Blessed with one of the most picturesque ensembles of wooden churches in Russia, the Lake Onega island of Kizhi provides perhaps the most scenic destination for travelers on Russia’s greatest waterway, the Volga. Situated in the geographical center of Europe’s second largest lake, Kizhi has long since been a strategic stopover for travelers, in particular those going from Novgorod the Great to the White Sea coast.
At one point in the 16th century, the island, declared a pogost or parish center by the Russian Orthodox Church, produced lumber and iron in an economy that sustained over 100 villages. After a two-year rebellion was quelled in 1771, its importance waned until finally in the 1950s, all of the original villages disappeared, leaving behind impressive wooden relicts.
Today, this collection of traditional log structures, centered on two churches and a bell tower that are set in an enclosure still called the Kizhi Pogost, lives on as one of Russia’s greatest open-air museums. Its 22-dome Transfiguration Church was built in 1714 from locally cut Scots pine logs using a special notching technique that precludes the use of even a single nail. It replaced an earlier church struck by lightning and burnt two decades earlier, and served as the year-round religious center of this part of the lake until 1764, when the smaller 9-dome Church of the Intercession was constructed for winter use. Although beautiful, the winter church seems almost modest next to its extravagant neighbor. In 1862, the bell tower was constructed to tie the two places of worship together.
The pogost of Kizhi (i.e. the Kizhi enclosure) is located on one of the many islands in Lake Onega, in Karelia. Two 18th-century wooden churches, and an octagonal clock tower, also in wood and built in 1862, can be seen there. These unusual constructions, in which carpenters created a bold visionary architecture, perpetuate an ancient model of parish space and are in harmony with the surrounding landscape.
UNESCO’s brief description
The pogost, as well as the other buildings that were left behind when most of the island’s inhabitants left (namely, the settlements of Yamka and Vasilyevo), were augmented in the 1960s with other important wooden structures from the region, restored within this newly established reserve for historical wooden buildings. These were set within three special sectors named for the regions that the structures came from: North Karelia, Karelia, and Pudozhsky. As the Soviet Union came to an end, the island was declared a World Heritage Site in 1990 by the United Nations Educational, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Russian Federation likewise selected it as one of its first Cultural Heritage sites in 1993.
Among the must-see places to be found on Kizhi is the Church of the Resurrection of Lazarus, moved to the island from the Murom Monastery on the lake’s eastern shore. Dating back to the 14th century, it is by far the oldest building in the collection, and indeed, the oldest wooden church still standing in Russia. Tradition holds that the building, a pilgrimage destination, has healing powers. The Chapels of Archangel Mikhail, of the Assumption of Virgin Mary, of the Divine Savior, and many others complete the ensemble of this spiritual island.
Kizhi is especially beautiful during the long northern summer, when the church domes shine with a mysterious, phosphoric light. When the sun sinks just below the horizon late in the evening, the domes become a brilliant scarlet, reflecting the last rays before twilight, and then gradually shifts to a spectral bluish tint before dropping into a nocturnal leaden gray. In winter, mornings show off the church in a dazzling light, like a lost fairy palace in the early day sun. It isn’t easy to get to the island during these special times of year - most visitors see Kizhi during a brief summer daytime stopover - but if it can be arranged, the experience is well worth the effort.