Northern Russian splendours: an interview with photographer Richard Davies

2(1)Recently I became aware of the magnificent work of  British photographer Richard Davies, who over several periods of travel in Northern Russia, has been documenting the everyday and extraordinary splendours and colours of the region, and especially its glorious wooden churches and colourful characters. Richard has published two beautiful books: Wooden Churches: Travelling in the Russian North 100 years after Bilibin(sadly out of print at the moment) and the recent Russian Types and Scenes, which you can get on Amazon (and which I can very highly recommend!). Inspired by the gorgeous work of this fellow Russophile, I got in touch with Richard, and this fascinating interview is the result. Enjoy!207RT_mod2[1]

Richard, can you tell us first about Northern Russia, which has inspired your work? How long have you been visiting the area? And what drew you to it?

I’m a Russophile! My standard story for explaining this is that one-day, my mother came home with an LP (long playing record) of Jascha Heifetz playing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. On the flip side he was playing Prokofiev’s 2nd violin concerto. It was the most exciting thing I had ever heard and I played it continuously, day and night for weeks. It drove my father crazy, my mother was happy that I was happy. I was head banging to Prokofiev while my friends head banged to the Rolling Stones – very sad. The other influence, I remembered this recently, was our local dentist. He was an out and out Communist and a great dentist. The waiting room was strewn with copies of Soviet magazines and the patients were left to quietly soak up the propaganda. Danny Stalford, Red dentist, and local Communist Councillor obviously had some success with me – I fell in love with the country if not the system.

In the late 70’s and 80’s I took Intourist trips to Leningrad and Moscow to satisfy my Russophile needs. Concerts at the Philharmonia, opera at the Kirov, Maly and Bolshoi, art at the Hermitage, Russian, Pushkin and Tretyakov museums, day trips to Novgorod and the Golden Ring etc etc – but the countryside of Turgenev and Tolstoy was out of bounds

bilibin wooden church

Illustration by Ivan Bilibin

bilibin wooden church photo

Photograph by Ivan Bilibin




With the break of the Soviet Union, that changed. In 2001 I came across some postcards published at the beginning the 20th century of watercolours and photographs of wooden churches by the artist Ivan Bilibin. Bilibin had travelled to the Russian North in 1902, 1903 and 1904. Friends in St Petersburg found me a driver, Alex Popov the Professor of Atmospheric Physics at St Petersburg University, and in 2002 we set off in Bilibin’s coach tracks.

1a(1)Wooden Churches was published ten years later.

The wooden churches of northern Russia, which you have documented in your first book, are unique and fragile works of art as well as testaments of faith. What is being done both to preserve them as monuments and keep them alive as part of the distinctive religious life of the region? And what do you think might further be done?

Many of the churches that Bilibin had recorded were no more and those that had survived were in a perilous state.

During the war a wonderful book had been published in Russia celebrating the wooden architecture of the north – it was recognized as a facet of Russian culture that the armed forces where fighting to preserve. After the war, Stalin was able to blame the destruction of these cultural artifacts on the enemy and great efforts where made to restore those that had survived the revolution and the war. But with the break up of the Soviet Union funds disappeared and the churches where again left to rot, with rusting signs attached proclaiming that such and such a church was an ‘Historic Monument under the Protection of the State’.

47RTprint[1]Many churches are being re-inhabited by their local communities, roofs are being patched and plastic bagged cardboard icons are being pinned to walls but many churches, because of collectivisation, have been left with nobody to care for them.

In the summer volunteers now flock to the north, many under the flag of Obscheye Delo, an organization founded by the Moscow priest, Father Alexei, to do what they can to save the churches. There are very good professional restorers on hand but sadly the funds aren’t. The feeling is that the Church is more interested in building spanking new buildings than preserving archaic old wooden ones. And for the moment the State seems to be more interested in building up its nuclear arsenal than preserving historic churches in the far north.183RT_mod2[1]

The ‘Wooden Churches’ book has sold out – do you have plans to reprint?

