March 01, 2002

The Magical Izba

Constructed from a sturdy framework of interlocking, axe-hewn logs, the Russian peasant’s house — the izba — did a respectable job of  keeping rain and snow out and the stove’s warmth in. But like any dwelling, no matter how simple, it provided much more than shelter. Rituals, customs, and beliefs, as well as the sometimes elaborate decoration of the izba (plural: izby), reflected the many meanings and functions its inhabitants attached to it.

Log houses dotted the Russian countryside for centuries. Even now, many wooden buildings in Russia  retain something of the spirit of old-fashioned izby, echoing their silhouettes and carvings. The peasant’s log house also lives on in literature and art. Calling up so many facets of traditional rural life and lore, it remains part of the cultural landscape.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, when researchers started taking an interest in them, the oldest izby still standing probably dated from the eighteenth century. Certainly the pedigree of extant log houses reaches much further back, but it is not clear how much the details had changed since earlier eras. In any case, the izby that have come down to us follow basic principles of log construction long used in Russia for all kinds of buildings, in town as well as village.

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