How does – “The Gateway to the Arctic” sound? Probably not very tempting as a tourist tag-line, but perfectly fine if your livelihood depended upon White Sea trade. That was the scenario in medieval Northern Russia, before St.Petersburg existed (even as a thought in the mind of Peter the Great). 270 miles Northeast of St. P, and roughly 6 hours by train, is Petrozavodsk – then, directly East, is the Volgograd Oblast (administrative region) and Volgograd (the city) itself.
It’s oblast covers nearly 83,000 miles², but is still a mere hors d’oeuvre to the main course: the mighty Archangel Oblast ‘gateway’ that covers nearly 230,000 miles², and runs adjacent to the White Sea’s Southern coastline. Surmounting it is the vast Archangel port-city, the ports of Onega and Mezen, plus a string of other coastal locations united in their cold, wet Summers and deep-frozen, 6-8 month long Winters.
Whilst venturing up into Archangel Oblast, you’ll be revisiting territories, and possibly the pathways themselves, trodden by the artist who has come to define the ‘look’ of Russian folktales: Ivan Bilibin (1876 – 1942). His sponsored quest for Russian folk art (1902/3) led to the re-discovery (by a modernising Russia, that is) of those amazing wooden churches mentioned at the end of last week’s article. Once trade and modernisation had refocused to St. Petersburg (largely due to it’s European port remaining unfrozen for 10 months of the year); the icy, Northern territories suffered in status by comparison. The flow of money shifted, people and industry followed, and gradually, the edifices of a former time were left to decay in the shadows of history.
Those magnificent and evocative wooden structures were, unsurprisingly, sited all over the new Russian empire – following Vladimir the Great’s decree that they should be built over sites of pagan worship; literally thousands, yet we only talk about roughly 200 great wooden churches of the North. So what happened? Well, strangely enough ‘fashion’ happened; with a move toward church construction in brick and stone, relegating the traditional wooden variety passé, even ‘backward’. It’s hard to identify with the medieval village mindset, especially one from another culture, but the church was once the centrepiece of the community, both physically and spiritually, and therefore a matter of utmost local pride. This wasn’t just in Orthodox Russia of course, but throughout medieval Christendom.
‘Pride’, whilst paradoxically being one of the 7 deadly sins, also drove some to clad their wooden houses of worship in gleaming white boards, in order to make them appear stone-walled and “in vogue” – how truly strange. Interestingly, the trend was towards three separate structures on church grounds – rather than our ‘all-in-one’ approach. There would be summer and winter churches (the latter presumably a lot warmer), plus a separate bell tower. As you may already know; the all-wooden construction did not involve the use of nails, but rather: slots and joints that allowed the supporting members to interlock. This is no mean feat on a log cabin, but truly astounding when expertly used to produce the palatial Transfiguration Church at Kizhi Pogost.
Again, it is one of 3 buildings: two church houses, and a bell tower – all beautiful in their own right, but the sheer spectacle of its 22 onion-domed, 37 metre high construction is other-worldly.
Each dome, from a distance, appears to be covered in a skin of layered scales! It’s a remarkable technique, employed in traditional wooden construction. Victor explains, on his fabulous
“Turn your attention to the domes… The domes are like warriors in chainmail … Seems like they are covered with fish scales, sparkling in the light of sunsets and dawns. …In fact the domes are covered by a sock. Sock – is a small tile with step-shaped edges, handmade from aspen. There are about 30 thousand of such socks in Kizhi. Can you imagine how much effort has been expended?”
If that wasn’t enough; the church has more treasure in store, as the interior reveals a large painted wooden iconostasis depicting ancient religious portraiture. Yet another tantalising connection to the dedicated, creative hands and minds of the past.
Kizhi, incidentally is not on the deep reaches of Archangel Oblast, but back at the start of the trip into the North. It’s a small island in the centre of Lake Onega, almost at the border between the Karelia Republic and the Volgograd Oblast and traversable directly from the city of Petrozavodsk that sits on its shore. Now in a state of ongoing preservation, the Transfiguration Church remains one of the finest examples of ancient wooden architecture. The state of many wooden churches further North is frankly depressing by comparison, if you feel for such things of course.
Perhaps, paradoxically, the economic decline of the North has contributed to the survival of these wooden structures – in any form. Even though many exist in a semi-ruined state, wouldn’t they have been demolished outright and replaced by ‘modern’ stone structures if wealth had persisted within the region? I’m speculating of course, but perhaps? At any rate, the money left, architectural taste changed and the rot set in, all unaddressed by a largely disinterested clergy and populace. Nature’s entropy claimed its victims, as did accident, vandalism and well-meaning though botched attempts at preservation/restoration.
Then the Communists came. Under Soviet rule, once holy chapels and cathedrals become nothing more than storage space, club houses, cinemas, dance halls and more, with each additional insult leaving its mark. It’s surprising that anything remains at all. At present, 200-300 years is roughly the lifespan of such wooden edifices in various states of preservation, ranging from structurally intact, to collapsed heaps of wood. This is all dependent of course on when, how and if successful intervention occurred. Because; yes: in some cases it did.
More next time.
Kizhi Pogost photo by Larry Koester