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In choosing the title for this volume, I intended several meanings of the word "lost": neglected, abandoned, forgotten, destroyed. All apply with insistent regularity to much of the Russian countryside. For however hopeful its conclusion, the twentieth century in Russia and its now independent neighbors has been a cataclysm of rare proportions, as wars, revolutions, famine, and massive political terror have tested the limits of human endurance.
Through my work as a photographer and architectural historian in Russia since the early 1970s, I have produced a record of the remaining legacy of Russian architecture, much of which is concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Perhaps the most poignant remnants, however, are along country byways where abandoned, decaying monuments still retain the builder's original vision with striking clarity. With increased access to provincial Russia, I have attempted to capture in photography the nobility and pathos of these lost monuments, which embody the purity of form and the patterns of ornament that so distinguish Russian architecture.
Today many of those ruins still stand, and although diminished, they retain a power of their own that photography can convey. Photographing these fragments of architecture from earlier, repudiated cultures need not be a political gesture; it is on one level a documentary method used by art historians since the nineteenth century for the documentation and study of forms and their stylistic development. Yet those who have studied the history Russian culture are well aware of its ability to place almost any phenomenon in a more radical context, to insist on ultimate categories and the interrelatedness of things. Thus the moral and political dimensions of cultural issues are never far removed. If architecture can symbolize the power of a state and its elite, or the expression of a country's spiritual values, so the destruction of architectural monuments can represent the realignment of power and the negation — or radical reinterpretation — of spiritual and cultural values. The results of this process, the ruins, are visible to those with the knowledge to seek them. (page 11)
Meditation on the Ruins
In surveying the devastation inflicted upon the treasures of Russia's historic architecture, one confronts not only the specific history of that country, but also complex, perhaps universal, questions about changing social values and the rise and fall of cultures. Every country has its ruined architectural landmarks, the product of wars, accidents, and the vicissitudes of time. In some cases these ruins have been enshrined and poeticized, as in Clarence J. Laughlin's photographs of Louisiana plantation mansions, the 'ghosts along the Mississippi.' In Europe, as well as in the United States, classical and medieval ruins have long been a staple of romantic genre painting. We do not, however, like to acknowledge that the devastation of history's legacy has often been the product of our own century. In western Europe, the great majority of ruins produced by the Second World War have either been effaced or rebuilt at great cost. And the ruins created by urban development have disappeared under new buildings.
In Russia, by contrast, anyone who deviates even slightly from the usual tourist routes will come upon blatant evidence of neglect and cultural vandalism extending to secular as well as religious monuments. And most of this can be attributed to the political upheavals of the twentieth century. In many cases the relation is indirect, the result of misguided urban renewal projects or of demographic shifts from country to city, which would have led inevitably to the abandonment of many country churches, not to mention estate houses.
Yet more complex issues can be found in the preservation, or neglect, of historical architecture. In some cases such monuments are large eighteenth-century country churches are testimony to caprice on the part of the local patron, whose support of ostentatious church architecture occurred with little interest in the well-being, spiritual or material, of the surrounding community which consisted largely of enserfed peasants. Does this indifference to the condition of other humans justify, perhaps "poetically," the destruction of monuments created out of injustice?
The dichotomy between art and social justice is as old as recorded civilization, and if we were to condemn architecture for the moral turpitude of its patrons, very little would survive from the Renaissance. Indeed, why should a double standard be applied to Russia, of condemning the artifacts of a culture because of a rejection of the society that created it? And yet I suspect that this standard is applied toward the history of Russian architecture, both among Western historians as well as among many Russians themselves.
In this regard I found it telling that our driver, who navigated backcountry roads with such intelligence and skill in the autumn of 1992, should have more than once objected to my enthusiastic appreciation of some grandiose ruin of a country church. Why was this church ever built, he asked? Who needed this display of luxury? It would have been far better had these resources been devoted to economic development, to the raising of the general standard of living, etc. For Viktor the ideal was the white frame church found in every New England village, or the Russia log churches, created b y and for a local community.
Such an approach has much to recommend it in the abstract, but it says nothing about the actual conditions in which Russian church builders worked - or, for that matter, about the culture of Russian Orthodoxy. Why should these churches, whatever their origins, be condemned to vandalism? Their artistic meaning for subsequent generations in those villages could have been entirely positive. Behind Viktor's attitudes lay, I suspect, a measure of guilt and shame at the extent of the destruction, and the likelihood that little could be done to correct it.
Public response to architectural preservation differs widely, and in the present economic crisis, the earlier system of projects selected and supported by the state can hardly be sustained. Whatever the sense of urgency, money has its own way of deciding the issue. In the new era, individuals and private institutions such as the church must provide the impetus for saving the country's architectural heritage. How they will do that at a time when the value of the ruble falls even as it drops in the collection boxes is very much an open question.
One specialist with long experience in preservation issues told me that during the late Soviet period, allocated funds were sufficient only for about 10 percent of the registered monuments in need of restoration. Now there is not even a third of that amount. With so many other priorities — and with so much fraud and waste — it is difficult to believe that the decline of architectural monuments will not continue on a considerable scale. The photographer can only work with what time and fate have left.
William Craft Brumfield is a professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University. The following article contains exerpts and photographs from his 1995 volume, Lost Russia: Photographing the Ruins of Russian Architecture. The book was the basis of an exhibition of photographs in the fall at the University of Michigan Museum of Art; Professor Brumfield presented a gallery talk at the museum.