Old and new wooden architecture of northern Russia

Wooden architecture of Russian North is one of the most remarkable forms of traditional Russian architecture. Very interesting are large, two-storied village houses. Most remarkable are the churches, which were built in villages and small towns mainly from wood. Some of them, the so-called churches of tent- or spire-type (Fig. 2-4), resemble wooden churches of Scandinavia: the outlines are more or less similar, one of the distinctions being small onion-shaped cupolas crowning the spires. Figures 2 and 3 show the most famous wooden edifices of this type: the Assumption church in Kondapoga (1774) and the Assumption cathedral in Kem (1711-1717). The spire-type churches were built also in stone or brick, showing, more or less clearly, some influence of Gothic style. Another type of Russian wooden churches: octagon on a quadrangle, crowned by one, three or five domes (Fig. 1), the latter being typical also for stone churches from 15-17th centuries. Another distinctive form, which can be found only in northern Russia, are the so-called cube-type churches: massive quadrangular base with a figured superstructure that can have a gable formed as an upturned heart or alike, also usually crowned by five small-sized domes (Fig. 1). Some smaller churches were built similar to village houses, differing from them by a higher roof and a single onion-shaped dome. The majority of churches preserved until today are from 17-19th centuries but singular ones are dated as early as 14th century. Some churches, for example, the Transfiguration cathedral in Kizhi, have a more complicated form with numerous domes. Often the so-called troiniks (triplets), consisting of a larger summer church, a smaller heated winter church and a bell tower, were built in villages and small towns.
It is well known and sad reality that many churches were destroyed during Soviet time, also those several centuries old. Besides, a dubious practice of transportation to open air museums was applied to wooden architecture. Authenticity is partly lost in this way, while a new exhibit is constructed from mixture of old and new wood (Fig. 4). Dismantling and transportation of old wooden buildings inevitably went along with destruction of some details, which had to be replaced. The churches were torn out of their natural environment and taken away from local inhabitants together with the hopes for jobs in the developing tourist business. Admittedly, restoration of architectural monuments was usually performed during Soviet time on a relatively high level, with participation of professional restorers. Some practices, however, were questionable: many wooden churches, allegedly because of esthetic reasons, were stripped of weatherboarding, which could have accelerated decay. In many cases, iron roofs from late 19th - early 20th century were replaced by wooden shingles. It can be reasonable only if the roof is appropriately cared for, but if it becomes leaky, the interior can be damaged.
Destruction of wooden architectural monuments has been continued until today: ancient churches are collapsing and burning down. According to the information from the Onega historical and memorial museum (Archangelsk district) and the map exposed there (Fig. 5), majority of wooden churches in Onega river valley have been destroyed (Fig. 6) or burnt down during last decades. Besides, local inhabitants and museum co-workers witness that icons and details of the church interior have been systematically stolen: there have been no guards, locks were broken open, etc. As almost no icons have remained in the churches, the so-called Heaven (a painted ceiling) was broken off from many wooden churches (Fig. 7). Note that the Heaven, apart from its aesthetic value, bears a mechanical function of strengthening and consolidating of a tented roof. Besides, if the roof is leaky, it protects the church interior from the rain water. Questions about causes of conflagrations are answered with the standard "children played with fire" or, for example, "peasants wanted to get free the southern slope of the hill for a potato field" (in the village Ust Kozha, where the famous troinik burnt down in the 1990s). It is not verisimilar, though: the cases are known when local inhabitants rescued burning churches from fire. Icons were burning together with the churches. There has been a lot of illegal trade with icons and other relics… The thieves could have set fire to the churches to cover up the traces. In Ust Kozha, for example, components of the troinik stood quite distant from each other, so that spontaneous conflagration of all three edifices appears improbable. Besides, information is being spread among local inhabitants, obviously directed against professional restorers and the intelligentsia in general: "Restorers have stolen the icons" or "Students were sent to restore the church but they destroyed more than repaired" etc. The public opinion is prepared in this way to the restoration and rebuilding of wooden churches by construction firms without participation of professional restorers, without much care given to authenticity or identity to the original, in order to create beautiful attractions for undemanding tourists. Another mechanism leading to appearance of new "pseudo-traditional" edifices: construction of new churches by the Moscow Patriarchy. There are already several examples of newly built pseudo-traditional churches, constructed from new or old wood, for example, in the town Kem (Fig. 8,9), from where tourist ships start to the Solovki island in the White Sea with its famous monastery, used in 1926-1939 as a prison camp. Such edifices are sometimes hardly distinguishable from authentic monuments, especially for non-specialists; while tourist guides tend to conceal the fact that the monuments have been built anew. The same is true for the open air museum Kizhi on an island in the lake Onega, where some wooden churches, removed from their original locations, were built anew from old and new wood. The tickets for foreigners are more expensive than for Russian citizens; so that some foreign visitors, having made the whole trip to Petrozavodsk, leave without having seen the Kizhi museum.
All said, there are grounds for optimism. The growing Russian economy makes possible today to improve the roads and to develop infrastructure. Hopefully, correct preservation and restoration of the built environment will win through in the near future. Obviously it would be preferable to perform conservation of wooden architectural monuments in their original locations, avoiding any changes and reconstructions. In the open-air museums, copies or historic reconstructions can be built. Note that original wooden edifices are preserved, e.g. in England, from 14th century and even from earlier times. It should be stressed in conclusion that immense experience of conservation and restoration of ancient architecture, accumulated in West Europe, should be used in Russia; otherwise we shall lose our heritage.
All images: 2009
Fig. 1. Two churches remained from a troinik in the village Shelokhovo near Kargopol, 18th century. Left: a " octagon on a quadrangle" type winter church with a single dome; right: a "cube-type" summer church with five cupola. Restoration was started and then interrupted about twenty years ago. The churches are roofed with iron, which on many restored churches was replaced by wooden shingles (compare Fig. 4).
Fig. 2. Assumption cathedral in Kem (1711-1717).
Fig. 3. Assumption church in Kondapoga (finished in 1774).
Fig. 4. St. George church (1672), transferred to the open air museum Novye Karely near Archangelsk from the village Vershiny in 1972 and built anew from a mixture of old and new wood. Fig. 5. A map exposed in the Onega historical and memorial museum (Archangelsk district). Inscription: religious monuments of Onega area. Empty symbols: lost monuments; black symbols: preserved monuments. Majority of wooden churches collapsed or burnt down during Soviet and post-Soviet time.
Fig. 6. A photograph of a collapsed wooden church exposed in the Onega historical and memorial museum.
Fig. 7. Interior of the first (left side) church shown on the Fig. 1. Traces of restoration interrupted about twenty years ago. The Heaven (painted ceiling) was removed.
Fig. 8. A newly built church near the harbor in Kem, from where tourist ships start to the Solovki island with a monastery used as a prison camp until 1939.
Fig. 9. Picturesque view of the White Sea shore from the harbor in Kem. Tourists see from afar a church that was built in late 1990s from old wood. The church is hardly distinguishable from an original monument.
Fig. 10. Newly restored church (18th century) in the village Vorzogory on the White Sea shore.

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