All over Russia, in the distant corners of the vast country, lie the ruins and remnants of an older way of life; grand, ornate churches, whose spires and onion shaped domes soar over the rural landscape; small family cottages, often beautifully painted in bright reds, oranges and greens, and decorated with intricately carved wooden details reminiscent of an expensive cuckoo clock.
Sometimes, you’ll come across entire picture book villages, that Oliver Bullough described in an article that won the Foreign Press Award for Travel and Tourism in 2013, as “entering a 19th-century painting.”
But almost all of these places are completely abandoned and steadily falling apart; some, the churches especially, forever damaged by the Revolution and years of neglect under Communism; others are so remote they have simply decayed as the villagers who once lived there have died out. These ruins are some of the last remnants of Imperial Russia.
“If you wanted to invent a landscape that told viewers they were in Russia, in an eternal Russia of smallholders and snow and Orthodox Christianity, this would be it,” writes Bullough. “It is an illusion, however. The log houses are empty, their gardens without footsteps and their chimneys without smoke. The forest is advancing on the fields in armies of saplings. The church windows gape empty, and its onion domes shattered.”
In this edition of the Fellow Explorer’s Club, we went in search of this forgotten Russia, in the company of Moscow based photographer and explorer Elizaveta.
Society for Gentlemen Explorers (SGE): It seems like there’s a lot of empty churches in Russia. Why is that? Does no one want to use them anymore?
Elizaveta: Yes, there are a lot of abandoned churches in Russia. After the revolution of 1917, with the advent of Soviet power, persecution of the church began, and then many churches were ravaged, blown up and closed. The Communist regime confiscated church property, arrested and persecuted religious ministers, ridiculed religion and spread atheism in schools. Many churches in those days were adapted to household needs.
Whilst religion was never officially outlawed by the State, it was all but virtually destroyed by the promotion of atheism and the ideological goals of the Soviet State. In 1918, Lenin decreed that ‘school shall be separated from church’, beginning a swift erosion of the importance of the church to everyday life.
It became illegal to ring church bells, for the clergy to marry and bury their parishioners. Churches could no longer print anything, from tracts to newsletters to hymn books. The State took over local charity work, confiscating church land and strangling its income, whilst organisations like the League of Militant Godless began promoting ideas that having religious beliefs were a trait of backwards, rural people.
That was as the softer, more psychological end of the spectrum. Under Stalin, the suppression of the church was far more ruthless: in the Purges of 1937 and 1938 alone, over 168,000 clergy were arrested, most of whom were shot. By the time German tanks rolled into western Russia the number of Orthodox churches had fallen from 29,584 to under 500. In just two decades, the Soviets had all but destroyed a deeply Christian way of life that had been an important part of Russian life for a thousand years.
The Orthodox church enjoyed somewhat of a brief resurgence during World War II, used by Stalin to garner local support against invading Germany. By 1957 there were over 20,000 churches back open, but the dangers of having a powerful body outside the State that could influence the people, meant the church was continually discouraged. By 1985, the number of churches open had fallen back to 7,000: there were even rumours of the KGB infiltrating the clergy and listening to confessions. But rather than be demolished, many churches remained closed and empty,
Elizaveta: After the collapse of the USSR, the restoration of some monasteries and churches began, and then the construction of new churches began. Now many churches are located in extinct villages or in those on the verge of extinction. There are no parishes. No parish, no income. And no one wants to invest in the restoration of these churches. High-quality, scientific restoration is expensive. It is not economically viable. It is much easier and more profitable to build new churches in cities. So much is said about the heritage, about the need to preserve it, but in practice almost nothing is done for this.
SGE: Some of the churches you find have beautiful old paintings inside. What’s the best one you’ve seen?
Elizaveta: Fortunately, frescoes are a wonder preserved in some churches. It is difficult to single out one work. Murals of the Trinity Church in the village of Krasnoe-Sumarokovs, murals of the Church of the Epiphany of the Lord in the village of Yeski and murals of the Church of the Trinity Zhivonachalnaya in the village of Lyubegoshchi.
SGE: Does anyone work to protect them?
Elizaveta: Very often, abandoned buildings have the status of an object of cultural heritage (as historical and cultural monuments). They have a sign saying “Protected by the state.” But in reality there is no protection, buildings are decaying, no one plans to restore them, or at least just preserve them. Sometimes the windows and doors are hammered down in such buildings so that vandals cannot destroy the building from the inside. Other abandoned churches or estates have no status and they simply collapse with the course of time. Although sometimes it is possible to restore one monument or the other by the efforts of local residents and volunteers.
One of the biggest problems facing modern Russia is its dwindling rural population. There are just over 130,000 villages still inhabited in Russia, but 80,000 of these have, according to the last census, fewer than 100 people living there. Of these, 30,000 are down to under just ten inhabitants. As younger people flee to the cities, thousands of rural villages are being left abandoned.
In Yeski, where Elizaveta photographed the beautiful murals in the Church of the Epiphany of the Lord, the population has fallen from 2,000 in the 1980s to just 78 today. “Many people died, many people left,” explained one villager to Bullough. “We are an ancient village, older than Moscow, but in five years time we’ll be gone. Yeski will exist only as a memory.”
SGE: I see you also like to photograph abandoned, traditional wooden buildings. Where these mostly old homes?
Elizaveta: Wooden houses are most often located in villages. Although you can find wooden buildings in cities as well. There are a lot of abandoned villages in Russia. Locals who have the opportunity, leave them to live in the city, the remaining people drink too much and die. Finding job in the villages is not easy. It is hard to survive there.
Not that this is a solely Russian problem: travel through the once booming coal mining towns of Pennsylvania, or the once rich fishing ground villages of Newfoundland and you’ll find once thriving local communities that are also almost entirely abandoned. But it is likely you’ll not find as many beautiful, old traditional homes as you will in their Russian counterparts. Intricately carved window frames, ornate gables, painted brightly in vibrant crimson, orange, and lapis lazuli.
SGE: What is you like most about abandoned places?
Elizaveta: I admire the skills of architects of the past. All these abandoned buildings are unique architectural monuments. These are no longer being built in Russia. Given the wars and revolutions that shocked Russia, we should rejoice at what has been preserved. I want to see our history, what we have lost and are losing. And with the help of photography I want to show all this architectural treasure to people.
Whilst the harsh concrete brutalism of Soviet architecture is enjoying a somewhat nostalgic appreciation, these old traditional homes and beautiful ruins of the old Russia are still mostly forgotten and little known about.
You can find lots of more of Elizaveta’s photography on Instagram @_lisabetta.