Without a single nail: how the ancient wooden temples of the North are saved

More great content, memes, commenting and community not available on this site.

We are also on Facebook and Instagram which have been designated terrorist organizations by the Russian government.

Read More

Archpriest Alexey Yakovlev and coordinator of the project “Common Cause. Revival of wooden temples of the North”

More than 15 years ago, Archpriest Alexey Yakovlev, rector of the Moscow church of St. Serafim Sarovskiy in Rayev, went to the Russian North, where he helped the villagers restore a wooden bell tower. This is how the project “Common Cause. Revival of the Wooden Temples of the North", which received the Russian Geographical Society Prize in the nomination "Best Historical and Cultural Project" in 2021. Over the years, 400 expeditions took place, the participants of which saved 163 temples and chapels from destruction.

Oil painting

- Why did you go to the North?

- For the first time I went there with my wife, Tatyana Yushmanova. She is an artist and has traveled a lot since her student days in the Russian North; she has made sketches and paintings. It was she, who, on one of her creative trips, met with Alexander Porfiriyevich Slepinin in a distant village on the shores of the White Sea, who for many years supported the dying wooden temple complex, preventing it from complete collapse. Having made friends with the family of Alexander Porfiriyevich and loving those places with all our heart, we began to come regularly.

In the first year, we left Alexander Porfiriyevich some money for work in the church of the Monk Zosima and Savvatiy of Solovetskiy at a cemetery a kilometer away from the village. We asked to dismantle the ruined parts of the building and cover the roof with roofing material, but when we returned six months later, we found a temple with a new wooden roof, floor, and ceiling – anyhow, there was very little money indeed!

But in the center of the village, the only one church complex still remained in disrepair preserved on the coast of the White Sea; two ancient temples (summer and winter) and a bell tower. Together with the local residents, we began to put them in order, organize regular subbotniks (voluntary Saturday work), and serve prayers. In parallel, we were looking for carpenters and funding opportunities. Once, admiring the surroundings from the bell tower and rejoicing that the temples began to be restored, my wife and I suddenly started talking about how to carry out emergency work to all the wooden churches of the North. "Do you have any idea how many there are?" Tanya asked. But we already understood what to do: we had to unite like-minded people, find churches together with them and, first, clean them of debris and obscene inscriptions, block the holes in the roofs.

It worked in one village and it will work in others.

This is how our project started. In the early years, we attracted our friends to the journeys, then parishioners, and later other parishes. Now volunteers from different regions of Russia and other countries take part in the expeditions, the level of work becomes more and more difficult from year to year. In 2021, 50 expeditions took place, 650 volunteers took part in them, who worked on the restoration of 26 temples and chapels. These people not only restore holy objects, but also discover the breathtaking landscapes of the Russian North, its wooden architecture. They also discover wonderful Russian people - local residents, as a rule in the age of grandparents.

- How is it that people do not go to relax in a well-maintained sanatorium on the Black Sea, but work hard in a tent camp on the White Sea?

- Academician Dimitriy Sergeyevich Likhachev once remarked that "they go and will go to the North in order to experience the moral healing power of the North." The North knew neither the Mongol yoke nor serfdom. The same Likhachev said about the North that it was "the most Russian." Ivan Bilibin, Apollinariy Vasnetsov, Konstantin Korovin, Valentin Serov, Isaac Levitan, Mikhail Nesterov and many others have been here. Once Tatyana painted a landscape on Valaam: a rock and a pine tree on it. And then, at the exhibition of Ivan Shishkin, I discovered a work with the same pine tree on a rock, only from a different angle and a hundred years younger. Such is the greeting from one artist to another, from one century to another. It seems to me that now it is the time when Russia is rediscovering the North.

Only here there are wooden temples over 30 meters high, many of which are 200-400 years old. In contact with them, we come into contact with those who built them, with their attitude towards God, work, love for their descendants - these temples have stood for centuries to this day! If they disappear, it will be an irreparable loss.

People, who go on expeditions with us, understand that if not for them, no one will help the temple. One of the participants explained his decision as follows: "We often ask God for something, but I wanted to do something for Him." We have very different people traveling with us, but everyone wants to do something good, and everyone has determination. The determination to travel thousands of miles, to where no one expects, with strangers. Our project brings together the efforts of volunteers, architects, restorers, officials, and local residents.

- How did these temples survive to this day, however, the climate in the North is very severe?

- Paradoxically, a building made of such a fragile material at first glance as wood can stand for centuries if the roof is intact and the building is well ventilated. Even if there is minimal care. The years of Soviet power, with their persecution of the church and clergy, turned out to be much worse than the weather pattern. In those days, a huge number of churches were burned, rolled out on logs, given over to clubs and warehouses. The local clergy, although not canonized as saints, in fact were real ascetics. Many of them were killed for defending the temples, many died in the camps. But people still took risks. Sometimes we find shrines hidden by the last parishioners before the church closed. It is always a great joy and consolation, inspiring to continue work. So, in the basement of one temple, there were icons removed, probably during the time of persecution. Unfortunately, out of 30 icons only five have preserved the paint layer, three have been restored.

