Academic journal article Kritika

Faded Glory in Full Color: Russia's Architectural History

Academic journal article Kritika

Faded Glory in Full Color: Russia's Architectural History

Article excerpt

History, by definition, depends on the existence of written records; everything before the appearance of writing is considered prehistory. Material objects have always informed scholars' understanding of the past, and since the appearance of the Armales school almost a century ago, the study of the material world has taken on increasing importance. Even so, historical research tends to focus on documents--laws, letters, diaries, literature, and whatever other forms of written expression have survived the crises and catastrophes of time.

Yet there is a certain magic in standing inside an ancient building--especially one where one's research subject lived or worked--and sensing its weight, its colors, its smell, the patterns on its walls. To look at those soaring spires or cramped corners, to see how low the lintels lie compared to the head of the contemporary person standing next to them, or to imagine maneuvering through that set of narrow doors in skirts six feet wide is to experience the past in a visceral way. Although a photograph does not quite match that level of intensity, it creates its own kind of record, capturing a moment in time while allowing a deeper appreciation of both the whole and the individual details that make up that whole. The shape of the Solovki towers, the glorious blue of the Ferapontovo frescoes painted by Dionisii in 1502, the Transfiguration Church on Kizhi Island silhouetted against a blazing sunset: these images linger in the mind, anchoring the documentary descriptions in ways not easily accomplished by words alone.

William Craft Brumfield has devoted much of his career to creating a photographic record of Russia's architectural heritage. His works provide striking visual images to spark the historian's imagination and the necessary academic context that explains how to interpret what we see. Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University, he has been and remains a scholar of Russian literature, but he is now best known for his architectural photography, which has won multiple awards. (1) In addition to publishing six books in English and four times as many in Russian, as well as contributing chapters to and editing three more collections--all on Russian architectural history--he has mounted exhibitions of his photographs in the United States and abroad, including a large exhibit devoted to the Russian North in 2001. (2) A list of online collections of Brumfield's photographs appears at the end of this interview.

Over the years, Brumfield's many fellowships and grants have enabled him to take thousands of high-quality color and black-and-white photographs of buildings--some destroyed by revolution and war, others miraculously surviving almost intact for centuries, still others renovated or newly built after the collapse of communism. The churches of the North and Siberia, merchants' houses and monasteries, the fortifications of western Russian towns invaded first by Napoleon and then by Hitler, and many more are documented in these photographs--a small selection of which appears in the color insert included with the interview.

We at Kritika thank Professor Brumfield for his work, which vastly enriches our field. The conversation that follows reveals both what historians miss when they overlook the physical structures of Muscovy, imperial Russia, and the Soviet Union and the processes by which these enduring remnants of the Russian past have been captured in print.

Your first book publication was Gold in Azure: One Thousand Years of Russian Architecture (1983), followed by The Origins of Modernism in Russian Architecture (1991). Few other historians of Russia pay much attention to architecture and the role it plays in human life. What are we missing?

The architectural environment of any particular time and place is a compendium of historical layers defined by what has survived from the past. We can often learn as much about a society from what is not there (what has been destroyed or allowed to decay) as from what is present. …

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