Richard Davies is a British architectural photographer who over nine years travelled through the vast and sparsely populated Northern provinces of Russia to track down and photograph the region’s unique wooden churches. He was inspired by twelve beautiful postcards of photographs taken by the famed artist and designer, Ivan Bilibin, during his travels to the Russian North in the early 20th century. Since Bilibin’s time, many of these churches have been destroyed or badly neglected. Richard Davies’ collection of photographs in his ‘Wooden Churches: Travelling in the Russian North’ celebrates the beauty of these buildings in their stunning simplicity and draws attention to their need for restoration.
Theodora Clarke: How did this ambitious project to photograph wooden churches across Russia first come about?
Richard Davies: I’ve always been a great lover of Russian culture and music. During Soviet times you could only really go to Leningrad or Moscow, and perhaps occasionally take a day trip to Novgorod or the Golden Ring. But if you’ve read any Turgenev or Tolstoy you feel a strong desire to go off into the Russian countryside. So in a way I was looking for an excuse to see the Russian provinces, which only became possible after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
In 2001 I’d come across two sets of postcards by Bilibin published at the beginning of the 20th century; they were photographs and paintings of Russian wooden churches. These captured my Imagination and I was intrigued to see what might have survived. He had travelled to the Russian North in 1902-04, so I knew that if I set off in the next year it would be one hundred years after his first trip.
What was interesting about doing a project like this was that there were a lot of serendipitous happenings – things you couldn’t predict that made the project possible and in this case absolutely perfect. I don’t speak Russian, so I needed help. For a start I had a friend, who is now director of the State Theatre Museum in St Petersburg, whose husband owned a travel company, which was very fortuitous. He had a fleet of big Mercedes, but I didn’t fancy travelling around Russia in a big Mercedes. I would have felt like the government inspector turning up in a village in the middle of nowhere like that! But he did have a driver, Alexander Popov, who is the professor of atmospheric physics at St Petersburg University. So he and I set off together and he’s been on every trip with me since. Nothing would have happened without Alex. After five years of travel, a friend, Matilda Moreton who speaks Russian joined us. I was getting the photographs but I needed Matilda to get the stories.
TC: Were the original churches you went to see then the same ones that were documented in Bilibin’s photographs?
RD: Yes, to a certain extent they were. There were twelve photographs of churches and about five or six of those had survived. The first church I photographed at Verkhnyaya Uftyuga near Solvychegodsk had been photographed by Bilibin. It’s in the north west of Russia, about two days’ drive from St Petersburg. The wooden churches that survive are mostly in that area of north-west Russia: a church in Kimzha on the Mezen river marks the eastern boundary, and then they whip round to the Finnish border and down to just north of St Petersburg. It’s a tiny area of Russia, but a huge area when you start driving around it.
TC: I imagine it must have been very difficult to find these churches without any maps or guidebooks?
RD: The interesting thing is that there are lots of Soviet books about the churches, so Alex was able to do a fair bit of research on that. We had a clue about where most were, but again as you travel around you get the nod from local people and sometimes the nod is “You should have been here five years ago – there was a big party and the church went up in smoke” or “a tractor backed into it and it collapsed” and things like that. When we went off we’d go for about ten days at a time and during that period we’d be lucky if we photographed ten churches; sometimes less, occasionally more. The project started in 2002 and I continued going back there for nine years. Initially it was once a year, and then it became two or three times a year. After about four years we felt we were ready to experience a Russian winter – I was pretty sure I would die, but in fact it was fantastic. As long as you’re dressed for it, it’s fine. Often when you’re driving through the countryside in winter you have to stop the car. The landscape is absolutely magical and you have to walk through it.
TC: How did you travel around? I read that you covered the area by sleigh, snowmobile and many different forms of transport.
RD: We used every form of transport, including our feet – sometimes we’d have to walk a kilometre or two across a frozen field, with the snow above our knees, to reach a church. But generally we travelled around in Alex’s nicely beaten up Volkswagen Golf, and in the winter we’d hire a four-wheel drive. The first time we went to Kimzha, with Alex’s daughter Polina joining us on this occasion, we flew from Archangel. When we landed at Mezen everyone disappeared and we were left at the airport which was, as far as we could see, looked after by a dog. But luckily for us there was one man with his four wheel drive. Polina asked if he knew of a local hotel and if he could take us to the church the next day. He agreed and told us that he had in fact taken another foreigner there ten years ago. After that, whenever we travelled in the winter Leonid would come and find us wherever we were and drive us around. On another occasion we spotted a church on the other side of the frozen Northern Dvina at Rakula. Leonid set of to find a snowmobile and came back with Valentin and Vetochka – we crossed the river on a horse drawn sledge!
