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Books And Belfries: Volunteers Prop Up Russia's Decaying Churches, Dying Villages

Russia's unique heritage of wooden architecture -- particularly, but not only, churches -- is relentlessly being lost.
Russia's unique heritage of wooden architecture -- particularly, but not only, churches -- is relentlessly being lost.

RATO-NAVOLOK, Russia -- A cold November wind blows wisps of snow across the road as a fully loaded Lada sedan jostles along the 160-kilometer journey from the northern city of Arkhangelsk to a remote group of tiny villages that locals call by the collective name Rato-Navolok.

The first destination of this expedition is the hamlet of Pogost on the banks of the Yemtsa and, more specifically, the tumble-down 18th-century wooden Nikolskaya -- or St. Nicholas -- Church. Decapitated, dusted with snow, and leaning perilously off its foundation, the still-beautiful building is on the very brink of being lost forever.

Inside the car, which is stuffed with bound stacks of books, four women are on a self-appointed mission to save the endangered culture of Russia's Far North -- by working to slow the decay of the country's unique heritage of wooden architecture and, at the same time, by bringing a lifeline to the beleaguered libraries that are the only community spaces available to the people of the region.

"This is how it used to be," says Margarita Bayeva, the head of a Moscow-based nongovernmental volunteer organization called Verenitsa and the guiding force of the expedition, explaining the traditional heart of the northern Russian village.

"You see, next to the church stands the library, and the librarian is usually the most active person working to defend the entire culture of the village," Bayeva says. "That's where the [community] club is and the first-aid station, and somewhere nearby there was the librarian and the person who looked after the church."

"We can't live without books," she adds, her words giving away the fact that she is a teacher of Russian literature in her "real job." "They form our common cultural space. Our country cannot exist without a culture of reading."

Both causes that the Verenitsa volunteers have taken up are daunting. According to a government survey in 2010, there are some 36,700 villages across Russia with 10 or fewer inhabitants. In the Arkhangelsk region, the number of populated villages fell from 24,000 in 1930 to fewer than 13,000 in 2002. Russia's demographic travails and the lack of economic opportunities in remote villages are the main culprits behind the decline.

In parallel, Russia's unique heritage of wooden architecture -- particularly, but not only, churches -- is relentlessly being lost -- to neglect, the elements, fire, and sometimes unscrupulous development. Of 8,899 landmarks identified by activists across the country, only 8 percent have any federal protection at all and in many of those case, the protection is nominal at best.

In August 2018, for example, no fewer than eight examples of historic wooden architecture burned in just one month, including the world-renowned Uspenskaya Church, or Church of the Assumption, near Kondopoga, in the Karelia region west of Arkhangelsk.

Most of Verenitsa's expeditions are mounted in the summer, when the weather and the long days facilitate the work. But in the winter months, the group sends volunteer architects to inspect sites.

They take photographs, make drawings, assess the work that needs to be done. Meanwhile, other volunteers try to plug holes and cover doors and windows to keep the elements out. Their goal is modest: to slow the decay of the buildings in the hopes that someday the government, the Russian Orthodox Church, or some other guardian angel will come up with the resources needed for a more permanent solution.

On this trip, Moscow area architect Olga Zinina makes the drawings and materials lists needed for Verenitsa's goal of restoring the church's roof next summer.

There is only so much the volunteers can do, with some structures too far gone.
There is only so much the volunteers can do, with some structures too far gone.

It is a drop in the bucket. Within sight of the Nikolskaya Church stands the wooden Petropavlovskaya Church, named after St. Peter and St. Paul, which is also in dire need of care but ignored this trip even by the volunteers.

"We have been thinking about some churches for years but we can't get around to them," Bayeva explains. "Every project costs money -- we need to find an architect and at least one craftsman. We need to buy the wood and file all the necessary documents."

"It isn't right that one church is saved and another isn't," she adds.

'We Need To Save The People Of The North'

Bayeva began travelling to the Far North on such projects in the 1990s.

"It was good and a lot of fun, but we didn't know then how to organize a movement," she tells RFE/RL. "Only a few people worked on the churches back in the '90s and the movement eventually died out."

