The island of Kizhi stands on Lake Onega, in the north of Russia, further north than Iceland and only 200 miles or so from Finland. I had little sleep that night as we were so far north. At two o’clock in the morning the sun was still up and it was like a dull November day in Ireland – no night sky at all. No stars, no moon.
I’d travelled this far north to visit the island of Kizhi on which is a pogost, a three part structure consisting of a winter church, a summer church and bell tower, all surrounded by a wooden fence. In fact, everything, simply everything is made of aspen wood and the buildings are stunning. Beautifully carved domes made from interlocking wooden slates, which change colour in the early morning sun, can be seen for miles. Hardly surprising Kizhi Pogost is a World UNESCO site.
We were introduced to a burly gentleman who was making making the wooden slates using, surprisingly, an axe. Aspen wood is used as it is grown locally and is very soft and pliable. It is a beautiful linen colour but the domes transformed from a pale white on arrival at eight thirty to a golden tan, by the time I left, around eleven o’clock.
The guide who accompanied me explained that after the revolution, up until the 1990s, the churches were closed and some of the icons stored, stolen or hidden in people’s houses. Yet now, in Kizhi, the winter church is a fully functioning church, newly consecrated and open for worship. The interior of the church is dark due to the dark wood utilised in the making of the icons, but the building is skilfully crafted and a testament to the work ethic of the locals. There were three orthodox priests in attendance and the panels around the altar were brightly painted in orthodox style by local artists.
Years ago, the people of the area had no idea what asses or palm trees looked like, thus the animal was left to the artist’s imagination and instead of palms, local branches were depicted. However, the faces of the figures were tanned, conducive with the people of Israel.
I walked across the lawns to a smaller church, the Church of St Lazarus, where the bells were rung. Unlike the familiar knelling or chiming of churches in my locality, the bell ringer plays a melodic tune and there is an art to playing the bells, taught on the island.
In a typical wooden house, rather like a log cabin, I was shown how the early settlers lived and worked. It must have been a tough, manually intensive life. The three storey house had a cellar where food stuffs were kept to survive the eight month winter and on the first floor were the living areas, many of the seats based around the stove. A seat reserved for guests was under a religious icon to show respect. There were larger rooms on the second floor where sledges and boats were stored. A ramp is to one side of the house allowing easy entry and egress for the vehicles.
The bathhouse was a separate cabin, nearer the lakeshore. There is a communal sauna, heated by the same wood used to construct the church, very much in a Scandinavian style.
A wooden windmill provides flour and sits high on the island, open to the elements. I strolled around the area, enjoying the lush scenery, clear blue skies and fresh air. Wild animals, boar, bears, wolves inhabit the forest and are becoming more bold around humans as hunting is forbidden. For how long, and how rigidly the ban will last, remains to be seen. Boar have ravaged gardens, which are tenderly husbanded. For the tourists this was shown to be by hand, but I’m sure the machines come out when the cruise ships leave.
The price of a ticket and guide is 1000 roubles (€15) and with literally thousands of visitors for four months in the year, that’s a great deal of money coming into the area and I wish everyone on the island good fortune. Despite it’s beauty and tranquillity I don’t think I could stand the long, dark winters. However, Kizhi was worth getting up for and well worth a visit. It’s a truly beautiful area of Russia.