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Karelia and the White Sea

Church of the Transfiguration at Kizhi


Page Contents
General Information
Getting There
Tourist Information
Petrozavodsk and Kizhi
Solovetsky Archipelago and the White Sea area
Alexander Svir Monastery
Note: Church of the Transfiguration and the Kizhsky Pogost complex

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General information 

The Republic of Karelia is located in the northwest part of the Russian Federation. It occupies 180,500 square kilometers (1.06% of the total territory of Russia) and has a populartion of about 800,000. Its length from north to south is 660 kilometers, from west to east at the latitude of the town, Kem', its width is 424 kilometers. Karelia borders Finland in the West, Leningrad and Vologda districts in the South, and the Murmansk and Archangelsk districts in the East. In the Northwest, the Republic borders on the White Sea.

The capital of Kareliaa is Petrozavodsk, a city of more than 280,000 inhabitants located on Lake Onega. About 85% of the territory is covered with forests. There are also more than 27,000 rivers and over 60,000 lakes in Karelia, including Lake Ladoga (17,000 square kilometers) and Lake Onego (9,900 square kilometers), which are among the largest lakes in Europe.

This is perhaps the best map of the area to be found on the internet.

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For historical weather information check out these sites: Weather Underground

Winter sports include ski trips, snowmobile excursions and helicopter rides to Kizhi.

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Karelia is situated pretty far north. In fact, in Petrozavodsk they turn off the town's street lights from mid May until late August as the sun does not set until quite late, if at all. Plus the Solovetsky Archipelago is located about 150 kilometers from the Arctic Circle. The summer days are long, but the winter days are quite short. If you want to know how long or how short on a particular day of the year in a particular location, check out this page to: Compute Sunrise, Sunset and Twilight for Cities & Airports.

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Getting There 
It is possible to fly internationally into Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Karelian Republic. There are flights three times a week from Helsinki. There are also internal flights from Moscow and St. Petersburg. In additional there are helicopter flights to Kizhi, Solovetsky, other destinations in Karelia and in the Northwestern part of Russia which can be arranged through Russian travel agencies.

There is regular train service between Moscow, Murmansk and St. Petersburg.
Train #018A "Karelia"
Departs Moscow Oktyabrskaya Station daily at 18:25 and arrives in Petrozavodsk the following day at 09:15.
Train #017A "Karelia"
Departs Petrozavodsk daily at 190:00 and arrives in Moscow's Oktyabrskaya Station the following day at 08:55.
Prices (approximate in one direction): 1st class = 164 USD, 2nd class = 84 USD and platskartney = 29 USD (June 2006)

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Train #658Ch "Kalevala"
Departs St. Petersburg Ladozhsky Station daily at 22:13 and arrives in Petrozavodsk the following day at 06:53.
Train #657Ch "Kalevala"
Departs Petrozavodks daily at 23:00 and arrives in St. Petersburg Ladozhsky Station the following day at 07:15.
Prices (approximate in one direction): 1st class = 45 USD, 2nd class = 23 USD and platskartney = 9 USD (June 2006)

There are several other daily trains between Moscow and Petrozavodsk and between St. Petersburg and Petrozavodsk and others between Murmansk and Petrozavodsk. Travel time on the fastest train to Murmansk takes about 20 hours and on the slower passenger trains it can take about 25 hours.

Cruises and Water Travel
Several stops in Karelia often are included in cruises between Moscow and St. Petersburg. These stops include some or all the other following places: Svirstroy, Kizhi, Petrozavodsk, Mandrogi, Valaam. In addition, it is possible to arrange travel through the White Sea canal, between Kizhi and the Solovetsky Islands via hydrofoils and other ships.

