Deep in Russia’s chilly north, there’s a church like something out of myth, and according to locals, it is. Long ago, an extraordinary carpenter called Master Nestor built a 120-foot cathedral with nothing but an ax and his wits, the people say. He carved the onion domes and the spires and slammed them all together with wooden pegs.
The legend of Master Nestor may be a little far-fetched, but the church is there today. It’s called the Church of the Transfiguration, and here’s its twist: It’s not the only historic wooden church on the island. There’s also the Church of the Intercession, called the Winter Church, which dates back to 1764.
Both of these churches stand on northern Russia’s Kizhi Island, and you can visit them. Here are a few fun facts to pique your interest in this remarkable corner of the world.
1. Unique Location
The Kizhi Pogost (also known as the Kizhi enclosures) were built on Kizhi Island, one of thousands of islands in Lake Onega in the Karelia region. While the Republic of Karelia is part of Russia, this northwestern region of the country borders Finland. Lake Onega is the second largest lake in Europe, covering an area of 3,753 square miles.
2. A Site For Pagan Rituals
Kizhi Island was once a site for pagan rituals. Over time, Russian settlers were drawn to the area for its rich natural resources. It’s still a popular fishing spot. As time passed and more people immigrated to the area, pagan faiths were replaced by Russian Orthodox Christian practice.
3. The Churches Have History
The churches located on Kizhi Pogost were first mentioned in chronicles from the 16th century. Two churches with hipped-roofs, a bell tower, and a small community of homes and farms were all documented to be on the island. These are the churches the curious still visit today.
4. Disaster Struck In The 17th Century
Lightning struck the churches in 1693, igniting a fire that burned them all to the ground. The structures were rebuilt in the 18th century on the exact sites as the originals.
5. A Simple Look
Unlike the more elaborate, colorful, and well-known cathedrals elsewhere in Russia, the churches of Kizhi Pogost have a much more simplistic style. What these churches lack in vibrancy they make up for in complexity in construction, and, many would argue, rustic charm.
6. No Nails Needed
The original churches and bell tower were built entirely out of wood — using no nails or metal of any kind during construction. Each and every elaborate piece of these churches was constructed by hand. The Church of the Transfiguration is a multi-story, multi-cupola (22 in total) structure, the likes of which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. The beautiful Church of the Intercession is also multi-cupola and has eight cupolas surrounding the main, onion-shaped center dome.
7. The Rebuild
The structures standing today were built under the reign of Peter the Great during the 18th century. The Church of the Transfiguration is touted as an architectural feat, lending to the legend of Master Nestor and his ax.
Here’s another piece of Nestor’s story: Once he completed the all-wood construction of the Church of the Transfiguration in 1714, it’s believed he threw his ax into the lake, declaring there would never be another church built to rival it. That part could be true, but additional materials, such as metal rods and nails, do help keep these churches standing today.
8. What Still Stands Today
In addition to the two churches on the island, there’s also an octagonal bell tower, which was built in 1862. Plus, other historic wooden buildings from the Karelia region have been moved to or reconstructed on Kizhi Island as part of an open-air museum. This means visitors can walk by houses, barns, windmills, and other everyday structures from an earlier time. It’s an enchanting experience, especially for architecture buffs.
9. How To Visit The Kizhi Pogost
The Kizhi Pogost are open to the public year-round. During the summer season (May-October), the island is about a two-hour hydrofoil boat ride from Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia. Once the lake freezes over, you’ll have to rely on snowmobiles, dog sled, or skis to reach Kizhi. You can plan your own visit or simplify your travel plans by booking a guided tour.
Whenever you plan to make the journey to Kizhi Island, rest assured that the buildings there are scrupulously maintained and protected. The site is on the UNESCO World Heritage list and is designated an official federal monument, which means various protections are in place.
From the time that Master Nestor completed his work to today, these buildings have filled visitors with wonder and awe — and their history continues. Maybe you’ll become part of it during your next vacation.
Of course, you’ll also want to know how to spend an amazing day in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where you can see elaborate churches like the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood.