Kizhi is an island on Lake Onega, as well as unique open-air museum of wooden Karelian architecture from the 15th thru 20th centuries.
I was sitting in the upper room of an old, wooden, Russian house on a wide wooden bench. Vera, the guide of the historical complex, was braiding hair ribbons into my braids and singing old traditional Russian songs. Her voice was flowing smoothly, like an anointing oil, the tunes sounded like magical fortune telling. According to her story - I am the housewife living in this hut, my baby is swaying in the cradle by the window, and those are my pots on the stove. Well, I assumed that I was married, if there is a cradle, and my dear husband, apparently mowing hay in the field.
Vera carefully put earrings with small river pearls in my ears, hung a pearl necklace around my neck, clicked the lock of a silver bracelet on my wrist and adjusted the red ribbon in my hair. So, according to Vera’s story - I am an ordinary Karelian woman from the village, plump and rosy-cheeked, who once lived somewhere near Kizhi. The daily routine of these past times is actually funny. I clearly understand that in this «past» I am awkwardly clumsy, I can’t even grab the pot in the right way; even the thought of milking a cow is nasty for me; I don’t know how to bake «kalitki» (little Karelian pies), and I don’t even know how to bathe in the traditional bathhouse.
As she dressed me in a long, Russian dress, Vera told me a story about the women's traditional costume. While listening to her, I was thinking how unfortunate it is that modern designers no longer use amulets in clothing design. We are buying expensive dresses from famous designers, but without any amulets, some “evil” can easily take us off the path of a happily married woman…
The upper room is bright despite the heavy logs it is made of. In such rooms people spun wool, embroidered fabric, had family dinners, slept, raised children. There were bedrooms too, of course. But almost all their time was spent in the upper rooms. Houses in Karelia have always been built large, the living and farm areas were always under one roof.
I left Yakovlev’s house and walked to the shore of the lake. The domes of the recently restored Church of the Transfiguration of Our Saviour (Preobrazhenskaya Church) could be seen from afar as they glistened in the sunlight. Horse-drawn carriages passed back and forth. And if there were not any groups of tourists, I would have easily drifted into the illusions of the past, which the museum’s employees have created so brilliantly. Women are sitting in small houses and embroidering, or weaving, or walking around the village. Men are plowing the fields, fixing boats, carving wooden toys. Kizhi is all around me. By the way, the locals pronounce ‘Kizhi - with a stress on the first syllable. Anyway both options are correct.
Lake Onega, located mostly in Karelia, is the second largest lake in Europe. About 50 rivers flow into it, and only the Svir flows out. Most of the islands (there are about 1700 of them) are in the northern part of the lake
We arrived to Kizhi around noon: there was a storm on Lake Onega in the morning and the schedule of the Comet (high-speed hydrofoil) was changed. Usually, according to the schedule, only 4 hours are planned for a visit to Kizhi, then the hydrofoil departs for Petrozavodsk. Four hours is an extremely short amount of time for one visit. First of all, of course, it is recommended to look at the Kizhi Pogost Ensemble, the oldest one in Zayonezhie, and then to see this miracle made of wood - the Church of the Transfiguration of Our Saviour, the Church of the Intercession and the bell-tower.
The very first Transfiguration Church along with neighboring buildings were burned to the ground by a lightning strike in the 17th century. There was nothing left to restore. New buildings were built at the same place. The Transfiguration church was rebuilt in 1714 by a carpenter Nestor, according to a legend. They say he threw his ax into the lake so that nobody could repeat his masterpiece. But in fact - the real name of the architect, one of the Zaonezhsky artisan carpenters, who built the only wooden church in the world with 22 domes, has been forgotten. This is historical injustice.
At the heart of the design of the church are two octagon houses, the walls are made of pine trees, 22 domes are covered with Russian wooden roof tiles. The height of the church is impressive for those times - 37 meters! The church is built from logs, without iron nails. But in fact, the guide says, there are a kind of wooden nails, which help to hold the domes together. Whoever the builder was, he thought very carefully about a protection system against moisture. A raindrop that has fallen from the cross of the central cupola rolls down the wooden roof tiles to the ground.
The church parish lasted until 1937. Two years before that, the village committees had voted to close churches everywhere. Despite the fact that only 80 people voted for closing and about 1,000 against it, the parishes were disbanded and the churches closed. Priests returned to Kizhi only in 1994, when the first service was held.
