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Valaam: Holy Island

The cat of the Abbot of the Valaam monastery is called iPhone. He is very friendly to everyone who is ready to pet him and treat him with some goodies. Phonya (diminutive of iPhone) is literally swimming in attention — in the summer there are many visitors and pilgrims in the monastery. But in winter, only monks and novices pet the cat. The transportation connection with the mainland is closed, you can get to Valaam Island only by air if the weather permits or by a hovercraft.

In the summer, Valaam is always crowded. Not only pilgrims and history lovers come here, but also those who are impressed by the gorgeous Ladoga Lake and would like to take a walk along the largest island of Valaam Archipelago, to peep over the fences of the sketes

  • Orange fact
    Lake Ladoga was formed in such a way that its deepest parts are exactly around Valaam, the depth in some places reaches 220 meters. Therefore, on Valaam Island it is always a bit chillier than on the mainland. But in the summer, the water is warmed up by the sun and form thermal columns, what makes the sky over the island cloudless. There may be thunderstorms on the mainland, but it’s sunny over Valaam.

The main village of the Monastery of Transfiguration of the Saviour is located on Mount Tabor, where, according to religion, the Transfiguration of the Lord took place. On Valaam, there are many place-names that are the same as at the Holy Land in Israel. For example: Gethsemane skete, well almost a garden;  New Jerusalem;  Mount Zion and Mount of Olives. Under the rock on Mount Tabor, the relics of the founders of the Valaam Monastery of St. Sergius and Jermaine (i.e. Herman) are stored.

It is not quite known -  were they missionaries from eastern countries, Greeks or Byzantines? It's unknown when they arrived to Valaam, but the monastery, founded by them, became well known, despite the difficult geographical location. In the past, to establish a monastery meant - to establish a strong economy. That is what happened to Valaam. By the 15th century there was a book writing center, which took orders for books even from Veliky Novgorod. In the summer, Valaam harvested, in the winter fought off the Swedes, who often attacked and ravaged the monastery. During one of those raids, the monastery was burned to the ground, and life on Valaam stopped for almost a hundred years.

But thanks to Peter the Great, who opened the way to the Baltic Sea for the country and returned the Karelian lands to Russia, slowly the islands became liveable again. After a long recovery period, Valaam finally had its heyday. All thanks to the strong management of a self-taught architect, an old man from Sarov, who’s name was Nazariy. During his 20-year abbess, he declared a strong charter of the Sarov hermitage, and most importantly, designed a site plan of the Valaam Monastery, which is still actual; designed the first Transfiguration Cathedral (Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral) and started to build the first stone buildings on Valaam.

Another great builder of the Valaam monastery was Hegumen Damaskin, who served for almost 40 years. He had a severe temper, and was well educated. He was called a general in a cowl, because he maintained the monk principles, but also led the monastery to prosperity. Under his management, more than a thousand people lived in the monastery, half of them lived in sketes. There were 13 of them all over the island. At the monastery there were about 30 manufactures with more than 400 laborers per season.

After the direct sailing route from St. Petersburg was opened, a lot of pilgrims came to the monastery, the services were literally jam packed. “That is not good,” the monks thought, and decided to rebuild the cathedral, which no longer had room for all those who came to pray. After renovation, the Transfiguration Cathedral was almost the size of the Admiralty building in Saint Petersburg - 42 meters high in the dome, 73 meters  high in the bell tower.

The XX century did not spare the Valaam monastery. Several blows of fate happened one after another - desolation during the Soviet period, the looting of church treasures, the loss of rare relics, the destruction of frescoes and wooden carvings. During The Winter War, Valaam was badly damaged. The Transfiguration Cathedral was air struck by Soviet aircraft and the bell tower was the first target. Many buildings did not survive the bombing, the Church of the Life-Giving Spring burnt out completely, the cell buildings and the hotel were damaged by the fire. The monks decided to evacuate. They collected all valuables, everything that they could take out by truck in few trips along the ice road that crosses the frozen lake. In March 1940, the large Valaam bell of the Transfiguration Monastery was ringing 24 times over the icy Ladoga Lake, announcing that the monastery’s services ceased indefinitely. The monks founded the Novovalamsky Transfiguration Monastery in Papinniemi, Finland. Now it contains all the valuables ​​which were taken out at that time.

This explains, why today there are many copies of the originals in the temples of the Valaam monastery. It took a long time to rebuild the monastery after such a long devastation. A wooden iconostasis was manually carved by monks, five thousand paintings were hand-painted by monks. Local historians, restorers and historians came here in 1980. Nine years later, in December, the first six monks arrived to rebuild the monastery.

The lower temple is the heart of the Valaam monastery. This is where the monks pray every day. It looks almost austere with its low walls. No innovations or technology are accepted here. One of the two icons that survived the Soviet period is located above the chasse with the relics of Sergius and Herman. The second is the icon of the Valaam Mother of God in the Smolensk Church. Another relic is the icon of St. Panteleimon with only a small piece of his relic. Among the icons there is even a little «home iconostasis» which travelled in a spaceship during cosmonaut Sergey Krikalevs’ expedition.


