Restorer Valery Kosushkin: “Sviyazhsk murals are unique because there’re no others like them”

The master believes that the murals of the Assumption Cathedral could be preserved thanks to... the prison

Restorer Valery Kosushkin: “Sviyazhsk murals are unique because there’re no others like them” Photo: Maksim Platonov

Valery Kosushkin “saved” the Annunciation Cathedral, temples in Sviyazhsk, now he is restoring the cave temple of the future Cathedral of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God. About why the frescoes of the Assumption Cathedral on the island-town have no analogues, what is the basis of his belief that the miraculous icon, acquired in Kazan in 1579 and lost at the beginning of the last century, is, perhaps, intact, what difficulties there are when working in the cave temple — he said in the interview with Realnoe Vremya.

“We started with the Annunciation Cathedral”

Mr Kosushkin, how did your work on Sviyazhsk begin?

We worked at almost all sites — it was the Assumption Cathedral, Nikolskaya Church, Temple of Our Lady of Joy of All Who Sorrow. I came to Kazan for the first time in 1976, we were invited to the restoration of the Annunciation Cathedral. Perhaps, this temple was completely made by our team. Mintimer Shaimiev knew us for this work, and when Vozrozhdenie Foundation appeared, he invited us to Sviyazhsk. On the island-town, as you know, nothing was done for a long time. Together with the staff of the museum of fine arts, they had a branch there for some time, we were writing all sorts of papers... It was horror there. We worked in Sviyazhsk in the seventies and eighties, when there was a mental health hospital.

What were you doing during this period?

The same — we were engaged in frescoes of the Assumption Cathedral. It was the golden age of Soviet restoration. When the restoration was completed, the cathedral was closed, for many years. When Vozrozhdenie Foundation was established, we returned to Sviyazhsk. We also began to engage in frescoes, the enhancement, uncovering of painting. But it was uncovered not for the sixteenth century completely because at the beginning of the twentieth century the frescoes were restored by famous master Safonov, the restoration was great, they then repainted all the paintings. They were forced to repaint it because the preservation of the painting was not very good. In 2010, it was decided that there was nothing under Safonov's work, it was better to leave this repaint. Therefore, there are fragments that look the most intact, they’re by Safonov. We could work only in the warm period, that is, we were engaged in frescoes for about ten years, but in reality, the work was done every year from June to August. At the same time, we worked in the Temple of Our Lady of Joy of All Who Sorrow, there was also a terrible state, but we could restore it.

There were endless fires, reconstruction, then the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanov, then the Moscow Olympics and so on. We do everything for the holiday properly

“Few paintings of the sixteenth century have survived”

I noticed in the Assumption Cathedral that not all fragments are repainted.

They're lost. We put in order everything we could.

Sometimes they say that the frescoes of the Assumption Cathedral are not so unique. I would like to hear your professional opinion on this matter.

We often hear evaluative judgements. Someone likes it, someone does not, it depends on the taste. But the painting in the Assumption Cathedral is unique because there’s nothing like that anywhere else. In the Moscow Kremlin, for example, the painting of this period was repainted in the seventeenth century. There were endless fires, reconstruction, then the 300th anniversary of the House of Romanov, then the Moscow Olympics and so on. We do everything for the holiday properly. Therefore, there are few places where the period of the sixteenth century is preserved.

But here, in Sviyazhsk, it is!

It's a paradox. But the paradox is very important. First, there appeared a prison on the territory of the monastery, so no one could get there to break everything. In addition, the old Kazan intelligentsia, which at that time was engaged in the protection of monuments, was also preserved. At the time when the monastery was a prison, the cathedral was used as a warehouse. Therefore, the iconostasis is preserved. In the mid-sixties of the last century, the external restoration began because the cathedral was covered with cement, thanks to this moisture rose. Cement was removed, but there came the period of icon collecting, it was decided to remove icons from the iconostasis, and they were placed in the Sergievskaya Church on Sviyazhsk. They stayed there until the mid-seventies. But there was a window, so little happened to the icons. Then they were transferred to the Museum of fine arts, and we had to work with them, I also cooperate with this museum. It was the usual routine — uncovering and enhancing.

When icons, especially ancient ones, are transported to a new place of storage, they get ill. It's inevitable. The term of acclimatization can be long, it is unpredictable

What do you think, where is it more logical now to store these icons: in the museum of fine arts or Sviyazhsk?

The climate can be monitored in the new room, everything’s ok with this, but over many years the icons have accustomed to the climate of the museum of fine arts. They are acclimatized to it. When icons, especially ancient ones, are transported to a new place of storage, they get ill. It's inevitable. The period of acclimatization can be long, it is unpredictable. I have been working with Ilya Glazunov for more than twenty years, sitting in the basement of his mansion, almost all of his collection of icons, which is now on display, we did it ourselves. But when it was all stored in his house on Kalashny Lane, everything was fine, but as soon as the icons were moved, two months later Glazunov began to grab his head and rebuked me. Then it turned out that it was neither my fault nor someone’s else, just the ventilation system is the museum was inadequately designed.

