While lightning and neglect are taking their toll on Russia's wooden churches, a growing volunteer movement is making its mark in saving this precious cultural heritage. Architectural restoration expert Alexander Mozhayev reports.
You might think that there is nothing new to be said about Russia’s wooden churches: there they stand, eternal and unchanging - a cultural cliché, especially if viewed against a backdrop of birches. But their very familiarity, combined with a lack of scholarship devoted to wooden architecture, has meant that their importance is often not appreciated. To quote the eminent architectural restorer Boris Lurie, ‘This northern wooden heritage of ours is the only genuinely national architecture of Russia, as opposed to stone buildings, which show a strong European influence. There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. We’re so used to it that we don’t even notice, but visitors from other countries are always struck by it.’
An endless flat landscape, suddenly broken by a 50 metre high wooden tower, makes an indelible impression.
There is, of course, another cliché – that foreign visitors used to traipsing round an inexhaustible supply of classical ruins and gothic cathedrals are unlikely to be impressed by rural Russia. An 18th century wooden house here, another one 100 kilometres further on. But Europeans I’ve travelled around Russia with tell me the opposite: ‘A gothic church around every corner – you’ve no idea how exhausting it gets. But here you can go for 100 kilometres and not see a soul, and then, in the middle of nowhere, there’s a wooden house!’ And besides, each house is different, and when the endless flat landscape is suddenly broken by a 50 metre high wooden tower, that makes an indelible impression.
One such visitor was the London architectural photographer Richard Davies, who was so struck by the beauty of the Russian north that he spent the last ten years studying it. The resulting book, ‘Wooden Churches – Travelling in the Russian North’, came out last year; it looked at the architecture itself, its tragic destruction and neglect in the Soviet period and its critical state today, for this wooden heritage is now as much an endangered species as the Russian village itself. The London launch, however, did more than just sell the book – lovers of wooden architecture were moved to try to save interesting buildings at risk. So this year Richard has been busy sorting out the technical issues: if any organisation is to be involved, British supporters always need to be sure of its probity and that any money raised will be wisely spent. So the first task has been to find a suitable building, in need of restoration, that is in safe hands.
Fire from heaven…
Alas, no wooden church can be said to be totally safe. As Lurie says, ‘we mustn’t forget that all these churches are expertly constructed and bone dry giant bonfires.’ Churches inside officially protected areas can burn, as can churches looked after by committed guardians. Only this Easter, the Church of St Blaise and the Intercession at Lyadiny, near Kargopol, (Arkhangel Region) was struck by lightning. Dating from 1761, it was a well-maintained building, with a lightning conductor, in a large village full of people, but it burned from top to bottom because the district has no up to date fire-fighting equipment and the firefighters were powerless against the forty metre high flames.
‘We mustn’t forget that all these churches are expertly constructed and bone dry giant bonfires’ (Boris Lurie, architectural restorer)
The building’s warden Lyubov Vikulova told Richard and me that ‘it was a dry thunderstorm, without rain, and two lightning bolts hit the cross on the roof at the same time, one on either side. If there had been rain it would have put out the fire in seconds, but as it was we could only stand and watch it burn. We did manage to rescue the icons inside, though. There are three churches on the site: when the flames reached the bell tower and looked as though they were about to leap across to the second church, a fireman shouted at me to take an icon and circle the church with it. So I got between the second church and the flames and the fire didn’t touch it.’
The fact that such an unusual fire happened at Easter has been universally interpreted as a sign from on high, although nobody is sure what it means. I feel it is deeply illogical for Orthodox Christians to see it as the wrath of God. Pagan gods may punish people for their sins and backsliding, but Russians would do better to regard it as a warning. Vikulova has her own theory: ‘There used to be a lake opposite; it was small but very deep – in the mornings it would be covered in mist – and on the other side the ground was blue with berries. But then one day the water just disappeared underground, leaving a marsh behind. And I’m just thinking – if we rebuild the church, maybe the lake will come back.’
...and human neglect
The fire at Lyadiny is certainly a warning to the whole of Russia. But more often churches are victims not of fire from heaven, but of simple inadvertent neglect. In the course of the last year Richard Davies and I visited northern Russia three times and saw all sorts of things. In general the position of a church in relation to human occupation has little bearing on its condition: the church belonging to the former Muyezersky Monastery, which has stood on an island among remote Karelian lakes since 1625, looks well-maintained despite only having a lone volunteer warden from the nearby village and the occasional band of pilgrims to look after it, whereas the St Nicholas church (also 17th century) in the large village of Volosov lies in ruins under overgrown brambles and nettles despite standing in a functioning cemetery. When we forced our way inside, with great difficulty, we found beams carrying 17th century inscriptions and a visitors’ book with a touching little entry: ‘We, 21st century teenagers, were having a walk and called in the church. We would really like it if the church in our beloved village could be restored, that traditions could live on…’ and so on. But there’s no one to cut back the nettles.
