Kimzha retains many massive log houses that have remained almost unchanged since the late-19th century.
In all of my many years of traveling throughout Russia, I
have never seen another village like Kimzha. You won’t find it on most maps,
although it stands near the intersection of two rivers — the Mezen and the
Kimzha. Its population varies with the seasons. In the winter it shrinks down to
a few hundred and may almost double in the summer when relatives come to stay.
What is remarkable about Kimzha is that, unlike other northern villages that
have simply died out or been abandoned, it has found that delicate balance
between past and present.
I was first drawn to Kimzha in the summer of 1999 when I first saw a picture of its most impressive structure, the 18th-century church dedicated to the Odegitria Icon of Mary. From the first moment I saw its remarkable form — five soaring towers and cupolas over a structure of massive larch logs — I knew I had to see this church in person. Friends in Arkhangelsk warned me of the difficulties: Kimzha would be impossible to reach by land in the summer because there were no roads.
In the past people shuttled back and forth from the village via regularly scheduled boats, but this form of transportation disappeared with state subsidies. Another possibility was to go by small plane, but I wanted to see the terrain between Arkhangelsk and the Mezen River up close. For that the only option available was over a temporary winter road, or zimnik. This, surely, would be the Russian north at its most authentic.
My contacts at the university in Arkhangelsk hooked me up with the director of Kimzha’s largest employer, a lumber factory in nearby Kamenka. Pyotr Kondratyev, the director, provided a jeep and a driver from his company motor pool to navigate the road from Arkhangelsk. For the driver, this was a regular, if demanding, weekly run. For me it was an unforgettable 10-hour trek covering 400 kilometers through dense forest.
We finally reached Kimzha around midnight. As I stumbled through snowdrifts looking for the log house where I was to stay, I looked up and saw the faint shimmer of the aurora borealis. It was the last clear sky I would see on this trip. Within the hour a snowstorm moved in and left the village stranded for days. But in that brief moment I could see the looming specter of the Kimzha church and the outline of its five massed towers surmounted with cupolas.
In winter the population of Kimzha halves to a few hundred as residents return to town.
As the sole surviving example of its type, the church was my
primary objective. There are, of course, other examples of log churches with a
single tented tower and cupola.
There are also well-known wooden churches with a multitude of domes, such as the famous Transfiguration Church on Kizhi Island. But in this remote northern area between the Pinega and Mezen rivers, no earlier than the late 17th century an unusual design emerged that placed five cupolas above a square log sanctuary that flared into four intersecting barrel gables. Each gable supported its own tower and cupola, and the entire structure supported the tall central tower.
In the middle of the 17th century, the Russian Orthodox Church declared the tented roof style to be out of favor. But the unusual design we see in Kimzha may very well have been a means for its architects — who remain anonymous to us today — to obey the church while retaining the vertical silhouette of the tent tower.
Archival photographs from the turn of the 20th century show at least four other such churches in the Pinega-Mezen area, but only the Kimzha church, completed in 1763, has survived decades of neglect and the threat of accidental fire. In the 1870s its stout logs were covered with plank siding, painted white with blue and green trim. At the same time a bell tower was erected over the west porch.
But Soviet restorers frowned on such 19th-century cladding and in the 1980s, some of the planks were removed. When they ran out of money this process was stopped and today the church stands as a textbook display, half with plank siding and half without. Luckily, this does not diminish the nobility of its form. Even by examining the surviving photographs you can see by the proportions of its towers and their harmony as a unified ensemble that the Kimzha church is by far the most powerful.
But for all the monumental power of the church, what surprised me the most was the extent to which the village’s massive log houses had been preserved. Kimzha is no open-air museum with a few reconstructed log buildings. Some of the houses have been abandoned, or at least shuttered for the winter, but the villagers live as they did when their homes were built in the late-19th century.
Kimzha’s very survival is thanks in part to its remote location. The isolation factor has protected the integrity of the environment. Yet that alone is not sufficient to explain the survival of Kimzha, when hundreds of other villages throughout the north have vanished. The church itself, standing 37 meters high and visible from every part of the village, has also played a role in keeping this place intact. Even in Soviet times when it was closed, it provided a visible point of cohesion for the entire community.
Although there is no resident priest, the church has been opened and a prayer table set up.
The church was padlocked until last year, but thanks to the
efforts of the local parishioners the lock was finally removed last year and an
Orthodox priest was invited to reconsecrate the church. Although there is no
resident priest and no regular service, the church is now opened by the women of
the church committee who have created a small prayer table with an icon of the
savior inside the dark interior. While the church is registered as a national
landmark, they are concerned about the state of the building.
A rather slipshod attempt at restoration in the 1980s has long been abandoned, which did little but to disfigure the appearance.
"This is our church, it sustains us and we will not let it perish," said one parishioner.
One sign that this village is not about to perish is that some young families have stayed in the village where their parents and grandparents live. This does not mean, of course, that members of the younger generation have not left to seek education or employment elsewhere.
Indeed, one elderly resident of Kimzha said, "You should have seen this village in the 1950s. How many young girls we had then!"
But while the average age may be on the rise, the population base, at least, has stayed stable, allowing Kimzha to maintain its age-old dimensions. As one parent of two young children said, "Of course my daughters will go to school in Arkhangelsk, but we will stay here. This is the place for us."
The resurrection of the church itself has provided a new life force for the citizens of Kimzha, but so too are they eager to revive the more secular rituals of their past. As one couple prepared for the wedding of their daughter, they built a set of three ceremonial steps on which the bride’s friends would stand and ask the groom questions before his entry into the house. Each failed answer would require a gift — most likely in the form of money.
In spite of its remote location, Kimzha cannot exist in a vacuum. The most immediate connection to modern culture is through television, but authorities are building a road that will connect Kimzha to Arkhangelsk year-round. This may alleviate some of the pressures of living in isolation; residents can expect more regular supplies and those who support themselves by farming and dairy production will be able to get their goods to market more easily. Whether the road will bring life or death to the village of Kimzha, time will only tell.
William Brumfield is a professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University. He has written many books on Russian architecture.
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