Tigers in Berlin


Museums have reopened in Berlin, and one goes to museum again. The ancient collection of the Altes Museum on Museum Island is an intimate acquaintance, I missed it. Coming out, I sit down on the stairs to flip through, in the spring sunshine, the catalog of the new exhibition on Greek portrait sculptures, about which I will soon write. And as I raise my head, I suddenly take notice of something I have seen a thousand times: the two bronze statues flanking the steps of the museum. Two equestrian statues to the right and left, their riders stabbing two big cats: the woman to the right a tiger, and the man to the left a lion. They did not get there today: the amazon in 1843, and the man in 1861. Yet now I think about it for the first time: why are here, in front of the house of fine arts, the temple of the spirit, two such action statues, whose figures in obvious superior position – on horseback, hunting with weapon – are brutally massacring endangered protected animals?

altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1 altes1

I am not alone with this question. The Reclam Kunstführer Berlin, to which I first turn for an answer in the museum shop, is also perplexed, stating that “the sculptures have nothing to do with the museum’s program.”

How and why did they get here anyway?

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the designer of the museum originally wanted to place here the equestrian statues of the two Prussian kings donating the museum, Frederick William III and IV. In fact, the museum, built between 1823 and 1830 as Königliches Museum, housed the royal private collections, and aimed at sharing their antique heritage with the educated bourgeoisie. The museum thus logically fits into the building complex surrounding the Lustgarten, the royal ornamental garden: to the south the royal palace (whose reconstruction, after the devastation of the war and the hiatus of the GDR times, will be finished this year) as the symbol of power, to the east the Berliner Dom as that of the church, to the west the Zeughaus, the armory and then military museum as that of the army, and to the north the museum as that of the spirit.

However, Frederick William IV did not want royal statues here. Nevertheless, the idea was already on its way, and the stair railings cried out after equestrian statues.

Friedrich Thiele: The Altes Museum, 1830, with two equestrian statues that never existed.

The first equestrian statue, the Amazon killing a tiger or simply Amazon by the Silesia-born but Berlin-educated sculptor August Kiss was placed on the right rail in 1843. The September 30 issue of Illustrirte Zeitung reported in detail about its set-up and also provided art criticism. According to the author monogrammed L. R., the greatest merit of the work is that it was cast from public donation. The artist “was bold enough” to model the sculpture in life size in his studio, and only later a “large association of enthusiastic friends of art, led by the King” (of which Schinkel was also a member) collected the sum necessary to casting. This is, then, the first – albeit not visible – link between the museum and the sculpture: the active participation – “sacrifice” – of the educated burgeoisie in the enrichment of the new center of bourgeois culture – or, in the vocabulary and conception, its “temple”.

Illustrirte Zeitung, September 30, 1843. The muscle men setting up the statue in the engraving seem to be helping the amazon with their sticks against the tiger.

The spirit of the age also saw in the sculpture the embodiment of the victory of the spirit over animal savagery, that is, exactly the Bildungsziel the museum served for. It is no coincidence that August Kiss’ other masterpiece was the statue of St. George (1855) in front of the Nikolaikirche, whose dragon has been traditionally associated with evil, and its knockdown thus symbolizes the victory of good.


The prolific critic Karl August Varnhagen also praises the sculpture for this reason: “It is a great, bold, expressive and powerful work. … One can see that the horse is already lost, but the person is triumphing. The beautiful amazon radiating with spiritual superiority will survive, and will at least take revenge for the horse.” This concern for a secondary figure is unusual from a critic, but we know that Varnhagen fought the Napoleonic wars under Austrian, Prussian and Russian flags, and was able to exactly gauge what it means to lose a horse in an emergency.

However, no one is yet concerned for the tiger at this time. The only criticism of Illustrirte Zeitung was that while the amazon and the horse are beautifully crafted, the tiger hangs around the horse’s neck as a “shapeless, bag-like mass”, and one cannot find a vantage point from which its entire figure can be seen at once. I can confirm this myself as a photographer.