The following companies offer River Cruises between Moscow and St. Petersburg:
Orthodox Cruise Company
The Russia Experts
WaytoRussia - Domestic Cruises
Russian River Cruises - the UK's only website dedicated to Russian River Cruises

St. Petersburg - Valaam - St. Petersburg Cruises
Length: 3 days.
Cruise Company: Rechflot - note that the website is all in Russian and the companies offices are located in Moscow.
Cruise Company: Tur Flot - note that the website is all in Russian and in 2006 there were no 3 day Valaam cruises.
Cruise Company: Nordic Travel - their website is in English.
Price: varies considerably depending upon the company, the ship, the type and size of the compartment and the number meals.

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Rafting on the Shuya River:
Nordic Travel
NorthWest Travel Bureau
Tourist Bureau Karelia - offers day trips.
Lukomorie Travel Company

Rafting on the Chirka - Kem River:
Nordic Travel - scroll down the page
The Russia Experts for long trips

Cruising on the Karelian Lakes and into the White Sea:
Nordic Travel
offers a variety of cruises to Kizhi, to see the Onego Lake Petroglyphs, the White Sea/Baltic Canal and on the White Sea to the Solovetsky Archipelago. They even offer cruises on Lake Onego on historic wooden boats.

Lukomorie Travel Company offers a cruise through the White Sea/Baltic Canal and a visit to the Solvetsky Monastery including whale watching on the White Sea.

Another highly recommended company for excursions in Karelia is Tourist Company Stella but their website is all in Russian.

For more information about travel in Karelia and links to other travel agencies in Karelia, check out the Karelia Tourism Portal

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Tourist Inforamtion 

In the northern part of Lake Ladoga is an archipelago consisting of 50 islands, the largest of which is called Valaam. According to the ancient chronicles and monastery tradition, the founders were Saints Sergiy and Herman, Greek missionaries who came to the lands surrounding Ladoga in the first half of the 10th century.

As the Valaam monastery was in Finland, it remained open during Soviet times until the inhabitants were evacuated in Decemeber 1939 during bombing. Bombs hit near the cathedral, and windows were blown out in almost all the buildings. Life became physically impossible in the monastery, and because of that, the military commandant suggested that all monastery inhabitants leave. The monastery was abandoned and the monks relocated to Finland. In 1940 the territory was ceded to the Soviet government. During WWII the monastery changed sides several times, but at the end of the war, the territory remained in Soviet hands, and the monks decided to establish themselves in New Valaam, in Finland.

In 1989 the monks returned when part of the island and some of the sketes were transferred to the control of the Russian Orthodox Church. Today the Monastery of the Holy Transfiguration of the Savior operates under the personal patronage of His Holiness Aleksiy II of Moscow and All Russia. Besides the monastery buildings, there are several chapels, hermitages and sketes. It is possible to attend performances of the choir which has produced a number of CDs of their chants. And there are lovely gardens and walks on the main island. It is possible to take boat rides around the islands and to visit some of the smaller hermitages and sketes.

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Petrozavodsk and Kizhi 
Petrozavodsk means Peter's factory and the city was founded in 1702 by Peter the Great who ordered the establishment of a shipyard on Lake Lagoda near the Svir River. To provide the shipyards with cast iron and the navy with armaments, the Petrovsky-Olonetsky plants were founded. The main plant was the Petrovsky Cannon and Cast Iron plant which was founded in 1703 at the mouth of the Lonosinka River.

By 1710 the shipyards were moved to the Admiralty in Petersburg. Later the foundries ceased producing iron as the Urals became the center of mining and iron production. The factory in Petrozavodsk ceased production in 1734. The city experienced a brief revival during the Turkish war (1768 - 1774) when the foundries were active again. Then in 1777 Catherine the Great recognized the city's historic importance and gave the city its current name and the privilege of being a town. Around the same time the area had been developing some private sawmills. After the freeing of the serfs in 1861 the logging industry began developing rapidly. Sawmills were equipped with steam engines. The number of workers grew. Karelia became one of the most important suppliers of wood and sawmill products for internal and external markets.

