AN was barely at primary school when he first heard about Kizhi Pogost. It was the mid 1960’s and the reputation of this outstanding monument had long been established as the pride of Karelia, with its significance spoken highly of by his enthusiastic teachers.
The site’s value is also recognised globally, its importance transcending regional, cultural origins. National Geographic reports:-
“Inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1990 alongside St. Petersburg’s Historic Centre and Moscow’s Kremlin and Red Square, the site is considered a testament to the architectural and cultural traditions of Russia’s remote Karelia region.”
Fortunately, AN lived close by; on a military base near Petrozavodsk, the region’s principal city. A childhood visit to Kizhi island’s living monument was inevitably on the cards. AN would return several times, across the decades; bringing relatives and then a family of his own along for the experience. Recently he returned again, on a trip, gifted by his wife’s employers. I sense a pride in his Karelian heritage -a sense of belonging perhaps. There’s no better symbol of this than Kizhi Pogost of course; now unveiled from under scaffolding again after years of crucial renovation -and some major structural modifications. We’ll get to all of this in due course, but first, some background is needed. What (and where) exactly are we talking about?
Situated between the Finns and the Russians, the region shares elements of both cultures, established historically through both peaceful coexistence and violent conflict. Karelia also predates modern Russia, existing when the northern territory bordering the White Sea formed the medieval Novgorod Republic.
Petrozavodsk sits on the northwestern shore of Lake Onega, a 9,700 km2 body of water whose central archipelago contains Kizhi island. This small stretch of land is located close to the lake’s geometric centre and sits roughly 68 Km northeast of the city. The island is 6 Km long, north to south, and a mere 1Km across at its widest, although it narrows to a few tens of metres around Kizhi Pogost itself.
Kizhi is routinely accessed by hydrofoil from Petrozavodsk; a trip that takes approximately 1 hour each way, although boat, helicopter, and even tracked-snowcat (in the frozen winter) may also be employed.
Kizhi Pogost, consists of three separate structures connected by function: that of orthodox worship. All elements are situated within a compound wall or enclosure – the ‘Pogost’ in the title. Collectively, they form a place of worship, premises that we usually expect to find under a single roof, but the inhabitants of Karelia had good reason to do things differently.
It’s all because of the weather, and a temperature that ranges between -15℃ and +20℃ across the year. During the summer months, the largest building: The Church of the Transfiguration was used for religious gatherings, whilst the smaller Church of the Intercession is utilised during the winter.
The latter also has a stove for heating, whilst the former does not. Trying to maintain warmth inside an insulation-free, 37 meter high wooden structure during winter would have been impractical, so the second building is 10 metres shorter, narrower and has added means to keep it -and the congregation- warm.
The third element within the compound is a bell tower, separate from each church but serving both, as an addition to the original layout. Other events did not unfold according to original expectations, either -as we’ll see next week.
We’ll also revisit with AN, across the years.