One day, traversing Lake Onega on our way from St. Petersburg to Moscow, we stopped at the island of Kizhi, a remote windswept spot first settled in the 1400s, where there now exists the Unesco World Heritage site known as Kizhi Pogost. Here, we saw this fairytale of a church constructed centuries ago entirely of wood without the use of so much as single nail.
It still reminds me of nothing so much as the popsicle-stick houses we kids used to make at summer camp and yet with the help both of the Soviet government 50 years and today’s careful restorers it has survived winter snows and icy winds since it was erected in 1714.
Here on Kizhi, we saw historical impersonators practicing ancient arts. This short video I took shows a woman who that day was submitting brittle stalks of vegetation through the exceedingly long (three, or four, or 27-for-all-I-know) part process that would eventually render it into thread. (And to think I complain about the three days it takes to get a dress I have ordered online!)
I watched fascinated as such ancient crafts were practiced by these modern Russian citizens – and I wished neither for the first or last time that I could speak their language, as they surely did not speak mine.
Our tour guide, however, did speak English and she spoke it very well. Here she is describing how the people stayed alive on this island where arable land was so valuable and so scarce due to the very short growing season, that exactly none of it could be set aside for pasturage. A book I just referenced tells me that “because only small parts of Russia are south of 50° north latitude and more than half of the country is north of 60° north latitude, extensive regions experience six months of snow cover over subsoil that is permanently frozen to depths as far as several hundred meters (italics mine.) The average yearly temperature of nearly all of European Russia is below freezing, and the average for most of Siberia is freezing or below. Most of Russia has only two seasons, summer and winter, with very short intervals of moderation between them.”
What she is saying, in case her accent it too thick for you, is that before they skinnied out entirely, any horses and cows that villagers owned would be transported to the mainland on wee fragile crafts like this one so as to have at least some chance of staying alive.
Staying alive remains very much a concern in many parts of our world of course.
Assured survival has never been part of life and certainly we in the west are kidding ourselves if we think it is.
As Shakespeare says “we owe God a death,” each and every one of us. But in the meantime, we can build beauty like this, that can outlast our own short moments in the light.