In the 19th century Lake Onega and the White Sea saw the first large ship and a regular ship route was established between Petrozavodsk and St. Petersburg. But overall, the economy of Karelia kept its traditional focus with only a small percentage of the population being workers and employees. A new railway line was built up to Murmansk in 1914 - 1915 and that promoted economic and cultural connections between Petrozavodsk and the rest of the country.

Today Petrozavodsk is a pleasant city. The park established during Peter the Great's time has been maintained and new sculptures line the lake shore. The State University in Petrozavodsk is the largest in this part of Russia. In addition, there are a number of other educational and academic centers including branches of the Russian Academy of SCience and the Karelian Science Center. In Petrozavodsk itself there are four theaters, several museums of local history and culture and a number of Russian Orthodox and Lutheran churches.

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Kivatch Waterfall, the second largest in Europe (the largest is the Rhine Waterfalls) is located about 60 kilometers from Petrozavodsk. The height of the waterfalls is 10.7 meters. In the 1930s much of the water was diverted to the Kondopozhskaya Hydroelectric power station so that it lost much of its former wildness. Now it is only during the spring high waters that the river really flows strongly. Even then it is not a huge, dramatic falls. The falls are situated in the center of a nature reserve, "Kivatch" where there is a Karelian birch tree nursery.

The Museum of Martial Waters was established in 1946 on the site of the oldest health resort in Russia. The curative mineral water springs here were visited by Peter the Great who had some buildings constructed in the area. With his death, the resort was no longer visited. Then in 1964, a sanatorium was constructed nearby. Today it is possible to "take the waters," and visit the little museum and the nearby Church of the Apostle Peter which was built in 1721. The church is quite unusual in that it contains both Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic features.

But the main reason that people come to Petrozavodsk is to take the Comet hydrofoil 65 kilometers to the island of Kizhi. The Wooden Architecture Museum with its 70 monuments of folk architecture built in the 15th to 19th centuries became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1990. The gem of the complex is the Kizhky pogost ensemble. It consists of the 22 cupola Transfiguration Church, a summer church dating from 1714, the Pokrovskaya Church, a winter church from 1764 and the bell-tower from 1874.

The Petrozavodsk Bureau of Tourism and Excursions can arrange tours in the area.
Petrozavodsk, Anohina St., 47
Tel./Fax.: +7 8142 76 89 10
Hours: 10:00 - 17:00, Monday through Friday

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Solovetsky Islands, the Baltic-White Sea Canal and the White Sea 
The Baltic-White Sea or Onego Canal was begun in early 1930 under orders from Stalin. This waterway connecting Lake Onego to the White Sea is 227 km long. Completed in twenty months using primarily convict labor, the canal opened in 1933. The canal is partly a canalized river, partly an artificial canal, and partly some natural lakes. There are a total of 19 locks which change the level in both directions. First canal passes through seven locks to rise up to 70 meters in comparison with Onego Lake, and then it passes through twelve locks to lower down 102 meters to the water level of the White Sea.

More than 100,000 prisoners worked on the canal and it is estimated that about 86,000 died due to porr treatment, illness and executions. Along the Canal, many memorials and several museums were set in the recent time to commemorate those who died during the Canal's construction.

There are ancient petroglyphs located on the eastern shore of Lake Onego near Besov Nos or Demon's Cape. These are symbolic rock carvings which were altered probably in the 15th century by Christians hoping to neutralize the evil spirits. There are also petroglyphs near the town of Belomorsk on the White Sea. These are more symbolic and fantastic, depicting the sun and the moon, enigmatic signs and imaginary creatures.



