Last week we set the scene for a little armchair exploration of authentic Russian structures in an outsider’s attempt to discover something of the “real” Russia, after revolutionary revisionists from Peter the Great to Joseph Stalin had left their indelible mark on the shape of the country’s architecture. It can be hard to pin down (particularly in an ever-changing city), as Paul Gould from the Financial Times illustrates, after (re)visiting Moscow:
“There are echoes here of the 1930s Palace of the Soviets, designed to surpass the Empire State Building, but then abandoned; or of the space race and arms race of the cold war years… One recent block of luxury apartments… has been built in a pastiche of the Stalin-era style… (The Soviet) vision has been replaced by a penchant for excess that Russians call bespredyel – “without limits”…I almost despaired that the “real” Russia had been lost for good”.
“Authentic”, in most instances, will crudely mean “very old”. Of course, unless there are contemporary Russian structures (somewhere?) built in accordance with ancient, proven techniques and designs; frankly though, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of those about.
No, the closest that we’ll readily find are the truly amazing examples of Russian revivalism that still captivate visitors to the country, and grace countless postcards and tourist blogs alike. Ok, in crude terms – if you are gazing in awe at one of those, “amazing Russian buildings”, St. Basil’s Cathedral for instance, then chances are that you are witnessing an example of Russian revivalist architecture. You’ll probably have walked by ranks of Khrushchyovka housing blocks, without giving them a second thought, incidentally – but that’s another story.
Architecturally, the whole Russian Revival movement started in the 1820’s, and continued until rudely and brutally interrupted by the First World War and the 1917 revolution. It’s a catch-all term that incorporated Byzantine, faux-Russian and Neo-Russian elements, whilst wrapping them up in a little idealism and romanticism of it’s own. It revisited ancient architectural reference points and re-interpreted them in brick and stone, whilst also incorporating external influences that seemed to fit -such as European neo-classicism. Not so authentic after all then? But hey, we like it! Whilst others may make accusations of gaudy self parody.
It’s true that the authentic, surviving structures have a great deal less ‘flash’ about them; due in no small part to years of neglect (of course) though that doesn’t diminish their unearthly power. As with an artist’s restricted palette; it merely enhances his subject’s monolithic presence.
Imagine the broad, sweeping green of a remote, open field suddenly punctuated with the decaying geometries of ancient wooden spires, towers and minarets. Onion-domes and similar forms surmount them, all constructed of dark hewn wood; now existing in an uncertain void between the world of humans and the raw ingredients of nature herself.
These are the churches of Russia’s Northern, “Vologda” and beautifully entitled “Archangel” regions, some 800 Km and more North East of St. Petersburg. Here is a former Russia, trading through White Sea ports, usurped and atrophied when Peter the Great’s capital established itself as the dominant staging post for European sea trade and relations. Helped, of course, by the warmer waters of the new capital port remaining in thaw for a greater portion of the year.
The origins of these remarkable structures date back to the time of Vladimir 1st (aka Vladimir the Great) and his acceptance of Christian Orthodoxy in 988 AD. Hopefully that’s “authentic” enough for all concerned (?). He decreed that churches were to be built on the sites of existing pagan idols and centres of worship, literally burying the old Slavic beliefs in the process. This of course, was standard smart-practice throughout burgeoning Christendom. Yes; you could still come and worship, but now the feasts, festivals, deities and houses of worship are those of the one God, rather than the many.
We’ll be looking at these (the buildings, that is) in more detail next time.