01 September 2011

The Curious Style of Russia’s Unpainted Houses


The northwest side of our house in Zaloz’ye with only a light stain on the lower window trim and the front veranda.

Back In April 2003 we stayed for a week with our farmer cousins, Tonya and Sergei, at their winter home in Zabelino.  We were waiting for a treacherous ride on the icy road to Zaloz’ye to see the property we eventually bought.  On one of the no-go days, Larissa and I strolled the frosty snowy ground, looking at the homes in Zabelino and next door Zarech’ye.

The Russian Style...

Some were well-cared for, others ramshackled, a few had burned to the ground (no fire department).  It struck me  that they had no paint, what we in America call screaming for paint, and many had windows leaning every which way. This is the Russian style... unpainted exteriors with only the trim and gingerbread around the windows and eaves painted.

Now we too have a unpainted home, with out of kilter windows to boot!  See [Hotlink]The Akilter Windows of Zaloz'ye, Russia  Most people agree that paint or stain can preserve wood.  But many Russians feel little anxiety about untreated wood, and no social pressure to stain or paint.

A large exception...

The lavish cottages (large homes) in or near Moscow, on which the New Russians spare no expense, are painted or stained.

The majority opt for little or no wood protection...

While my posts this summer have shown many examples of old untreated homes among our total of 32 houses, there are 12 homes in Zaloz’ye that are stained or painted, as you might expect to find in Western Europe or America.  But 15 have no preservatives applied to their exteriors and 5, including our house, have just a fraction covered.


A new cabin with stain.

In our old village, populated mainly May through October by people in their 50s and older, paint or stain is used sparingly... on floors, and exterior and interior trim.  Wallpaper and paneling are preferred over paint for the walls.


Arkady’s house and front garden.

Our neighbor Arkady

There’s a new recruit to the painted house group, Arkady, our village octogenarian and do-it-yourselfer.  For years he lived next door to our cousins’ summer house in a small cabin noticeable for lovely dramatic flowers which filled the front yard,  His wife died a few years ago, and his cousin around the same time left him his present house, just across the side road from us, looking northwest.

Arkady moved in and started with his own repairs to the roof.  Then he surprised everyone by painting his little home a rich deep red!  He has slowed down a little since as some as some wood fell on top of and nearly killed him last year when he was doing an inside improvement. 

He gets many solicitous visits from the single ladies, who are quick to put him ahead in line at the autolavka truck store, and general treat him with great respect.


So, I have cogitated, speculated, and wondered why so many small homes in Russia, and a large part of the homes in Zaloz’ye, are unpainted... 

1.  A history of rural poverty.

Russian history is often gloomy.  Serfs were emancipated from private lands in 1861, others on public land in 1866.  Hard times continued with peasant unrest, civil war, harsh measure against the Kulaks, pogroms, famine, more war.

Living in uncertain times, where private ownership was unprotected or not allowed, reduced incentives to improve the place where you happened to live.  If you feel your possession of property is precarious, you’re less likely to invest money and effort in it.

2.  A preference to lay low and not engender interest or jealousy.

Sensible people living in tsarist and Soviet times found it safer to not attract attention.  The result is many homes have a purposely unkempt exterior, and a rich elaborate interior away from jealous eyes.  Envy seems to be a particularly strong emotion in Russian society, so it makes sense to try not to be a target.

3.  People here are not sold on the idea that it is necessary to paint or stain wood. 

People who understand log homes say never use paint to cover logs!  Paint doesn’t breathe, and seals in moisture, causing rot.  They recommend a semi-transparent stain instead. 1 [hotlink]  Bearfort Lodge  

Many log homes here in Zaloz’ye are sided with boards.  Also the attic and veranda often is constructed with lumber without any logs underneath.  One home has vinyl siding, which for a log cabin is considered anathema in the States. 2 [hotlink]  Contractortalk Forum

 In America, business is good if you convince people what they previously considered a luxury is now a necessity.  But I think, “Why spend a lot of money and energy painting or staining when it isn’t a cultural imperative?”  Houses last a long time painted or unpainted, so there’s no need to knock yourself out.


Fence and veranda got stain, the rest nothing.

Way back when...

Back in the 70s and 80s in small town Lebanon NJ, I struggled to keep our Victorian house painted.  It is an old house and had layers of oil and latex paint, with I’m sure a lot of lead in the bargain.  On a teacher’s salary with five children to feed, it fell to me to do the climbing, scraping, and painting, often perched high on a ladder borrowed from a neighbor across the way.

I just couldn’t keep up physically or financially.  I recall hours sweating, breathing through a flimsy dusty facemask, with heavy aching arms.  It left me very tired, feeling chemically polluted, and with a dull headache for the next two working days in the classroom.

Sometimes life is easier here...

Russia is a breath of fresh air for me.  Larissa doesn’t worry about what the neighbors think, and the neighbors could care less if we paint our house or not, with no palaver about how we have to all maintain property values.  Now that’s freedom I can enjoy!


This home has what we call a prianik (sweet pastry) design, an Alpine look.


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