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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Find Nation’s Historical Memory 'Out There'

In the occasional commentaries I have published in this space during the past four years, I have drawn attention to the valiant work of cultural institutions in the provinces and in particular the local history museums of the Russian north. Whether in cities such as Vologda or small towns such as Kargopol and Velsk, these institutions have preserved local pride and cultural memory under daunting odds. I would also argue that these local museums have been an important source of spiritual values at a time when the Russian Orthodox Church is still struggling to overcome decades of secularization and apathy toward religion.

Historical memory has now become one of the few cohesive elements in this nation’s culture and its strength is largely based on local initiative. Paradoxically, perceptions of the nation’s history have been dominated by a centrist view, even as the country has survived its historical cataclysms through an agglomeration of local economies and cultures whose existence passes largely unknown even within other regions of Russia itself, not to mention for the overwhelming majority of Western observers.

I have also advocated the need for greater awareness of the specifics of life in the provinces, from Arkhangelsk to the eastern reaches. In its entirety, this may appear a pointless, even impossible task, but we must do more to understand the diversity of this enormous country. On a purely human level, we should attempt to learn more about those Russians in the countryside whom we so often relegate to the statistics of failure.

These concerns occurred to me with renewed intensity after a recent trip to one of the most remarkable sites that I have visited during many years of photographic fieldwork in Russia. The village of Kimzha, located near the Mezen River in the far north of Arkhangelsk region, is remarkable not just for its early 18th-century Church of the Odigitria Icon, with its five soaring towers over a structure of massive larch logs. To be sure, it was a photograph of that church that convinced me that I had to go there, despite that fact that Kimzha can only be reached over a primitive winter forest track of some 100 kilometers, which ceases to exist after the first thaw in early April. (The only other way is by small airplane from Arkhangelsk.) For all of the beauty of this church, what surprised me still more from the moment of my first visit in March was the extent to which the village’s massive log houses, built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, have been preserved. And this is not some open-air museum in which a few log houses have been reconstructed. It is a functioning, living environment. Yes, some of the houses stand abandoned and others have been modified with plank siding. But the overall milieu survives. To a large degree, it is the very absence of roads, the "isolation factor" that accounts for this remarkable survival.

But something more important has happened here. After all, hundreds of villages throughout the north were simply depopulated during the 20th century. Kimzha has survived against all apparent odds. When I returned in late July to spend a week there, some of the reasons for this survival became obvious to me. One can speak loudly of the spirit of the people, yet what I saw was a much more modest, unpretentious sense of place — a sense that is too diverse to reduce to stereotype.

In a village of some 300 inhabitants in the summer (and about half that in the winter), many of the inhabitants are elderly or retired, coming back to the village that was a part of their childhood. They live in close contact with the rhythm of the seasons — a time for berries, a time for mushrooms, a time for hunting and fishing. Although the former dairy kolkhoz, surrounded by rusting machinery for which there is no fuel, is a shadow of its Soviet size, a large part of the dairy herd has reappeared through individual ownership. Having lived within this community, I can attest to the purity and taste of the fresh milk, cottage cheese and ryazhenka produced throughout the week by individuals who own one cow or a few.

Farming on this scale is not easy work, but it is a reliable source of sustenance for people who have few other resources. Indeed, it was a surprise to me to find that Kimzha has retained a number of residents in their 30s, with young children. These families tend to be large and with modest means. Much of their income will eventually go to sending their children to be educated in Arkhangelsk. But in the meantime, these families — and others who come for the summer — have the unique privilege of living in this community.

With this larger group of permanent residents in Kimzha, a few have banded together to save the church and form a local orthodox parish. The church was consecrated last summer and is now opened every day for prayer, although regular services are very rare. The question of restoring this great monument to full use is very much open to question, although the building itself is strong enough to last for many more decades.

Ironically, this apparent idyll, with all of its current problems related to economic difficulties, could be fundamentally changed by an economic windfall. It is no secret that there is oil — a lot of it — in northern Arkhangelsk region. And much of that wealth lies under the Mezen district. Even now, the roar of machinery has returned to Kimzha — not farming equipment, but heavy earth-moving equipment. A road is finally being built to Mezen through Kimzha, a dirt road, but one that can be used year-round.

This is extremely difficult work, to build a road straight through a northern swamp. The crews work throughout the year, day and night, on a week’s rotation. At this rate, the road should be completed within another two years. Obviously, such an effort could only be justified by the presence of major natural resources — and probably with some form of subsidy from oil companies. With the completion of this road and the further development of oil exploration and drilling, the Kimzha environment would most likely undergo a radical change, and not necessarily for the better. We shall see.

In the meantime, my amazement at the beauty of Kimzha is tempered by an awareness that not only are we largely unaware of this richness, but we are also not encouraging the next generation of specialists on Russia to explore this world. It is they who will direct future policy toward Russia and teach students about this great country. To the extent that they have little experience in this country "out there," we run a significant risk of ignoring Russia and its strengths at a time when so much within it seems on the brink of disaster.

William C. Brumfield, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2000-01, is a professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University and author of numerous books on Russian architecture. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.