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Northern Illinois University Press

Russia’s Sacred Ruins

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Novgorod, Russia. 1944. Dmitry Likhachev, a famous medieval historian, arrives at the town’s makeshift railway station. He is fond of the historic province and keen to see first-hand the damage it’s been dealt by wartime occupation. The landscape of eviscerated medieval monuments leaves him lost for words. “[Novgorod] is covered by a deafening silence,” he will write later in his memoirs. “A dead silence stops my ears. It seems to me that I am not only deaf, but blind as well. Under the tragically large sky there is just a flat plain, overgrown with high grass. It is a graveyard without headstones!”

Many found it hard to recognize their hometowns after the war. On a visit to Pskov I met with Igor, who had been evacuated to Siberia as a six-year-old child. Sitting on an upturned bucket in the garden of his dacha, he recalled his childish impressions on returning to the town. “There was nothing left of the Pskov we knew and loved,” he told me, sipping on his sweet black tea. “It was all flattened from the station to the cathedral.” Later I browsed the photos of the war-torn province, exhibited in the local library’s polished vitrines. One in particular seemed an illustration of Igor’s memory. On a landscape, otherwise dominated by destruction, the town’s iconic Trinity Cathedral stood, eerily intact.

Many found it hard to recognize their hometowns after the war.

Russia rebuilt its historic churches after the war. Buildings were reimagined from ancient documents and, where these lacked, from icon paintings and chronicles. Restoration provided a portal to another world. While dressed in medieval smocks and tending to historic buildings, restorers could forget, if only for a moment, the concrete reality in which they lived. This time-travelling pastime held appeal for local residents too. Kneeling in the dirt, volunteers sifted, day after day, for shards of shattered wall frescoes. Other gathered on Saturday mornings to tend to the upkeep of historic churches: they mended fences, touched up paintwork, and planted flowers around the thick white walls.  

Restoration provided a portal to another world.

Orthodox symbols, condemned before the war as the relics of an unenlightened era, became objects of artistic value, heritage for preservation. The authorities tied themselves in knots trying to explain this unexpected change of tune. “Orthodox churches, once associated with the saccharine smell of incense and the irritating clanging of bells, are now interpreted very differently,” readers of one Novgorod daily were told. “Freed from their putrid religious contents, they are seen today as magnificent works of Russian architecture.” 

Orthodox symbols, condemned before the war as the relics of an unenlightened era, became objects of artistic value, heritage for preservation. 

For those who lived amongst these buildings, the transformation from church to monument was difficult to grasp. Churches still looked like churches; they still held the things that churches held. And one still visited them with reverence and looked with admiration at their opulent interiors. Here came the crucial difference, however. The culture one was admiring was not sacred, but profane. These were the creations of Russian craftsmen, geniuses whose works had been inherited by the Soviet state. The country was taking inspiration from this historic labour. The functionalist blocks of flats, going up the country at this time, would reflect the simple beauty of this Russian Golden Age.

The culture one was admiring was not sacred, but profane.

Sacred to profane, profane to sacred. The end of communism in 1991 reversed the fortunes of many of these buildings. For better or for worse they were re-consecrated, purged of Soviet contents and returned to local dioceses. Churches, functioning as cinemas, planetariums, and even aviaries, were reformed. The question of who owned this heritage – the nation or the faithful – began to be contested. The legacy of these debates still lingers on today. In February 2017, demonstrators marched St Petersburg’s icy streets to protest the transfer of St Isaac’s Cathedral from the local authorities to the Orthodox Church. The blue-ribbonned demonstrators chanted as they marched: “We defended our city against the fascists, we’ll defend it again against this!.”


Victoria Donovan is a Senior Lecturer in Russian and the Director of the Centre for Russian, Soviet, Central and East European Studies at the University of St Andrews. She received the BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker prize in 2016 and the British Academy Rising Star Award in 2018.

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