Photo by Adolphe Braun & Compagnie, ca. 1860-66

The statue was a great success. Prussia entered it for the 1851 London World’s Fair, where it stood in the Eastern Wing of the Crystal Palace, among the exhibits of the German Customs Union (there is no Germany yet at that time!). Michael Leapman writes about it in his The world for a shilling: How the Great Exhibition of 1851 shaped a nation (2011):

„A little further on was the German sculptor August Kiss’s depiction of an Amazon on horseback attacked by a tiger, whose combination of energy and delicate modelling made it many people’s favourite work in all of the Crystal Palace. The tiger’s claws were embedded in the horse’s body while the Amazon held her spear aloft, ready to deliver the decisive blow.”

John Absolon: The Eastern Wing of the Crystal Palace, 1851

The statue’s popularity in Britain is evidenced by the fact that George Eliot used it as a metaphor in one of her critiques four years later. Speaking about a short story by Charles Kingsley, she praises its romantic impetus and faithfulness to nature, as opposed to the mass of writings that merely copy each other and use neo-classical commonplaces. And she suddenly uses this parallel: “After a surfeit of Hebes and Psyches, or Madonnas and Magdalens, it is a refreshment to turn to Kiss’ Amazon.” The memory of the statue was obviously still alive among the educated English audience if Eliot could refer to it like this, without any introduction. Interestingly, the thirteen year older critique of the Illustrirte Zeitung criticized the sculpture exactly for what Eliot praised it: that it does not follows the neo-classical ideal of beauty, and “instead of maximizing the unfolding of the nobility and force of the most beautiful organic forms” it aims at terror and horror”, and instead of “spiritually recharging and moving the bosom and the emotions” at the “strong arousal of the nervous system”: “plastic art here has completely gone in the direction of modern romantic literature.”

And John Ruskin could refer to the memory of the exhibition even as late as 1859 in his Berlin report published in Scotsman: “Kiss’ Amazon makes a good grotesque for the side of the Museum steps; it was seen to disadvantage in London.”


In this 1854 photograph, the Amazon is still alone along the steps of the museum. But her mate, the lion killer, “der Löwenkämpfer” is already on the way. It was created between 1847 and 1856 by Albert Wolff, who was a student of the same Christian Daniel Rauch, founder of the Berlin School of Sculpture and leading sculptor of 19th-century Germany, as Kiss. As early as 1843, the Illustrirte Zeitung mentions a small statue seen by its author in Rauch’s workshop around 1831, depicting a naked Numidian rider stabbing an attacking lion with a spear. According to the author, this model inspired – with the mentioned changes – the statue of Kiss, and it was also followed, probably without significant changes, by Wolff’s lion killer.

The Löwenkämpfer. Above, in the 1860s photo by Senior Moser, and below, in the 1940s picture by Heinz Stockfleth



According to the literature, Rauch from the outset intended his lion killer for the stairs of the museum, and Schinkel, who died in 1841, knew and supported this. This may have helped the setting-up of the earlier completed Amazon, and this explains why August Kiss undertook so boldly, without an adequate financial background, to model his statue life-size: he probably recognized that Rauch’s model tuned the audience to such an equestrian statue. However, by 1861 this mood has largely passed. The critic Franz Kugler, who in 1843 still praised the setting-up of the Amazon, saying it fitted well to the (since then destroyed) frescoes of Schinkel in the museum lobby, in 1861 already wrote about the lion killer the same what is our first thought a hundred years later, in a completely changed atmosphere of reception: “In vain we look for a connection between the temple of peaceful arts and such a wild depiction of barbarian roughness.” Yet the sculpture is much more neo-classical, more balanced than its 1843 predecessor.

Albert Wolff managed to place one more equestrian statue in front of the Altes Museum: that of Frederick William III, in 1871. This statue was fused in 1944 for war purposes.


