All his life, 35-year-old Vitaly Gashin has served noble goals: if in the past he saved people’s lives, now he saves their historical heritage.
Born in Grozny, capital of Chechnya, Gashin studied geology and exploration at the prestigious Grozny Oil Institute [since closed due to the war]. His father’s ancestors were Cossacks; his mother is Armenian. In 1978, Gashin took up mountain hiking and then, in 1981 became addicted to climbing. He knows all the mountains of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Northern Ossetia like the back of his hand. He soon became a climbing instructor and commander of a rescue team—this before there was an Emergency Ministry. In three years of work, his team saved 20 people, in addition to saving others while on his own climbs. “Sometimes we were just one hour short of finishing a peak and there would be an emergency. So we forgot about our ascent and rushed to rescue the victims.”
Today, Gashin lives in Yaroslavl, along the shores of the Volga, with not a mountain in sight. What made him leave the Caucasian peaks behind? It’s a story as old as the Volga: love. He met Anna, a Yaroslavna (resident of Yaroslavl) in an alpine camp in the mountains and they soon married.
After several starts and stops with employment in Yaroslavl, Gashin took his father-in-law’s advice and sought a job at Tolga Convent. It was 1991 and the monastery, located on the left bank of the Volga some 10 km from Yaroslavl, was badly in need of restoration: the belltower cross of the cathedral had to be straightened, the cupolas needed repair and the tower had to be repainted. The entire job needed to be completed in just 22 days—in time for the Holiday of the Icon of Tolga’s Mother of God. So Gashin called in his old climbing buddies and they finished the job in 20 days. Most importantly, using their alpinist know-how, they did it all without scaffolding.
So began Gashin’s career as a restorer. In 1993, Gashin and Alexander Kuzmichev set up Vershina (“Peak”) restoration company. Each year, Vershina restores two to three churches. “Each man has an opportunity in life and one needs to grab this opportunity,” Gashin said. “I just realized that we do a good job and I like that job. ... It tunes your soul to a completely different mood.”
With time, the ex-alpinists have taken on increasingly complex work, whereas in their early years they just did painting or restoration of façades and roofs. Gashin gained more professional knowledge through training at the Academy of Restoration, doing his master’s degree on findings from his restoration of Ilya the Prophet Cathedral in Yaroslavl. Gashin long wanted to do the work on this beautiful cathedral and finally got the project. Not only did Vershina do fine restoration work, but Gashin discovered hitherto hidden windows from the 17th century.
Recently, Gashin and his crew did pro bono work for the town of Yaroslavl, cleaning the rust from the cupolas of Bogoyavlenskaya Church, one of the most prominent in the ancient town. “How is it that such a church had rusty cupolas?!” Vitaly asked. Restoring the cupolas allowed Gashin to give something back to his adopted town, the town which had helped him find a new calling in his life. Gashin’s nine-year-old son Alexei also climbed up the cupolas of Bogoyavlenskaya with his dad during the work, to the see his city from the summit of the great church.
Today, Gashin’s fame has spread far beyond Yaroslavl. This year, his team worked in Rostov-the-Great. They cleaned and painted the cupolas of the Church of St. Ioann. And the Cathedral of the Savior in the Rostov Kremlin needs roof repairs, because any leak would harm the church’s unique frescos. Of course, the former alpinists continue to work without any scaffolding, even in winter, working stoically in the biting frost. Gashin’s most recent projects are Adrianov Monastery (6 km from the town of Poshekhonye) and the Intercession Church in Tutaev, both in Yaroslavl region.
To Gashin, each new church is like a new peak to conquer. Yet, surprisingly, he said he feels safer in the mountains. The dangers there, he said, “are more or less predictable: “avalanches, fissures ... If you drive a wedge in the rock, you know it is going to be fine,” Gashin said. “But historic monuments are all so fragile. And, given that they have been neglected for so long, there are many unexpected dangers ... Here you can’t just drive in a wedge. You have to be cautious and worry about how not to harm the monuments.”
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