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In Karelia and nearby, there are some significant ensembles of labyrinths and seids. A labyrinth is a maze, while a 'seid' is a large boulder or boulders, which have been placed atop smaller stones. These stone structures were (and probably are) believed to be sacred and mystical sites. Many believe they are locales where the real world meets the supernatural universe, and energies accumulate to keep in balance communities of people, ancestors and spirits. Collections of labyrinths and seids have been discovered in Karelia in the Kuzova Archipelago in the White Sea, along the sea route from Kem' to Solovetsky, the Solovetsky Archipelago itself, the the mountains of Kivakka and Nuoronen in the area of Paanajarvi and near Vottovaara mountain in Muezersky region.

Probably the most famous place in the White Sea area is the Solovetsky Archipelago, also called Solovki. This cluster of islands covering about 300 square kilometers was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992, as "an outstanding example of building or architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates significant stages in human history." The archipelago consists of multiple small islands and six larger islands including the biggest, Greater Solovetsky Island, on which the famous medieval monastery and Kremlin is built.

While the area had prehistoric inhabitants, its beginnings as a religious center date to the mid 15th century. First the local inhabitants told an old Monk, Savvaty, about the island. Later he was joined there in 1436 by a second monk, Zossima who settled there with his followers and established the monastery. Then in 1549 the Monastery came under the leader of Philip whose energy inspired the monks to construct stone churches, roads, canals to connect the numerous lakes. In 1636 a young priest named Nikita came from Moscow and made his home on Anzersky island, the second largest island of the archipelago, a small settled had been established by the monk Eleazar. It was here that Nikita took the new name of Nikon. Later he became Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Later in the 16th century Ivan the Terrible ordered that the monastery fortify itself to defend the northern borders of Russia. Huge boulders were added to the monastery walls and the place became a fortress complete with a military garrison. There were several military actions during the 18th and 19th century. Occasionally, as was common then, the Monastery served as a prison for heretics and criminals.

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In 1923, a infamous prison SLON (Solovetsky Camp of Special Purpose) was set up. Hundreds of thousands prisoners were kept on the Island where they were treated poorly, suffered badly and died. The prison was closed in the 1939 and the island became a military school. After WWII it was essentially abandoned until 1965 when restoration of the Solovetsky Kremlin began. In 1974 a small museum was opened, and this has been expanded more recently to a larger museum telling the history of the island and commemorating the prisoners who lived and died there.

From from Arkhangelsk, it is 12 hours by boat or 1.5 hours by plane. From the Karelian towns of Kem' and Belomorsk there are boats that take 2.5 hours and more depending upon from where and also the sea conditions. From Petrozavodsk it's a helicopter ride of about 3 hours. From Moscow and Petersburg, it is possible to arrange a charter plane.

Solovetsky Monastery


There were two guest houses or inns on the main island in summer 2001. It was also possible to camp or sometimes to find beds with locals. There were several small shops that sold some staples and food but no real restaurants or stores. There is a small visitors center where a map can be purchased and various tours and walks arranged. In addition to visiting the monastery, its churches, the kremlin and the museum, there are a number of other expeditions worth considering including a rowing in the lakes and canals, visiting the Church of Ascension atop Sekirnaya Hill. This church was a lighthouse during Soviet times and now serves as a memorial to those who died in the gulag camps here. Also visit the unique botanical gardens constructed in a sheltered spot on the island, where the monks were able to grown fruits and vegetables usually not available this far north. Also stop by the fish hatchery where the monks designed a place to hold large numbers of fish for consumption when severe weather did not permit fishing.

If you travel to the Solovetsky Islands from Kem', be sure to visit the wooden Church of the Ascension that was constructed between 1711 and 1717. It has an unusual eight-sided tent roof with two side chapels that also have tent roofs. Also in Kem' is a small, but pleasant Museum of Local Studies.

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Alexander Svir Monastery 
The monastery was founded in 1484 in Lodeinopolye uyezd, Olonets province of the Leningrad Oblast (so it isn't actually in Karelia.) It actually consists of two monasteries situated close to each other - Troitsa and Preobrazheniye. The first of these houses a mental hospital, the second one was recently reopened. The present Transfiguration or Preobrazheniye church was finished in 1644.

