Lyubov Borisovna tells the story of the burning of the Church of the Intercession and the bell tower

September 3rd, 2013 by Richard Davies

It was Easter day, 5th May 2013, and that evening I did my usual rounds to make sure that everything was shut up properly before going home. During the summer I always come out to do a final check at about 8 pm, because there are children playing out until late, there are visitors around and the grass is tinder dry. So that evening, at about 7.40pm, I cycled back to the churches. There were some children playing volleyball nearby, I stood on the porch of the Church of the Epiphany, everything seemed fine, so I decided I could go home. On the way back I noticed storm clouds gathering in the direction of Kenozero. As I reached the cafe I run, I noticed some people at the bus stop. I told Elena that it was spotting with rain and that I would go home before the heavens opened. On my way back there was a flash of lightning. I got home at 8.45 pm to find Maxim and his wife had come round. I told my husband to turn off the television because there was an electric storm brewing. As soon as I sat down at the table with my tea, there was a tremendous noise outside and three minutes later the telephone rang. It was 8.50 and Elena was screaming down the phone, “Lyuba, come quickly, the church is on fire!” As I was rushing out of the house, my husband said, “What’s happened?” and I cried, “The church, the church!” Suddenly I pulled myself together and remembered that, as church warden, it was my responsibility to contact the fire brigade. So I told the others to go on without me.

Having rung the brigade, I ran out and as I drew near the Intercession church I could see children milling around and I could see the cross at the top burning with a tiny flame. Bits of the burning cross were falling to the ground and people were stamping them out. Then a piece fell off and instead of landing on the ground, it got stuck on the tent roof. I started yelling at everyone to open the church and save the icons. My husband comforted me saying that it was starting to rain and the rain would put out the fire. No sooner were the words were out of his mouth than it stopped raining and as I looked up I saw, with horror, that one of the cupolas was alight. A fireman later explained that although it had not been obvious to us at first, the fire had probably spread down the cross into the inside of the wooden roof area, at quite an early stage. Then I decided that we all had to go into the church and save the icons. When we got inside, it was dark of course, there wasn’t any interior lighting and we didn’t have any fire fighting tools with us, not even axes. So I issued the order to break into the iconostasis in whatever way we could in order to pull out the icons. My brother had been up near the roof trying to quench the fire with two small domestic fire extinguishers. But it was hopeless. He came down and helped to put up a ladder inside the church to reach the sky ceiling and I stood below, shouting out instructions where to begin, because I knew that the sky ceiling had been cleverly designed, so that if you take out one particular piece in a corner, then all the other images can be slipped out of place quite easily. But you have to twist that one piece in a certain way to get it out. There were three men trying to put out the fire in the roof, but when they realised it was hopeless, they climbed down, shutting the doors behind them to try and contain the fire. By this time I was really frightened that we would lose all the icons and was shouting at everyone to do anything they could to break the iconostasis apart and get them out.

The trouble is that respect for the church is deeply ingrained in our people, no one would dream of causing harm or taking anything from a church, it’s a great sin. So no one would come forward. Luckily, there were more people arriving and I was able to explain that we can rebuild the walls but it would be impossible to replace the icons, they must be saved at all costs. There were a lot of children there and I must say, if it hadn’t been for them, things could have been much worse. It was the children who initially raised the alarm, then they helped us and the firemen to carry out the icons. We managed to save 36 of them. We saved the big image of Christ from the first floor level. It felt as though we had been ferrying icons out for over an hour, but when I saw the video of it afterwards, it turned out to be only ten minutes. First of all we put the icons on the covered porch of the Epiphany church for safety, but when the bell tower caught light, we realised with horror that we had better move them further away, just in case. You can imagine the scene: it’s dark, the ground’s uneven with bushes and ruts everywhere, the church is in flames, everyone’s panicking, afraid that their house will be the next to catch fire, everyone’s staggering around carrying heavy icons. Oddly enough, the men didn’t notice how heavy they were during the rescue, but the next morning, when they came back, they found that they couldn’t lift them. Luckily, there’s a kind old lady who lives not far away, Nina Valentinovna Ivanova. As soon as I asked her, she agreed to have all the icons brought to her house for safety. She sat up all night guarding them.

