At one point in the 16th century, the island was declared a pogost or parish center by the Russian Orthodox Church and produced lumber and iron in an economy that sustained over 100 villages. After a two-year rebellion was quelled in 1771, Kizhi's importance waned until finally in the 1950's the island was almost forgotten. Most of the island’s inhabitants left, all of the original villages disappeared, leaving behind impressive wooden relics.
Today, this collection of traditional log structures, centered on two churches and a bell tower set in an enclosure still called the Kizhi Pogost, lives on as one of Russia’s greatest open-air museums. The pogost, as well as the other buildings from the region that were left behind were augmented in the 1960's and restored within this newly established reserve for historical wooden buildings.
The buildings were set in 3 special sectors named for the regions that the structures came from: North Karelia, Karelia, and Pudozhsky. The island was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1990.
Among Kizhi's highlights are the 22-dome Transfiguration Church. 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 that burnt down. It 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. In 1862, the bell tower was constructed to tie the two places of worship together.
Among the must-see places is also 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. Yet winter mornings show off the church in a dazzling light, making it look like a lost fairy tale setting.