‘We’re the black restorers’: Meet the volunteers saving the wooden churches in northern Russia

“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.

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