The tragedy of Russia's abandoned wooden churches

Russia’s wooden architecture, especially its churches, was hardly a priority during Soviet times and now many of the unique old buildings are very close to total ruin.  A new book documents the tragedy in some of the most inaccessible parts of Russia’s north.  The numbers are daunting, but a tiny ray of hope has appeared on the horizon, which could rescue one or two of the near-ruins, says Alexander Mozhayev 

Richard Davies is a professional architectural photographer, who has worked with Norman Foster and many other well-known modern architects. His new book, Wooden Churches – Travelling in the Russian North, is, however, only indirectly to do with architectural photography. It actually reads more like a photo-reportage, with the architectural monuments of the Russian countryside, both past and present, as the main protagonists. The accompanying text develops this theme of reportage: the travel diaries of Richard’s companion Matilda Moreton are interspersed with observations from cultural commentators, writers and so on, both Russian and foreign.

All photos (c) Richard Davies

Richard's enthusiasm for Russian culture began in his childhood with a love for the music of Prokofiev. He began travelling in Russia quite some time ago, in the 1980s. The photographs in this book are more recent: they were taken between 2002 and 2010 and are of churches scattered across the extremely inaccessible extremes of Russia's northern provinces. According to Richard, it was the drawings of the famous Russian artist Ivan Bilibin, who travelled the same routes a little more than a hundred years ago, that prompted him to embark on this adventure. 

Wooden churches: some statistics

Over the last 100 years the landscapes of the Russian North have not changed for the better. The majority of the churches have either decayed or been transported to open-air museums in Arkhangelsk, Kostroma, Novgorod and other major cities. There are no precise statistics for churches lost in this way, but one has only to look at the authoritative work Russkoye derevyannoye zodchestvo [Russian Wooden Architecture], published in 1942. Of the 70 churches presented in it, just 27 have escaped destruction, 2 are close to death and 7 have been turned into museums. Moreover, with rare exceptions, it is the most impressive churches that have perished. 

‘There is nothing more Russian, closer to the people and more profound than wooden architecture. In stone buildings some foreign influence can always be discerned, be it Byzantine, Roman, Italian, Dutch, etc., but wooden architecture has its origins in the very depths of the Russian land and culture.’

It is no secret that conserving historic buildings is, to put it mildly, not a priority for the Russian state. Even in the Moscow region extremely precious monuments are sinking into oblivion, from mediaeval cathedrals to grand, classical manors. But even against this background, the subject of Russia’s wooden architecture is particularly dramatic.

This is because there is nothing more Russian, closer to the people and more profound than wooden architecture. In stone buildings some foreign influence can always be discerned, be it Byzantine, Roman, Italian, Dutch, etc., but wooden architecture has its origins in the very depths of the Russian land and culture. Until the 18th century, even in the cities only some of the churches, forts, and princely palaces made of stone; everything else was wood. This was Russian architecture and people had always lived in its lively, warm, creaky and timbered world which is in no way like ours. Now the most distinctive part of Russia's architectural heritage is rapidly disappearing. Over the course of almost one hundred years, magnificent churches have burnt down, rotted or been vandalised by the dozens, while houses and cottages without number are disappearing.

After 1917

Before the revolution, practically the only threat to ancient churches came from heavenly fire or the gross illiteracy of the local priests, but the situation changed after 1917 with the arrival of aggressive state atheism. Under Lenin, the authorities made some attempt to distinguish between real cultural monuments and ‘the bits and pieces of our accursed heritage’, but by the end of the 1920s vandalism had become a Young Communist virtue, and even an area of creative endeavour. Mayakovsky, Yesenin and Mariengof, the best poets of their time, all managed to distinguish themselves with their cynical, blasphemous pranks. Then, in the 1960s, came a second wave of destruction, broadly following the logic of ‘Gagarin has been to outer space and hasn't seen anyone: there’s no God, so religious art is a lie.’ Richard's book contains a particularly telling selection of anti-religious cartoons and leaflets of those times.

‘The Russian mentality has developed to understand "old" as something that is out of date… Some years ago, the abbot of a monastery was asked why he had knocked down the porch of his 300-year-old church, and he replied as honestly as he could: "Because it was old!"’

However, to ascribe the problem solely to the upheavals of the 20th century does not tell the whole story. When foreign delegations arrive in Moscow, they often ask: ‘Your city is nearly one thousand years old, so why are there hardly any buildings built before the 17th century?’  The reply to this question is that medieval Moscow was a wooden city. ‘So, please show us at least one medieval wooden dwelling.’ But there are none, not only in the capital, but throughout the whole of Russia! There’s a derelict cottage in Uglich, which seems to have been built at the end of the 17th century, and in Moscow there was until recently a log-house from the era of Peter the Great (two years ago it was put on the scrap heap). That’s all.

The reasons for this are complex and manifold, but for some reason the Russian mentality has developed to understand ‘old’ as something that is out of date — from the Old Testament, unsanitary. Some years ago, the abbot of a monastery was asked why he had knocked down the porch of his 300-year-old church, and he replied as honestly as he could: ‘Because it was old!’

Richard has again reminded us of one of the most serious problems of our culture, a problem which has become quite literally immediate and urgent.  The presentation of his book, held in Moscow's Architecture Museum at the beginning of March, developed into a rather lively discussion between historians, restorers, public figures and officials of the Church, who had come from various cities. One of the priests also said that collecting photographs of relics and blasphemous cartoons in one book might not be the best of ideas. The juxtaposition is indeed a hard one, but you cannot ignore the facts and these pages will remain very closely connected in Russian history.

The way forward

We are left with the traditional Russian question: what is to be done?  When we talk about the misfortunes of wooden monuments, we are used to acknowledging the fact of a continuing tragedy, like climate change or other natural disasters: this year another churchyard burnt down, another tented roof collapsed. The experts may have managed to rescue another church from the dying village and put it into a conservation area, but no matter how many of these areas are created, the wasteland continues to expand around them. 

There is, however, now a real reason to be optimistic. One of the major trends of public life in Russia over the past two to three years has been an increase in volunteering: people have stopped waiting for help from the state and started to take upon themselves the work and responsibility of arranging their living space. This year has seen a bold volunteering experiment to save a wooden building. A group of Muscovites has organised at their own expense the restoration of a beautiful large wooden house, discovered in the woods on the edge of Kostroma region. Indeed, it was during the visit of some British expert restorers, organised by activists (of the ‘Russian Church’ association) that I was first introduced to Richard Davies.

Enthusiasts need support and, most particularly, information. On behalf of my colleagues, I should like once more to thank Richard for his heroic work and to hope that his book will soon be translated and published in Russia.

Wooden Churches - Travelling in the Russian North is available direct from the publisher and at Amazon.co.uk

About the author

Alexander Mozhayev is a graduate of the Moscow Architectural Institute, with a specialty in architectural restoration. He is activist of the Arkhnadzor Moscow preservationist society.