Such neo-classical genre statues are often inspired by ancient sculptures, or at least by ancient descriptions of works of art that did not survive. What could have been the ancient inspiration of the two big cat killers?

We know no statue of a tiger or lion killer from antiquity. But we do know reliefs or two-dimensional representations of this topic. One of them is right here, in the museum: a mosaic from around 130 AD from the Tivoli Villa Hadriana, on which centaurs, i.e. horse-men fight with three big cats: a tiger, a lion and a panther. The tiger bites with its claws into the body of the centaur laying on the ground just as the tiger of the Amazon does with the horse. The museum purchased this mosaic around 1840, so both sculptors could see it.




For today’s recipient, this image feels like an overwritten fantasy. It is too much by half. Three big prey cats attacking at once? and centaurs? But most probably this was the originally intended effect. The mosaic had to convey concentrated exoticism, and the key elements of this were the transitorial human-animals living somewhere far away, on the edge of the oikumene, as well as the tiger. For the Romans, tiger was a trademark of exoticism. In the 4th-century Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, one of the largest surviving Roman mosaic ensembles, the floor of the great central cross corridor is adorned with the scene of the “great game hunting”, where we see hunting and animal capture in Africa to the left, and in Asia to the right. The scenes on the left are quite authentic, as the Romans knew Africa well, and probably the owner of the villa played an important role in capturing large African animals and transporting them to the Roman circus. On the right, however, which they only knew from hearsay, hell breaks lose. Alles geht, from rhinoceros to griffin. And among the exotic animals, the tiger plays an emblematic role, sort of a hallmark of being in a world of fairy tales.



The Romans first saw a tiger in 20 BC, which was brought by an Indian embassy to the island of Samos as a gift to the emperor. And Augustus, as Pliny reports in his Naturalis historia 8.25, managed to stage a tiger in public only in 13 AD, at the inauguration of Marcellus’s theater. True, in the Gladiator, the late 2nd-century emperor Commodus was able to muster up as much as twelve tigers into the Colosseum just to end up unfairly with Centurion Maximus, but that’s not the only excess in that film.

The Asian scenes of the Villa Romana also include a Pliny story from Naturalis historia 8.25, the one which Centurion Fungus Maximus Tertius wanted to see on his mosaic floor in Zeugma. That is, if the hunter abducts the tiger’s kids, it will follow him, but then the hunter throws a round mirror (a polished metal sphere or convex metal plate) in front of it, in which it sees itself small and lingers with it for a while, believing seeing its kid. Here we see the hunter with the caterpillar-like little tigers on his chest galloping up the boat ready to depart, and the busy tiger behind him. The mere fact that this form of hunting was portrayed as a promising opportunity on the floor of the villa of an otherwise serious large-scale African animal capture specialist shows how exotic an animal the tiger was.





The exotic character of the tiger is also evident in the villa’s sea scene. Here the artists, inspired by the horse / water horse (hyppo-potamos) dichotomy, created some similar aquatic animals for the depths of the inexhaustible sea, next to the sea gods and nayads. Among them is the water tiger.



Probably the exoticism of the tiger attracted the amazon as an additional character, as it did the griffin on the mosaic of the villa. An exotic animal needs an exotic hunter, like on the floor of Villa Hadriana. And besides, the verses of Virgil (Aeneis 11.576-577), well known to every Bildungsbürger say that the amazon wears tiger skin:

Pro crinali auro, pro longae tegmine pallae
Tigridis exuviae per dorsum a vertice pendent.


(Instead of gold jewelry on her hair and a long robe, tiger skin hangs down on her back.)

And someone had to kill that tiger. The statue at the entrance of the Altes Museum was seen as an illustration of this verse by the little Bildungsbürgers coming here on a class trip, as long as this category existed.