TC: How old are these churches that you tracked down?
RD: There are some from the 19th century, others from the 17th century and one or two churches that are even older. But the majority of those that survive – and the most beautiful ones – were built in the 18th century. There was a time when Russia was full of these churches. One reason they survived in the North is that the region is poor. It was once very rich, with trade to and from the West centred on Archangel. But with the opening up of St Petersburg the north became a backwater and was forgotten. In the rest of Russia they were knocking down their wooden churches and replacing them with stone churches.
In the 1830’s a German traveller noted that someone from a village with a stone church would never marry someone from a village with a wooden church – they were deemed unfashionable and archaic. It was great fun tracking down little vignettes like these for the book.
Again out of the blue while reading the diary of the famous Soviet children’s writer Chukovsky I unexpectedly came across this from 15th February 1963 “Paustovsky is currently taking a rest at the Writer’s House. Yesterday Leda said he wanted to see me. What he wanted to see me about is the following: the idiots in charge of Karelia have decided to destroy all its wooden country churches. He has pictures of them on his desk. They are magnificent – intricately ornamented but falling apart. They cry out for restoration. Only a monster, a benighted, ignoramus of a monster could think of destroying them.”
TC: Do you have a favourite church that you visited?
RD: The church at Podporozhe is a great church, but tragically its village is now deserted. The first time we went, there was only one old man and his wife living there all year round. He had been very useful: on a couple of occasions he’d prevented summer fires from engulfing the building, and once his son climbed up to the top of the church to put out a fire. He has since died and his wife has moved away. Now for most of the year it sits, albeit magnificently, in the middle of nowhere with no one to look watch over it. It is the church on the cover of the book. Fingers crossed that it survives.
TC: I’ve been reading about Kandinsky’s visits to the Vologda province recently. Did you come across anything about other artists who were inspired by these churches, apart from Bilibin?
RD: Many Russian artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were inspired by the landscape, folklore and the architecture of the North. Levitan’s great work ‘Above Eternal Peace’ is an example although I have to come clean and point out the wooden chapel is based on a chapel at Pylos on the Volga and the landscape is Lake Udomlya in Tver Province – the view if painted today would feature a nuclear power station at the end of the lake. When Bilibin returned from the North he wrote an article for the World of Art magazine about the architecture and the folk art of the region, and that created a great revival of interest in the North. Bilibin was also collecting folk art and his collection came to form the basis of the ethnographic section of the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. Other artist who found inspiration in the North included Nesterov, Roerich and Vasnetsov, not to mention the song collectors and musicologists whose work inspired the like of Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. As for Kandinsky, his journey to the north was a great revelation to him. He described the peasants as “so brightly and colourfully dressed that they seemed like moving, two-legged pictures”. Of the great two-storied wooden house with their painted interiors he wrote “ they taught me to move within the picture to live in the picture”.
TC: What was the original intention behind the project? I see that many of these churches are falling into ruin and are not being restored. Was your aim to promote conservation of these churches?
RD: The original aim was to experience the Russian countryside. But having taken the photographs, met the people who are trying to look after their churches and publishing the book you obviously become part of the story. When I first went there I wasn’t really conscious of anybody who was desperate to preserve their churches, but over time I began to meet people who were interested. The first church in the book, and the first church visited at Verkhnyaya Uftiuga had been restored by a very talented restorer, another Alexander Popov. He had spent eight years on the restoration.
TC: Your book has been very successful in the West– has there been any interest in Russia? Does the Russian State take the topic of church conservation seriously?
RD: I had an interview with the Russian Ambassador in the UK and his cultural attaché said, “Richard, you seem to be doing what we should be doing” and I said “Yes!”
TC: Have they published the book in Russia?
RD: You can buy the book at the Schusev Museum of Architecture and in another bookshop in Moscow. There was an exhibition at the Schusev museum before the book was published, and that created a little bit of a stir. Lots of people have been attracted to the website including Russians, many of whom have been very generous in their comments. However many wonderful books on Wooden Architecture have been published in Russia over the years, scholarly tomes that I could not hope to compete with. The late Elena Opolovnikova, the daughter of the great Soviet restorer of wooden architecture Alexander Opolovnikov, published definitive volumes on their Log Jerusalem. However in the West there is not a lot to choose from – there is David Buxton’s book “The Wooden Churches of Eastern Europe” and mine.
TC: Have photographs of these churches been published before, or were you the first to go and document them?
