially since cooking salt was very expensive. However, fresh competition was to arise with the emergence of a new class of professional salt-producers unrelated to the peasantry.

Industrial ownership

In the 16th c salt production (brine saturation and salt extraction) remained manual. The enterprises were small in terms of numbers employed (5-8 per saltery) and were cooperatives rather than manufacturing industries, but could be considered large-scale enterprises in terms of profitability. The average annual output per saltery was 5000-7000 poods (a) (80-120 tons) and, outside Prikamye, the highest output was 15000 poods (in Nenoksa). However, during the 16th c, neighbouring salteries began to be integrated into salt-mines of unprecedented scale owned by industrialists. The Shustovs and Filatyevs possessed 44 salt-works compared to the Solovetsky monastery which had 20 salteries with 54 chrens (b). By the end of the 17th c, large salt-mines had become the norm. However, production methods remained virtually unchanged and increased production was not accompanied by technical refurbishment.

Salt extraction technology

A 16th c manuscript ("Description of how to make a new pipe in a new place") found at a salt-work near Tot'ma describes the sophisticated technology required to extract brine, Wells, sometimes 160-180 m deep, were drilled with a rig of 12-18 m provided with blocks, a complex system of ropes with a counterweight and a large load. Two windlasses with 3 m long spindles were placed behind the rig. A bridge with a horizontal rotating windlass and a storehouse for drilling equipment adjoined the rig. First, a wooden frame was sunk into the well, then a drilling bit, chosen according to the nature of the soil, was lifted with the help of a windlass and quickly lowered. As the frame sunk, the bit was rotated at an angle and the soil was lifted with special bailers. Drilling could take 3-6 years. When it was over, caulked pipes were placed into the well and flowing brine was directed either onto chrens or into reservoirs.

A different method was used in Staraya Russa which produced a high-quality salt. A small natural lake was connected by a canal to an artificial lake. A ground pipe (donnaya) conducted salt brine from the natural lake whereas a draining pipe (spusknaya) removed excess water. The brine that accumulated in the artificial lake was transported by pipes to city salteries after condensation in an extended network of big and small wells (about 250 in all).

At the heart of the technological cycle was the salt evaporation process which took place in a dark-fired saltery (solyanyeizby). This was a rectangular framework covered with a gable and later with a four-pitched roof. The fire was made in a square furnace or a pit - 8.5 m wide and up to 3.5 m deep - laid in stones and clay, above which the chren was hung. The number of salteries was a reflection of a saltworks' capacity and state.

Permyanka salt and the emergence of new centres in the 17th century

At the beginning of the 17th c, the Belomorye region was still the main supplier of salt to the Russian State. Total annual output from more than 100 salteries reached a peak of 12,000 tons. However, during the second half of the 17th c, the largest salt producing centre (about 250 salteries) emerged around the city of Solikamsk in the Perm area. The annual output of Perm salt (permyanka) totalled 120,000 tons or 70 % of total Russian output. As from the 17th c, other centres also emerged :

- The annexation of Siberia led to the development of salt-works near Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk. The best known were those in Usolye. Salt production continues today at Sibsol.

- In the Far East on the Okhotskoye Sea coast, salt was produced by evaporation of sea water.

- In the south of Russia at Slavyansky (now Ukraine), salteries were built on the Torets ("new salt-city") and Bakhmut rivers. Annual production exceeded 6,000 tons by the mid-18th c but spent forest resources and competition from Crimean and Astrakhan salt led to an uprising in the 1880s. The discovery of new springs of concentrated salt brine in the vicinity brought annual output up to 130,000 tons in 1910.

- Cheap salt, costing the state 16 times less than salt from the Bakhmut salt-works and 18 times less than salt from the Prikamye region, began to be extracted by hand from the southern lakes near Astrakhan. The state began producing salt from the larger Alton and Baskunchak lakes in 1747. The Baskunchak lake is still the main source of cooking salt in Russia today.

