Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Kizhi Island

                Dark skies loom overhead as we, the noticeably American tourists, walked through the center of Petrozavodsk towards the shore of Lake Onega. The weather dominates conversation as we weave our way along the sidewalks, each one of us worried that the next 90 minutes could be the most miserable of the trip. Approaching the lake, the dark clouds have yet to unleash their stormy potential and we notice – Onega’s surface is unusually placid, not just given the present conditions, but also in comparison to the previous 3 weeks. Maybe this trip to Kizhi Island, home to a historic community and religious site, won’t be as sickening as the stories from the last American trip had led us to believe.
                We board our boat, or hydrofoil rather, and try to get comfortable for the pilgrimage ahead. The thought of moving atop choppy waves in the middle of the second largest lake in Europe for over an hour isn’t exactly inviting though. As the hydrofoil pushes off from the dock and begins our journey, things remain smooth. Surprisingly smooth. Suddenly my seat becomes much cozier, and I begin to relax. After methodically placing my earbuds in my ears and pressing the play button on my iPod, I turn my attention to the window and  watch  as   the     islands         go         .......
               !...I will not   fall     …    asleep.......
               !! An hour has already passed! Any anxiety for this excursion has been soothed away by the metronomic sway of the hydrofoil as it crossed the extraordinarily smooth water.
                I turn my attention towards my window. I see Kizhi. At first I don’t believe my blurry eyes and groggy mind, but as my consciousness slowly returns to normal, I realize that I am not being deceived – we have arrived. I know this is Kizhi thanks to the many postcards idolizing the island that are scattered throughout souvenir shops, museums, and administrative buildings alike.
                I am disappointed. I thought the cathedral would be bigger, more majestic. Instead, it appeared like a quaint shadow of what I could only assume was a more prominent and foreboding former-self. I’d be lying if I said my excitement for the excursion hasn’t fallen slightly, but I came all this way to see everything Kizhi had to offer, so I will carry on. Or maybe I’m just here because Karen told me I had to be.
                Exiting the boat, we are greeted by the stereotypical scene – a main path crowded by shops and cafes, each desperately trying to attract your eye to their overpriced trinkets. This just gets better and better. Maybe the tour will be redeeming. Maybe.
                Working our way down the narrow, birch-lined boardwalk, we came to the ticket office and our tour guide for the day, a short smiling brunette named Victoria. The excitement in her eyes actually expels some of my doubts about Kizhi – until she mentions the poisonous vipers that are found on the island. Somehow, the tour managed to get worse before it has even started.
                After our introductions, we continued down the path towards the southern end of the island; this is where the cathedrals stand. As we approach the fortified wooden cathedrals, I realize that my initial impressions from within the hydrofoil were incorrect. Though scaffolding and ladders line the walls of the main cathedral as it undergoes restoration, it still emanates an aura that can only be described as equal parts beauty and rugged. This is no gold-lined cathedral from Moscow or St. Petersburg, yet it manages to capture my interest in much the same way. The detail put into the construction of every building, not just the main cathedral, is shocking given that the buildings are composed almost entirely of wood.
                Stopping next to the main cathedral, Victoria begins to share with us the history of the island, as well as fun facts about Kizhi and its inhabitants – the usual tour things. But instead of slowly lulling me into a zombie, Victoria made Kizhi Island come to life. Every fact is more interesting than the next, and each ties in with another in a complicated web that only underscores the meticulous detail and religious fervor that went into constructing Kizhi so long ago.
                Kizhi, or “place of rituals” as it is translated, was settled long before the arrival of Orthodoxy to Karelia. It remained a pagan ritual site until the early 18th century, when Slavic peoples arrived to the region. The oldest wood dates back to 1714, when the main church, the Summer Church, part of the Kizhi Ensemble, was first constructed. The second church, known as the Church of the Intercession, or Winter Church, was completed four decades later, in 1754. These were neither the first nor the only churches to stand in the Kizhi archipelago. A number of smaller chapels dot the islands, making religious practice easier for those who were unable to travel to Kizhi Island for worship. One of these small chapels, the Church of the Resurrection of Lazarus, built in the 14th century by the Byzantine monk Lazarus (no relation to St. Lazarus for whom the church is named), is the oldest Orthodox church on the island. It still stands, though it is overshadowed by the Summer and Winter cathedrals across the island.
