The Ruin Keepers - promoting the aesthetics of medieval ruins
Part I

Vasily Plitin has started a volunteer movement whose goal is to preserve dozens of ruined medieval churches and castles built by the Teutonic order in what is now Russia's westernmost Kaliningrad region.


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Vasily Plitin, founder of The Ruin Keepers volunteer movement
Artiom Ganin is in the west of Russia which once was Germany's East Prussia. The Kaliningrad region has rich history and can still boast hundreds of historical heritage sites such as old Teutonic castles, churches built by the knights, vast estates and beautiful manors. However most of these sites are in a dire state following decades of neglect. I am talking with the founder of The Ruin Keepers Vasily Plitin and one of the movement's coordinators Svetlana Nazarova. The volunteers promote their concept of aesthetically appealing ruins – they believe that in most cases the dilapidated and ruined heritage sites need to be saved through conservation and not through their rebuilding or redevelopment. The Ruin Keepers' goal is to create in the Kaliningrad region a large network of well-looked after and well-landscaped conserved ruins, which in its turn will make the region more attractive for tourists and more comfortable for locals. We've talked about the volunteer clean-ups, the growth of the movement and the source of inspiration.
Porechye, Allenau Kirche
Castles_and_Palaces (CnP): Who's behind attempts to save the ruins of Russia's Kaliningrad region?
Vasily Plitin (VP)
: First of all – the idea of preserving historical ruins has deep roots across the globe. People started preserving the ruins dating back to the antiquity or the Middle Ages in the 19th century.

Kaliningrad is no exception too. After the war (WWII) the authorities preserved and partially conserved the ruins of the Konigsberg Cathedral in this newly-created Soviet region.
Porechye, Allenau Kirche
VP: In the 1990s when the region opened up, we had a flow of German tourists who were nostalgic about their homeland which they lost after the war. Many churches which were neglected during the Soviet times were restored. Some ruins underwent conservation and locals helped too. The main examples are the conservation of the ruined 13thcentury Deutschordenskirche St. Jacobi in Znamensk (former Wehlau) and the ruins of the Germau Kirche in Russkoye (former Germau).
Zalesye, Mehlauken Kirche
VP: It is to be noted though that most Russian don't get it – why preserve the ruins and not restore the building to how it once looked? As a rule, people want to have these structures restored and they criticize the authorities for being irresponsible towards historical monuments. After most of the churches and castles including the ruined ones were handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church in 2010 the criticism only grew stronger.
Chernyshevskoye, Eydtkuhnen Kirche
VP: Now 10 years passed and it is clear that no one will restore the abandoned churches because this is a huge money and social issue. So, the only way to preserve the memory about those unique historical objects is to preserve and conserve the ruins and to make them easy to access for all.
VP: There's a photographer in Kaliningrad – Sofya Demskaya. In the early 2010s she launched a project called The Stealing Beauty of the Teutonic Order. Her main idea is that the ruins are imposing and they still preserve the unique magic of the redbrick gothic.
Dvorkino, Friedenberg Kirche
VP: There's also a Lithuanian artist Romanas Borisovas who travelled across the Kaliningrad region looking for historical ruins. He found a lot of them. He says that the ruins witnessed the history as it developed and now exist as something totally self-sufficient.
Russian entrepreneur reviving a former home of Prussian von Below family near Kaliningrad
VP: The museum of Mamonovo (former Heiligenbeil) did a great job with the ruins of the Heiligenbeil church – it prompted the inception of the philosophy behind the 'aesthetics of the ruins'.

All those activities inspired me to create in 2020 this volunteer movement - Ostpreussen fans – with this aesthetics philosophy in mind. In 2021 the movement was renamed the Ruin Keepers.
Gestellovo, Groß Friedrichsdorf Kirche
CnP: Tell me a few words about yourself please! What's your background?
VP: I was born in a small town near Kaliningrad. My father was born in the Kaliningrad region as well and now my son represents the third generation of Russians who considers former East Prussia - which is now Russia's westernmost Kaliningrad region – as their homeland.
Kashtanovo, Armenhausen Kirche
VP: I have always loved history – since I was a small kid. And the history of the Kaliningrad region is so rich! There are some many legends about wars, crusaders and the nobility. There are tragic stories about the battles of WWII. A lot of locals take interest in the past of the region. A lot of local residents had unusual childhood – we spent a lot of free time playing inside the ruined churches and castles which were built by the Teutons or inside the ruins of former Nazi military objects. We searched for artifacts on the former WWII battlefields and inside abandoned structures.
Timiryazevo, Joneykischken Kirche
VP: This is why I enrolled into the history department of the Kaliningrad University (it is now called the Emmanuel Kant Baltic Federal University). It happened in 2004. And during my time there I took part in the summer camps and archaeological expeditions – this is where I met many Kaliningrad historians and archaeologists. I felt quite at home among these people.