This is a village where tradition is everything. Some of the villagers started processing round the exterior of the church carrying some of the most revered icons. When the flames started licking around the Epiphany church (you can see where the timbers are darkened), one of the firemen told me to take my icon and to stand at the corner of the church, between it and the one that was burning. And as I stood there with this most beautiful building burning fiercely in front of me, it was so hot that the icon in my hands heated up as though it was boiling water. I held it up in front of me and the flames kept on approaching and then recoiling and I had the feeling that I was doing battle, that there really was a chance that the Epiphany church might be spared. Afterwards, our tears were mixed with joy. You see, we had suffered a huge loss, words cannot describe it, we had lost the best thing the village had. What is Lyadiny without its churches? Yet at the same time, we had managed to save one of our churches. You see, regardless of what political system has been in power, in Lyadiny we have always respected and looked after our churches. They were built by our ancestors and handed down to our care and we have always taken this seriously. So now we feel at a loss. That beautiful building, crafted by our skilled ancestors, has been lost. Yet, whenever I look over this way, in my mind’s eye I still see it standing there, looking magnificent. It will always be with me and we will always celebrate the patronal feast day of the Intercession of Our Lady (Our Lady of the Veil).

You know, there was something that happened, it was about six years ago, when a group of tourists came here. It was when restoration work had just started on the Epiphany church, by a group of carpenters working in the traditional local style. I happened to be standing on the road watching them, when a car came up and the driver, a man, started asking me about the churches, what date they were and so on. I told him that, thanks be to God, we had managed to raise enough money to restore them. The man replied that the work would take years and that I would not live to see the end of it. So, I said that maybe, but that my two sons would and that this was the important thing. In Lyadiny we have always understood that what you build today is for tomorrow’s generation. So that’s how we Lyadintsy (people of Lyadiny) defended our church. And we won’t give up. We won’t accept second best. We will rebuild a proper church to replace the lost one. It may take ten or even a hundred years to build, but it will be a worthy successor and something that we are proud to hand on to subsequent generations. When it’s finished we will be weeping tears of happiness, not like today, tears of grief.

Lyubov Borisovna, 6th August 2013

translated by Daryl Ann Hardman

Interview with Russian Art + Culture

July 26th, 2013 by Richard Davies

The Fire

June 24th, 2013 by Richard Davies

The extraordinary footage of the fire uploaded to YouTube by tusomansru

Great Sadness at Lyadiny

June 24th, 2013 by Richard Davies

Liadiny was blest with a magnificent collection of wooden church architectecture.

St Blaise’ Church of the Intercession built in 1761, the Church of the Epiphany built in 1793 and a fine 18th century bell tower. It was one of the few remaining three-part ensembles in Russia – summer church, winter church and bell tower. The Church of the Intercession had, unusually, retained its iconastasis resplendent with many icons together with a beautiful heavenly blue sky-ceiling.The churches had survived their desecration during Soviet times when they had been used as barns but sadly the Church of the Intercession and its bell tower are no more. The Church was struck by lightening on the 5th May this year – Easter Sunday.

links below to Matilda Moreton’s account of the tradgic events in English and Russian


Turn Up for the Books

November 27th, 2012 by Richard Davies

The bell tolls for Tsyvozero

October 17th, 2012 by Richard Davies

I’m just back from a visit to the wonderful masterpiece of wooden architecture in the Archangel region of Northern Russia – the bell tower at Tsyvozero. I was joined by Alexander Popov, the restorer of wooden architecture based in Kirrilov, the wooden architecture enthusiast Andrei Pavlichenkov, the journalist and campaigner Alexander Mozhaev and my friend Alex Popov from St Petersburg. We were all horrified by what we saw.

