Carving a space for Russia’s threatened wooden architecture

28 January 2022

A sprawling cluster of wooden mansions sits in the heart of the southern Russian city of Astrakhan. Their intricately-carved facades track the city’s complex history, on a crossroads where Caucasusian, Central Asian, and Caspian cultures collide.

Together, this neighbourhood makes up Russia’s largest open-air grouping of wooden buildings. But ongoing decay means that many of these houses have fallen into disrepair. The neighbourhood has become a prime target for land-hungry developers, and new plans have been drawn up to demolish many of the crumbling historic structures.

Moscow-based photographer Dmitry Ermakov headed to Astrakhan last summer to capture the eclectic charm of the city’s old town — before developers take over. His ongoing photo project Ad Astra presents the city and its residents at a time of shifting foundations.

Ermakov first travelled to Astrakhan in 2019, and was instantly charmed by the city and its kaleidoscopic cultural landscape. Astrakhan’s historical courtyards are fountains of multiculturalism in a city that was once on the crossroads of trade and conquest between the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Caspian region. Ermakov sees these pockets of historic architecture as the physical manifestation of what makes Astrakhan special: its strong sense of community. “In one courtyard, Russian, Korean, Georgian, and Chuvash families live and get together, often hosting communal dinners outside,” Ermakov told The Calvert Journal. Yet although locals cherish these warm gatherings, they can’t afford to restore the crumbling buildings that surround them.

According to Russian law, houses listed as cultural heritage need to be restored from the pockets of those who live there. But it is an expensive process. “Restoration requires special juridical permissions to be granted. That costs money, not to mention the expenses of the renovation itself. Most locals living in these crumbling houses simply can’t afford it,” Ermakov says. At the same time, most residents understand the historical value of their properties and are unwilling to give up their unique homes for the standardised mass housing that is taking over the city. This neighbourhood is unique: there is nowhere quite like it in Russia, with the exception, perhaps, of Suzdal, a village which became a Soviet-era “living museum”.

While residents struggle with the buildings’ upkeep, some officials are keen to simply get rid of these increasingly ramshackle structures. Local authorities are legally unable to demolish the buildings, which are listed as part of Russia’s cultural heritage. Some city politicians have suggested stripping the buildings of their protected status, arguing their original inclusion in the 1990s was a mistake.

So far, residents have been able to stall this reclassification and any potential widespread demolition with petitions and complaints. Activists from Tom Sawyer Fest, an organisation uniting urbanists and volunteers across the country to preserve architectural heritage, have also been able to help by renovating two of the buildings and taking the case to a federal level. Just two wooden buildings have been demolished, leaving an empty spot on the map and officials tangled in paperwork.