During Soviet rule, the single-minded persecution of the Church, its buildings and clergy meant that every destructive method was employed. Churches were dynamited, burned to the ground, chopped down with axes. Priests and their families were exiled, imprisoned, executed. Icons were heaped on to bonfires, chopped up for firewood, made into sledges, window shutters, cattle troughs, and sometimes even faced firing squads.
Besides all this, wooden churches also suffered the usual deterioration of any abandoned wooden building. As architectural historian and campaigner for wooden churches Mikhail Milchik makes very clear in his frequent and impassioned speeches, their main enemy is indifference and neglect.
Today, last remaining wooden churches of Russia are in grave danger. The creation of the Soviet state in 1917 did not help their cause, but they are now in crisis. Much of this has been documented by restorers within Russia and travellers from abroad.
The Easter fire
Wooden churches have also often been destroyed by fire. Sometimes the cause is a carelessly discarded cigarette end, sometimes a crumbling brick stove or chimney and more often than not, it is lightning. This year, disaster struck on Sunday 5 May, Russian Easter Sunday (the most important day in the Orthodox Church calendar), when two parts of a unique three-part ensemble at Lyadiny, near Kargopol, (Arkhangel Region) were destroyed by fire. The three-piece wooden masterpiece known as a troinik (a summer church, a winter church and a bell tower) was the only one still intact in the Kargopol district and one of only four remaining ensembles in the whole of Russia. Now there are three.
The unique three-piece Lyadiny church before and during the fire. Photo: Richard Davies / MChS
During an evening storm, the magnificent church of St Blaise and the Intercession (Pokrovsko Vlas’evskaya tserkov’) was struck by lightning and burnt ‘from the top to the bottom’. The church dated from 1761, According to an eye-witness, the cross on top of the wooden spire was hit simultaneously by two bolts of lightning and burst into flames. As the burning cross disintegrated, fragments of it fell down and became lodged on the wooden onion dome, which in turn caught fire. The storm was not accompanied by any rain, so the church was bone dry, and the fire spread fast.
The fire was first reported at 20:45 Moscow time. Despite treacherous rutted roads, two local fire brigade teams arrived within half an hour. But even with five fire engines, the 14firemen were unable to get the fire under control, due to the height of the church spire. The huge ‘tent roof’ of St Blaise’s church was one of the biggest in the area. The fire took hold of the entire building and from there the flames jumped across on to the nearby 20m high bell tower, spreading over an area of 400 square metres. By five minutes past midnight the fire had been ‘localised’ and thanks to the efforts of the fire brigade, the wonderful cube-roofed church of the Epiphany (1793) (Bogoyavlenskaya tserkov) with its 12 little onion domes (for the 12 apostles) and fan-shaped star-scattered porch, was saved.
Now rumours fly in an attempt to make sense of the Easter catastrophe. There is much talk of divine retribution, some talk of arson, some of a giant fireball. Was the fire preventable? It seems that the church of St Blaise had a lightning conductor installed in 2009, and apparently it was properly attached and grounded. It seems obvious that lightning conductors should be erected on all these wooden churches, but sadly this is far from the case. It has been suggested that it might in fact be more effective to erect a separate lightning conducting mast near tall wooden churches. But Russian architectural historian Alexander Mozhayev argues that lightning conductors are not enough - it seems that in this case the lightning created a blaze that a conductor could have done nothing to prevent. The real need, suggests Mozhayev, is for some serious fire-fighting equipment – a water tower, pumps, ladders, hoses – as well as some local trained firemen, to be permanently at hand near these tinderbox structures.
A common scenario
Indeed, although in this case a slow response by the fire brigade was not a factor, it is a common scenario. Travelling in the region one hears many stories of the destruction of wooden churches by fire, sometimes a result of arson, sometimes careless accident, sometimes celestial. In Verkhnyaya Mudyuga (also in Arkhangel Region), for example, we were told ‘Oh, there used to be a magnificent three-piece ensemble here… but there was a fire… we tried to put it out but we couldn’t do it, the churches burned like candles… by the time the fire engines got here they were all burned to the ground.’ In this case (which was in 1997) they didn’t have a hope – the nearest fire station was 70 km away in Onega. This fire, by the way, was started by a couple of boys with candles in a crypt filled with boxes of papers and barrels of fuel…
The situation for wooden churches in northern Russian villages is pretty hopeless, mainly because of rural depopulation. Many villages are sparsely populated and empty in winter, as I have previously described. On our visits to Lyadiny however, there seemed to be more hope for the churches, due to the activities of a few individuals who are determined not to let their village die. An important figure is the churchwarden, Lyubov Borisovna, who cleans and looks after the churches and surrounding graveyard. Along with another local lady she helps to run a café and a museum where local children and visitors are taught traditional crafts. In recent years Lyadiny had become something of a tourist attraction (unlike most Russian villages). Daytrippers from the nearby town of Kargopol and even some foreign travellers have been visiting Lyadiny to see the famous troinik.
One of the interesting features specific to northern Russian churches is their so-called ‘sky’ ceilings (neba). These lowered ceilings, made up of wooden panels, usually painted with angels and saints, are designed to conserve heat by stopping it escaping up the dome. The church of St Blaise had a 12-panelled sky ceiling, featuring the four evangelists and a selection of archangels and angels, as well as a collection of fabulous icons.
'Sky' ceilings — an unusual and often magestical feature of northern Russian churches. Photo: Richard Davies
People do care
When I first met Lyubov Borisovna in 2006, she described an extraordinary scene from her childhood, when a whole day was spent throwing icons out of the Lyadiny churches on to the backs of lorries. These icons, painted by local artists and treasured for generations, were taken away and ‘taken care of’. Some of them ended up in museums – several of them are in Arkhangel and one made it to the Hermitage. One surprising phone call told Liubov that a Lyadiny icon had even come up for sale in London. As was often the case, villagers managed to save some icons and hide them away secretly, then return them to the churches after perestroika, to take their place in the iconostasis once more.
When I ask after Lyubov Borisovna, I am told that no one has dared call her. I can only imagine how devastated she must be. I wonder if she feels as if she has lost a child. It has taken me nearly a week to get through but this evening I finally speak to her. She is miserable, of course, but I am relieved in a way to hear her saying it is like losing a home. I try to persuade her that the fire was not a punishment from God but a dreadful accident, at the same time silently cursing the poverty and chaos of the Russian provinces and, above all, the indifference of the State.
Architect-restorer Boris Lurie has voiced [link in Russian] these very thoughts in the press this week, laying the blame squarely at the feet of the Russian Ministry of Culture, under whose protection Lyadiny’s churches – ‘monuments of federal significance’ – were supposedly kept. He suggests that even though a lightning conductor had been installed, it had not been maintained and given regular checks, emphasising that ‘no one was looking after it’. He is calling for funds to rebuild these lost monuments ‘right now’ and for the restoration of the remaining church of the Epiphany.
Lyubov tells me that she has been receiving calls all week with offers of help and money to rebuild the church and bell tower. They are going to write to the authorities, she says, and petition them for funds. As Lurie says, such requests have been made for the last ten years with no results.
In a strange post-Soviet re-enactment of her childhood story, Lyubov described to me on the phone how she and other villagers, including children, ran in and out of the burning church, saving icons from the flames. Lyubov’s husband Igor even climbed up into the sky ceiling to try and save the angels but could not free any of them in time… He and Lyubov were both dragged out of the burning church by firemen. These heroes managed to save 36 of the precious icons. Again, the icons have been taken away, for safe keeping.
Get our weekly email