The world has changed a lot since then. It became clear exactly here in Berlin, that human spirit did not prevail over animal savagery. And we have learned to see in the tiger and other animals the spirit of nature endangered by human savagery. Like here next to me, on the firewall of the Birkholz senior center in Charlottenburg.


“[Can you] see me? My life matters.” “Let’s imagine a world, in which every being is protected.”


We see this humanization of the tiger on the front page of today’s Die Zeit, where it figures as an illustration of the article “Can we still trust?” both as a scary animal (whom we may not be able to trust) and as a being endangered and longing for trust just like us. Following the pattern of the biblical topos where the lion lies with the sheep and the tiger with the amazon.


Receiving the Torah


Forty-nine days after Pesach, that is, today is the three-thousand-and-someth anniversary that the Eternal One gave the Torah to His people. Since this is a perfect gift from the Perfect, therefore the number of perfection multiplied by itself gives the number of the days and the name of the feast, Shavuoth, “the feast of the sevens”, i.e. weeks.

Of course, the peoples, di felker could grumble about why the Jews were given the Torah. Well, they must know that the Eternal One in His righteousness offered it to all other peoples, but they all rejected it. This story is told in Sifre Devarim 343, the Midrashic commentary of the Second Law. However, di felker argued that some of their ancient and inherent qualities were contrary to one of the commandments. The descendants of Esau (according to the Midrash, the Romans) rejected the command of “do not kill”, since their ancestor was told: “By thy sword shalt thou live” (Gen 27:40). The offspring of Amon and Moab did not approve the purity of marriage, for they came from the incestuous union of Lot with his daughters (Gen 19:36). And the Arabs insisted on robery, for the Lord himself said of their ancestor, Ishmael: “His hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him” (Gen 16:12 – which is interpreted as robbery by the Midrash). Nevertheless, the synagogue reading of the feast also commemorates one true Gentile, who accepted the Torah: Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David.

The idea of the Midrashic offer to di felker is carried forward by the Christianity which grew out of Judaism. The Christian equivalent of Shavuoth, Pentecost, took place on this very feast, the fiftieth (πεντηκοστή) day after the first Easter, and it recalls on the one hand the new covenant, which continues and completes the old covenant celebrated on Shavuoth, and on the other Jesus’ invitation: “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations”. On the Orthodox icons of Pentecost – like the ones I have shown from Novgorod –, always there is, under the semicircle of the apostles, the personification of the world, with the little symbols of di felker, which this time will have no escape from the acceptance of the Torah, to fulfill the psalm which the Midrashic story also refers to: “May all the kings of the earth praise you, Lord, when they hear what you have decreed.” (Ps 138:4)

Tripartite Mahzor, prayer book for Shavuot and Sukkot, German, ca. 1322. Moses receives the Torah on Mount Sinai. Jewish men are in front, and the women (depicted with animal heads, according to the still unexplained medieval Jewish custom), behind them. Indeed, in Rashi’s commentary, the Lord’s instruction “This shall ye declare unto the house of Jacob, and preach unto the children of Israel” (Ex 19:3) means that the women (the house of Jacob) had to be asked first whether they accept the Torah, because if yes, then the men (the children of Israel) would follow them anyway.

So that modern felker would also understand the reference of the ancient story to them, the Hasidic poet and composer Yom-Tov Ehrlich (1914-1990) updated it for the peoples of the present world. The replacement of the Romans by the Germans, of the Moabites by the French, and the presevation of the Arabs is understandable; for the godlessness of the Russians we must take into account that Ehrlich still lived in the Soviet Union. At the beginning he uses an elegant twist by saying that the Creator seeks a bridegroom for the Torah as His daughter, while, according to the tradition, at Shavuot He engages the chosen people. The song is performed by the excellent Malchus Choir of Jerusalem and cantor Zanvil Weinberger. In addition to the English translation, I also include a Latin transliteration of the Yiddish text, to arouse interest in a language of great tradition, rooted among the Eastern European felker, and not so long ago spoken by millions here. Chag Sameach.