Our icon, which was presented by the pontiff and is stored in the Holy Cross Cathedral, how safe is it?

This icon is in normal condition. It was correctly stored in the Vatican, and here, when it was brought to Kazan, it is also correctly stored.

“The stolen miraculous icon may return”

In the Church of Yaroslavl Miracle-Workers, there is another replica of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God. Did you work on it?

No, but there is another icon from Sviyazhsk — Sergiy, this icon was in the wooden Trinity Church, then it was moved. As for the miraculous icon of the Virgin stolen from the Virgin Monastery, there was a version that it was the order of the old believers.

As far as I know, it hasn’t been confirmed.

The icon, when stolen, could remain unruined. I don't really believe that the robber who stole the miraculous image burned it. If you remember, the old believers had such a thing as preservation, collecting the sanctity. Therefore, in many churches, they bought almost the whole iconostasis. So formed their collection, they went taken to sketes and somewhere else. The icon from the Monastery of the Virgin could be stolen by their order and taken somewhere. Then the Bolshevik ruin began soon. The stolen icon could be passed from hand to hand after the closing of sketes and now it can be in the fund of an art museum. The icon found in Kazan was also repainted, when a new setting is made on the image, it is slightly repainted.

Everything is unpredictable and everything can be. I know many cases when the lost things came back. They have their own stories

For example, I had a case in my practice. In the eighties, I was working in Nizhny Novgorod and there looked through the museum funds, usual funds. They got one icon, it was believed that it was the nineteenth century, it was the Oranskaya Mother of God. The Oransky Monastery has been known since the seventeenth century, and this icon was also considered lost. A piece came off at the bottom, and they saw that one of the saints had a different eye. After that, this icon attracted attention, we were given money, and we took it to Moscow. Eventually, it was uncovered, it turned out that the icon had lost the background. In the nineteenth century, the restorers had the following practice: to repaint the background of the icon if it fell ill. The background was cut out along the contour of the image and repainted. That is why the figure may be of one century, the background — of the other, it was repainted, and at the same time corrected the face. This icon has been repainted several times, and at one point it disappears. Then the Bolsheviks stripped gold and silver from it, and someone from intelligent people just hid in the museum funds. It was kept there until its time. Now it is restored and stored in the Oransky Monastery. It is back.

Metropolitan Feofan also believes that when historical justice is restored and the cathedral is built the icon can miraculously return to Kazan.

Everything is unpredictable and everything can be. I know many cases when the lost things came back. They have their own history. For example, the Feodotyevskaya icon in the Ryazan Oblast, a particularly revered image, it disappeared during the invasion, it did not appear for a long time, but then, when the local knyazes stopped fighting among themselves, the icon was found in a very unexpected place, in some abandoned chapel.

“We are painting starry sky on the ceiling”

Could you tell us how things are going in the cave temple, arranged at the place of finding the icon by the girl Matrona in 1579?

Well, I think you know the history of the cave temple. Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna donated money for it, then the Bolsheviks came, the cathedral was blown up, a tobacco factory was built... The cave temple survived. Here again, we should praise Shaimiev. That’s the will of one person — the first president of Tatarstan, and the cathedral becomes restored. They began to dig out the foundation. We should have been called back in 2016, when it was only dug up and fragments of painting were much more, we were at this time in Sviyazhsk. But we were called only in 2017, the conservation should have been started earlier. But there’s a huge amount of work, such a rush, we have no time to do everything. In 2017, our work began on the fragments that reached us. It was decided that the painting should be restored. There was no clear description of what it was historically, that there was a night sky with gold stars and there were two sketches by Shchusev.

We should have been called back in 2016, when it was only dug up and fragments of painting were much more, we were at this time in Sviyazhsk. But we were called only in 2017, the conservation should have been started earlier

Shchusev, of course, was brought by Elizabeth Feodorovna, who had excellent taste of art, knew the styles, loved Art Nouveau…

... and already worked with Shchusev. He made an underground temple in the Martha and Mary Monastery. The sketches of the design of the cave temple in Kazan by Shchusev are preserved in the archives, and they were even published. But according to the recorded stories of eyewitnesses, the paintings were made not by artists, but by nuns, so it’s the biggest problem in the restoration. Everything was done asymmetrically. Everything was done on a whim. Now these fragments have been traced, we will paint accruing to them. It was on the tracing paper we saw this difference. We'll still have to draw on the walls in the same way. It was decided that we restore the starry sky on the ceiling, but the remains of painting on the walls that have survived, but they are incredibly few, will be restored. Now we are clarifying the concept, the preparatory period if going to an end, archaeologists have dug up the foundations, thank God no one goes into these remains, but we now have to clean up the layers of dirt. Our task is to complete the work by the end of October.

Which team is working with you?

Moscow team, the same workshop where I have worked for forty years.

Who makes the iconostasis for the cave temple?

Masters from the city of Murom. Everything is done simultaneously — the iconostasis, the construction of the cathedral, our work.

By Tatyana Mamaeva. Photo: Maksim Platonov
Tatarstan