So far, the tone of this short series has been somewhat dour; akin to rummaging through the last photographs of a species heading into extinction. At first glance that does appear to be true, with around 200 examples remaining in varying states of “preservation” throughout Northern Russia. To give that figure some perspective’ – a quick web search gave the number of settlements in Russia, from villages upwards, to be approximately 156,000. Each one of those would likely have one Orthodox place of worship, at least. Towns and cities would, of course, have had more. “More” in Moscow’s case is a figure currently exceeding 600, that’s from small chapels – upwards in size. Yes, there are more churches around than you would think; London by comparison has (apparently) over 1000!
Of course, at the peak of the wooden church construction, major urban centres would have also been much smaller and some would not have existed at all, so such contemporary figures have questionable use. On balance though, the most conservative glance would suggest that for every 1 wooden church that remains; literally hundreds have ceased to exist. It’s that order of magnitude.
Something happens when tourism comes to town and it becomes apparent that people are prepared to spend cash, just to see your old ruins. Not only that but the state of collapse is inversely proportional to the money that they’ll hand over. I’m really not claiming that mercenary motives are the overriding factors though, far from it – but tourist demand certainly does help drive preservation.
Some are driven to preserve the past through a sense of awe or cultural heritage, or even perhaps something as intangible as, well; love. I’ve only seen these incredible structures in photographs, but I’m already entranced by them. However, money always becomes a factor through the simple truth that ongoing preservation is a costly, skilled business, so entrance fees, donations, and souvenirs are inherently a part of cultural survival. Whatever it takes, really. Without that we are left with darkened, isolated structures rotting eerily in the desolate fields of Northern Russia. It’s the difference between maintained tourist-draws, such as Karelia Oblast’s Kizhi Pogost and it’s relatively neglected kin scattered throughout the region. English Russia speaks highly of Karelia’s ancient woodwork:
“If you really want to see a lot of old Russian traditional wooden architecture, namely churches and chapels, then for sure you need to visit Karelia. This land borders Finland for over 1,000 km along its length on one side, and like Finland is called “Land of the Lakes” with over 90,000 small lakes. Since the early times people have lived here and built these beautiful, unique wooden churches.”
Whilst the Northern Russian oblasts of Vologda, Archangel, and Karelia are known for their wooden survivors, there are other locations too; ones where the story is less bleak and there’s even room for some optimism, if you can handle the pragmatism. Near Moscow, there are two centres of note – both within reach of the city. At Kolomenskoye and Suzdal are two open-air, living museums that allow visitors to walk amongst the edifices of the past. Here, churches and other buildings are preserved in improvised ‘villages’, having been relocated log-by-log for this very purpose, along with remarkable local stone structures of historical interest.
Transposed wooden buildings may be surviving in an artificial environment, but how practical, possible, and financially viable would it be to maintain single isolated structures hundreds of miles apart? We would hope that local efforts would be the solution, but in small, impoverished communities that have more pressing matters of existence to contend with – it’s unlikely.
Faced with the alternative option of inevitable non-existence, then living museums are surely preferable – right? The proximity of their combined treasures perhaps even magnifies their collective importance to be greater than the sum of the parts.
In Kolomenskoye, for example, one awaits the three-domed Church of St. George and the (definitely wooden) House of Peter the Great, originally built in 1702, now relocated from St.Mark Island. Suzdal contains the Church of the Transfiguration and Church of the Resurrection, both 18th Century survivors from their respective villages, that together provide an example of a respective Winter/Summer church pair. The town and living museum also hold events throughout the year. Semenkovo near Vologda also holds a similar open-air museum, whilst others can be found at: The Vitoslavitsy Museum – near Veliky Novgorod, the park at Kolomenskoye, Malye Karely back in Archangel oblast, and more. Other examples survive either in preserved isolation, in small groups dotted throughout Russia, or perhaps more conveniently – lurking around unassuming corners within major centres, such as Moscow, a few steps off the tourist trail, in wait for those who are prepared to explore.
There is one final twist in the tale, but I’ll save that for later.