In the Church of the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God in the village of Malaya Shalga, Kargopol district, Arkhangelsk region, when cleaning the temple before the first service, we found a complete Eucharistic set: silver gilded diskos, a chalice, and other accessories. In 1937, the temple was closed, it was completely looted. The priest died almost immediately after that. But the most valuable thing that was in the temple, which, except for the clergy, should not be touched by anyone, he managed to transfer decades later to his successor, who celebrated the liturgy on the patron feast of the temple in 2013.

Unfortunately, a huge part of the churches was destroyed - before the revolution in the Arkhangelsk, Vologda regions, and in Karelia there were about 1300 of them, less than 400 have come down to us. And this is not to mention the chapels, which were much more. Unfortunately, in the post-Soviet period we continue to lose churches, primarily from indifference. Having stood for centuries and survived the Soviet years, now they are dying, useless to anyone. More than half of the temples that have come down to us are in disrepair and will turn into ruins if emergency work is not carried out in the next two to three years.

“The very thing you do is of great importance, but the very fact of volunteering is also very important. When in our time people do everything only for money, when connections between people are often lost, how important it is that young people are able to spend their time on a good deed voluntarily. And we must remember that everything that we do for God, everything that we do for others, is returned to us a hundredfold by the grace of God.”

His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia

What does it cost us to build a temple?

- If no one except the locals has heard about most of the northern holy objects, how do you find them?

For this, a lot of archival and field work is being carried out. For every wooden temple in need of help, there is a card in our database. We examined 360 temples and chapels: we took photographs and took measurements. Often local residents turn to us for help. For example, in the village of Sidorovskaya, Kargopol district, Arkhangelsk region, there lived grandmother Zoya, who went to pray at the Exaltation of the Cross chapel all her life, every day.

The boards of the ceiling and the roof were so worn out that through them, as if through a sieve, one could see the sky. The steps were destroyed, in recent years grandmother Zoya crawled into the chapel - it was impossible to go up the stairs. When we arrived at the village and got to know it, we really wanted to restore the chapel during the lifetime of grandmother Zoya, she was 95 years old at that time. With God's help, we did.

We have two types of expeditions: research and labor. First, teams of volunteers go along a certain route and look for temples that require restoration. We work with the monument protection inspectorates at the regional level, and they often ask us to help with the restoration of ancient sacred object. We head for the specified address, check what is there.

Sometimes it happens that there is nothing left except for the memorial cross. If the building is preserved, we carry out measurements, perform photographic fixation. Upon returning to Moscow, we plan stages of emergency work, we develop routes for working expeditions. Now we have plans drawn up for two or three years ahead.

Is it possible to engage in construction work without special education?

- Of course, we were not professionals when we started. First of all, we removed the garbage, erased the inscriptions on the walls, and patched holes in the roof. For more serious tasks, we turned to local sensible peasants, carpenters. In the villages, many knew how to work with an ax - to replace rotting crowns in a hut, to cut down a house in the forest, etc.

Already in the second year, we established communication with the professional community of architects-restorers, inspectorates for the protection of monuments in various regions, the Department for the Protection of Monuments, and the Ministry of Culture. Every year for ten years we have been organizing international scientific and practical conferences dedicated to the preservation of the wooden architecture of the Russian North.

Several full-time architects are currently working on the project. In winter, we prepare projects for emergency response work, coordinate them with the monument protection authorities, and engage licensed restoration organizations that will be assisted by our volunteers. As a rule, the expedition lasts about a week and in order for them to act more professionally and efficiently, we have created the School of Carpentry in Moscow at the Church of St. Serafim Sarovskiy in Rayev. Although, of course, you can go on an expedition without graduating from it, there will be enough work for everyone.

— Do you also restore icons for northern churches?

— As a rule, there are no icons left in desecrated churches. Sometimes local residents bring icons saved by their grandparents and "relatives" for the temple. We restore some of them before placement. We cooperate with the Tretyakov Gallery and the Museum of Old Russian Art named after St. Andrey Rublev. Icons kept in museums are photographed and copies are made. Sometimes we create entire iconostases for resurrected churches. For example, in the carpentry workshop of our temple, volunteers made an iconostasis for the temple of the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael and other incorporeal forces in the village of Upper Khavrogory in Kholmogorskiy district of the Arkhangelsk region. It took over four years.

- And what fate awaits the temples after restoration - will it be necessary to go every 10 years and repair them again?

“Locals often join us. At first, of course, they are distrustful of "strangers", but the life and work of volunteers always arouse a keen interest in local children. They spend time with us, help, and then "report" about everything to parents. On the third or fourth day the whole village comes to visit us. And after our departure, people invite the local priest to celebrate the day of the village, to hold a service at Christmas or Easter; they begin to gather on Sundays and holidays

Source: Русское географическое общество

More great content, memes, commenting and community not available on this site.

We are also on Facebook and Instagram which have been designated terrorist organizations by the Russian government.