Still, I had to leave the university and I am now involved in catering. But you know my greatest hobby now is history and the historical heritage of the Kaliningrad region. I devote all of my free time (and even more) to my hobby now.
Novo-Moskovskoye, Porschken Kirche
VP: In 2014–2019 I participated in the Prussia Heritage historic preservation project. I started organizing regular volunteer clean-ups at the churches of Tarau (the village of Vladimirovo) and Borchersdorf (the village of Zelenolopye). During the first stage of Burg Ragnit restoration project I took care of the volunteers.
Kuybyshevskoye, Petersdorf Kirche
VP: Then in January 2020 I set up a separate volunteer movement whose focus is to preserve and promote the historical heritage of the Kaliningrad region called Ostpreussen fans which is now The Ruin Keepers. We started as a small movement which organized random Saturday clean-ups and posted nice pictures on my Instagram page. But the movement has now grown much bigger. We launch regular large-scale volunteer activities at dozens of historical heritage sites. Some 50-80 people participate in them and they are supported by the local authorities, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Monument Preservation body, several partners and hundreds of people who follow our activities. Our idea is great, we have big plans and I am very happy about it.
Kumachevo, Kumehnen Kirche
CnP: Why should one rescue the ruins?
VP: People have always took interest in their past, their ancestors, their family history, the history of the place they live in. This knowledge about the past helped people identify their place in life and in the model of this world. Historical monuments have witnessed the past epochs, when people look at them they ponder on the twists and turns of history.
Zelenopolye, Borchersdorf Kirche
VP: In most cases and because of those twists and turns a lot of historical monuments fail to survive or are in a ruined or abandoned state. As a rule, the complex social and economic context hamper complete restoration of the ruins. In modern times, castles and churches no longer have their original purpose so they become ruins – this comes naturally.
Timiryazevo, Joneykischken Kirche
VP: We notice that their ruined state is a new form of existence for such objects. For most people residing in the Kaliningrad region ruins are not considered as something valuable, even unique medieval ruins are treated as something one has to be ashamed of. Most of them look like a scrapyard no one cares about – it only makes thing worse as the walls and the foundations keep falling apart.

In fact, the only way we can save a historical monument is to facilitate its conservation and promote the right approach towards its ruined state. Ruins need to be rescued because every year counts. Otherwise in the near future the Kaliningrad region may lose the uniqueness it owes to these medieval ruins.
Ulyanovo, Kraupischken Kirche
CnP: But aren't these ruins alien to the Russian culture. Aren't they some remains of an alien civilization which has no place in Russia?
VP: We treat the heritage of the Kaliningrad region as part of our shared world's heritage and history. Russia has always been a civilization which absorbed the culture of many peoples. A lot of states existed within the Russian boundaries. Many of them were Russia's enemies but now these regions are treated as Russia's integral parts.
Dvorkino, Friedenberg Kirche
VP: Take Saint Petersburg for instance. The Russian northern capital has the layout of a European city. Russia's largest museums keep masterpieces created by world's best masters. Look at the country's iconic architectural monuments and you will see the influence of various different cultures, a lot of them were built by foreign architects. It is not bad, on the contrary our country benefits from it. It makes our culture rich.
Kumachevo, Kumehnen Kirche
VP: Thousands of people are nostalgic about the Soviet Union whose ideology was based on Karl Marx' and Friedrich Engels' works. The new democratic Russia was founded on the principles preached by the leading Western powers. Every civilized state's responsibility is to protect historical monuments and cultural heritage no matter who once owned them.

