The issue of Russia’s disappearing church architecture was opened to me after co-founding the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society in Moscow in 2004. I met an extraordinary woman, Svetlana Melnikova, who has been raising funds to carry out emergency repairs on rural churches for over 20 years for the organisation that she runs called the Village Church Society. She took me to Tver Province and showed me church after church cracked and crumbling into the earth, or poorly patched up by locals who out of ignorance were using cement that was causing havoc with the original lime plasterwork and creating worsening damp.
Supported by the Khlebnikov Foundation, I took a group over from the UK’s oldest conservation group The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings who were astounded by the scale and beauty of these churches that had been neglected for so long. They were amazed at the sturdiness of the structures, and showed me how no expense had been spared – the 3 foot thick walls were solid brick, rather than the skins of brick filled in with builders rubble that you find in England.
Village after village in Tver Province, and most of central and western Russia, is crowned by a great carcass of a church, mostly with its domes stripped of metal, sold for scrap, and often with the roof falling in. Svetlana showed me the memorials to those who fell in the Great Patriotic War (as Russians refer to WWII) and said, ‘this is why.’ The memorials showed rows and rows of names, whole families were wiped out, leaving only the women - thus the population dwindled and the villages emptied. This followed most of the churches being converted, in the 1930s, into cattle sheds, village clubs or workshops. Then in the 1980s there was another wave of attacks on churches - some of the cracks up the middle of walls were a direct result of dynamite.
Svetlana also showed me a church that had miraculously survived all these political and social upheavals and had continued to work throughout the period. We were asked not to photograph in one, which had incredible wall paintings, as burglary has become such a problem recently.
Since 2006 I have accompanied Svetlana on many trips into the Russian countryside, and every time we discover a new church – either she has been called by a local who wants to do something about the church, or she has spotted a spire poking out of the forest, like a hunter. In many cases the churches have been reabsorbed into Russia’s great forests.
There are thousands of abandoned churches across Russia. Nobody knows the exact number – the inventorisation process is underway but there is a long way to go. This is being undertaken by the Russian State Institute of Art History, and there are 10 volumes planned for Tver Region alone.
However, with an increasing number of Russians buying dachas, the process of the rediscovering of the Russian countryside has begun. On one trip we met some locals at the church who had organised subbotniki (voluntary days) at the weekend during which villagers cleared the debris from around the building, and they had a plan to make the building watertight and slowly bring it back into use.
In the next door village we met Father Popov who was delighted when one of the editors of the Inventory of Russian Monuments gave him the volume that included his church, about whose history he knew almost nothing as there had been no research available. In exchange he said prayers over our party and let us ring the bells as dusk fell.