Beginnings of rock-salt mining in the 18th century

Russia has huge resources of rock-salt. Rock salt mining was performed on a very small scale in the 18th c (Orenburg area in the Southern Urals) and the first salt-mine was not founded until 1871 (in Solotvino, Zakarpatye). In 1880, however, salt-mining in the Donetsk basin (Ukraine today) was already providing 20% of all Russian output. This meant that home demands could be entirely met and that imports decreased 5-fold.

Salt-production in the modern era

Towards the end of the 19th c, Russia became one of the world's largest producers of cooking salt. In 1891-1895, the average annual output was 1.4 million tons comprised of 50 % lake salt, 20 % rock salt and 30 % evaporated salt. On the eve of the 1917 revolution, Russia was producing 2.4 million tons of cooking salt a year. By the end of 1980, annual production within the former USSR had reached 20 million tons. World leader as regards its explored salt reserves, it was the world's second producer after the United States. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the enterprises remaining on Russian territory were producing about 8 million tons.

Part II : The salt epic in Prikamye

In the middle of the 17th c, the main region of salt production in Russia - the northern region of Belomorye - was superseded by the Perm region as the main supplier of salt to the Russian State. This is the story of perm salt (permyanka).

An ancient sea

On the western slope of the Ural mountains is a region - the Perm region - where the natural conditions are highly propitious for the production and distribution of salt. Here lie numerous salt outcrops, the sedimentary rocks of the ancient Perm sea with their superficial concentrated brine, large tracts of woodland providing cheap fuel and an extensive river network - the Kama (the major tributary of the Volga), the Chusovaya and the Usolka - that enable the transport of salt to the remotest corners of Russia. This is also a region that was to undergo intensive Russian colonization from the 15th c onwards because of local salt production. Salt production was in fact to become the leading industry of the Urals.

The first salteries in Prikamye : a family business

Archaic salteries for evaporating salt from natural brine can be traced back to the 10-11th c in Prikamye but the first salteries of note were founded at the beginning of the 15th c on the Borovaya river by the merchant brothers Kalinnikov from Novgorod. In about 1430, they transferred their business to the Usolka river and the settlement of Usolye-Kamskoye (the future town of Solikamsk) was born. By 1579, there were 190 homesteads, several churches, 27 small shops and 16 salteries. The road linking Solikamsk to Verkhoturye 11 years later made the city not only the largest salt-mining centre in Russia but also an important commercial transit point and the future administrative headquarters of Prikamye. A foreigner visiting Solikamsk in 1666 wrote as follows "...here much salt is evaporated out of water and is scooped out of springs. Springs are abundant here. When you come out of the forest in the direction of the city, the rigs for water scooping look as if they were hundreds of masted ships".

In the mid-16th c, Ivan the Terrible granted the Stroganovs - merchants who were the forefathers of the famous Ural dynasty of industrial entrepreneurs - a charter that entitled them to a vast uninhabited area extending 250 km along the banks of the river Kama. In 1564, they built the Orlovsky salt-works that remained in existence for over 60 years and, in 1606, the Novoye Usolye works. They became the "salt kings of Russia" owning, by the end of the 17th c, 162 of 233 salteries along the Kama .

The development of the 'permyanka' industry

Perm salt (permyanka) gradually replaced northern salt (from Belomorye, Sol'vychegodsk, Tot'ma, Seregovo) on the domestic market. It was in constant demand in Moscow, Oryol, Smolensk, Nizhny Novgorod, Povolzhye and Siberia and competed well in many European countries (e.g. Prussia, Germany, Sweden) with salt of Spanish and French origin.

Production by private enterprises and monasteries gathered momentum in the 17-18th c. At the beginning of the 18th c, one monastery, that of Pyskorsky, owned 23 salt-works. The state began operating the Dedyukhinsky salt-works in 1670 and, by the 18th c, this was the biggest industrial enterprise in Russia and one of the biggest in Europe. In the 1680-90s, 250 salt-works were in operation in and around Solikamsk with an annual output exceeding 7 million poods (a) (almost 120,000 tons) which accounted for almost three-quarters of total Russian salt output.

