Kizhi Island: The legacy of Northern Russia’s peasant craftsmen is preserved in Kizhi’s open-air Museum of Wooden Architecture

click to enlarge Transfiguration Church
  • Transfiguration Church

What, you might ask, is the connection between a modest Whistler cabin in Alpine Meadows and this strange church on a small island in northern Russia?

Not much actually, except that both are made of wood and sheltered from the rain and snow by hand-made shakes. But as I look up at the roof of the Church of Transfiguration on Kizhi Island I am reminded of the hours of frustrating labour spent trying to fit shakes to the simple roof lines of my cabin. Even though my shakes came in neat bundles and I had a sharp skill saw, a pouch full of galvanized nails and aluminum flashing to patch up my mistakes it was still a challenge. The fellows who built their church on Kizhi Island had none of these things but that didn’t stop them from building one of the most complex wooden structures ever assembled. I am in complete awe of what they produced.

Built by peasant carpenters in 1714, during the reign of Peter the Great, the Church of Transfiguration is the centerpiece of an open-air museum featuring early Russian wooden architecture. Its walls are hand-hewn logs and its roof is covered by thousands of hand carved aspen shingles. But it is no ordinary roof. Five consecutive rings of curved dormers are crowned by 21 onion-shaped domes and a larger, 22nd dome, soars above the centre of the church. The whole thing was originally cobbled together with hand tools and without the use of a single metal nail or strip of flashing. And, amazingly, it didn’t leak.

When Czar Peter the Great moved the country’s capital to St. Petersburg in 1712 and founded the nearby city of Petrozavodsk (Peter’s Workshop) on the west shore of Onega Lake he encouraged the building of the Church of Transfiguration as a spiritual beacon in the midst of his expanding northern domain. But, although Petrozavodsk is only a short distance from Kizhi Island, its foundry was apparently too busy making cannons and balls for Peter’s wars with the Swedes to concern itself with making nails. Like the Church of Transfiguration (1714), the smaller, nine-domed Intercession Church (1764) and the Bell Tower (1874) were all built without any metal parts.

Even before our ship, the Kirov, docked on the island I was transfixed by the sight of these three strange structures towering above the utterly flat, bush-covered landscape. But later, walking along the trails that wind through the pogost (country churchyard) I was equally astonished at the craftsmanship displayed in the many smaller structures that have been moved to the site since 1960 when Kizhi Island was made a Museum of Russian Wooden Architecture. The Island, 7 km long and 500 metres wide, is one of about 5,000 small islands in Lake Onega, Europe’s second largest lake. Its pogost was an old pagan ritual site before the first Russian colonists moved in and established a parish there in the 12 th century. None of the original churches they built have survived but the site was still regarded as hallowed ground in 1703 when Peter the Great spearheaded the settlement of Russia’s north.


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