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20 November 2018

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Book Review

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Wooden Churches

Richard Davies & Matilda Moreton, White Sea ($60)

In Russia’s sparsely populated North, wooden churches stand like arthritic sentinels amid hardscrabble villages and towns, their log walls and beautifully crafted, wood-shingled onion domes miraculously withstanding decades of fierce winds, neglect and downright assault. This amazing book is an invaluable documentary record of these lonely sentinels, of the communities that live and die alongside them, of the people struggling to preserve them.

Davies is a perceptive and enthralling photographer. On the third or fourth viewing of some of his photos, I still find things I missed on the first or second look. And Moreton offers graceful, illuminating essays on the pair’s visits to the villages and churches, on the character and lives of the people they met. There are also wonderful supplementary illustrations and readings from the likes of Ivan Bilibin, who made his own ethno-archaeological-artistic trip to the region 100 years ago.

Threaded throughout is a history of the Russian Church in pre-Revolutionary and modern times, of where all the parishioners went, of all the various distasteful purposes for which the churches were used. The faded, empty interior shots are as touching as the images of churches being reclaimed, or of restored buildings standing regally over recently plowed fields.

Get this book, put it on your coffee table, and dive in whenever you need a fresh injection of “what Russia is all about.”

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Sep/Oct 2012