The 17th century St Nicholas church in the large village of Volosov lies in ruins under overgrown brambles and nettles, despite standing in a functioning cemetery.
We then visited the very remote village of Nimenga, travelling first by ferry across the White Sea, then by boat and finally through the forest. Eventually the most idyllic scene opened before us: fields, a herd of cattle, horses grazing the banks of a stony little stream and a five-domed church with a separate bell tower. We skirted the stream and circled the church, but with each step the idyll faded: the bell tower had a dangerous tilt that we had not been able to see as we approached. While Richard took out his neat little folding tripod and started snapping, his travelling companion Daryl Ann Hardman said to me, ‘I don’t understand. There are cattle and horses, a tractor, a satellite dish. There are people living here – why don’t they do something to fix the church? It could collapse at any moment.’ Well, I answered, it’s not something that just anyone can do. It needs more than a couple of nails banged in; it needs professionals, and where do you start looking for them?
A common cause
But the nearby coastal village of Vorzogory presents a completely different picture. The village itself is magic – it stands on an outcrop, washed on three sides by the waves of the White Sea. At its centre stands a magnificent complex of two wooden churches, built in the style of of urban and monastic stone churches, and a bell tower. We just happened to arrive on the day when the bells would ring out for the first time in 80 years and were able to meet Father Aleksei Yakovlev, whose efforts have brought these ancient sacred buildings back to life. Father Aleksei is based in Moscow, but comes here each summer, and is well known as one of the founders of the Obscheye Delo [Common Cause] movement, which has set itself the task of saving the wooden churches of northern Russia. Its members patch leaky roofs, prop up walls, clear undergrowth and dig trenches to act as firebreaks. In just a few years this project, started by just a handful of people, has become a mass movement and its volunteers look after dozens of sites.
And it all started here in Vorzogory. ‘The first time we came here’, Father Aleksei tells us, ‘we suddenly caught the sound of an axe splitting wood. That was Old Sasha, who’d been repairing the bell tower day after day for years – he simply couldn’t bear the thought of it collapsing one day before his eyes. We were so inspired by his example that we started helping him, then we set our sights higher and now we have several teams of volunteers busy every summer.’
Unfortunately - or from our point of view, thankfully - Russians have lost all hope of getting any help from government. They are beginning to take responsibility themselves, and this includes responsibility for their cultural heritage. Most recent government restoration projects have been either controversial in their methods (the work on the famous Kizhi complex was particularly divisive) or simply disastrous, such as what happened with important churches at Kimzha and Belozersk. These were dismantled for restoration, and now no one knows how to fit them back together. This year’s success story, on the other hand, was the restoration of a 19th century wooden palace on the outskirts of Chukhloma, in the Kostroma region. It was carried out by professional architects on the initiative of Muscovite Andrei Pavlichenkov, and a building that three years ago seemed a lost cause is now habitable again.
Russians have lost all hope of getting any help from government. They are beginning to take responsibility themselves, and this includes responsibility for their cultural heritage.
The Common Cause movement has also helped rebuild the Church of the Transfiguration in the village of Turchasovo on the Onega River in the Archangelsk region. Turchasovo was our main destination this summer – British donors are discussing the purchase of new bells for its tower. Richard suggested this site because one of the locals is keen to take part in the restoration. His name is Aleksei Sutin, he’s young and bearded, and we find him 20 metres above us, repairing the church roof with two other villagers. Sutin speaks good English, which is pretty rare in a northern village. ‘I actually live in a city’, he told us, ‘but I grew up here and I always come back for the summer. Everybody in the village contributed to a restoration fund so we could hire some carpenters, and we’ve already finished the roof over the altar, where the worst leaks were.’ And was he being paid anything, I asked - it’s hard work. ‘No, I’m doing it for the glory of God. I’m a physicist and I work mostly in Norway, so I’m not badly off.’
We arrange to come back in the winter with the new bells and the Russian north’s new overseas friends. In the first place because Richard assures me that Turchasovo is at its most stunning in winter, when the temperature falls to minus twenty or lower. But also because there is no direct road here, and it will be easier to transport the load along the frozen river. And we are sure our British guests will love our wide Russian spaces, thousands of miles from the nearest Gothic cathedral.