I had a publisher for ‘Wooden Churches’ but they came back to me with terrible layouts– can you believe it they cropped my photographs!! So I ended up publishing the book myself. It was great fun but not a great money making venture (I did in fact get my money back) so I’m thinking hard before reprinting. I’m sure it would sell (the churches are so beautiful), but it would be good to reprint it on the back of an exhibition.

How have local people reacted to your work? 

The local people in the Russian North are naturally very kind and generous and I’m pleased to say that they have been very kind and generous to ‘Wooden Churches’. I’ve done my best to make sure that it is sitting on a good few shelves in Northern Russia. I haven’t yet had the chance to show ‘Russian Types’ to many people in Russia although I have had two reactions. 1/ The wife of the restorer Alexander Popov complained that the photograph of her husband showed his bottom and not his face. 2/Our translator on the last trip to Russia in April this year laughed out loud almost every time she turned a page – I took this as a compliment.

87RT_mod1(1)[1]What anecdotes or encounters particularly stand out for you in your travels throughout northern Russia?

Everyday, travelling in Russia is an adventure – I’ve yet to encounter a bear although I’ve heard many encountering-bear stories! I have been towed by snowmobile across a frozen lake horizontally on a sledge and arrived at our destination iced up like a frozen corpse. I’ve flown in a flimsy aircraft to land in a field next to a wooden terminal. I’ve been hauled in for questioning by the authorities at a town with an intercontinental ballistic missile site attached. I’ve venture across the White Sea to uninhabited islands and crumbling churches with twenty beautiful art history students from St Petersburg University. I’ve drunk more vodka than I should on occasions and eaten piles of bliny with honey and cream – my liver is shot and my cholesterol levels are sky high – I could go on…

In your second book, Russian Types and Scenes, you and your co-creator Alexander Mozhaev profile the everyday life and colourful characters of northern Russia in a wonderfully vivid way, through both photographs and texts. Can you tell us a bit about how the book came to be, and how you worked on it together?1_(1)

Having published one book myself, the only thing I could do was to publish another. I’d continued to travel to the North, with the students, filmmakers and friends. I had been taking photographs of people while photographing the churches and continued to do so on these trips. I love pure photographic books but I also love words so I wanted to put a book together gelling the two. Alexander Moshaev, a Moscow writer and architectural historian, was one of the friends who joined me on some of these trips. Sasha is very lively and I soon understood that he had insights into what we were seeing that I, as an Englishman, would never have (needless to say, many of the things I enjoyed he found rather banal). He would also interpret the content of my photographs in ways that I couldn’t. I read a lot of Russian stories in English, sadly I don’t speak Russian, and tracked down quotations that would fit into my photographic narrative. And as the book was coming together I would ask Sasha for suggestions and 28(1)stories.

I was also very lucky that one of the students from St Petersburg, Natasha Shalina, was studying in London while I was putting the book together. With a few deft taps on her iphone she would come up with wonderful things from Russian web sites that would inevitably lead to other wonderful things. She also helped with translating Sasha’s particular style.219ART_mod2[1]

Do you have any anecdotes about the people or occasions you’ve featured in that book?

The fun about putting these books together, ‘Wooden Churches’ over 9 years and ‘Russian Types’ over two years, is obviously that what you have at the end is the result of a great adventure. As a photographer you never know who or what will come in front of your camera each day. Matilda Moreton, the writer of Wooden Churches never knew who she would meet each day and what they would tell her. Researching the texts was equally exhilarating. I bought a copy of the New Yorker once on a whim and inside was a great story about Russian bells. I was reading the biography of a Russian children’s writer and suddenly he’s talking about wooden churches. It’s as though all these things are given to you if you loiter long enough. But then again there are the photos you missed, the people you didn’t talk to and the books you didn’t open.

Are you working on a new book at the moment?

I am. I will publish a book with a photograph I took in 1967 – by rights the book should appear in 2017. The book will have photographs and stories about seaside ‘Pleasure Piers’ – like Russian Churches they are often decorated with onion domes and they also attracts great writing and yarns!

Note: All photos aside from those by Ivan Bilibin pic are copyright to and courtesy of Richard Davies. 

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