Despite destruction of salteries by occasional fires, salt-making in Solikamsk continued to grow. Small and medium-sized salt producers, however, found it difficult to remain competitive and the final blow - that ruined them - was struck in 1705 by the monopoly introduced by Peter the Great's Ukase : All private entrepreneurs and monasteries were forced to sell their salt to the State at a price of 6 kopecks per pood. Thereafter, salt-production in Prikamye was concentrated in the hands of the feudal lords - the Stroganovs, Turchaninovs, Surovtsevs, Rostovchikovs, the Pyskorsky monastery, and the Dedyukhinsky works.

The majority of salteries were dark-fired, i.e., the firewood was burnt in a four-sided pit-stove with a chren (b) hanging above it. The procedures were often technically backward. Drilling was performed by means of a windlass and a bailer and manual operations prevailed until the 1870s. Horse-driven windlasses were rare; there were only 5 steam-engines to lift brine.

Competition from lake and rock salt

Salt production in Solikamsk declined increasingly rapidly during the 18th c because permyanka could not face competition from very cheap Astrakhan lake salt. When the state monopoly was abolished in 1854, Perm entrepreneurs (the Stroganovs, Princes Golitsyn, Counts Shuvalov, the Abamelek-Lazarevs ...) owned only 67 operating salt-works and 70 tubes for brine-lifting. The situation deteriorated even further in the 1880s with the added competition from rock salt excavated from the Donetsk basin.

Nevertheless, the Perm industrialists managed to increase salt output 3-fold from 100,000 tons in 1860 to almost 300,000 tons in 1891. On the eve of World War I, annual salt production amounted to 350,000 tons and was maintained at this level for almost three decades. Production was aided by the reconstruction of old salt-works by their owners, the industrial salt revolution, and a number of technical innovations such as the white or Bavarian salteries (their furnaces had sophisticated heat conductors, smoke pipes and steam pipes), Fabian's auger for drilling (introduced in 1870) and, later, steam drills. During the 19th c, new-style enterprises thus sprung up alongside the traditional system of economy, such as the Ust-Borovskoy salt-works . These salt-works played an outstanding role in the history of salt-making in Russia but were closed down in 1972.

Nowadays, salt is still produced in Prikamye but by rock-salt mining. Since 1991, salt is extracted by the shaft technique by mining combines, lifted to the surface, granulated, and transported as such to the customer. Two large potassium producers, the Silvinit Production Association in Solikamsk and the Uralkalii Production Association in Berezniki, each produce 1.0 million tons of salt a year.

Part III : The Ust-Borovskoy salt-works

The Ust-Borovskoy salt-works are a unique, well-preserved, 19th c historical and architectural complex of buidings within the bounds of Solikamsk. They were built in a traditional style characteristic of the ancient trades of the Prikamye area and are being converted into a large museum that restitutes all stages of salt production. The exhibits reflect different epochs in salt-making, a long-standing experience in salt-work construction, traditions and trends in industrial architecture, and interactions with the environment.

History of the Ust-Borovskoy salt-works

The Ust-Borovskoy salt-works were founded in 1878 by the merchant Vasilii Ryazantsev on the left bank of the Kama river in the settlement of Ust-Borovoye. They were built fairly quickly after a single plan, the main production facilities - wells and brine-lifting towers, salt boxes (lars), salteries and storehouses - all dating from the 1880s-90s. They thus form a unique architectural and technological complex with, however, many traits of much earlier works in the Perm area.

Ryazantsev's descendants, who owned the works before the 1917 Russian revolution, hardly modified the layout of the works or the salt production process. The most important innovation was the transition from dark-fired to white salteries in 1895. Salt brine was pumped out of the earth by a steam engine and the salt was made in chrens (b). It was collected by hand, stored in warehouses on the river bank, and delivered by barges belonging to the works or to traders to the markets of Nizhny Novgorod and Rybinsk along the Kama and Volga rivers. By 1886, salt production exceeded 25,000 tons and, by the early 20 th c, this was one of the largest industrial enterprises in Prikamye employing up to 180 workers.

After the revolution, the works continued to operate but with reduced efficiency. In 1922, 500 workers were employed but salt production was not increased because the technology, equipment and facilities were so out-of-date. Riveted chrens were still used although metal welding was current practice elsewhere (it was only introduced in the 1940s at Ust-Borovskoy), the fuel was wood despite its cost, and manual labour dominated. In 1923-1924, small technical improvements were made: a few electrical instead of horse-hoists, air heating in the salteries, furnaces with artificial draughts.