RD: David Buxton photographs from the 30s are very precious as there are very few photographs of the churches from that time. Russian photographers I guess were photographing workers and tractors. During the Revolution many churches were destroyed and others fell into disuse. Some were used as clubs, schoolrooms or warehouses. They were stripped of their icons. Then during the Second World War Hitler entered the Ukraine and started opening up the churches. Stalin no doubt thought it would be a good idea to have God on his side, but he also realised that the Soviet people might look kindly on the Germans for reopening their churches for prayer.
So Stalin reinstated the Orthodox Church and the anti-religious propaganda was put on hold. After the war Stalin was able to blame the destruction of the churches on the Nazis. It was then that they began to be looked upon as historical monuments, and all those that survive have little metal plates attached saying that they are under the protection of the state. After the war they were indeed looked after to a certain extent. Alexander Opolovnikov restored Kizhi and some eighty other churches. Without that work even fewer, if any, would have survived to this day. However they were shadows of their formers selves having, as I said, been stripped of their icons over the years.
“No I’m afraid there’s nothing left inside. When the church was closed they took all the icons away”.
“Where to, do you remember? Did they mention a museum or anything?”
“They turned them in to horse-troughs.” She began to whisper mysteriously. “There might be times when you’d be feeding a horse, you’d bend over the trough and get the fright of your life to see the face of Christ or the Virgin looking up at you. Such stern faces and big eyes – it made your heart stop beating.”
Quote from‘Searching for Icons in Russia’ by Vladimir Soloukin
TC: Are these churches still in use today?
RD: They are beginning to be used again although we’ve only witnessed one service during those nine years – it was during Easter 2008 in Oshevensk.
TC: Nowadays we are much more aware of who each artist is and there are many well-known contemporary architects. Do we have any idea of who designed these beautiful churches?
RD: No, we don’t have names. The thing I love about them is that it’s a very simple technology, the technology of the log cabin. You just lay one log on top of the other but using your skill and imagination you end up with something extraordinary like Kizhi. Everything is local to the site. There is no need for hi tech materials to be shipped in from half way across the world.
TC: Would the designers have been self-taught then?
RD: They reckon that any man worth his salt in northern Russia was a great carpenter. He knew how to wield an axe!
TC: I saw that you’ve had several exhibitions. Have you got any future plans to show the photographs again?
RD: They’ve been shown in Moscow, Helsinki, St Petersburg, Tallin, Edinbrugh, Kargopol, Rostov on Don and Taganrog – there was a small exhibition at Pushkin House in London but it would be great to do another exhibition in London although nothing is arranged at the moment.
TC: And have you had a good response from local Russians who have gone to see them?
RD: Yes, but again many Russians just aren’t aware of the perilous state of their churches. The wooden church is a cultural icon of Russia, it is Russia, it is seen as we see Constable landscapes on biscuit tins, table mats, needle point etc etc a Russian heavy metal band even wrote a song about wooden churches “Vladimir’s Rus”. It would be a great shame if they only survive on Biscuit tins and in songs.
I went to the Rodchenko exhibition at Tate Modern a few years ago and came across this line from Rodchenko: “When I look at the number of paintings I have painted, I sometimes wonder what I should do with them. It would be a shame to burn them, but they are as useless as a church. They serve no purpose whatsoever.” I put this quote next to the church at Kimzha – the sight of this beautiful object would have changed his mind about many things I’m sure.
TC: You’ve published this beautiful book, you’ve had exhibitions – what’s the plan for after all this?
RD: We want to create some interest and find Russians and other who might be keen to fund the restoration and preservation of these churches. We have gotten some response, but the problem is that the churches still belong to the state. There is a wonderful church where the local community is trying to restore it. For the last two seasons they’ve been patching the roof, because one of biggest problems for these churches is water damage. This particular church was being restored in Soviet times, but with the breakup of the USSR the money stopped and the work stopped. Because it belongs to the state the work being carried out is illegal – but if they don’t do it, who will?
In an effort to make a start, earlier this year we visited a bell foundry on the Volga – the idea is to put bells into the bell tower next to the Church at Turchasovo on the Onega River. We have a quote for six bells appropriate for the tower and think we may have a sponsor – fingers crossed again.
Before the revolution there would have been churches with their bell towers every fifteen to twenty kilometres along the length of the Onega from the White Sea to Kargopol. The river, the air, everything would have vibrated to the sound of bells. Mikhail Milchik in the afterword to the book says there are many reasons put for the plight of the churches but he puts it firmly down to indifference – nobody gives a dam. Could the ringing of bells on the Onega stir the powers to be from their indifference before it is too late?
Wooden Churches: Travelling in the Russian North (2011)
Richard Davies, Matilda Moreton
afterword by Mikhail Milchik
All images courtesy of Richard Davies