Russian Revival architecture

The Russian Revival style  is the generic term for a number of different movements within Russian architecture that arose in second quarter of the 19th century and was an eclectic melding of pre-Peterine Russian architecture and elements of Byzantine architecture

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The Russian Revival style arose within the framework the renewed interest in the national architecture, which evolved in Europe in the 19th century, and it is an interpretation and stylization of the Russian architectural heritage.

Sometimes Russian Revival style is erroneously called Russian or Old-Russian architecture, although the majority of Revival architects did not directly reproduce the old architectural tradition. Being instead a skillful stylization, the Russian Revival style was consecutively combined with other, international styles — from the architectural romanticism of first half of the 19th century to the modern style.



The first extant example of Byzantine Revival in Russian architecture, in fact the first example ever built, stands in Potsdam, Germany — a five-domed Alexander Nevsky Memorial Church by Neoclassicist Vasily Stasov (builder of neoclassical Trinity Cathedral, St. Petersburg, father of critic Vladimir Stasov). Next year, in 1827, Stasov completed a larger five-domed Church of the Tithes in Kiev.

The Russo-Byzantine idea was carried forward by Konstantin Thon with the firm approval by Nicholas I. Thon's style embodied the idea of continuity between Byzantium and Russia, perfectly matching the ideology of Nicholas I's. Russian-Byzantine architecture is characterised by mixing the composition methods and vaulted arches of Byzantine architecture with ancient Russian exterior ornaments, and were vividly realized in Thon's 'model projects'. In 1838, Nicholas I «pointed out» Thon's book of model designs to all architects; more enforcement followed in 1841 and 1844.

Buildings designed by Thon or based on Thon's designs were: Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the Grand Kremlin Palace and the Armoury in Moscow, also cathedrals in Sveaborg, Yelets, Tomsk, Rostov-on-Don and Krasnoyarsk.

Official enforcement of Byzantine architecture was, in fact, very limited: it applied only to new church construction, and to a lesser extent — to royal palaces. Private and public construction proceeded independently. Thon's own public buildings, like the pseudo-Renaissance Nikolaevsky Terminal, lack any Byzantine features. A closer look at churches constructed in Nicholas reign reveals many first-rate neoclassical buildings, like the Elokhovo Cathedral in Moscow (1837–1845) by Yevgraph Tyurin. Official Byzantine art was not absolute in Nicholas reign; it is actually scarce in our days, as the Byzantine churches, declared 'worthless' by Bolsheviks, were the first to be demolished in the Soviet era.


Another direction taken by the Russian Revival style was a reaction against official Thon art, influenced by romanticism, Slavophilism and detailed studies of vernacular architecture. The forerunner of this trend in church design was Alexey Gornostaev (in his later years, 1848–1862), notable for reinventing Northern Russian tented roof motif augmented with Romanesque and Renaissance vault structure. An early extant example in civil architecture is the wooden Pogodinskaya cottage in Devichye Pole, Moscow, by Nikolai Nikitin (1856, photo).


The Emancipation reform of 1861 and subsequent reforms of Alexander II pushed the liberal elite into exploring the roots of national culture. The first result of these studies in architecture was a birth of «folk» or Pseudo-Russian style, exemplified by 1870s works of Ivan Ropet (Terem in Abramtsevo, 1873) and Viktor Hartmann (Mamontov printing house, 1872). These artists, in alliance with Narodnik movement, idealized the peasant life and created their own vision of «vernacular» architecture. Another factor was the rejection of western eclectics that dominated civil construction of 1850s-1860s, a reaction against «decadent West», pioneered by influential critic Vladimir Stasov.

Ivan Zabelin, a theorist of the movement, declared that «Russian Khoromy, grown naturally from peasants' log cabins, retained the spirit of beautiful disorder... Beauty of a building is not in its proportions, but on the contrary, in the difference and independence of its parts» («русские хоромы, выросшие органически из крестьянских клетей, естественно, сохраняли в своем составе облик красивого беспорядка... По понятиям древности первая красота здания заключалась не в соответствии частей, а напротив в их своеобразии, их разновидности и самостоятельности»). As a result, «ropetovschina», as Ropet's foes branded his style, concentrated on hoarding together vivid but not matching pieces of vernacular architecture, notably high-pitched roofs, barrel roofs and wood tracery. Wood was the preferred material, since many fantasies could not be physically built in masonry. This was good and bad for «ropetovschina». Bad, because wooden structures, especially those unconventionally shaped, were not scalable and had a very short life span. Very few survive to date. Good, because speed of construction and unorthodox looks were a perfect match for exhibition pavilions, coronation stands and similar short-term projects. The trend continued into 20th century (Fyodor Schechtel, 1901 draft) and 1920s (Ilya Golosov, 1923 draft).