The Kaliningrad region is the only place in Russia which can boast unique monuments built in the late Middle Ages. It has the heritage of the Teutonic Order which is precious and there's no doubt that the state must protect and maintain it. The historical ruins are no exception.
Yaroslavskoye, Schonwalde Kirche
CnP: Tell me about your concept – the aesthetics of the ruins.
VP: We believe that the historical monuments of former East Prussia like churches, castles and other sites which are in most cases ruins are valuable. They are picturesque and unique for this country even in such a dire state. We need to prevent them from falling apart completely, we need to conduct rescue works and make them accessible, safe and attractive for tourists. The ruins need to be conserved and the area around them needs to be cleaned up, repurposed and landscaped.
Vladimirovo, Tarau Kirche
VP: The aesthetics of the ruins concept is based on our understanding that it is impossible to recreate all of the historical monuments. Instead of striving to rebuild and recreate them we need save these objects in their current state. One can open a park with the ruins being its dominant part, its key attraction. One can offer guided tours around them, photo sessions and other public events.
Kharbrovo, Powunden Kirche
CnP: What does a typical day of a ruin keeper look like?
VP: Normally a ruin keeper is busy with his own life and work during the work days. On Saturday or Sunday, they would head to a volunteers' gathering. They talk to each other, they make friends and hope to have a productive and inspiring day off.

Before a clean-up starts a volunteer gets instructed about the safety rules, the goals and gets all necessary tools. Volunteers are mainly involved in getting rid of garbage, removing bushes which affect the historical monument. They also remove parts that have collapsed, some bricks etc. They take care of grass lawns too.
VP: Our volunteer gatherings are like performances which unite every single person in a very friendly and warm atmosphere. Our goals is not to work from dusk till dawn. These are not political events. A lot of our volunteers say that they get charged with positive energy which lasts throughout the whole week, it also helps to switch over to a different activity.

One of the greatest things is that one can see the before/after effect in real life – this helps us to attract even more volunteers and see the same faces each time. We have our meal together, check the nearest sites of interest. Volunteers meet a lot of interesting people during the clean-ups. This team spirit brings us together at other events, meeting with each other has become a good traditions for us.
CnP: What kind of people take part in your initiative?
VP: These are very different people, they are of different age and background. Most of the participants are 25-40 years old. As a rule, they have a positive opinion of life and are curious characters, they are active and love outdoor activities. They love their homeland and they hate to see that the historical monuments which have been neglected for so many decades are totally crapped up.

There are volunteers who have recently moved to the Kaliningrad region. They come here in search for a more comfortable environment. They adore the area's rich history and are ready to work for free to make their new home even better. Well-looked after monuments are an integral part of any comfortable environment.
Tishino, Abschwagen Kirche
VP: Look at the history of the region – looks like it has always been a tradition. During the Teutonic times the knights used to invite colonists from Germany to develop lands grown with thick forest; in modern times the French and Dutch worked hard to reclaim lands and turn the region into a developed agricultural center; people from Austria were active in the east of the region too. So, if you think of Russians' presence here along the same lines you would probably see nothing extraordinary. But it is only now that we've started to value what we have here. To a certain degree it happened thanks to the new settlers.
Melnikovo, Rudau Kirche
CnP: Where do you get the money? Do you finance the activities out of your own pocket?
VP: Originally we took care of everything. People would come here in their cars, they would give a lift to those volunteers who didn't have cars, they would bring here the tools, sacks, gloves, hot food and hot tea. This energy coming all the way up from the base or the bottom level adds fuel to our common fire.
Tishino, Abschwagen Kirche
VP: Now the region's governor endorsed our initiative, local authorities help us with removing the trash from the sites, they provide us with equipment and supplies too. Sometimes we get help from entrepreneurs for whom these things do matter a lot! We spent the money on garden tools and chain saws. Sometimes our sponsors provide us with food during our clean-ups. In certain cases, the Russian Orthodox Church supports our efforts – priests take care of catering for the volunteers. We are non-political. We are independent from any political parties or stereotypes which are rife in our society, still we stand for a constructive dialogue with the authorities and the owners for the sake of preserving the heritage.
Oktyabrskoye, Klein Schonau Kirche
Svetlana Nazarova (SN): Our team works for free (solving routine tasks like organizing events, looking after our accounts on social media, coordinating volunteers, interacting with the authorities etc.). In the future we are planning to expand our operations in two directions: firstly, maintaining the heritage sites in line with our concept of the aesthetically appealing ruins and secondly, teaching activities. This is the reason why we'll have to take our finances in a more serious way. We will need the money, grants to fulfill specific tasks and to hire specialists, etc.
Oktyabrskoye, Klein Schonau Kirche
CnP: Please tell me about the existing techniques to rescue ruins!
VP: There are lots of them. It makes sense to mend the roofing of those sites which are in quite a good shape. Those objects which have good restoration and rebuilding prospects should definitely get a special protective roof over the walls and other parts.