For more than a decade, Bayeva did not travel to the region. But in 2009, she heard that the unique church complex in the Arkhangelsk region village of Kali had burned to the ground in April 2006.

"I was horrified," she recalls. "I remember how I just stood there and sobbed. I understood that I needed to go back and do something for the wooden architecture. I contacted two friends and we went and quietly began working."

Margarita Bayeva
Margarita Bayeva

That original initiative led Bayeva and her friends to create Verenitsa in 2013.

"No one besides the architects and a few highly skilled craftsmen...gets paid," she explains. "All the trips are planned during vacations. Some people prefer to go to the south [on vacation], but our volunteers head to the north. Every year, the number of projects grows."

Bayeva knows that the people of the region can be suspicious of outsiders, so she makes efforts to establish contacts with them and to involve them in Verenitsa's work. "Northerners have a harder life," she says. "They rarely smile, although they are a bit friendlier [than other Russians]. We need to save the people of the north."

'People Here Read'

While architect Zinina is working at the church, Bayeva heads to the village of Gorka-Rudakovskaya to meet with librarian Valentina Minina. Four days a week, for 3 1/2 hours a day, Minina keeps the library open for the estimated 100 people who live in the nearby settlements. The library is the only public service available to them.

"People here read," she says, "not as much as we'd like, but they come here."

The library is housed in a corner of the village's one-story schoolhouse. It shares the space with the local-history museum, a display of artifacts unearthed from nearby sheds and attics that is also managed by Minina.

She says about 70-90 visitors a year come to peruse the library's collection of 3,000 volumes.

"We don't have enough people," she says. "Young people only come on the weekends or on vacations to visit their parents. They come to the library but mostly just take things for their own kids."

Valentina Minina runs the library in the village of Gorka-Rudakovskaya.
Valentina Minina runs the library in the village of Gorka-Rudakovskaya.

Minina is grateful to accept the 20 children's books that Bayeva has collected for her. She knows their first reader will be a local boy named Andrei, an avid reader who cannot walk. Minina will make a point of taking the books to him at home.

Bayeva does not criticize the local authorities for the limited support for the region's libraries. She knows that money is tight and it is all they can do to pay the librarians and keep the lights on.

Community's Center

After Zinina finishes her work at the Nikolskaya Church, the group moves on to their next destination, some 11 kilometers away in the village of Zachachye, population about 110.

Again, Zinina works at the local wooden church, while Bayeva takes donations to the library in the neighboring village of Zabolotye.

Lidia Panina has worked as the librarian in Zabolotye for 40 years. She also runs the local-history museum. Panina says her library serves about 500 people in the nearby villages and gets about 180 visitors a year, mostly pensioners. "These days retirees are reading about the old days," she says. "They love history. We don't get many men, but women come and they like detective stories and romances."

Lidia Panina has worked as the librarian in Zabolotye for 40 years.
Lidia Panina has worked as the librarian in Zabolotye for 40 years.

Nonetheless, the Zabolotye library is the heart of the community. Since 1993, a women's club has gathered their regularly and has organized readings and musical programs. In 2015, some locals formed a choir there.

"The library is everything to a village," Panina says. "Where else can people go to talk? Just to talk -- to get out of their houses. Some come to read books, and some just come to chat."

For the few young people in the region, the library is also crucial. "We work with children from impoverished families," the librarian says. "We provide summer activities for children who are out of school. All this is up to the library. This summer, we had kids in here repairing damaged books."

At present, Verenitsa provides donated books to about 200 libraries across the Russian north, bringing about 3,000 books a month to the area.

Ironically, Bayeva recalls, her interest in the Far North stemmed from books that she received as a child from the region.

"My father worked in the north," she says. "He worked on films in Karelia...and he brought back books from the north. [Soviet writer] Yury Kazakov was always on our bookshelf. My sister and I grew up on his [Northern Diary]."

"We just knew that somewhere there was this marvelous land with White Nights, kind people, stone churches, and a mysterious sadness," she adds. "We just didn't know where it was."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Karina Zabolotnaya of the North Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service