Zashiversk (Russie):The Spaso-Zashiverskaya Church

The remarkable church that has somehow withstood three centuries of turmoil

Anna Liesowska

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Spaso-Zashiverskaya has survived wars, permafrost, and a smallpox outbreak that wiped out its congregation.

Information items 1868

'The church is a kind of miracle of architecture'. Picture: Valery Marayev

It has stood through some of the most pivotal moments in Russian history. For more than 300 years the little ‘chocolate box’ church has witnessed the end of the tsarist regime and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. In the 19th century it survived a deadly smallpox outbreak that killed off the entire community and, more recently, it remained standing during two world wars. The wooden structure has also withstood the ravaging effects of winter, part of its belfry collapsing, and even being dismantled and rebuilt 3,300km away in another part of Siberia. Looking at today, at its new home in Novosibirsk, it is hard to believe the drama that has unfolded around it, and the fact that it still exists is testament to its design and build quality. Indeed, it is fair to say it is one of the best-preserved examples of northern Siberian wooden architecture of the era.  The Spaso-Zashiverskaya Church – or the Church of the Holy Face – was originally built in 1700 in the town of Zashiversk, in Yakutia, also known as the Sakha Republic. Located on the banks of the Indigirka River, the small fortress town itself was only founded 61 years earlier when Yenisei Cossack Posnik Ivanov arrived with a group of military men and built a winter hut.

Inside zazhiversk

Inside church in 30s

Inside long old church

The church as it was before moving west to Novosibirsk. Pictures: The Siberian Times

When the church was constructed, the town became a centre for the Christianisation of local indigenous people. In the 18th century Zashiversk also became the administrative centre of the huge geographical area of the Lower Lena and the Verkhoyasnk Range. It continued to grow as soldiers and travellers passed through on the road between Yakutsk and Kolyma, and every year fairs were held at which the indigenous population sold furs and merchants sold iron goods and vodka to local people. At its height the population reached 500, including 64 soldiers and eight clergymen. However, the town went on a downward decline in the latter half of the century and overhunting depleted wildlife and all but decimated the fur trade. In 1803 Zashiversk lost its status as a marketplace and government functions, including taxation, were relocated to Verkhoyansk. Just 17 years later the town had shrunk to only five houses, with two Russian families, a Yakut postmaster, and the Orthodox missionary and his brother.

A smallpox outbreak in 1840 killed all the remaining settlers, apart from one girl, turning Zashiversk into an abandoned ghost town. There is a local legend that the death of the town was caused by the opening of an abandoned chest at a fairground. A shaman had ordered that the coffer remain closed, but greedy traders rejected the plea and wanted to see what treasure was held inside. It is said they released the grim reaper, for within days the deadly smallpox outbreak had taken hold. People died so quickly there was no time to bury the bodies, and they floated down the river. Zashiversk remained abandoned with people too afraid to visit it, until it was stumbled across again in the 20th century. The first people to see it again were met by the eerie sight of buildings razed to the ground and streets overgrown with tall grass. Towering above, was the wooden church spire, blackened by the passing of time but in good condition.

'The church is a kind of miracle of architecture', wrote polar explorer Boris Levanov upon seeing it. 'A simple carpenter could not create such a beauty on such a scale. This was probably the master of masters'.

In the 1940s the top of the belfry collapsed but the church still proved an impressive sight for researchers who undertook the first detailed expedition in 1969. Writing about his first impressions the respected archaeologist and historian Alexey Okladnikov described the church as a 'splendour'.  His research found that it was built by Zashiversk resident Andrey Khabarov and made of fire-resistant fine grained larch. As the years passed the logs had become harder as if fossilised, allowing the structure to withstand the harsh Siberian winters.

Foundations underneath helped ventilate the building and keep the preserving permafrost frozen. A second expedition to the site was carried out in 1971 to carefully disassemble the structure and take it across Siberia to Akademgorodok. Under the leadership of Anatoly Derevyanko, currently the director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the church was taken apart log by log.  It was sent first down the river, and then by rail, to Novosibirsk where they were stored.  But part of the structure was removed in more dramatic fashion, using a Mi-8 helicopter. Mr Derevyanko recalled: 'Dismantling the structure was hard physical work as the larch logs weighed 300-400 kg. It was all done completely manually. The most difficult problem was to dismantle the dome. Some people passing our camp came by helicopter and we talked with them and shared our problems. They said, ‘so let’s take the helicopter’.

'Calculating the weight, of course, the Mi-8 easily picked up the awesome construction with the dome and the cross. It was fantastic professionalism by the crew. They were down just above the cross and the whole construction was shaking in the wind. They fastened halyards and the helicopter began to rise, but then something happened to one of the lines. It tipped. For a moment my heart sank, then it all evened out'. 

The logs were preserved in storage until eventually being put back together again between 1987 and 1990, with a new belfry added to the restored building. It now forms part of an open-air museum at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, a few kilometres from Akademgorodok.

The fact it still remains after 314 years is somewhat a miracle, given that almost all wooden monuments and structures from that period have disappeared because of their fragility. Those that have survived have normally undergone many renovations or have been built as replicas to look like the original buildings.

According to Professor Nikolai Petrovich Zhurina, a member of the first expedition to Zashiversk, the secret of the longevity of the Church of the Holy Face lies primarily in the way it was built three centuries ago. There is one more urban legend connected with the small church: that one of the logs managed to conserve the strain of smallpox that wiped out the town, and that this piece of wood was passed to the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR.  Staff at the open-air museum say, however, that this is only a myth and insist no traces of the virus were found.

Inside church icons


Inside door half open