Books | Visual Arts

Photographer Richard Davies at Pushkin House: ‘Russian Types and Scenes’, by Eugenia Ellanskaya

24/10/2014

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The Russian North is alluring for many travellers to this part of the world. Here one is likely to be taken aback by the sheer sterility of the flat horizon so close to the North Pole, an experience that is both charming and uncanny. So different from the popular Moscow and St Petersburg, or indeed any other city destinations, the north of Russia is spiritual, peaceful, and minimalist. For many these sterile lands with their enchanting wooden architecture, the surviving traditional villages and churches, pave out a journey into authentic Russia. The British photographer Richard Davies’ journey to the Russian North began in 2002 and was perhaps more practical, in a quest to capture the unique local wooden architecture which is now struggling to survive. Some of the most striking images he took over the years he has now shared with Pushkin House.

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Image by Richard Davies

In the Russian North, so untouched by civilization, hundreds of wooden churches stand out as monuments of striking perfection. With some of the earliest structures going back all the way to the 17th century, they are often the sole remnants of ancient wood-building from the previous centuries. Yet, hundreds of these wooden churches today require urgent restoration. It is estimated that within two years many of them will simply collapse if left unattended. Time, lightning and carelessness all contribute to the destruction of these precious examples of ancient architecture. Very few remain functioning churches and most are simply out there, often no longer standing upright, as many of Davies’ photos show. The restoration of these structures is made all the more difficult by the laborious procedures involved. Merely to replace an important wooden element, Davies explains, every part would have to be carefully numbered, and the entire structure taken apart before it could incorporate newer wood. No wonder that so little has been done to carry out these meticulous restoration works, with travel to the Russian North itself being no easy quest. Meanwhile, many churches continue their slow collapse towards the harsh northern soil or are used inappropriately for storage.

So why is it that this important cultural landscape is left so carelessly to its own devices? These difficult northern lands took thousands of years to become habitable and were once strategically important in Russian state building. When the vitality of the Russian North dropped, around the time of Peter the Great (18th century), the region became a bizarre abandoned cradle unwittingly preserving traditional Russian culture and architecture. Elsewhere, where complex infrastructure encroached, culturally vital sites, such as churches, were overshadowed by modern buildings and streets. Here, however, wooden churches continue to stand out as the essential elements of the north – the sacred urban landscape that is so important to an understanding and appreciation of Russian life. And this is why Davies’ work to document these sites and to encourage restoration is so important.

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For Richard Davies’ works see his two latest publications: Wooden Churches: Travelling in the Russian North (2011) & Russian Types & Scenes (2014). 

‘Richard Davies: Russian Types and Scenes’ was part of the ongoing cultural programme at London’s Pushkin House.

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