                Entering the pogost’, Victoria begins explaining the intricate details of the construction of the two cathedrals. First and foremost, Victoria explains that pogost’ has 3 different meanings in Russian, each applicable to the fortress of cathedrals in a different way. First, it can mean administrative center. During Kizhi’s golden age, numerous villages dotted the island and the surrounding archipelago. The cathedrals acted as a town center, which allowed a common meeting ground for the leaders of the island (not coincidently, many were members of the clergy) to discuss matters of governance and mutual prosperity.
Secondly, pogost’ means “location of church,” which only makes sense, as it houses both the Summer and Winter cathedrals within its walls. Why two cathedrals? Victoria explains that, as their names imply, the churches were designed for different times of the year. The Summer Cathedral, which acts as the posterchild of the island, was constructed in the typical orthodox fashion: high walls and ceilings with grandiose architecture. It has 22 domes covered by 30,000 shingles, which sit atop its impressive countenance and not only add beauty, but also protect the church from the rain and other destructive elements which are common in Karelia during the summer season. Unfortunately, because of its size, the Summer Cathedral is very inefficient to heat, which made it impractical to use during the colder months, and thus the Winter Cathedral was built. Much smaller than its neighbor, the Winter Cathedral is built solely with the idea of warmth – its ceilings are low, its walls are thick, the rooms are small, and the foundation is elevated so as to keep heat from escaping into the earth.
Due to restoration, we cannot enter the Summer Cathedral, but the Winter Cathedral is open for us. Upon entering, we see a vast number of icons lining every wall – 104 of them to be exact. Many of them were created by local artisans rather than professional icon makers, which added a unique blend of perfectly flawed design with colors and themes which could only be described as Karelian. At the very back wall stands the iconostasis – a large group of icons common in many orthodox churches which is used to describe the basic story of the Orthodox religion through pictures. This allowed those who could not read the opportunity to feel connected to the church in their own personal way.
A short hymn is sung for us by the church choir, and we proceed to exit the Church of the Intercession. Upon exiting, Victoria shares with us the final meaning of pogost’: cemetery. She motions towards the field of scattered crosses and shares that the pogost’was the location where the most prominent people of Kizhi and the surrounding islands were buried. Naturally, those who were members of the clergy were buried closest to the church. Victoria then makes note of the design of the crosses. According to her, they are designed in the same fashion as the cross which Jesus Christ was crucified on, with one small exception. This exception is the plank at the bottom of the cross which leans down and to the right. This symbolizes the choice each person makes in their life: to be righteous and seek salvation in Heaven, or to be sinful and carve out their place in Hell. Seeing the crosses scattered across the hilled landscape, I finally and fully grasp the religious and historical importance of Kizhi, and suddenly, the island came to life.
Upon leaving the fortress of cathedrals, we were herded down a path towards a number of other buildings, each portraying their own aspect of life for the original inhabitants of Kizhi. At every location, the island felt more honest and authentic. I’ve realized that my first impressions deceived me, and they potentially could have ruined a thoroughly informative and enjoyable experience on Kizhi. As a person who is hard to impress, I cannot recommend a trip to Kizhi Island enough. It has certainly been one of my most memorable excursions while in Russia. Someday I hope to return to Kizhi. I will bring with me only new experiences and perspectives, and though the tour and cathedrals may not change much, the lessons I learn from them will.
That’s the true beauty of Kizhi: it is not meant for Russians, tourists, the religious, or historians – it is meant for anyone willing to listen, learn, and allow their perspective to be revolutionized by a quaint wooden façade lost in the middle of one of the largest lakes in the world.
By Anthony Wetzel

