Ancient Russian log-housing is traceable back to one fundamental format, the Izba, also known to a lesser degree as the Stopa. It’s the single-room log-cabin design from which subsequent expansions and advancements were made.
The design can be traced back to the 10th Century and has certainly proven durable enough. It’s essential form (though likely expanded) is still utilised today in many rural areas, sharing settlement-space with contemporary constructions.
Prior to the famous, established form, early variants consisted of earthen-floored log cabins with 1 metre high entrance holes in lieu of conventional doors and windows. The interior “heart” was a stone hearth that vented through the entrance as the cabins were built without chimneys. It’s hard to imagine the choking, smoky existence in one of these earlier models: essentially a heated wooden box.
Indeed, the origins of the word Izba (along with Stopa) originate from “Istopa”, meaning: a cabin with a heating stove (also: “the one being heated”). It was exactly that and no more, though fortunately the situation would improve – even though the ‘smoke box’ varieties continued to be built for several centuries.
Remarkably, the Izba was constructed using very simple tools, principally the axe, though with the help of digging implements, rope and knives. Nails, and even saws, were rare due to the expense of metal, so wooden parts were shaped to slot/lock together in kit-form.
The axe was essential of course, for cutting trees, splitting logs and even for shaping some impressive, decorative forms – though those came much later. River mud was used to seal gaps between the logs themselves, preventing the escape of precious heat.
The popular, classic Izba design became established as a single roomed peasant dwelling occupying roughly 25 square metres of land, with an all-important stove (no longer a hearth) at its spiritual and psychological core. The significance and importance of the traditional Russian stove should be emphasised.
It was second only to the immediate protection and shelter afforded by the hewn log walls and the double (sometimes single) sloped roof. Primary though, in facilitating the heated essentials of everyday existence: hot water, cooked food and warmth against the cold.
Physically, it was an imposing stone structure that could occupy one quarter of the floor area (in small Izba variants), taking pride of place in the home. It’s bulk was so massive that it sat upon a separate foundation so as not to tilt the building itself or threaten its integrity. The stove contained an oven, although no upper “hob” for additional cooking.
Why so huge? Well, its principal method of heating the home was via radiation, similar to a masonry cocklestove. This required the fire to be lit long enough for its stone blocks to charge with heat.
The fire could then be extinguished to save fuel – or left to burn out, and the surroundings would remain warm whilst the stove’s heat dissipated -for the rest (or at least most) of the day.
The dissipating heat warmed the house during the night, especially the localised sleeping ‘shelves’ and provided the warmest bed-space of all: on top of the stove itself (for the head of the household). The sheer size of the stoves even allowed for baths to be taken within them!
Breathing was easier, with the internal venting pathway ensuring that warm smoke was utilised in the initial heat distribution – perhaps further too, via a smoke-box in the roofspace. This allowed heat to linger whilst also smoking fish or other foods. All in all: a truly multi-functional and essential household unit.
More domestic bliss next time.