mitn hilf fun Bashefer veln mir do reydn
un dertseyln fun yene freydn
freyds aykh ale tants un kvelt
fun der Toyre af der velt

der Bashefer fun der velt, der groyser Boyre
zukht a khosn far zayn tokhter, di heylige Toyre
freyds aykh ale tants un kvelt
ale felker fun der velt

der Bashefer fregt ba di felker ale
ver vil di Toyre far a kale
di felker fregn vos un ven
mvil nit hern mvil nit zen
un far vos un far ven
lomir zen vos iz geshen
מיטן הילף פון בּאַשעפער וועלן מיר דאָ רײדן
און דערצײלן פון יענע פרײדן
פרײדס אײַך אַלע טאַנצט און קוועלט
פון דער תּורה אויף דער וועלט

דער בּאַשעפער פון דער וועלט דער גרויסער בּורא
זוכט אַ חתן פאַר זײַן טאָכטער די הײליגע תּורה
פרײדס אײַך אַלע טאַנצט און קוועלט
אַלע פעלקער פון דער וועלט

דער בֹאַשעפער פרעגט בּײַ די פעלקער אַלע
ווער וויל די תּורה פאַר אַ כּלה
די פעלקער פרעגן וואָס און ווען
מ'וויל נישט הערן מ'וויל נישט זען
און פאַרוואָס און פאַר ווען
לאָמיר זען וואָס איז געשען

With the help of the Creator, I would like to tell and talk about that great joy. Happiness, dance and delight over the Torah all over the world.

The Creator of the World, the great Lord is looking for a bridegroom for His daughter, the holy Torah. Happiness, dance and delight to all the peoples of the world.

The Creator asks all peoples, who wants the Torah for his bride. The peoples ask: what and how? and they do not want to hear nor to see. And: why and where? – So let us see what happened.


iz a malakh mit di Toyre fun himl arop
genumen flien kayn Europe
un kayn Rusland gekumen iz er
un gefregt tsu a baln iz ver

zogt men tsu em ʻkharasho’
zogt undz vos fazhalasto
zogt zey der malakh dem ershtn gebot
onoykhi, ikh bin ayer G-t

zogn zey, neyn, halt es aleyn
ir veyst nisht khaver vuhin tsu geyn
mir hobn gelernt ba di tates aleyn
azoy vi ba undz iz sheyn

neyn neyn halt es aleyn
mir hobn an ander meyn
efsher pruvt keyn Daytshland geyn
efsher vet men aykh farshteyn
איז אַ מלאך מיט דער תּורה פון הימל אַראָפּ
גענומען פליען קײַן יוראָפּ
און קײַן רוסלאַנד געקומען איז ער
און געפרעגט צו אַ בּעלן איז ווער

זאָגט מען צו אים חאַראַשאָ
זאָגט אונדז וואָס פּאַזשאַלאַסטאָ
זאָגט זײ דער מלאך דעם ערשטן געבּאָט
אנוכי איך בּין אײַער ג-ט

זאָגן זײ נײן, האַלט עס אַלײן
איר ווײסט נישט חבר וואוהין צו גײן
מיר האָבּן געלערענט בּײַ די טאַטעס אַלײן
אַזוי ווי בּײַ אונדז איז שײן

נײן נײן, האַלט עס אַלײן
מיר האָבּן אַן אַנדער מײן
אפשר פרואווט קײַן דײַטשלאַנד גײן
אפשר וועט מען אײַך פאַרשטײן

An angel descended from the sky with the Torah, and headed for Europe. He arrived to Russia, and asked them whether they are buyers for it.

They said “khorosho”, but tell something about it, pozhaluysta. The angel told the first command: Hear: “I am your G-d.”

They said no, keep it for yourself. You don’t know, man, where you came. We have only learned from our fathers, and that is beautiful to us.