Friday, July 1, 2016

Russian and American Homes

I was expecting many differences between Russian and American homes, but was pleasantly surprised to find only a few differences. Each nation wants the same in family dynamics—comfort and safety. Parents urge their children to study so they can get into good universities to get a good paying job to live a stable life. Families are close too. Many couples and groups are walking the streets of Petrozavodsk, spending time together running errands and living in the moment. I see this as different in America, as most Americans do not just walk around a city with their family. Most Americans are in a hurry or have a schedule rather than taking the time for a stroll just to be. I have seen Americans spend time together, but not via leisurely stroll. So this was a nice sight in Russia.
Spending time at a family dacha also showed a different aspect to family life in Russia compared to America. While most families in America only have one home, Russians have a second get-away cabin outside the bustling, noisy city. The dacha I had the opportunity to visit was inhabited by the student’s grandparents for the majority of each summer. And most families spend long weekends at their dachas during summertime, while in America, getting away from the city takes a lot of planning and coordination of schedules to get a family together. In Russia, the dacha is available to the family on an as-needed basis. This was enjoyable to see a family come together and we only sat and talked, enjoying conversation over tea rather than the distractions of studies, work, or technology. In America, family camping trips get frustrating to coordinate. And when a family does get away, children are distracted by gaming systems and adults tinker with cooling vents rather than being in the moment to enjoy their natural surroundings.
Also regarding social interactions Russians beat Americans again. I have seen and heard many Russians talking on the phone to relatives, not just in the polite “Oh, I should call grandma this month” phone call, but a genuine courtesy call. Even if the phone call only lasts a few minutes, the students I have seen do this have a happy grin and twinkle in their eye because they have such a deep relationship with their relatives. In America, people (and yes, me included) get so wrapped up in themselves that we dread the monthly, or yearly, phone call to what should be a close relative.
These close relationships are also seen within the friendship of the students. The students are constantly jostling each other in play, assisting each other in translations and explanations, as well as actively listening to each other. I have enjoyed seeing the students handshake or hug in greeting or departing the others’ company. This shows true friendship. I was really touched when I saw one Russian girl jump from her seat in glee and run to a friend for a tackling hug.
My expectations of the Russians was for them to be reserved and even a little cold in conversation. Yet these two friends embracing each other, and our Russian hosts, have displayed a variety of emotions. Albeit with their friends and relatives, but these emotions are just that much more genuine when in close company versus the façade that Americans tend to have.
This does not extend just to friendships, but is also seen in the Russian home. My host family is very close and their relationship is almost palpable in the atmosphere when I am around them, from small touches to get attention or emphasize a point, to leaning on another while watching a movie to parting hugs and kisses. Although I am going to tangent on this topic—Russians touch a lot more than Americans. Russians have a very small personal space concept versus Americans. During my dacha stay I was randomly touched by people during the day, which would not have happened in America. Even walking the hallways of the university people tend to pass right next to you versus arm’s length-ish as per American standards. I could handle the closeness in a crowded bus and metro, but the dacha and university halls was quite unnerving since my American personal space expectation was completely ignored. Back to family touching—it’s adorable to see my host’s mom and her so close. In America, I do see close families—as indicated by constant teasing and comfortable relationship—but Russians take it to the next level with less words and more actions. I have woken up twice to the breakfast already set and coffee ready to brew, their effort to make a complete stranger to them feel appreciated and thought about. And my host is constantly cuddling with her mom and sister, physically showing her appreciation of their relationship.
Russian kitchen table, still the center of great conversations
It’s also nice to see Russians actually talking to each other. In America, when people get together for a dinner, phones and/or earphones get more attention than the people. Our Russian hosts, when together, are in the moment and actually talking with each other. While phones may be looked at, they are not in front of a Russians’ face as seen in America. This again reiterates the genuine relationship a Russian has to his/her friends or family. The fact that a Russian is actually talking to you versus an American mumbling to you while thumbing through Facebook. It’s the little things that make a difference. 

I believe that close relationships also come from the physical layout of a Russian flat. They are small, usually with one or two bedrooms, a kitchen, toilet and bathroom, but a family is able to communicate that much better because of the limited space. While in America, houses are spacious and each member has his/her own room. 

This causes physical separation and a lack of communication, causing a relationship to not really form. In Russia, and in my host flat, the sisters share a room. More than likely this was a factor that led in to their close relationship. Also, due to the limited space, Russians do not get so caught up in material possessions as Americans do. Russians would rather have a small table and mismatched dinnerware for family and friends versus Americans with a grandiose table and expensive matching dinnerware when entertaining guests. Though the flats I have seen have an amazing amount of storage space, I have not seen as many mundane knickknacks as I have seen in America. Russians seem to be more about the people and emotions versus showing off. It’s quite endearing. All in all I have seen a different level of emotions in Russia versus America. At a Russian home, families talk and gather and actively listen to one another, creating a fantastic bond. Russian friends go out often, either to a restaurant or another’s house, on a constant basis to spend time with their friends. America has these interactions too, but with Americans having a fast-paced mindset, relationships do not seem as vivid as compared to Russia (in this author’s opinion). Every person, Russian and American, wants good by their family and friends. But Russians show genuine emotions allowing their relationships to be more concrete and wholesome. 
by Kendra Sanford