Architecture at the End of the Earth

Photographing the Russian North

Architecture at the End of the Earth

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Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: 195 color photographs Published: June 2015

Art and Visual Culture > Architecture, Photography, European Studies

Carpeted in boreal forests, dotted with lakes, cut by rivers, and straddling the Arctic Circle, the region surrounding the White Sea, which is known as the Russian North, is sparsely populated and immensely isolated. It is also the home to architectural marvels, as many of the original wooden and brick churches and homes in the region's ancient villages and towns still stand. Featuring nearly two hundred full color photographs of these beautiful centuries-old structures, Architecture at the End of the Earth is the most recent addition to William Craft Brumfield's ongoing project to photographically document all aspects of Russian architecture.

The architectural masterpieces Brumfield photographed are diverse: they range from humble chapels to grand cathedrals, buildings that are either dilapidated or well cared for, and structures repurposed during the Soviet era. Included are onion-domed wooden churches such as the Church of the Dormition, built in 1674 in Varzuga; the massive walled Transfiguration Monastery on Great Solovetsky Island, which dates to the mid-1550s; the Ferapontov-Nativity Monastery's frescoes, painted in 1502 by Dionisy, one of Russia's greatest medieval painters; nineteenth-century log houses, both rustic and ornate; and the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Vologda, which was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in the 1560s. The text that introduces the photographs outlines the region's significance to Russian history and culture.

Brumfield is challenged by the immense difficulty of accessing the Russian North, and recounts traversing sketchy roads, crossing silt-clogged rivers on barges and ferries, improvising travel arrangements, being delayed by severe snowstorms, and seeing the region from the air aboard the small planes he needs to reach remote areas.

The buildings Brumfield photographed, some of which lie in near ruin, are at constant risk due to local indifference and vandalism, a lack of maintenance funds, clumsy restorations, or changes in local and national priorities. Brumfield is concerned with their futures and hopes that the region's beautiful and vulnerable achievements of master Russian carpenters will be preserved. Architecture at the End of the Earth is at once an art book, a travel guide, and a personal document about the discovery of this bleak but beautiful region of Russia that most readers will see here for the first time.


"Architecture at the End of the Earth is at once an art book, a travel guide, and a personal document about the discovery of this bleak but beautiful region of Russia that most readers will see here for the first time." — Anna Sorokina, Russia Beyond the Headlines

“The extraordinary William Brumfield has done it again with another great book about Russian architecture. Brumfield is a legend and, despite living in New Orleans where he is a professor at Tulane, a Russian national treasure.” — Pravoslavie

“Brumfield's absorbing text and 200 color photographs are excellent. This book will appeal to readers interested in historic church architecture or traditional Russian village culture.” — David R. Conn, Library Journal

"Brumfield captures the sometimes crumbling, sometimes resplendent cathedrals, chapels and other structures of the Russian North. Nearly 200 full color images of brick and wood buildings in varying degrees of neglect and upkeep, as well as a travelogue and careful, compelling documentation of the edifices are combined to offer a beautiful and daunting portrait of the region." — Melanie Warner Spencer, New Orleans Magazine

"The work is a major contribution to knowledge of a neglected area.  While there is a thorough discussion of the structures, the lack of a bibliography and index gives the false appearance of a picture book, when it is far more than that.  This fascinating book should have a wide appeal. Highly recommended. All readership levels." — T. J. McCormick, Choice

"In his most recent collection, Dr. Brumfield has beautifully captured the diverse structures of the Russian North in some 200 color photographs. The photographs allow readers to see, most for the first time, the range of structures in the region, while the text gives context to their significance in Russian history and culture." — Fellowship: The Newsletter of the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation

"Without doubt, the stunning photographs are the main attraction here, but the book is also a travel memoir, and in many ways, a love letter to this wild and often inaccessible part of Russia. . . . In the last resort, this book, like so much of Brumfield’s work, may be most valuable for documenting a crucially important part of Russia’s cultural heritage, a part that has suffered irreparable harm, particularly in Soviet times, and now faces an uncertain future." 
  — Daniel Rowland, Russian Review

