"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Russian Journals, Part Nine, Kizhi Island

Early evening, 1714, the small island of Kizhi in Lake Onega, northwestern Russia.

With a sharp crack the pole snapped into two pieces. Nestor leaned his axe against the pile of firewood and picked up the two pieces of wood. He saw that the wood had been broken in two rather than cut by the axe. He added the last two pieces to the large pile of wood and picked up the axe.

“You need a honing, axe,” said Nestor. “But you’ve done your work. Now you shall rest.” A nearby raven squawked in agreement.

On the low rise to the north, beyond the rough fences that kept the cattle away from the building site, Nestor’s helpers walked towards the village on the other side of the narrow island. As they topped the rise, they stopped and turned to look at what they had accomplished, as they had done every evening for many long months.

Nestor’s eldest son Alexei approached his father. “You did it, father, and without a single nail. This is surely the most magnificent church in all Russia…or all the world.”

Nestor smiled and nodded. He thought of the careful scribe-fitting of the logs, the dove-tails and swallow-tails and hand-mitered joints. He thought of how much his son had learned of craftsmanship, how the lad had become the finest shingle splitter on the island, of how fitting the aspen shingles over the domes had been such exacting work, perfect for the boy’s small hands.

Nestor walked a dozen yards to the edge of Lake Onega. He looked again at his life’s finest work, the pine log structure rising 37 meters (121 feet). There had been no work on the building that day. Instead, the workmen had taken down all the ladders and scaffolding. The final task had been to chop those into firewood, for they were too worn for any other use.

The sun had warmed them all day as they completed their toils, and Nestor and the men were in a good mood because of it. They had fought the rain and wind common to this island for too many months. Now the early evening sun hit the onion domes of the completed church, turning the aspen shingles silver.

During the early morning the domes appeared to be made of gold, and on cloudy days they were occasionally purple. Nestor looked at the bit of his broad axe. The many times he had carefully sharpened the bit had worn the chiseled edge deep into the cheek of the axe head, but the fine Prussian steel held an edge like no other cutting tool he owned. It was an ideal weapon, too, thought Nestor, should I have had to fight those troublesome Poles, or Lithuanians, or Swedes, as my ancestors did.

For a moment, Nestor regretted his decision. He had never owned such a fine tool in all his life. But then, he had never before built such a fine church, either. Father Dmitri had told him it was to be called the Transfiguration Church.

Holding the handle of the axe with both calloused hands, Nestor looked at a spot far out on the lake, and, with a half spin, threw the axe into the water of Lake Onega.

As the axe splashed and disappeared, Nestor turned back to the church on rise and said aloud, “Never before has there been, there is not now, and never will there be another like it.”

(Gullible's note: Obviously, I was not with Nestor in 1714 on the island of Kizhi. I made up this story using a legend as its basis. The legend of Nestor building this magnificent church with only his axe, using no nails, then throwing the axe in the lake and speaking those exact words is true. I mean, it's true it's a legend. As to whether or not the legend itself is literally true, really--who cares? However, this is a small island with a population of less than a hundred, and stories do get passed down through the generations.

This place was THE premier highlight of many highlights on the entire trip.

The church is one of many included in an outdoor museum of Russian architectural history. I'll be showing you many more pictures, but I seem to have located the Kremlin guide I was searching for earlier, and must finish the Kremlin cathedral chapter now. Umm...it was right beside my keyboard.)

Part of the Kizhi Pogost. Click on this photo and notice there is not a single person in it. How unusual. This is the most popular place for tourists--both Russian and foreign.


  1. Thanks for steering me to this post. The cathedral is dreamlike, set on this special island.

    I love the story of its construction; I choose to believe the legend is based on truth. I can see why you consider this to be the Premier highlight of your trip.

    You've been around since back in 1714, just not on the island of Kizhi with Nestor, right?

  2. Jennie, that is one killer photo.
    I'm enjoying every word you have written. You have such a wonderful way to tell a story.

  3. Odd. I was expecting more about the Big Bad Kremlin. Where we left off back in Part Eight. Smiling .. Cap and Patti