At the end of the 19th century, the logs of the Transfiguration Church were covered with wooden batten and plaster, for some reason; the domes were finished with iron, and even painted in bright green. Apparently locals wanted to match the style of city cathedrals at the time. From a distance it seemed that the temple was built of stone. Nowadays, if you look at the church from the water - it looks like it is made of filigree pieces and covered with patina. The iron covering of the domes was fortunately dismantled in the 1950s, but in 1968 the church was declared a dilapidated building.
The church was still closed. Even now it is still under reconstruction, the scaffolding has been removed though, all work now is in the interior. Recently, the old building was lifted by jacks; the ceiling and floor were dismantled; the iconostasis (25 meters wide, with 102 icons) was removed and all seven tiers of it were separated from each other; three thousand logs were reinstalled. It was promised that the church will be open in 2020, in order to hold the first service on August 19.
On the day of the Intercession of the Theotokos on October 14, a festive service in the Intercession Church and a procession around the Kizhi Pogost will be held. On this day, a historical icon of the Intercession of the Theotokos will be brought to Kizhi from Petrozavodsk.
At Kizhi Pogost, which is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, you can only take a look inside the Winter Church. Go through the entryway, get into the altar, look at the icons in the four-tier iconostasis, listen to church hymns. Despite the old icons, some of which were painted by professional icon painters, some by local peasants, the interior is very restrained in comparison with traditional Orthodox churches. Well, this is a northern temple, and also a rustic one.
Before I dressed up in that Karelian traditional costume, I climbed the bell tower. I was lucky, just me and a bell ringer were upstairs. The bell-ringer inspirationally was chiming the bells with his eyes closed. I looked at the details of the domes of the Transfiguration Church: from the bell tower they are seen at arm's length. The bell tower with its tented roof was built later than the rest of the architectural complex - in 1874. But, right before that, the previous old dilapidated building was completely dismantled by local parishioners. So, today the bell tower is just a little bit below the church - 30 meters high and there is a wonderful view of the Kizhi surroundings from the belfry. And there, on top of the bell tower, you can feel the fresh and cold Onega wind, even on a fine day.
Right after the bell tower excursion, Vera and I ran to dress up in Yakovlev’s house. Like many other buildings of the Kizhi architectural complex: huts, chapels, a windmill, barns and baths; Yakovlev’s house was brought from another region of Karelia as a part of the museum exhibit.
I adjusted the many layers of my skirt and took off my shoes (because it is much nicer to run on the grass barefoot), I walked along the shore to the footbridge, where there was a traditional boat-kizhanka docked. The layers of my skirt were tangling in the thistle and reeds - well I am not in the habit of walking in such complicated clothes every day. The loud sound of whistle reminded me, that there was not much time left until the hydrofoil departure. I was a bit sad that I had to change my clothes, put the jewelry back in the casket, take off the ribbons… I gave a goodbye hug to Vera and rushed off to the pier. Well as I told before - four hours on the island are totally not enough. Do not repeat my mistake and plan a longer trip!
Kizhi deserves much more of your time. The island is pretty small - it is only 5 km long and up to 500 meters wide, but on this little piece of land there are almost 90 unique monuments of Russian wooden architecture, built between the 15th and 20th century. Believe me, you will be busy there! For example, you can go to the ancient villages of Yamka and Vasilyevo, climb Mount Vigovka, walk around all the buildings - the Church of the Resurrection of Saint Lazarus, the chapel of the Archangel Michael (late 18 century) from the village of Lelikozero, the windmill; or just relax, ride a bike or a boat. I recommend that you do not take the standard museum offers to see everything in three hours. But travel there independently, taking the earliest hydrofoil, and depart with the latest one. Also I recommend to hire an individual guide, it's worth it!
Kizhi Island can only be reached by water during the sailing season. It is open from May to October. “Comet” and “Meteor” hydrofoils bring tourists from Petrozavodsk to Kizhi, the travel time is 1 hour 20 min. A one-way boat ticket for an adult costs 1500 rubles. Tour time: 4 hours.
In the winter months, when Lake Onega is frozen, the hovercraft «Hivus» goes to Kizhi. Another option is a helicopter.
There are no accommodation options on Kizhi island itself, because it’s a museum. But if you want to stay overnight, you can find housing on neighbouring islands. You need to book a transfer on the pier.
The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
A trip to Kizhi is recommended by the Russian geographical society.
Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram @astrabella1