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BOOK

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REVIEW

Russian Architecture and the West By Dmitry Shvidkovsky.Yale University Press, 2007. 434pp. £50.00

Dmitry Shvidkovsky's handsome, beautifully written volume (expertly translated by Anthony Wood) is a must for scholars and browsers alike.

Sensibly, the book is limited geographically to Russia as it developed before the 19th century, not taking in the Asiatic states. The author's scholarship is broad, marshalling examples and the wider historical context to his thesis that Russian architecture is the product of waves of European inuence filtered through Russian conditions - a brave move, given Russia's proud architectural historical tradition.

Shvidkovsky stands on the shoulders of giants: his generous acknowledgements are a Who's Who of European and Russian architectural historians. The result is a thrilling architectural grand tour, not dry scholarship.

The study highlights the gaps in the past 10 centuries where European inuence on Russia's architecture was minimal, when the eternal question of 'whither Russia?' emerged, before the country turned again to Europe.

Shvidkovsky notes that this question is topical once more, while perhaps not realising that in placing Russian architecture in a Western European context, he indicates an answer to it.

Much of the early architectural history covers the period after the introduction of Christianity, the inuence of Byzantine culture providing the foundation for church architecture. Tartar invasion meant that Russia almost entirely missed the Gothic period, but Constantinople's fall led to the ourishing of the Third Rome, Moscow.

Early churches such as the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl (1165) show the inuence of Lombard craftsmen sent by Frederick Barbarossa, bearing direct comparison in this case with Modena Cathedral - there is much that is strangely familiar to western eyes about Russian architecture.

The European inuence brought to bear by the Romanovs is shown to be far earlier and greater than Peter the Great's created city in the north, with English mastercraftsmen at the court of Ivan the Terrible. Earlier residential buildings such as the Venetianstyle Faceted Palace in the Moscow Kremlin (by Mark Fryazan and Pietro Antonio Solari, 1487-91) illustrate that direct and yet diverse inuence.

The Western inuence on Catherine the Great's Enlightenment has been well documented, but Shvidkovsky also looks at its effect on the country estate of the 18th and 19th centuries, while Yekaterina Shorban's excellent photographs reveal the desperate plight of many of these treasures.

Shvidkovsky makes it clear that his country's culture was confident and able to accept the inuence of the West without having to meekly imitate (as, for instance, the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century shows). He rightly bemoans architecture of the past decade, but Russia's ability to delight and surprise is as endless as its bounds: perhaps a new generation of inspired architectural patrimony will soon emerge.

Adam Wilkinson is secretary of SAVE Britain's Heritage

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