The Ruin Keepers - changing attitudes to abandoned medieval ruins
Part II

Volunteers led by Vasily Plitin are focused on hundreds 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
This is Part II of Artiom Ganin's interview with Vasily Plitin, the founder of The Ruin Keepers volunteer movement which rescues medieval ruins in Russia's westernmost Kaliningrad region on the Baltic Sea - formerly known as Germany's East Prussia. The region is famous for having hundreds of churches and castles built by the mighty Teutonic order. They still stand but are in a very fragile and dire state following decades of neglect by the Soviet authorities.

Here you can read Part I of the interview where we talked about how it all started, what was the driving force and why these medieval ruins - alien to the Russian culture and mindset - do matter a lot. Vasily and one of the movement's coordinators Svetlana Nazarova shared their philosophy behind the concept of aesthetically appealing ruins and told me what it takes to change the attitudes toward this kind of cultural heritage among the local population.
Kashtanovo, Almenhausen Kirche
CnP: What do locals say about your initiative?
SN: As a rule, our sites are located in quite depressive villages in the depth of the region, most of the local residents are senior citizens or they have their own existential problems to solve. So, saving the historical sites is not among their priorities.

In most cases locals are indifferent. This is the reason why the monuments are in such a bad state. And this poses problems – how to maintain them in the future after we have completed our clean-ups. This is a big problem.
Zheleznodorozhny, Gerdauen Kirche
SN: Locals would come up and show their interest in what we do. They ask questions like who sent us here and are normally quite surprised to learn no one did, that we came here on our own.
SN: It is difficult to engage locals, it requires a lot of effort and time (you need to print ads, talk to every household, etc. – we don't have the resources). Even if we have the resources it would not pay off.
Sometimes we were lucky to establish good relations with the local people of culture and they in their turn managed to engage the local population. But this is an exception. Still, we are happy the trend is positive. We've recently had a clean-up in the village of Kumachevo (ex-Kumehnen) and 30 local residents turned up!
Ushakovo, Brandenburg kirche
CnP: Let me tell you this – there's a house in Sovetsk (ex-Tilsit) where prominent German actor Armin Müller-Stahl was born in 1930. It is a beautiful building, but it is a rundown building. Who will be ready to invest in the house to redevelop it, say, in a hotel if there's no tourist infrastructure around it. What's the solution?
SN: Armin Muller-Stahl's house has more or less good prospects – it is located in a big city that is Sovetsk. The city does have tourist potential. Local authorities are interested in it and they've recently launched a project to revive it. Court proceedings have been initiated against the owner of the building who failed to deliver on the commitments to restore it. It is expected that the building will be seized from the owner and the local authorities will start restoration works, redevelopment, will find an investor, etc. With a clever approach in mind the nearby tourist attractions and infrastructure will be let to make the project economically efficient and compensate for the money spent on it.
Novo-Moskovskoye Porschken Kirche
SN: There are tens of beautiful estates and other objects which are really in the middle of nowhere. One will need a lot of money and effort to restore them. It is obvious that a sensible entrepreneur will hardly invest in an estate in the middle of nowhere with no prospects to earn money. We need to have other places of interest and attractions around such an estate and an easy way to reach it. Simple loans alone will not help, we need a proper tourist infrastructure.
So, the best way to deal with sites located away from the main tourist routes is to conserve them till better times. Let's hope the region will get so many settlers with large coffers that the existing resorts won't be able to receive them all and investors will start looking for alternatives in the depth of the Kaliningrad region.
Zhemchuzhnoye, Schaaken Kirche
CnP: Exactly! When you restore these objects, you have to connect them with one another. You have to create your own legends about these places to attract tourists, create tourist routes, open shops and cafes. This will give the area around them a kiss of life. The ruins and old buildings will rise from the dead. But who is capable of doing it?
SN: The most logical would be to include the objects into tourist routes which would show visitors ruins, intact monuments, natural sights, unusual hotels, cafes and restaurants and locally produced food.
Zhemchuzhnoye, Schaaken Kirche
SN: A lot of our object are already connected. But there are quite a few guides who offer such tours. We need more of them. The more tourist we receive the more serious steps will be taken to maintain and restore these objects.

But you have to do it gradually and allow the infrastructure to adjust - otherwise it will simply collapse.

