The wooden houses despised by the Soviet regime

Those who have never visited Russia might associate its architecture with the gray, drab building that characterized Soviet cities and were purposefully portrayed in many “western” movies and documentaries about the USSR. I am not trying to say that these were a “western propaganda” invention, because this would be a colossal lie, but I want to underline the fact that Russian architecture has root that go as far back as 1,000 years before the bolshevik revolution and it is much more varied and interesting that we might think.

Russian architecture follows a tradition whose roots were in war Kievan Rus’. The great churches of Kievan Rus’, built after the adoption of Christianity in 988, were the first examples of monumental architecture in the East Slavic region. The architectural style of the Kievan state, which quickly established itself, was strongly influenced by Byzantine architecture.

Early Eastern Orthodox churches were mainly built from wood. Wood remained the traditional an ubiquitous building material throughout the centuries (see also my post The Palace Without a Single Nail) and this was the reason of such immense devastation in the great fire of Moscow of 14 September 1812, when Russian troops and most of the remaining residents abandoned the city of Moscow just ahead of Napoleon‘s vanguard troops entering the city after the Battle of Borodino. Only the capital city of Saint Petersburg had a large number of brick and stone buildings and palaces.

Wood was abandoned as an architectural material only at the beginning of the Soviet era and despite the fact that there was no better alternative at the time. Suddenly there was no longer any room for the wooden izba, the traditional log house and symbol of private life, which the Soviet authorities opposed. By the mid 1920s the technology for reinforced concrete had developed considerably and a new era had begun. The rich tradition of Russian wooden architecture gradually regressed to the scale of modest dachas. In Russia, Ukraine, and the territories of the new east, wood only made a comeback to large-scale architecture at the start of the 21st century.

The situation worsened after the Second World War. Entire cities gad to be reconstructed from scratch and vastly expanded, as people were forced to moved to an urban environment to provide the necessary workforce for the new industries. This forced Soviet architects to shed the aesthetic aspects of their designs. Functionality and efficiency took the place of creativity, and mass-produced uninspiring, grey concrete boxes and apartment buildings identical in size, shape, color and depressing appearance ushered in by Nikita Khrushchev began popping up everywhere, becoming symbolic of socialist cities throughout the Soviet Union. Their stereotypical image remains strong still today.

Most tourist never make it to the old part of town, or at least the old residential part of town, and as a result, miss out on an entirely different type of architecture. Its still possible to see some of the old wooden houses, or simply, старый дом (old house), as the locals call them, in the older districts of Russian cities and scattered sporadically throughout the countryside; houses built in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. But wood eventually deteriorates if not properly cared for and combined with the availability of cheaper, modern construction materials like brick, stucco and concrete, these traditional wooden houses are disappearing on a daily basis.

Traditionally built wooden houses, both authentic and replicas, can also be admired in the various “open air museums” in the country, like the one in the beautiful Suzdal, some 200 km East of Moscow, where I took the feature picture of this post. In these museums, besides traditional houses, most remarkable are the churches. Often the so-called troiniks (triplets), consisting of a larger summer church, a smaller heated winter church and a bell tower, were built in villages and small towns. It is well known and sad reality that many churches were destroyed during Soviet time, also those several centuries old. Besides, a dubious practice of transportation to open air museums was applied to wooden architecture. Authenticity is partly lost in this way, while a new exhibit is constructed from mixture of old and new wood. Dismantling and transportation of old wooden buildings inevitably went along with destruction of some details, which had to be replaced. The churches were torn out of their natural environment and taken away from local inhabitants together with the hopes for jobs in the developing tourist business. Admittedly, during Soviet time restoration of architectural monuments was usually performed  on a relatively high level, with participation of professional restorers. Some practices, however, were questionable: many wooden churches, allegedly because of esthetic reasons, were stripped of weatherboarding, which could have accelerated decay. In many cases, iron roofs from late 19th – early 20th century were replaced by wooden shingles. It can be reasonable only if the roof is appropriately cared for, but if it becomes leaky, the interior can be damaged.




Would you like to discover the Russia that foreigners rarely, if ever, get to see, with an English (and Italian, Spanish and French) speaking photographer (me and my wife) showing you the sights and telling you a bit about Russian history and traditions, while helping you to improve your technique and take home some spectacular images of the largest country on Earth? If so, do get in touch and we’ll be happy to create an unforgettable, tailor-made experience for you!






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