The manufacturing cost of evaporated salt rose. Production was less and less profitable but, unlike other works which closed down because of the construction of the Kamskaya hydro-power station, the Ust-Borovskoy salt-works continued to operate in Prikamye. Its output (24,000 tons from 8 salteries) was the same in 1956 as before the revolution. In 1963, the salt-works were merged into the Solikamsky works, leading producers of potassium fertilizers' in the former USSR, but were not modernized. The last technological improvement was the transition from charcoal to coal in the mid-1950s.

On January 1, 1972, the Ust-Borovskoy salt-works were closed down.

Creation of a museum

The Ust-Borovskoy salt-works were in a good state of preservation and possessed a large variety of items. In April 1972, at the initiative of scientists, specialists in regional studies, and museum curators, the decision was taken to create a museum complex - Salt of Russia - on the site. Three stages were planned :
(i) the development of an excursion zone with free public access to the main industrial objects,
(ii) the restoration of all production facilities and the creation of an open exhibition on salt-making technology and the salt-maker's craft,
(iii) the conversion of the workers' homes into a historical and ethnographic museum.
Partial restoration began in 1978. A number of overlaps and roofs were rehabilitated, the works managers' building was restored, the reconstruction of salt furnaces was begun but, owing to lack of funds, renovation slowed down in the 1980s and has now come to a standstill. Recently, the Ust-Borovskoy salt-works complex has been presented to ICOMOS as a unique object of Russian industrial culture for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The main museum exhibits are described below.

Boreholes and brine-lifting towers

The first phase of salt-making was extraction of salt brine from the earth. Salt bedding near Solikamsk was not deep (60-80 m) and was highly concentrated (at least twice the average concentration prevalent in Russia). As a rule, there was no preliminary prospecting and a hole was bored on the advice of the elders. Wooden scaffolding 20 m high was erected; a 17-23 m deep pit was dug and a matichnaya tube, made out of a thick pine log, was inserted. A matichnaya was 23-24 m long with an inner diameter of 40-50 cm and walls 9-11 cm thick. Casing tubes, made of thinner trees, and vioslye tubes were inserted into the matichnaya. From the bottom of the vioslye, a channel (kopyozhnyi) of even lesser diameter, unprotected by wood or metal, was made deep into the borehole. It was here that the brine was collected. The holes were bored manually by the "striking-and-turning" method which sometimes took several years. An auger was forced down into the earth, turned with a windlass, lifted, and the extracted rock was beaten out. Later on, the process became significantly faster with the use of Fabian and steam augers.

The boreholes (up to 177 m deep) were dug at the same time as the works' foundation. In the 19th c, brine was pumped out of boreholes with primitive horse-driven machines that were to be replaced by steam engines in the early 20th c. A piston, driven in a copper tube which was placed above the mouth of the borehole inside a brine-lifting tower, forced the brine up into a wooden chute. Brine-lifting towers (up to 16 m high) had no foundation, a 9 x 9 m wooden frame base and four-pitched roofs with rectangular apertures for a pump bar. The pumped brine passed from the chute into a drain made of wooden pipes tightened with metal hoops which extended along and down the three tiers of the tower into a single underground brine collector. Two brine-lifting towers - built in 1886 and 1904 - have survived to this day. One borehole is still in operation. The brine is extracted by an electric pump and used to clean boilers at a local power station.


Before an underground brine collector was installed under the Soviet regime, the brine passed into salt boxes (lars) 50 or 300 m away along chutes placed on poles of decreasing height (6 - 4 m). In Prikamye, lars were introduced in the last quarter of the 18th c. Previously, brine had been fed directly from the brine-lifting towers into the chrens. The lar is a rectangular vat (inner dimensions : 12 m long x 5.6 m wide x 3 m high) made of tightly adjusted square beams of 20-22 cm cross-section. The seams were thoroughly caulked and the beams were tarred on the outside. The lar was placed on a log-grating 1.5 m above ground, propped up at regular intervals by twin vertical logs, and tightened with a wooden frame. Special wooden wedges regulated the compression of the walls as the lar was being filled. A work-floor under the roof of the lar was used for regular lar cleaning and inspection.

