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Out and About

Professor Brumfield’s forty years of visiting Russia
Ian Mitchell

On Tuesday 30 March, the United States Ambassador to Russia, Mr John Beyrle, held a reception at his splendid residence in Spasopeskovskaya Square for the distinguished American historian of Russian architecture, Professor William Brumfield. The occasion was the fortieth anniversary of Professor Brumfield’s first visit to this country, and it took the form of a lecture on the resources available, principally on-line, for those who wish to inform themselves more about the architectural history of Russia. (See: World Digital Library.)

Perhaps two hundred invited guests crowded into the elegant ballroom of Spaso House, the last of the large Moscow mansions to be built before the Revolution—it was completed in 1916 and the owner never lived in it. Mr Beyrle opened the proceedings with a respectful minute’s silence for the victims of the two bomb atrocities on the Metro which had happened the previous morning.

Professor Brumfield then cracked into his theme by stating his credo: ‘There is poetry in ruins.’ He qualified that by saying, ‘Perhaps we do need quite so many ruins to find the poetry.’ The truth is there is a crisis of preservation in Russia, exacerbated by the philistine approach of modern Russian architecture, whose creative development in the traditional line stopped in the early twentieth century. Constructivism was fruitful for only a brief period. Today we have little more than pastiche, plus an awful lot of slavish copying.

Professor Brumfield gave one remarkable example of preservation, however, the baroque iconostasis in the church in Veliki Ustiug. It had a counterpart in Totma, but there the iconostasis was completely destroyed—burnt for firewood apparently— when the church was turned into a vodka-bottling plant in the late 1940s. The Veliki Ustiug church should, Professor Brumfield believes, be listed by UNESCO as ‘one of the greatest monuments of the European baroque; it could be in Italy.’ Instead, few people know about it. This is the case all over Russia, not least because Western experts see the country as peripheral to world architectural development. Though that is the case today, it clearly was not always so.

Professor Brumfield takes the opposite view. He is often asked why he does not go to cities like Florence and Paris. His answer is that he has not yet visited Soligalich, just north of Kostroma. Nor has he been to Astrakhan and a few other places that he named. ‘Why do I need Rome,’ he asked, ‘when Soligalich beckons?’

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