Bilibin’s Tsyvozero postcard pub. 1904

In 1904 the bell tower was described by Bilibin as ‘a most adorable tent bell tower… She is living her last days, she has leant over sideways and trembles in the wind. The bells have been taken from her.’

David Buxton’s photograph Tsyvozero 1932

In 1932 David Buxton wrote ‘In the evening it brightened up, and off I went to view the object of my visit – a delightful old wooden bell tower of the smallest dimensions, but pleasing in every way.’

17th August 2002

When I first visited Tysvozero in 2002 the bells were certainly missing but the tower stood proud and erect, albeit dishevelled.

7th October 2012

This time, the 7th October 2012, the bell tower was showing her age. She was propped up, her roof battened down with roofing felt. Many of her logs were rotten or showing signs of rot. In 2002 I’d had no problem climbing within the tower, this time the stairs had collapsed and the route to the top was very precarious indeed. Concerned about the authorities neglect of this great work of Russian art local villagers had recently carried out the remedial work.

Alexander Popov

The purpose of our visit was to assess the structure with a view to obtaining permission to support the local people in their desire to restore the bell tower. We were confident that we could find backers in England and Russia to support the project. Alexander Popov, the restorer, is a great admirer of this beautiful bell tower and was keen to use his skills to preserve it.

Having seen the bell tower we were all shocked and downhearted – what could be done? The project had seemed straightforward but now we wondered if Tsyvozero was beyond repair.

We spent the next few hours in Belaya Sluda with teachers from the school and kindergarden, Galina Kornyakova and Luibov Khabarova. We visited the schools famous Mushroom Museum and paid homage to the King of Mushrooms, who resplendent in all his finery, sat on his throne surrounded by his subjects. We saw an exhibition of ‘miracle vegetables’.

‘Miracle vegetables’ exhibition

The school proudly displays on it’s walls photographs and models of the local treasures – the Church of St Demitius of Thessolonika at Verknyaya Uftiuga that Popov had restored in the 1980′s (Luibov was thrilled to meet her hero) and of course the bell tower at Tysvozero. There was an old photograph of the Church of the Virgin of Vladimir at Belaya Sluda. It had been destroyed in 1962. Galina was eight years old at the time and remembers the thundery day. The church was hit by a single bolt of lightning and burst into flame. Men climbed onto the roof to throw down the burning timbers but the fire was too fierce and flamming like a huge out of control candle the church burnt to the ground. With Galina and Luibov we visited the site of the Virgin of Vladimir, I showed them Buxton’s photograph from 1932. Luibov became very excited, the photograph showed the railings in front of the church and the stone church that had survived. Luibov and the villagers have re-inhabited the stone church and she now wants to reinstate the railings. She has collected twenty seven of the original sections from around the village. The photograph showed that they had been placed slightly differently from how she had imagined!

David Buxton’s photograph Belaya Sluda 1932

Luibov Khabarova and Galina Kornyakova

After tea, mushrooms and sweeties in the school staff room we set off to catch the last ferry back across the Dvina to Krasnoborsk.

‘Кино’ Dvina ferry shelter

Dvina ferry to Krasnoborsk

On the drive back to our hotel in Veliky Ustiug Popov was disturbed and expressed his anger at what we had seen at Tsyvosero – how could this extraordinary icon of Russian wooden architecture be left to its fate without some effort being made to preserve it. Again we considered what could be done. We all agreed that ideally wooden architecture should be preserved were it stands, it has a greater resonace, but Tysvozero is almost beyond hope. It could be protected from the worst ravages of the elements with a canopy but it’s beauty would be destroyed. The ideal at this stage, we eventually agreed would to carry out a thorough survey of the bell tower, dismantle it and rebuild it in a purpose built top lit structure (the hall housing the Elgin marbles in the British Museum came to mind!). Sasha Moshaev suggested that the Tsyvozero bell tower replace the copy of Michaelangelo’s David under the dome of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. An authentic Russian masterpiece replacing an academic sham. It would look magnificent! The Marble Hall at the Ethnographic Museum in St Petersburg would also be a perfect setting and a wonderful tribute to Bilibin. For during the early years of the last century Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin collected artifacts, and recorded with photographs and paintings the folk art and wooden architecture of the North at the behest the Russian Museum.

