Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Brit is saving churches in Russia's Far North

(RBTH) - When the Iron Curtain came down and Russian opened its doors to the west, Richard Davies was on the first plane from London.

The British photographer was no stranger to Russia; in the late 1970s and early 1980s he had joined Intourist groups on visits to Moscow and St. Petersburg - at the time known as Leningrad.

The chance offered by the opening up of Russia after 1991 was a gift to a man already something of a Russophile.

Davies had discovered a love for Russia during childhood. At an early age, listening to Prokofiev’s second violin concerto - "the most exciting thing" he had ever heard, Davies found himself "head banging to Prokofiev while my friends head banged to the Rolling Stones." Later, an openly Communist local dentist opened him to the politics of the Soviet Union. "The waiting room", Davies recalls, "was strewn with copies of Soviet magazines and the patients were left to quietly soak up the propaganda."

But his first trips to the Soviet Union were disappointing, leaving him with a yearning for knowing the country, its culture and people more deeply. The organized tours he joined were, he found, devoid of real cultural exchange. Although "the Intourist guides were surprisingly open, […] getting a smile from anyone in the street, restaurant or museum was a challenge." More importantly, Davies had hoped to see the countryside of Turgenev and Tolstoy, a pastoral beauty he would finally experience after some unexpected inspiration.

In 2001, Davies discovered a series of images of wooden churches in Northern Russia, produced a century before by the artist Ivan Bilibin. "An innocent abroad", Davies set off on his own journey the following year. "I had no idea what I might find, who I might meet or indeed what might result from my travels", he notes.

Wooden Churches - the book that emerged from those travels - began as an exploration of the Russian countryside, but quickly grew into something greater. Over time, one trip to Russia each year grew to two or three. As Davies traveled the North, photographing the marvelous wooden churches that remained standing, he became familiar not only with Russia’s history of hardships, but also with the Russian soul itself and, in his words, "the lives of resilient people who have lived through extreme times in extreme places".

The churches reflect many of Russia’s historical extremes. Left to rot after the Orthodox Church began replacing wooden buildings with those of stone, the historic structures of the North came to be seen as a sign of abject poverty and backwardness. As a German traveler noted in the 1830s, someone from a village with a stone church would never marry someone from a village with a wooden one...
Complete article here.

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