Modernity and authenticity, each often existing at the expense of the other, are uncomfortable bedfellows. The new invariably pushes out the old, or, at best, sits incongruously and mismatched beside it.
I’m referring to architecture, of course, but it could equally apply to modes of living, new and old values and more. But that’s for another time.
I was informed of an interesting fact whilst conducting an early interview for the blog, and it’s stuck with me ever since: that if you go looking for authentic Russia in majestic St. Petersburg (for instance), then you won’t find it. Why? Because the amazing architecture that the city is famous for is actually European.
Peter The Great founded the city in in 1703, which probably makes it sound quite ancient by American standards – but to us Brits, it’s still pretty damn recent! (for a city, that is). Even parts of the (UK) building that I work in date back to 1727 – by way of comparison, many of our churches here have Anglo Saxon roots ie: pre 1st millennium. We’re on a whole other magnitude of scale here in musty, old, rainy England.
Much of ‘original’ St. Petersburg was designed by the Swiss/Italian architect Domenico Trezzini (1670 – 1734) whose European model laid the foundations for what would become Petrine Baroque. Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond (1679 – 1719) was subsequently named General-Architect in 1716 and further perpetuated the European-influenced construction started by his predecessor.
Indeed, Baroque became decidedly ‘in’ from the 1700’s onwards. Not just in St.Petersburg, but across modernising Russia as a whole. Moscow was certainly touched by it – as any glance at its central streets will show. The style has a palette broad enough to encompass Neo Classicism and later, Art Nouveau, both of which seem almost designed to slot into place alongside it – unless you’re an architectural purist, of course.
Baroque informed the construction of many ‘statement’ pieces throughout the heyday of Imperial Russia, all the way up until its demise at the hands of communist revolutionaries. Then, spitting out the past, the Stalinist era promoted the rise of the famous Soviet slab & block combo: a no-nonsense brutalist approach whose efforts – quite probably – looked like the future when shiny and new. With time the rain and the dirt and the inhumanity left their scars in a foretelling of the ‘modernist’ disaster of the UK’s own high-rise crisis of the 1970’s. Well, we know what happens to those who do not learn from the mistakes of history, after all.
Sure enough, examples of the pre Russo-European makeover have endured. St. Basil’s Cathedral – built between 1555 and 1561 – and many other famous churches/cathedrals are obvious examples, as well as the Kremlin; where its most overtly visible elements date back to the 15th Century. To ‘up’ the percentage of pre-Imperial Russia you’ll need to travel further out.
Whole tours of ‘Golden Ring’ cities north/east of Moscow are floated on the notion of authenticity, still extant in the fabric of Vladimir and Yaroslavl et al. They have been described as “open air museums” – but reassuringly you’ll still find hotels, electricity, bus stops and various other modern impositions! The Golden Ring is easy to find online and is documented extensively; photographs of Suzdal’s Museum of Wooden Architecture and Peasant Life (for instance) look amazing! Now that’s the Russia I’d be seeking out. Even though many of the dwellings and other exhibits date from the 17-1800’s, the style in which they are constructed speaks of times far earlier. I can only presume that impoverished peasant villagers didn’t buy-in (literally) to the fashionable Baroque ‘thing’ that was happening up in the big city.
If you need more authenticity than that, then you’ll probably be tracking down the remnants of Kievan Russ, which incorporated areas of modern Western Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The earliest edifices of this era date to the 1st millennium, just after Russia’s adoption of Christianity. As such they have a strong Byzantine style with monolithic clusters of blocks, towers and domes even though later influences have left their mark.
Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, Kiev, is both an example and a cautionary tale in this regard. Having been built mid 11th century, it subsequently was blessed/cursed with a 17th century repair/rebuild in (you’ve guessed it) the Baroque style (Ukrainian Baroque to be precise). I guess it’s true: nothing is sacred after all. However, this was largely confined to the upper exterior of the building, leaving the Byzantine interior intact, – well: here’s hoping. So it’s true: nothing is sacred after all.