A replica using the traditional working methods studied and perfected by Popov could then be built on the original site – it could safely be left in the hands of the local community whose young people have been encouraged and taught to appreciate and respect their heritage and homeland. In time the tower would accrue the patina of the old tower. Hung with a fine set of bells she would awaken new life and energy.

Dedicated Babushka

July 28th, 2012 by Richard Davies

Dear Mr. Davies,

I did want to take the liberty of sharing this with you, so that this wonderful lady’s memory might be fixed somewhere more permanently than my mind alone.

Perhaps you can add this to your data base, or post it on your blog.

Your photographs of the Church of St. John on the Ishnya River, near Rostov (pp. 234-35) brought it to mind.

In the summer of 1976, a group of us, four American college students, and our Intourist driver/guide, were traveling around the Golden Ring.

While in Rostov, we, of course, went to see the Church of St. John on the Ishnya.

At that time the care-taker was named Nadezhda Constantinovna (we did not learn her surname).

She it is who appears in this photograph which I took in front of the church. She lived there in the village.

She was an amazing lady, totally dedicated to caring for ‘her’ church. She told us that she and her husband had been married in it many years before.

Nadezhda Constantinovna kept it spotless — the polished floors and woodwork shone like golden honey.

It was a dry, summer day, and we only entered the church for a short time, but immediately she got out her cleaning rags and started to polish the floor behind us.

Then I did something a bit daring for a foreigner in those days. Being a ‘country boy’ I was very intrigued to see what the inside of an occupied izba looked like (not the peasant ones in the museums).

Nadezhda Constantinovna was a bit reluctant, but eventually we prevailed upon her hospitality, and she let us in.

It was a very pleasant visit. I have the warmest memories of that day.

Thirty years later, in 2006, we were once again in Rostov with a group of Orthodox Christian pilgrims. I gave a copy of this photograph to the guide staff there, and they all remembered Nadezhda Constantinovna most fondly. They promised to give the photograph to her relatives.

It is thanks to those dedicated babushkas like Nadezhda Constantinovna that we still have such wooden treasures.

Fr. Nicholas

Holy Transfiguration Monastery

Boston USA

PS: In the upper, right-hand corner of the photo, the tablet marking the church as an historical monument can just be seen.

Richard Temple – Temple Gallery, London

April 24th, 2012 by Richard Davies

Church of the Transfiguration (1781), Turchasovo, Onega district, Archangel region

This heartrending book provides a glimpse into the culture of Russian religious faith and its expression in the fragile wooden churches that hover in the northern landscape imparting presence and deep meaning. Heartrending because these churches and the religious civilisation they represent are now abandoned and disappearing through neglect. They will soon be extinct. Silhouetted against grey skies in the vast northern emptiness their onion domes, tent-shaped steeples and eccentric bell towers silently recall the relationship between earth and sky, between man and Eternity. Delicate, harmonious and utterly unpretentious, their beauty is unimaginable by the standards of our corrupting materialism. They are the last echo of the great spiritual resurgence in the late 14th century emanating from Saint Sergius of Radonezh whose followers founded four hundred monasteries, many of them in the Russian North.

To enter such a wooden church is like boarding a great galleon that has landed from the sky and in which, with all one’s senses attuned to new possibilities, one feels ready to ascend into Infinity.

Dick Temple

Христос Воскресе! Воистину Воскресе!

April 15th, 2012 by Richard Davies

Ivan Bilibin 1901


April 14th, 2012 by Richard Davies

There stands a Kulich-Town, preening itself,
Crowing proudly over all the other towns:
“There is no place more glorious than me though!
I am made entirely of Tvorog and dough!

Ivan Bilibin 1911


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