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

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