"Without Brumfield’s contribution of photographs of these northern village churches, so difficult to reach given the taiga, permafrost, climate, and lack of passable roads, little photographic architectural history of this regional church architecture would exist. The publication of this book of photographs and travelogue speaks of a world almost lost to architectural history. Recommended for library collections including Russian architecture, art, history and culture."
  — Kathleen Duff, ARLIS/NA Reviews

"[Brumfield] has produced a text that is historical, factual, and geographically situated. At the same time he has ‘painted’ pictures in words. These descriptive views can then be experienced on another level through the artistry of the superb photographs, which create a sense of space in the book.... Elegantly designed and produced, this volume reaffirms the value of the printed book in our electronic age. It is in itself a work of art." — Natalia Berg, East-West Review

"The rich yet imperiled architectural heritage of the Russian North is beau-tifully presented in this large-format book by the leading English-language historian of Russian architecture, William Brumfield. The result of decades of exploration in often difficult-to-reach areas near the White Sea, the book pro-vides an elegiac journey through the outstanding architectural monuments of the Russian North, particularly churches.... The book will be of interest to everyone who wishes to know more about Russian architecture, regional artistic identity, and the Russian North." — Susan Smith-Peter, Region

"Architecture at the End of the Earth is a splendidly successful work, undertaking to capture, in word and stunning photography, the enigma of the Russian North: its architectural wonders in silent harmony with landscapes and people. Part of the author’s monumental ongoing project to map the history of Russian architecture, the book illustrates that this vast yet little-known part of Russia—a kind of Russian outback—is emphatically not ‘cold and imponderable,’ but enchanting, full of life and warmth, as well as sadness." — Julia Konstantinovsky, Sobornost

"The book fascinates, yet is splendidly readable. Replete with adventure, gentle humor and details of architectural marvels and wondrous encounters, the narrative is a vibrant story-telling impossible to put down. It is a must to have—and to carry on their person—for every would-be traveler to the North of Russia." — Julia Konstantinovsky, St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly

"This book is remarkable in many ways. Apart from being a threnody for the vanishing of the remarkable churches of North Russia, it is both an engaging record of the exciting and difficult journeys made by Brumfield in his efforts to record the last remnants of this culture, and an indispensable record of what still survives. . . . Brumfield’s achievement is never likely to be superseded: his is a record of achievements that will, inexorably, be swallowed up by the march of human history. Without Brumfield’s hard-won record and account of these churches, they would pass from human memory altogether." — Andrew Louth, Journal of Ecclesiastical History

"In this combination of travelogue, diary, and history, William Craft Brumfield brings to life a northern territory which, in many respects, subsumes the ancient Russia of hallowed tradition, harsh winter, and human steadfastness. Driven by a passion for things Russian and a rare aesthetic sensitivity, Brumfield embarked upon an arduous journey towards the White Sea and, with luminous photographic skill and deft description, has rediscovered and represented a vast cultural stratum of ecclesiastical architecture, iconostases, cemeteries, and simple wooden huts."
— John E. Bowlt, author of Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900-1920: Art, Life & Culture of the Russian Silver Age

"William Craft Brumfield's intrepid explorations of European Russia's remotest northern region and their photographic record are a humbling reminder that the pursuit of scholarship takes physical fortitude as well as intellectual curiosity.  It's an adventure to journey with him—by text and image—and discover the astounding variety and quality of the extant architecture heritage in this sometimes nearly trackless zone.  As he scans the frozen horizon for onion domes, we owe him immensely for his tireless labors."
— John Beldon Scott, author of Architecture for the Shroud: Relic and Ritual in Turin


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. Exploring the Russian North 1

Into the Forest. A Note on the Architectural History of the Russian North 21

1. The Western Shore of the White Sea 29

2. From the Vytegra Region to the Mologa River 73

3. Kargopol and Its Surrounding Villages 115

4. From Vologda to Veliky Ustiug 151

5. Along the Northern Dvina and Beyond to the Arctic Circle 207

Postscript. What Will Remain of the Heritage of the Russian North? 243
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Winner,  2014 Dmitry Sergeyevich Likhachev Foundation Prize "for outstanding contributions to the preservation of the historic and cultural heritage of Russia".

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