“We jokingly call ourselves ‘black restorers’ because what we do no one else wants to do,” Alexander Saprykin told Euronews.
Pointing at the dilapidated logs of the “drums” — the special roof of the St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Church in the village of Berezhnaya Dubrova, in the northwestern region of Arkhangelsk, Saprykin offered a resigned sigh.
“We’re trying to save the roof now. If we don’t then the walls will collapse, they’re already crumbling. That corner outside, it’s completely rotten,” he said, pointing to the dilapidation.
“This winter, all this could collapse right on the altar. We have already seen this in the district. If the temple disappears, then no one will even know what it was,” he went on.
Saprykin is one of hundreds of volunteers rescuing the unique wooden temples of the Russian North. Originally from Belgorod, a southwestern region bordering Ukraine, he moved up north a few years ago and immediately joined one of the volunteer teams there.
The St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Church was built in 1678. The unusual design of the “drums” makes it unique because it allowed the monument to feature as many as nine onion domes.
But its current dilapidated state is certainly not unique.
‘They belonged to no-one’
The European Russian North is home to some of the country’s most striking examples of wooden architecture, many of which date back to at least 200 years and feature belfries, log fences and turrets.
Unfortunately, most of the estimated 7,500 wooden monuments in the area — which include chapels, churches and larges temples — are abandoned or in a decrepit state. Every year, and despite being under formal state protection, dozens of them are all but destroyed due to neglect, rain or fire.
Because volunteers cannot restore cultural heritage sites, Saprykin and his comrades can only carry out emergency work, hoping that the stopgap measures will last as long as it takes for the state to intervene.
In Soviet times, many of those monuments including the religious ones were used by the state as grain stores, warehouses or cultural places and were as such, maintained in good state.
According to Father Superior Theodosius Kuritsyn, Viceroy of the Holy Dormition Alexander-Oshevensky Monastery, problems started to arise after the collapse of the Soviet Uindeenion.
“The USSR no longer used them, didn’t hand them over to the church and so these buildings belonged to no-one,” he said.
The fall in fertility, rise in unemployment and the relocation of local residents to cities led to the decline of many northern villages. Fast forward 30 years and the once majestic temples of the Russian North have become a symbol of the desolation of the region.
“Buildings are now being handed over to us in a dilapidated state: ‘Here, please take it’. What can we do with them?,” he continued.
“Everything around is being destroyed. It sounds terrible, it sounds scary, but I’m used to it,” sighed the hegumen (the community’s religious head).
Decisive measures needed
According to official figures, from 2012 to 2018, some 400 million rubles (€5.7 million) were allocated to the upkeep of the monuments of wooden architecture.
“This is very little. For 7,500 monuments, it’s almost nothing,” Vladimir Aristarkhov, director of the Russian Research Institute of Cultural and Natural Heritage, stressed.
But this past June the Ministry of Culture adopted a programme for the Preservation of Wooden Architecture and Aristarkhov emphasised that “the facilities that are most valuable and in the worst condition will be the subject of our primary concern,”
The government, he highlighted, has taken note of the extent and complexity of the problem and has also started to allocate funds to volunteer movements.
But experts nonetheless believe that resolving the problem requires more decisive measures and more serious investments.
“Volunteers can only afford to carry out emergency work on small monuments like chapels and small churches,” Andrei Bode, a specialist in wooden architecture, argued. “And while one monument is being worked on, a dozen others are in critical condition.”
The architect also cautioned about government contracts. “A company comes in after winning the contract and then hires someone cheaper who does few resources for the restoration.”