My Journey to the Russian North

Throughout many centuries of Russian history, wood has remained the main building material due to its accessibility and renewability. Wood as a building material was also suitable for the local natural and weather conditions and matched the popular aesthetic taste.

The Russian North (the northern regions of the European part of Russia) is rightfully called the treasury of wooden architecture. We made a long pilgrimage journey a few years ago, visiting many of the famous wooden churches of this region.

The first Church in honor of St. George the Victory-Bearer near Lake Yuksovskoye is the oldest wooden church that still stands in its place. It is more than four hundred years old. The oldest surviving structures made of this material, which invariably are temples, do not last longer than that. They are often “mothballed” and moved from their original location to special open-air museums.

The shape of the church is reminiscent of spears that go into the sky. The church itself is not open, except for one liturgy a year for the patron saint’s holiday.

Despite the precarious and variable local weather, many churches remained in good condition. It turned out that they used durable wood – pine and larch – for cutting foundations and walls, and made the roof from spruce. In general, conifers are good because their trunks are straight and their wood is tarry and less susceptible to rotting.

The main tool of the builder was an ax. The cross saw, invented in the 16th century, was hardly ever used because it damaged the wood fibers, and the wood began to “pull water”, while the ax made it harder when cutting.

They made rafters from spruce, and the builders skillfully played even with the shape of the trunks of these trees.

When a wooden church appeared on the way, on a hillside covered with meadow flowers, it seemed that it grew here by itself, along with these trees or herbs. It looked so harmonious in the surrounding landscape. It is said that in choosing the architectural design of the building, the people of the Russian North focused on how the temple would look in its surroundings. Ancient architects drew inspiration from the shapes that they observed around them: spruce cones, chamomile corona, and so on.

We visited church after church from our plan. We could not access some of them because the road was too bad. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer of these churches and chapels each year; however, some have been saved thanks to volunteers and people who care about them.

Russian wooden architecture is a part of the world heritage. After all, it was the talent of the craftsmen of old who developed the techniques and shapes that made up the Russian architectural style. Many of the techniques implemented in stone buildings originally appeared in wooden architecture.

The most famous wooden church of the North is probably the twenty-two-domed Transfiguration Church on Kizhi Island. This church is the most complex and the most elegant of all wooden temples of the Russian North. There is a legend that a craftsman named Nestor threw his ax into the water after he had built this church, saying that he would never be able to build anything as beautiful as this again. When we visited Kizhi Island, the church was being restored, and the wood of the domes, placed on metal scaffolding, seemed to be floating in the air.

The church itself resembles a beautiful jewelry box, as if it came off the pages of an old storybook. The domes, covered with wooden plates, shine against the high northern summer sky. The architects used aspen wood to cover the domes. As time went by, the wood “bleached out” – it became almost white because of rain, sun, and winds.

When I was planning the itinerary, I was very surprised that many churches and chapels were dedicated to Hieromartyr Clement, the Pope of Rome. One would think that the Russian North and Crimea, where the hieromartyr had preached, are too far apart. The explanation is the life of St. Clement was connected with the sea, so he became dear to the Pomors who lived by the sea and to all people whose livelihoods depended on the sea in one way or another.

We spent a week on the shore of Lake Onega, 7.5 miles to the nearest inhabited village. There was a Church in honor of St. Nicholas with a slanted dome not far from our camp. It towered over the deserted village as a symbol of life and upward movement.

It was well preserved inside except that it did not have an iconostasis. We would go there to read the evening prayers, the canon to the cross, and the Compline. There was a small bouquet of dried up willow twigs tied up in the corner on the right choir loft. There was no smell of mold or excess humidity in the church; it didn’t feel like it was falling apart. There was a feeling that the liturgy that had once been celebrated in the church was going on in eternity, and that the time would come when a vibrant life would once again fill these wooden walls and other local churches.

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