A History of Russian Architecture
By Ian Mitchell
William Brumfield has written nearly twenty books on Russian architectural history. By far the best-known of them is the one simply entitled A History of Russian Architecture. It was first published by Cambridge University Press in 1993 and is still in print, though the publisher is now the University of Washington Press, who have added a chapter on the wooden architecture of the far north. This is the benchmark in its field. No other single book has the same combination of comprehensive scope, scholarly authority, readable narrative and lavish production values.
Its subject is an important one, especially to foreigners in this country. Few who have seen it will forget the sight of Red Square at night, with St. Basil’s illuminated like Ali Baba’s dream in front of the grim severity of the Kremlin walls. Nothing in Paris, London or even Rome compares with the drama and colour of the scene. Russian exceptionalism may be over-played in many fields, but not in architecture.
So where does the style come from? Many people claim origins in the East; others say it was western architects who gave form to Russian buildings. Both are right in a sense. The tent roofs hark back to a life on the nomad steppe, while the Kremlin walls were designed by two Italians, who brought new techniques to Moscow at the request of Ivan the Great in the late fourteenth century. Such examples could be multiplied endlessly.
All culture is eclectic to a certain extent. Outside inspiration and foreign contributions should not detract from the fact that the Russian architectural genius comes essentially from the Russian mind. And this is as true of Stalinist Gothic, which owed a lot to the New York skyscrapers of the 1920s, as it is of St. Basil’s Cathedral or the Summer Palace which Peter the Great built on the Gulf of Finland with Versailles in mind. Each is very different from the supposed model.
For any artistic style to be both original and relevant, these foreign influences have to be refracted through the prism of local conditions and culture. Professor Brumfield’s great strength is that he is not an art historian. He does not confine himself to describing how one style influenced another. His view is much broader. His Doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, focussed on Dostoyevsky, and took literature as a reflection of history and history as the context for literature.
“Architecture,” Professor Brumfield says, “is both culture and history in concrete form. Architectural history is not part of the mainstream of art history. It is more practical than that, and also more photogenic. To the extent that my publisher’s initial interest in my ideas was provoked by my photographs, I have benefited from that.”
For all the beautiful illustrations in Brumfield’s book, it is the text which sets it apart from other books on the same subject. The author gives a fascinating description of how the wider world of politics, power, war, spiritual conflict and technological innovation influenced the development of Russian architecture. There are over a hundred pages of notes and bibliography, stuffed with references which will enable any reader with scholarly inclinations to get as much out of the book as the lay reader who simply wants to follow the narrative.
It is not surprising that there is no equivalent book in English. What is astonishing is that there is not one in Russian either. Due partly to professional jealousies, partly to the vagaries of Soviet publishing and, later, the problems of the book market in post-Soviet times, Russians cannot buy an authoritative, single-volume history of the architecture of their country. An official history of Russian art and architecture is in preparation, but it is projected to run to more than twenty volumes and will be completely inaccessible to the ordinary reader, if only on cost grounds. As ever, ordinary Russians suffer from the elitist attitudes of their rulers.
Professor Brumfield is dead set against this. His main project today (see illustrations on page 35) is aimed at bringing the smaller cities of Russia into the foreground of both Russian and international attention in accessible books for the general public. Provincial towns are, separately, the subjects of individual paperback books that have parallel texts in English and Russian. They are A4 format, and printed on art paper so they carry their photographs well. They are 100 pages or so, and still cost under 400 rubles. Most pictures are in black and white, but there is a colour section in each, and full documentation giving, for example, the dates on which each picture was taken. This is important in a world which is changing as rapidly as Russia.
The publisher is a specialist Moscow house, called Tri Kvadrata, and the books are widely sold in the towns they cover, as well as in Moscow and other main centers. Places already covered include Irkutsk, Tobolsk, Solikamsk, Chita, Suzdal and Solovki, the island settlement in the White Sea where the first concentration camp was established by the Bolsheviks in 1923 in an expropriated monastery.
Professor Brumfield’s main hope in doing this is that he will stimulate interest amongst ordinary Russians in their unique architectural heritage and that this interest will help bring pressure
to bear on the authorities to reduce the speed with which the country’s unique buildings are being destroyed, sometimes due to understandable problems like lack of funds to restore them, but often for reasons as trivial as profit.
664 pages, GBP 35.00; US$ 50.00