Brine settled in the lar whereas water evaporated from the surface. The brine flowed out of the lar through holes at the bottom which were shut by internal wooden plugs operated by special levers (rockers) and by special external cone-shaped bolts. To avoid overspill, a hole at the top of the lar wall led brine through a branch pipe to a wooden tube and underground pipeline. The lars were connected to the saltery chrens by large underground wooden pipes. One lar supplied one or two salteries. Today there are three lars at the museum, two were built in 1882 and one in 1903. Two are entirely operational; one is used to collect brine from an operating borehole.


The rectangular pinelog saltery with its four-pitched roof was shaped in the 18th c and its design changed little over time. The exterior appears quite modest - a 6 m high framework and overall 12 m height to the ridge - but, inside the 400 m2 area, the absence of visible floor support and the sophisticated system of interdependent rafters and floors is most impressive. Initially brine was evaporated in dark-fired salteries in which a chren (125-144 m2) made of riveted 12 mm iron sheets was hung above a pit. These salteries were converted into white or Bavarian salteries in 1895. External brick smoke pipes were placed 1.5 m away from the salteries; heat conductors were arranged under chrens; the chrens were shut with wooden cowls, had side doors for removing salt, and were mounted by a steam pipe passing through the roof.

Salt production required experience and craftsmanship handed down through the generations. Over 30 different occupations were involved. When evaporating salt, the master first heated the chren with firewood and the apprentices ran across the hot sheets sealing any cracks with dough. Brine, initially brought in buckets and later through the underground pipe network, was introduced when the furnace heat was moderate and constant. The brine boiled and the crystallized salt was scraped from the chren corners with special scrapers, lifted with wooden spades onto wooden floors ("polati") above the chren to dry, and then gathered into bags made of matting.

The evaporation of a measure of salt went on without uninterruption for about 24 hours and 20-25 measures were evaporated in succession. The chren was then cleaned of salt sediment before re-introducing brine from the lars through the underground pipes. Today there are 6 salteries erected between 1882 and 1888 on the museum site.

Salt storage and transport

The "salt-making year" lasted from mid-June to mid-April/beginning of May of the following year when the Kama river flooded the saltery yards. The year's salt was stored in salt storehouses or "salt shops" which, according to a chronicler from Solikamsk, were the finest buildings together with a customs house and churches. They were built on the gentle slope of the river on a well-tarred log grating ("rezh") with a 1.5 m cell rising above the ground to avoid water penetrating. For their time, they were enormous log buildings (52 m long and 19 m wide with a 9.4 m high framework and an overall height of 15 m up to the roof ridge). Each storehouse was divided into 10 sections ("zakroma") linked two-by-two by connecting doors.

The bags of salt were carried across bridges from the salteries to unloading platforms on the storehouse roof by men and women who could lift 5-5.5 poods (80-88 kg) and 3 poods (about 50 kg), respectively. By 1907-1908, salt was loaded into trolleys that were pushed along a small railroad to the storehouses. In 1915, special salt lifts equipped with a horse-driven windlass and an emptying mechanism were erected up against the storehouse walls. The museum complex includes three storehouses with undeformed walls in good condition. One was built in 1882 and two date back to the 1890s.

Salt transport was almost exclusively along waterways (Kama and Volga). Horses pulled trolleys of salt along railroads from the storehouses to loading piers on the river which also functioned as docks for barges. However, in spring, when the Kama's waters rose, the salt was loaded directly into purpose-built flat-bottomed barges with a 30-65 thousand pood (500-1000 tons) capacity. Fragments of the loading piers as well as a dilapidated weighing house have survived to this day but the salt barges will have to be rebuilt from the many drawings available.

And so, for the present, ends the story of the Ust-Borovsky salt-works.


(a). 1 pood = 16 kg

(b). Chrens Rectangular trays made of riveted iron sheets that are used to evaporate salt

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