Anastylosis is also a popular way to conserve a ruined object. It is a reconstruction technique whereby a ruined building or monument is restored using the original architectural elements found on the site. One can also fix the ruined walls with a special mortar which prevents them from falling apart. You can basically 'make a screen grab" of the object the way it survived.
Tishino, Abschwagen Kirche
CnP: Did you study to save ruins like a pro?
VP: We are volunteers and we are the first link in a long chain – we clean the sites and you don't have to have special education to do it.

We get a green light from the heritage protection bodies and there are certain rules to follow. We strictly abide by the rules in order not to do harm to the heritage sites.

Then others join in and the next steps are usually carried out either by highly qualified specialists or under their supervision. This is what has been here for decades – when volunteers take part in archaeological excavations.
Chekhov, Uderwangen Kirche
VP: We would like to use this method in the future – we would love to invite professional archeologists, restorers, architects, landscape designers and other specialists which are needed to conserve and maintains our ruins. While working at various ruined sites and while looking at the best international and Russian practices we learn a lot. And we want to learn even more about ways to preserve and save ruins.
Khrabrovo, Powunden Kirche
CnP: OK, you cleaned the site of the rubbish but what comes next? You need to carry on otherwise the site will degrade and find itself in the same or even in a worse state.
VP: We love talking about this:-) We really understand that we have limited capabilities. The fact that a lot of historical sites are in a bad state is no surprise at all. This is the outcome of years of neglect. In order to make the ruins aesthetically appealing a systematic approach needs to be taken. A lot of parties should contribute to the process - not only volunteers' clean-ups. We admit that not all of the sites we worked at could in the future transform into a well-landscaped ruin.
Khrabrovo, Powunden Kirche
VP: We have many goals, not only cleaning up the garbage. Our efforts result in a range of positive changes directly for the ruined sites and indirectly for our civil society.

Firstly, we keep promoting the idea that preserving, maintaining and landscaping our historical monuments and our heritage on the whole is something not only the authorities, the Church or volunteers should do. This is the responsibility of our society. It is we the people who need to take a decision – do we need picturesque historical sights? If society does not care one should not expect active steps from the authorities aimed at saving them. We started from the very bottom, we prompted this change in attitudes, we attract new people, we create newsworthy events and expose problems. Gradually our activities and discussion which arise will bring a solution to the problems. The main thing is talking!
Khrabrovo, Powunden Kirche
VP: Secondly, although the concept of the aesthetically appealing ruins is not something new in terms of global practices it has never been in focus on such a scale in the Kaliningrad region. We think of our activities as of a revolution in people's minds – from locals to authorities to public groups. They have never thought that there exists such an approach towards preserving historical monuments. Preserve the ruins and enjoy the aesthetics instead of costly restoration and reconstruction. Our concept will drastically change the heritage of the Kaliningrad region. Our activities could re-open many objects for the local population, the future generation will be able to re-discover a lot of historical sights. They will be ruined but they will be saved and will get a new chance, they will get a kiss of life!
Yaroslavskoye, Schonwalde Kirche
VP: Thirdly, every organized clean-up is a triumph of civil society. For many people the scale of our volunteer activities is an eye-opener. It turned out that many people have long dreamed about taking part in such activities. They just lacked the driving force which could unite so many people. More people join us at our clean-ups. More people are ready now to support us financially. We are witnessing a big wave of public activities and we think we've achieved great results.
Kuybyshevskoye, Petersdorf kirche
VP: Fourthly, even if we never turn up at an object we already cleaned a couple of times think about the amount of garbage we've collected there! In any case our activities will have a long-lasting positive effect on the site. Bear in mind that locals sometimes join in too – so we do hope that they will keep an eye on the sites and stop piling up trash there.
Vladimirovo, Tarau Kirche
VP: Fifthly, every volunteers' clean-up welcomes more people to learn about the historical heritage of their land, the history of a picturesque site and the surrounding area, to talk with like-minded people local residents. We believe it creates a close-knit community of local history lovers who will be ready to protect the heritage in the future because it was them who cleaned up the debris and removed the garbage from this or that site.

We hope every volunteers' clean-up should be followed by specific steps by the local authorities – they should conserve and landscape the sites. We won't sit idle too, we would like to get registered as an NGO to be entitled to state grants to hold cultural events, landscaping and design navigation signs for the sites.
Yablonevka, Lichtenhagen kirche
Photo credits:
Alexey Filippov @lexsmyliekoff
Anna Greber @struzhka_v_dome
Andrey Novozhilov

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