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The territory of Karelia began being inhabited after the Ice Age ended in this area, about 8000 years B.C.E. By the beginning of the 9th century there was already permanent settlement in Karelia, and the Karelians themselves had become established as one of the tribes of Finland. These early dwellers of Karelia were able to mine and process iron and began agriculturing and cattle breeding. In fact, the origin of the name Karelia or more precisely, its Finnish form "Karjala" is very old Finnic name. Probably "karja" is simply and directly from karja, or cattle, and "la" is a unique Finnic suffix meaning, place. Thus, "Karjala" is a "place for cattle."

Since the end of the first millennium A.D. the area was occupied by Finno-Ugrian language group tribes: Korela, Sum, Ves and Saami (Pol). They inhabited the Karelian isthmus, northern side of Lake Ladoga, between the Ladoga and Onega lakes (Ves) and farther to the North (Saami). By the beginning of the 2nd millenium part of Karelia extended to the shores of the White Sea. At the same time, the same territories were penetrated by the Slavs, who helped to develop agriculture, salt work and sea trades.

For centuries Karelia was a relatively independent, homogenous tribe or nation, but it was not a political state. The population center was Käkisalmi or Korela and the people were pagans. Sweden and the Roman Catholic church, Novgorod and Russian Orthodox church, both desired Finland and Karelia. "The first crusade" was made by the Swedish in 1156 to Finland proper. In 1227 Yaroslav, prince of Novgorod, held a mass baptism to convert the people in Karelia to the Russian Orthodox religion. Earl Birger of Sweden in 1238 made "the second crusade" to Häme introducing again the Roman Catholic tradition.

Dimitri, prince of Novgorod "punished the Karelian people and took their country" in 1278. Then Swedes made their "third crusade" to Karelia in 1293 and established a stronghold called Wiborg (now Vyborg,) at which there place was an old Karelian trading post. But battles between the Swedes and the Rus continued for decades until 1323 when Swedish King Magnus and Prince Yuri of Novgorod signed a treaty at Pähkinäsaari that divided the territory of Karelia between Sweden and Novgorod. In 1478 the Novgorodian part of Karelia was attached to Russia. Over the next centuries the territory of Karelia remained divided; the borders moved and the rulers changed numerous times. Even their religion changed again as the Swedes became Lutherans and the Roman Catholics in Karelia were forced to become Lutherans as well.

Despite the fact that it was Finnish territory, in 1703 Peter the Great built a fortress on Hare Island that was to become in 1712 his new capital, St. Petersburg. The Napoleonic wars shifted all of Finnish territory to Russia. At the end of 1917, however, Lenin acknowledged Finnish independence though the country still had to go through a very bitter and bloody civil war between January and May 1918. The Treaty of Tartu (Dorpat) signed in 1920 with Russia confirmed the borders of Finland. The Finnish government demanded a referendum in East Karelia about the possibility of reuniting with Finland. But no referendum occurred and Karelia remained divided.

Russia started a conflict with Finland in late 1939, but by March 1940 a ceasefire was in place. In July 1941 the Finnish started an offensive into Russia and within months they had reclaimed Vyborg and Petrozavodsk. In June 1944 the Russian started a counter offensive to push out the Finns and by September they had reestablished themselves in Eastern Karelia. The borders have remained constant since 1947, but with the end of the Soviet Union, many residents of Finland regularly cross the border to visit relatives, friends and religious sites.

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The beginning of the 18th century was marked by reforms carried out by Peter the Great, the first Russian victories in the Northern war and general hope for a future happy life. A tide of construction in the honor of these victories spread across the northern region known as Zaonezhye, meaning on Lake Onego. Farmsteads, villages were repaired and reconstructed, new churches and chapels were built. Probably, the Church of the Transfiguration of Christ was the first to be built among the Kizhi churches.

The Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior (1714) is part of the Wooden Architecture Museum on the Island of Kizhi and is one of four structures that form the Kizhsky pogost ensemble. The others are the Church of Intercession (1764), the bell tower (1863-1874) and the fence, which is a mid 20th century reconstruction based in part on 18th century engravings of the original.

None of the architects' or builders' names are known for certain. Only a legend remains about the master Nestor who, upon completing the construction, threw his axe into Lake Onego and said: "There has not been, no where is and never will be a church like this!" The church is one of the best examples in the the world of wooden folk architecture and the pinnacle of the carpenters' craft.

It is said that the twenty-two onion domes of the Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior represent the larger administrative and territorial units that comprised the Kizhsky pogost and that each locale contributed to the construction of the church. It was constructed entirely of wood without a single nail and its design allows water to run off the surface preventing moisture from accumulating and causing the wood to rot. (See this note on bochka roof design for a more complete explanation.) The Church of the Transfiguration is a summer church and services were held here only in the summer. Services continued to be held here until 1937. Although services resumed in 1995, at present, the interior of the church is closed as the structure is considered too unstable to accommodate visitors.

The area behind a church intended for burying the dead was called a "pogost," later this word was used for the square in front of a church. Eventually, the word "pogost" came to mean an administrative unit the inhabitants of which were the members of the same central church. The Kizhsky Pogost was then a large administrative and territorial unit comprising several minor units ("volosty") with many big and small villages including tiny settlements ("vystavky" and "potchinky") on the neighboring islands as well as the more densely populated place which was the main administrative center. By the 16th century the Kizhi pogost included 130 villages and was one of the largest in northern Russia. The officials of both secular and religious powers lived here, a garrison of Riflemen ("streltsy") had quarters in the "pogost," meetings of people, fairs, religious and other festivities also took place here.

The Church of the Intercession is a ten-cupola church of a different style. The construction start date is not known with certainty, although it was completed by 1764. As a winter church its interior was designed to accommodate a parishioners for the service and for a meal since in winter it was too cold to eat outside. The style of the church is a combination of "octahedron on quadrangle" as was the most widespread traditional type of northern wooden churches in the 18th century. The lower section or quadrangle was the site of the dining room and the upper section was the church chapel.

According to canons, the church had to be built with a tent roof. But it is evident that under a tent roof the structure would have been too heavy looking and squat. Besides, the tent silhouette would have not matched the one of the Church of the Transfiguration. The carpenters diverged from the tradition and crowned the octahedron with one larger central dome surrounded by nine smaller domes. The church was restored between 1950 - 1959.

By the middle of the 19th century bell-tower that was present had grew rickety and unstable. In 1862 the construction of a new one was started at the same location. The new structure on a stone foundation was completed in 1874. The work was performed by a peasant of the Povenets society Sysoy Osipov "who conscientiously and reliably carried out all the carpenter work." The bells were removed during Soviet times but were replaced in the late 1980s.

By the mid 20th century only the rubble of the foundation and the stone filling remained of the fence once existing around the pogost. Although a reconstruction, the current fence does represent a style typical of northern church ensembles. The original fence is depicted in the 18th century engravings in the book by N. Ya. Ozeretskovsky called "A Travel on Lakes Ladoga and Onego." Combined with details from other northern pogost church fences, a new fence was constructed in 1959 that consisted of the wall made of huge logs tightened with cribs and built atop a high stone filling. A gabled roof was added on top of the wall, which follows the relief of the terrain. At the intersection of the northern and western walls, there is a small turret covered with a four-pitched roof. Two wicket gates with the open-work door leaves are made in the northern and eastern walls. On both sides of the central entrance in the western wall, there are two frameworks united under a single gable roof. The candle shops of the parish are located in these frameworks.

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last revised 25 Jun 2006 © 2003-2011 Ruth E. Imershein
The information contained on these pages is intended to assist in making travel plans but things change, mistakes can be made.
Please do not depend entirely on this information when making your decisions.

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