No one travels to distant towns and villages because there're no restaurants, toilets, roads, communal transport and not because there's nothing to see. People just don't have any idea these objects exist.
Zhemchuzhnoye, Schaaken Kirche
SN: Don't forget about foreign tourists, we still hope the borders will be open one day. The object we deal with are very important for the so-called nostalgic tours – it is when relatives or descendants of Germans who once resided in East Prussia before the war search through the archives and then strive to come here where their ancestors once lived where they their roots are. They want to see these places with their own eyes. They can be potential sponsors who will be ready to pay for the landscaping and the maintenance – they actually used to do it. Such kind of tourists definitely need both the objects and the infrastructure around them.
Novo-Moskovskoye Porschken Kirche
SN: We need to attract foreign investments or get grants. And there should be an organization which would administer the projects, we believe that we could become the administrators in the future. A lot need to be done to make it happen. Look at what is happening in the village of Zheleznodorozhny (ex-Gerdauen). Look at Ragnit and Schaaken castles. Experienced people who run these projects are capable of building the required infrastructure.

This is just the beginning for us and for the Kaliningrad region and we are not going to stop there.
Roshchino, Gross Georgenau Kirche
CnP: A lot of these monuments like churches and castles are run by the Russian Orthodox Church. What does the Church think of your activities?

VP: Well, it's tricky. In 2010 all objects were handed over to the church – at least on paper. It was meant to put the pressure off the local authorities. In fact, no one cares about these objects now.
The Church is responsible to keep these objects in a proper state but in reality the parishes especially in distant and low population areas can hardly maintain their churches not to mention the ruins which belong to them. They lack the resources and the money to do it.
Kashtanovo, Almenhausen Kirche
VP: Do not forget that in comparison with mainland Russia the Kaliningrad region is not that religious. Anti-clerical sentiments were strong here till the 1980s. The first Orthodox church was opened in the late 80s. The Church restored only 25 objects in the region from 1980 till 2010. The church is unable to restore the rest of them which are scattered all across the region. Well, to be honest it makes no sense.
Novo-Moskovskoye, Porschken Kirche
VP: So, it explains pretty well why the Church welcomes our initiative. Unfortunately, they only render us moral support and from time to time provide meals. They do what they can. As for us we coordinate our activities with the parishes which are responsible for the sites we want to clean.

We hope our efforts will bring the ruins in focus of the Church, it will become more interested and the concept of aesthetically appealing ruins will result in better maintenance and well thought-through landscaping of the ruined monuments.
Ushakovo, Brandenburg kirche
CnP: What's your biggest victory?
VP: I am very happy that our initiative has got great support, dozens of people come to our clean-ups, local media write about us, each day we get more followers on social media. It means that active people are interested in what we do.

The fact that the regional authorities got interested too is a great success. We get support when we need to talk with local authorities and we hope our future interaction with the state and its respective bodies will be even more constructive.
Timiryazevo, Joneykischken Kirche
CnP: What was the strongest emotion you got during your activities?
SN: For me and for many volunteers it is the before-after scenes. It is very emotional. Imagine you come to an object in early morning, you can hardly see the monument, it is grown with bushes and it is littered. In a matter of several hours you can see a wonderful transformation. I just can't get used to the fact that so many great and interesting people do it for free, on their own accord, on their days off (sometimes it is the only day off they have). Sometimes the weather is nasty. Imagine we are taking care of medieval heritage sites for the first time during decades of neglect. It just takes my breath away every time!
Dvorkino, Friedenberg kirche
CnP: Did you find anything dating back to the medieval times during the clean-ups?
VP: To be honest in most cases our catch is garbage, garbage and garbage. The monuments have turned to ruins and dumping sites.
We clean the surface only. We normally find a lot of bricks – broken and intact – floor and roof tiles, slate which was used to cover the domes of belfries. The most interesting ones are old artisanal bricks of Teutonic structures with animal paws marks, some elements of portals and vaults and pieces of stained glass. We register every artifact and store them – in the future we want to hold exhibitions about our activities, we may also start a museum or hand these artifacts over to museums which could be organized near the objects.
Burg Ragnit
SN: I'd like to remind you that right after the war or later the sites depending on their status were plundered by archaeological looters. They stole all valuable artifacts, they looted the tombs or crypts inside the churches and at cemeteries. These artifacts are now in private collections or were sold abroad. The chance to find something really important and valuable is small. But there's still the need to study the cultural layer.
Zalesye, Mehlauken Kirche
CnP: The Sorokins are now busy with the Waldau castle which was built by the Teutonic order. There's also a team engaged with the Ragnit Castle redevelopment project, others take care of Schaaken. What needs to be done with the ruins of the Teutonic castles?
VP: The castles were handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church together with the churches in 2010. It makes it challenging to restore or revive them. It seems logical to transfer these castles and fortresses to responsible investors. The example of Waldau which is being restored thanks to grants just like the conservation of Ragnit in Neman proves that this approach works fine.
Roshchino, Gross Georgenau kirche
But it is the responsibility of the investor to treat the historical monument during the restoration works as cautiously and tender as possible. The state bodies which supervise such works must play an important part here.