Valaam Monastery is a large economy today. Even if the monks don’t accept any innovations in the actual temples, modern technology is very welcome in the rest of the monastery. A solar power station operates in the upper garden, and electric vehicles are drive around the island. A  livestock, a trout farm, and a dairy farm are equipped with all kinds of technology, however, the monks try to make exclusively natural products, without artificial additives. The monks produce almost all types of the needed food, they only buy flour, buckwheat and wine for the liturgy. This year they also bought some cabbage. Everything that was produced at the monastery is sold in the local shop, which is right behind the cell gate. There are dairy products and famous Valaam cheeses on display.


Valaam is a very green island. The pilgrims used to bring soil as a gift, as much as they could: a handful, a bag or a whole barge. That helped the monks to make their nice gardens, as beautiful as the Garden of Eden. Originally, the seedlings for the island were purchased from the French gardens in St. Petersburg. Later the monks learned a selective breeding process and at the beginning of the 20th century, selling the «holy seedlings» became a good income for the monastery.

The well-bearing fruit trees were frost-resistant and unpretentious for the northern region. A hundred years ago, in the the monastery's cellars, they could store up to 20 tons of apples for the winter months, in addition to cherries, pears and plums. One of the gardens, Lower Yegoryevsky is open for visits, and if you are there at the right season you can even pick «an apple from Paradise». And not just apples… This year even pineapples grew in the Valaam gardens - the monks continue agronomic experiments. 


  • Orange fact
    At the beginning of the 20th century, the rooms of the winter hotel were decorated with paintings by famous artists of the Russian Empire. Students from the Academy of Arts of St. Petersburg used to come to Valaam for summer internships. Young artists travelled all over the island with their sketchbooks, ate at the refectory and lived at the monastery. Providing that they leave one of their works at the monastery. So, it happened that such artists as Kuindzhi, Shishkin, Repin visited Valaam.

Through the relic woods, the Main Monastery Road leads to the monastery of Valaam. If you walk along this road you can make a full loop around the island, it will take several days though. But if you take a short walk from Nikon Bay, you can go to New Jerusalem and the Voskresensky sketes on Mount Zion, 1.5 km one way. The nearest monastery is Gethsemane. It is right on the road, bright and festive, painted with the colors of the Virgin Mary. The Assumption church is located there. It is one of the few that survived through all the historical misfortunes. The monastery is active, Father Augustine manages it together with several monks. They work in the garden and at the trout farm.

From Gethsemane Skete to Voskresensky monastery it is only a 10 minute easy walk. Or a little bit longer if you stop at a cliff near the Konevsky skete and enjoy the panoramic view of Nikonovskaya bay from a height of 36 meters.

The Voskresensky monastery is a bright red brick building. The monks truly believe that the Holy Apostolic Cross was placed by Andrew the Apostle on the land of Valaam. And that great event happened at the place where the Voskresensky Skete was built. The lower church skete was consecrated in honor of Andrew the Apostle; the upper church - in honor of the Resurrection of Jesus.


This is the only church of its kind where you can say «Christ is Risen» any day of the year and hear in response: «Indeed, He is Risen». In the upper temple there is a unique iconostasis made of porcelain. In the lower one there is an Aedicule, which looks exactly the same as in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  The monks once brought a particle of The Stone of the Anointing from the Promised Land here, and founded a temple. But the casket with these relics is in now the Novovalamsky Monastery in Finland. 

After this stop the road winds through the forest, towards the embankment. You can see mushrooms in the grass and by the end of summer there are a lot of berries. There are many pines and spruce trees around, but on Valaam Island they are different - «in skirts».  On an ordinary spruce tree, the lower branches fall off; and on a spruce in Valaam the branches spread down from the tree along the ground so that moisture remains under them. If you look closely, you can see mice in the grass. You can easily call Valaam a «mouse kingdom», no wonder there are so many cats on the island too. They faithfully protect the monastery stocks in the barns. And the cat, iPhone, I believe, manages the entire cat brethren as the abbot's favorite.

How to get there:

The easiest way to get to Valaam is from the city of Sortavala. There are a few boats departing daily from the pier on Ladoga Lake. Cruise ships also enter Nikon Bay. Travel time on the «Meteor» (fast boat) is about an hour. The admission for adults is 1000+ rubles, depending on the boat. Free admission for children under 7 years old, 50% discount for teenagers. The island can be reached by water from Priozersk. The sailing season starts in May and lasts until November.

The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
A trip to Valaam is recommended by the Russian Geographical Society.


Another read about Karelia:
Mountain park "Ruskeala": "Quarry stairs"
Karelia: Locations and Lifehacks
Kizhi "One Day in the Last Century"

Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1

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