By Sharyn Alden
When you say, “I’ve been to X,” and people respond, “Where?”, you know you’re on to something.
Kizhi is an onion-domed medieval settlement northeast of St. Petersburg in Russia’s cold northern forests, located in an area called the Republic of Karelia that’s actually more Finnish and Scandinavian than Russian.
It had been a rough crossing the night before we arrived at the island. We had bucked through seven-foot waves on Lake Onega, a huge northern sea that’s filled by the waters of 50 rivers.
Torrents of water splashed at the windows of our Viking River Cruise ship as we churned through the waves – but by the next afternoon, sunlight filtered soft shadows over the island of Kizhi, and Russia’s “sacred island” came into view.
Viewing the UNESCO World Heritage site from the ship’s deck, it looked like a place where Russian fairy tales were born.
Kizhi is home to some of the world’s finest examples of medieval and post-medieval orthodox settlements dating from the 16th century. The island includes 87 buildings and more than 40,000 items, including 500 icons that help preserve the culture of the ancient people who once lived there.
The massive wooden churches and farm buildings are outstanding examples of 350-year-old designs. There are also nearly 20 farmhouses, saunas, barns, and granaries.
The onion domes of the wooden buildings shimmer like silver. The largest, the Church of the Transfiguration, sports 22 domes carved from local aspen trees and a single dome with 30,000 intricately carved shingles made from local birch. At first sight, the domes were a striking reddish-pink, though they can also look blue, silver, gold or green depending on the time of day and how the light shines.
This enormous church, one of Russia’s oldest, was built without nails or a single piece of metal. The story goes that a man named Nestor cut every piece of wood for the building with an axe; if the story is true, it makes the Church of the Transfiguration, amazing and remarkable as it already is, into something of a miracle.
Archaeological finds date from the 6th millennium B.C. The first villages here were built in the 10th century and were settled by Finnish-Ugrain pagan tribes. The name Kizhi is a word descended from these tribes and means “pagan rites.”
Visitors arrive at the remote island by boat, hydrofoil, helicopter, or snowmobile. Today, about 40 people tough it out and live on Kizhi year-round.
A boardwalk guides visitors over the marshes into the island’s interior. The air is cool, refreshingly crisp, with a mountain-like freshness. I walked carefully onto shore, hardly taking my eyes off the grassy path.
The grass was nice, but what lurked in the grass really held my attention: vipers. These poisonous troublemakers are also island residents.
A few tents and shops were lined up near the water, and a handful of people were selling fur hats, coats, jackets and gloves. “It was 50 degrees below zero here last winter,” explained Svetlana, one the fur sellers, who was wearing a head-to-toe fur outfit even though it was probably 60 degrees.
I moved along the path and took in the dwellings and the massive Church of the Transfiguration. “This is a “summer church,” a larger version of the adjacent Church of Lazarus, the “winter church.”
“Summer churches were larger because they didn’t have to be heated,” said Ekatarina, the petite, pony-tailed guide.
I passed by many island windmills and wondered who owned them; I later found out they belonged to the richest families on the island.
A half-mile or so later, I entered a large log house with decorative hand-carved trim. This homestead, with its folk-art décor, could’ve been seen just as easily in old Scandinavia as Russia.
A woman was knitting in the “red corner” of the main room, which was filled with birchbark containers, a primitive stove and a baby’s cradle.
“Every room of the house had a “red corner,’” Ekatarina said, “because that’s where the beautiful things were kept.” (The word “red” in old Russian is synonymous with the word for “beauty.”)
Early settlers and current residents are known for their boat-building abilities. In a barn-like room adjacent to the main portion of the house, a sleek wooden boat was ready to launch.
“Lake Onega can be very dangerous,” Ekatarina said. “So our boats are designed to accelerate gradually and go fast. They don’t slow down easily.” Islanders “sew” their boats together with spruce roots, twigs and birch pegs for fasteners. While the work is slow going, Ekatarina said boat-builders can sew together 10 to 15 boats in one season.
Walking to the water’s edge, I learned that early settlers believed that soaking in the island’s shore-side bathhouses warded off evil spirits. “But people don’t go in there after midnight,” added Ekatarina. “That’s when the evil spirits gather in earnest.”
Those premonitions also are reflected in the island homes. Some of their windows have spike-like thorns around the glass panes. “To keep the bad sprits from entering the homes,” she explained.
When I sailed away from Kizhi on a late sunlit afternoon, I watched the wooden domes change from deep rose to a blue-gray and the clouds’ shadows move behind them.
The changing colors of the moody landscape are haunting and reason enough to come back and explore this unusual piece of Russia.
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis.
Editor’s Note: A river cruise that includes a stop at Kizhi Island deserves protection. Protect it with ExactCare, comprehensive-yet-affordable travel insurance from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. Get it here.