CnP: There's a crowdfunding start-up for the historical heritage projects in France, it is called Dartagnans. They helped raise several million euros to buy three chateaux – people from across the world chipped in and now they have castle in shared ownership. Why not launch the same platform here in Russia?
Novo-Moskovskoye, Porschken Kirche
VP: Raising money for restoration and conservation of historical monuments is extremely helpful. We have a similar program in the Kaliningrad region which is called Landscaping and Mutual help. They are raising money to rebuild 7 historical monuments. It is hard to say now if this crowdfunding campaign will work but one has to attract investment through any channels possible.

Znamensk, St Jacobi Kirche (ex-Wehlau)
SN: We would like to raise money like this and get grants. But we have to bear the following in mind – we have dozens of objects which need our help and attention. We can't have two objects which we will devote all our time and money. Otherwise we'll stop expanding. We are now focused not on the idea of saving a couple of sites – we want to change the attitudes towards such sites in principle. We want to promote our concept of aesthetically appealing ruins across the region – we want to be heard in every distant corner of the region. We want to set up regional branch offices and have as wide reach as possible.
Znamensk, St Jacobi Kirche (ex-Wehlau)
CnP: Would you like to own a Teutonic castle or a church or incorporate the historical ruins into an atmospheric hotel or a restaurant – with due respect for the history of the place of course?
VP: The idea of reviving an imposing historical monument through its modern use is very appealing! But you have to understand that you need to be very cautious and delicate. Its restoration is costly, its maintenance is costly too, the development of such a project is expensive. If you take up this responsibility you have to have enough money to be able to complete what you've started. You have to be psychologically prepared to carry this burden. I don't have such resources now but I wouldn't mind doing it one day!
Krylovo, Nordenburg Kirche
CnP: Do Germans take interest in your initiative? Has anybody contacted you?
VP: Gaining support from Germans is not among our goals at the moment. Our goal is to engage local residents of the Kaliningrad region into preserving unique historical monuments, this is our heritage and it is our common responsibility to maintain them as any civilized society would do.

Then you should not forget about the politics – it is not the best time now to have close contacts between us, the Kaliningrad organization, and German foundations.
Krylovo, Nordenburg Kirche
SN: We have some followers on Instagram from Germany and judging by their comments they are descendants of Germans who once lived here. They welcome our initiative but these are only words and not deed although we've never started any campaigns they could potentially participate. Some of them told us we should get in touch with the German War Graves commission. It is obvious that Germans are interested but even if they offer us support we are not sure we'll be able to make use of it – the political context is unfavorable now.
Romanovo, Pobethen Kirche
CnP: Name your favorite ruins in the Kaliningrad region please!
VP: For me personally all of them matter. The restored church of Arnau in Rodniki (former Arnau) and the surviving part of the wall of Heiligenbeil church in Mamonovo (former Heiligenbeil) are equally important to me. Even a small fragment has a long history behind, it can reveal a lot about the history of the place and create certain atmosphere.

SN: Still, we talked and here's what we think about top 10 ruined churches:
And these are top 5 ruined castles in the region. They are impressive both in terms of their beauty, scale and history. Not all of them are easy to reach in the context of our regular clean-ups. But we hope we'll expand our network and in the future our branches will be able to carry out works there in a more systematic way.
CnP: Which foreign ruins are the most impressive?
VP: The best historical ruins which follow the concept of aesthetically appealing ruins – well looked after, landscaped and conserved – are located in the UK. They are no doubt the ruined abbeys of Glastonbury, Fountains, Whitby, Tintern and many others. Brits have the ideal approach towards preserving the ruins. They create scenic parks, they look so great, next to perfect! We are doing our best to follow suit.
CnP: What needs to be done to Konigsberg castle? Should it be restored or rebuilt?
VP: This is one of the corner stones of today's Kaliningrad reality. People - including among our volunteers – have different opinions, which is quite alright.

It is impossible to restore the original castle. Even if everyone agrees it needs to be done the new building will be a modern stylization and it would hardly be the symbol of Kaliningrad. Besides the buildings around it are 100% modernist.
Tishino, Abschwagen Kirche
VP: I think the castle needs to be studied comprehensively during archaeological works. Such works need to get a very wide coverage in the media, various cultural events need to be organized. In the end we need to release the results of the works. The surviving dungeons and foundations of the castle need to be conserved and a museum needs to be set up.
We very much hope that you enjoyed my interview with Vasily Plitin and Svetlana Nazarova of The Ruin Keepers who take care of ruined churches and castles in Russia's westernmost Kaliningrad region.

If you've missed Part I it's high time you read it now here.

Photo credits:
Alexey Filippov @lexsmyliekoff
Anna Greber @struzhka_v_dome
Andrey Novozhilov @peps39

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