For a short time in the 1880s, a less radical version of Pseudo-Russian style, based on copying 17th century brick architecture, almost succeeded as the new official art. These buildings were built, as a rule, from the brick or whitestone, with the application of modern construction technology they began to be abundantly decorated in the traditions of Russian popular architecture. The characteristic architectural elements of this time, such as «pot-bellied» columns, low arched ceilings, narrow window-loop holes, tented roofs, frescoes with floral designs, use of multicolored tiles and massive forging, are manifest both in the external and in the internal decoration of these structures. A typical example is the Historical Museum (1875–81, architect Vladimir Sherwood) which completed the ensemble of Red Square in Moscow.


At the turn of the centuries, the Russian Orthodox Church experienced a new trend; construction of unusually large cathedrals in working-class suburbs of big cities. Some, like Dorogomilovo Ascension Cathedral (1898–1910), rated for 10,000 worshippers, were launched in quiet country outskirts that increased in population by the time of completion. Christian theorists explain the choice of such remote locations with the desire to extend the reach of Church to working class, and only working class, in the time when wealthier classes stepped away from it. Byzantine architecture was a natural choice for these projects. It was a clear statement of national roots, against the modern European heresies. It was also much cheaper than grand Neoclassical cathedrals, both in initial costs and subsequent maintenance. The largest examples of this type were all completed after the Russian revolution of 1905:

  • Dorogomilovo Cathedral, Moscow, 1898–1910
  • Our Lady of Iberia Cathedral in Nikolo-Perervinsky Monastery Cathedral, Pererva (now Moscow) 1904—1908
  • Kronstadt Naval Cathedral, 1908–1913


  • Rogozhskoye Cemetery belltower by Fyodor Gornostaev, 1908–1913
  • Balakovo church by Fyodor Schechtel, 1909–1912
  • St.Nicholas church by Belorusskaya Zastava in Moscow, 1914–1921

Useful Information

The Russian Revival style
Russian: псевдорусский стиль, неорусский стиль

Cultural background

Like the romantic revivals of Western Europe the Russian revival was informed by a scholarly interest in the historic monuments of the nation. This historicism resonated with the popular nationalism and pan-Slavism of the period.

The first illustrated account of Russian architecture was the project of Count Anatole Demidov and French draughtsman André Durand, the record of their 1839 tour of Russia was published in Paris in 1845 as Album du voyage pittoresque et archaéologique en Russie. Durand’s lithographs betray a foreigner’s sensitivity to the seeming alien-ness of Russian architecture displaying some curiously distorted features, and while they are on the whole fairly accurate representations the folios he produced belong to the genre of travel literature rather than historical inquiry.

The attempt to discern the chronology and development of Russia’s building begins in earnest with Ivan Snegirev and A. A Martynov’s 'Russkaya starina v pamyatnikakh tserkovnago i grazhanskago zodchestva' (Moscow, 1851).

The state took an interest in this endeavour, sponsoring a series of folios published as 'Drevnosti rossiiskago gosudavstva' (Moscow 1849-53 in 6 volumes) depicting antiquities and decorative works of art.

By this time the Moscow Archaeological Society undertook research on the subject, formalizing it as a field of study. A series of triennial conferences were instituted from 1869 until 1915, whose reports included studies of the architecture of the Kievian Rus and early Moscow periods. Perhaps the Society’s most significant achievement was the publication of the 'Kommissii po sokhraneniiu drevnikh pamyatnikov' in 6 volumes between 1907 and 1915.

Also the St. Petersburg Academy of fine Arts commissioned research from V. V. Suslov in the form of his two multi-volume works Panyatniki drevnyago russkago zodchestva (1895–1901, seven parts) and Pamyatniki drevne-russkago iskusstva (1908–12, 4 parts).

With the application of positivist historical principals the chronology of Russian architecture was firmly established by the time of the publication of that definitive 6-volume survey of Russian art 'Istoriya russkogo isskustva' (1909–17), edited by Igor Grabar, the appearance of the final volume was, however, interrupted by the revolution.