Before The Flood

Hugh Gatenby

‘Kalyazin – Frescoes from a Sunken Monastery’. The Moscow Museum of Architecture stages an extraordinary exhibition of ancient frescoes, saved, you could say miraculously, from the floodwaters of a massive Soviet hydroelectric scheme. (Editor’s Note)

Should you visit the historic Russian town of Kalyazin, situated in Tver region some 200 kilometres to the north of Moscow, the rutted high street will lead you past once-fine, squat stucco buildings to the water’s edge, where you will see the anomaly of a cathedral tower, or rather what remains of one, sadly poking above the lapping waters of the vast Uglich reservoir; mute witness to the flooding to the Trinity-Makaryev monastery – and of the other, now almost-forgotten ‘flooded villages’, of Russia. 

In mute witness, still standing. The monastery’s bell tower.

The Trinity-Makaryev Monastery, founded in 1434, played host to such historical luminaries as Ivan the Terrible, Boris Gudynov and the warrior-Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. Often itself a victim of those turbulent times, it withstood sieges and sackings by Poles and Lithuanians. Many times rebuilt, the sprawling complex became one of the richest and most revered monasteries in Russia – until it was subject to new depredations in the Soviet period. Grim black and white photos at the exhibition tell stories of its abandonment and near-destruction, up to the point when in 1940 the floodwaters of the Uglich Reservoir finally closed over it – leaving only the cathedral tower above water as a stark reminder of  past grandeur.

Incredibly, given the destructive attitude to religion and religious edifices at the time, a genuinely heroic team of academics from the Soviet Academy of Architecture were tasked with removing, for preservation and posterity, at least some of the monastery’s ancient murals and frescoes. In January-February of 1940, often working in temperatures of 30 degrees and under, these stalwarts managed to recover some 150 square metres of an estimated 1000 square metres of frescoes, which were meticulously removed and transported back to Moscow and distributed to various museum and academic collections. 

The Rescuers – members of the expedition which saved the murals

Not only does Russian Museum of Architecture plays host to many of the stunning giant frescoes – themselves the subject of a subsequent 30 year restoration project – it also, in photographs and in diary form, pays a touching narrative tribute to those members of the 1940 expedition by the plucky academics – without whose expertise and doggedness these artistic treasures would be just another forgotten part of the ‘drowned settlements’ of that era.

Trouble in Paradise – and expulsion from Eden

A beautifully-staged and very moving exhibition – well worth a visit.

The Shchusev Russian Museum of Architecture, ul. Vozdvinzhenka 5/25 Moscow. Opening times on website