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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Restoring Orthodox Gateways to Heaven

For MTThe Church of the Transfiguration in Zamitye in the Tver region looks like it has been left to rot for decades, despite the beautiful frescoes in the cupola.
ZAMITYE, Tver Region -- Outside the vast church in the village of Zamitye, birds circle the dome where they have made their nests. Restorer Vladimir Yakubeni steps over the weeds growing out of the crumbling steps to unchain 3-meter-high iron gates.

The Church of the Transfiguration dates back to 1822 and looks as if it has been left to rot for decades, despite the beautiful frescoes in the cupola. A piece of farm machinery lies in one chapel, indicating that the church was once used as a warehouse.

Valentina Sokolova, head of the Zamitye village council, follows Yakubeni into the church and wipes dust and bird feathers off photographs of icons left by villagers.

"A village is only a village when it has a school and a church," said Sokolova, a former staunch communist who was baptized three years ago.

Marina Kamenev / For MT
Svetlana Melnikova/div>

The church is among scores of magnificent houses of worship lying in disrepair, little known and unappreciated, just a few hours' drive from Moscow. But it is in line for a restoration by Country Church, an organization established in 1987 to save old churches.

The organization's founder, Svetlana Melnikova, recently took a group of British tourists on a tour of the hidden and neglected churches she has worked to save over the past 20 years.

"We were in a forest and saw a cross," Melnikova told the tourists during a stop at the St. Nicholas Church in a forest in the Tver region. "If it wasn't for us, this church would have collapsed long ago."

Kevin O'Flynn / MT
Melnikova discovered the St. Nicholas Church, built in 1848, in a Tver forest.
Melnikova has helped to restore more than 30 churches in the Moscow and Tver regions with a single-minded dedication to an enormous task. Thousands of village churches have been left abandoned and rotting all over the country, the remains of the Soviet battle against religion and the rush to the cities.

The Tver region alone has 2,000 to 3,000 abandoned churches, all of which have immense architectural value, said Yekaterina Shorban, a researcher from the Institute of Art History who is conducting a census of the country's architectural treasures.

The World Monument Fund recently placed one of the churches that Country Church is trying to save, the 18th-century Church of the Icon of the Mother of God in Teplovo, on its list of the world's 100 most endangered sites.

Kevin O'Flynn / MT
Vladimir Yakubeni
Melnikova and Yakubeni led the tourists to a series of architecturally stunning churches, most of which are made up of two or more chapels, a large one for summer and a smaller one for winter. The winter chapels almost always contain stoves to keep the congregation warm. In some stand the skeletal frames of iconostases, stripped bare of the precious metals and icons that once adorned them.

"The church is a sign of God on Earth," said Yakubeni, whom Shorban describes as one of the country's best church restorers.

Churches were supposed to be an entrance to heaven, and the paintings and iconostases in the Tver region, a center for artistry in the 19th century, must have seemed like a foretaste of the afterlife for peasants, Yakubeni said.

Marina Kamenev / For MT
The Church of the Transfiguration was used as a warehouse in Soviet times.
"The paintings were of fantastic quality," he said. "The icons were very close to the level of Andrei Rublyov." Rublyov is considered the greatest medieval Russian painter of icons and frescoes.

The Soviet period saw three waves of attacks on churches. The first came after the Revolution, when many were stripped of valuables and closed down. The second came in the 1930s under Stalin's reign, and the third was in the 1950s under Khrushchev, who ordered churches closed after a thaw in church-state ties during World War II.

"Khrushchev was cruel because [his campaign] aimed to destroy," Shorban said. "Churches became anything -- warehouses, shops, houses of culture." One church she visited had been turned into a swimming pool.

From afar, the only visible part of the St. Nicholas Church, which Melnikova spotted in the forest, is the top of the bell tower. Up close, the church, built in 1848, is a gigantic construction almost completely isolated in the forest. From the top of the bell tower, not much can be seen but field and forest.

Marina Kamenev / For MT
St. Nicholas Church in Nikolskoye-Tuchevskoye is the pride of restorers.
The church is far from restored, but Melnikova's organization has managed to raise money to repair the roof and part of the walls. It also has opened a children's camp nearby to try to breathe life back into what was once a forest village.

A key problem in restoring churches is a lack of worshipers. Many villages are shrinking as their inhabitants die or move to cities. "All the people who came to the church are now in the cemetery," said the caretaker of the church in the village of Sutoki.

Melnikova believes, however, that many villages have enough people to support a church. For her, the return of village churches is a return to spirituality in the country. "It is like a protective shield," she said.

Restoration funds are often raised by local residents. In one village, money was donated by a descendent of a priest who served in the church and was later shot by the Bolsheviks.

Much of the organization's work goes toward conservation efforts to make sure churches survive until adequate funds are found to restore them. Roofs need to be supported or built and walls strengthened to keep them structurally sound.

"With such churches, the first thing that needs to be done is keep them covered, either fixing the roof or putting a roof in to protect it from the elements," Shorban said.

Once protected from the weather, the church needs to be dried out, a process that can take years. Windows and doors are closed off in the winter and opened in summer.

The work is not cheap, and most regions do not have the funds to restore or conserve more than a handful of churches. If a region has a budget of 20 million rubles ($80,000), it has enough to repair just a few roofs, Shorban said.

One of Country Church's most memorable successes is a church outside Moscow. The Kazan Church in the village of Gagino had been left to rot but was saved once people learned that opera great Fyodor Shalyapin had been married there to Italian ballerina Iola Tornagi in 1898. A fundraising concert was organized in 2004 at the Bolshoi Theater, and the money poured in. Among the donors was U.S. investigative reporter Paul Klebnikov, who was murdered in Moscow in 2004. After his death, the Paul Klebnikov Fund promised to help restore the St. Nicholas Church in his memory.

Yet another church named St. Nicholas, in the Tver region village of Nikolskoye-Tuchevskoye, is the pride of restorers.

"This is a unique example not only for our country, but for all of Europe" of a church that is being restored with strict quality controls, Shorban said.

The church's pavilion-shaped bell tower is still weatherworn, but its restored cupola shines in the sun. An anonymous benefactor who owns a dacha nearby is financing the work.

When work started a few years ago, "this part was abandoned and both facades had collapsed," Yakubeni told the tourists as he pointed to one side of the church. "Now you can see the new brick on both sides."

"It looks like a before and after shot," said a tourist, which is what it is.