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From Russia with Wood: Crumbling timber churches

Richard Davies captures the alluring dilapidation of wooden churches in the Russian north

The fate of northern Russia’s historic wooden churches is highlighted in this beautifully produced book by architectural photographer Richard Davies. Evoking both sadness and wonder, it records the demise of the region’s remaining churches, but also celebrates the skill of the craftsmen who constructed them.  

The original churches were built from the turn of the 10th century onwards at the instigation of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, as he attempted to civilise the people of Rus by adopting Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  Once, even tiny villages would boast a troinik (group of three) comprising a summer church, winter church and bell tower. To build them, guilds of itinerant carpenters, their only tool the axe, used huge, straight trunks of pine hewn from ancient local forests. Grown slowly, the wood was immensely strong, and capable of surviving for centuries. Logs were laid horizontally, often on a foundation of river boulders, and interlocked at the corners, with the lower edge of each log grooved to form a tight fit with the one below. The gaps between them were tightly packed with sphagnum moss. Aspen was used for the churches’ silvery, weatherproof roof shingles. 

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Church of St Michael (1655), Krasnaya Lyaga, Kargopol district, Archangel region

Although wood was the principal building material, over time it was often superseded by brick and stone. Indeed, in the 1830s a German traveller remarked that: ‘the Russian country people take a particular pride in the stone churches of their village … nay, its inhabitants would scarcely marry those of villages with wooden churches’. In the north, which, with the founding of St Petersburg, had been comparatively neglected, more wooden churches survived, but even here villagers deferred to fashion by cladding them in white painted boards and covering the onion domes in metal to give the impression they were built of stone.

As well as evocative tableaux of wooden churches standing listlessly - and sometimes gloriously - in Russia’s flat northern landscape, the book also includes many details and interiors, such as the small, stepped shingles covering the curvaceous onion-shaped gables of the Church of the Transfiguration (1781) at Turchasovo and the delicately cut roof shingles of the tent roof of the Church of the Prophet Elijah (1798) at Seltso. There are intimate views of the forlorn, icon-stripped iconostasis at the Church of St Michael (1655) at Krasnaya Lyaga, the still-splendid painted sky ceiling at St Blaise’s Church of the Intercession (1761) at Lyadiny, and the zig-zag arrangement around the octagon to throw off water at the Church of St Alexander Svirsky (1769) at Kosmozero. An invaluable glossary explains the idiosyncratic elements that make up each design, and plans and elevations of different church types further enhance our understanding of a unique architectural and social legacy.

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Church of the Transfiguration (1781), Turchasovo, Onega district, Archangel region

With the Revolution of 1917 came the state promotion of atheism and innumerable village churches were destroyed, a process that continued under Khrushchev. As they disappeared, the skills involved in building these remarkable examples of rural craftsmanship were lost. Now, as Mikhail Milchik, Deputy Director of the St Petersburg Research Institute of Restoration notes in his afterword: ‘Wooden architecture, the most original and most unique part of the cultural heritage of Russia, is on the verge of total extinction’. Who will come forward to save these wonderful buildings?

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Church of St Alexander Svirsky (1769), Kosmozero, Mevezhegorsk district, Karelia

Wooden Churches: Travelling in the Russian North

Authors: Richard Davies and Matilda Moreton
Publishers: White Sea Publishing
Price: £40

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