No, no, keep it for yourself, we are of a different opinion. Perhaps try to go to Germany, maybe they will agree with you.


iz der malakh gefloygn glaykh ahin
un iz gekumen kayn Berlin
un di Daytshn di Toyre vayzt er
un fregt zey a baln iz ver

zogn zey mir zenen greyt
zogn zi di vorheyt vos dort shteyt
zogt zey der malakh loy sirtsokh
toytn iz nisht kayn sheyne zakh

zogn zey neyn, halt es aleyn
ir veyst nisht mayn her vuhin tsu geyn
mir hobn gelernt bam fater aleyn
az toytn das darf men vos meyn

neyn neyn halt es aleyn
mir hobn an ander meyn
filaykht probirn zi kayn Frankraykh geyn
efsher vet men aykh farshteyn
איז דער מלאך געפלויגן גלײַך אַהין
און איז געקומען קײַן בּערלין
און די דײַטשן די תּורה ווײַזט ער
און פרעגט זײ אַ בּעלן איז ווער

זאָגן זײ מיר זײַנען גרײט
זאָגן זי די וואָרהײט וואָס דאָרט שטײט
זאָגט זײ דער מלאך לא תרצח
טויטן איז נישט קײַן שײנע זאַך

זאָגן זײ נײן, האַלט עס אַלײן
איר ווײסט נישט מײַן הער וואוהין צוגײן
מיר האָבן געלערענט בּײַם פאָטער אַלײן
אַז טויטן דאָס דאַרף מען וואָס מײן

נײן נײן, האַלט עס אַלײן
מיר האָבּן אַן אַנדער מײן
פילײַכט פּרובירן זי קײַן פראַנקרײַך גײן
אפשר וועט מען אײַך פאַרשטײן

The angel flew straight there, and arrived to Berlin. He shows the Torah to the Germans, and asks them whether they are buyers for it.

They say, we are ready for it, just tell the truth, what is in it. The angel says: “Don’t kill. Killing is no nice thing.”

They say, no, keep it for yourself. You do not know, mein Herr, where you came. We have only learned from the Vater, that killing is a must.

No, no, keep it for yourself, we are of a different opinion. Perhaps try to go to France, maybe they will agree with you.


iz der malakh gefloygn vayter biz
er iz gekumen kayn Pariz
di Frantsoyzn di Toyre vayzt er
un fregt zey a baln iz ver

zogn zey si vu pley [s’il vous plaît]
zogt undz vos un vi azoy
git zey der malakh tsu farshteyn
der familye lebn darf zayn reyn

zogn zey neyn halt es aleyn
ir veys nisht monsieur vuhin tsu geyn
mir hobn gelernt ba di tates aleyn
azoy vi ba undz iz sheyn

neyn neyn halt es aleyn
mir hobn an ander meyn
efsher pruvt kayn England geyn
efsher vet men aykh farshteyn
איז דער מלאך געפלויגן ווײַטער בּיז
ער איז געקומען קײַן פּאַריז
די פראַנצויזן די תּורה ווײַזט ער
און געפרעגט זײ אַ בּעלן איז ווער

זאָגן זײ סי וווּ פּלעי
זאָגט אונדז וואָס און ווי אַזוי
גיט זײ דער מלאך צו פאַרשטײן
דער פאַמיליע לעבּן דאַרף זײַן רײן

זאגן זײ נײן, האַלט עס אַלײן
איר ווײסט נישט מוסיע וואוהין צוגײן
מיר האבן געלערענט בײ די טאטעס אַלײן
אזוי ווי בײ אונדז איז שײן

נײן נײן האַלט עס אַלײן
מיר האָבּן אַן אַנדער מײן
אפשר פּרואווט קײַן ענגלאַנד גײן
אפשר וועט מען אײַך פאַרשטײן

The angel flew on, and arrived to Paris. He shows the Torah to the French, and asks them whether they are buyers for it.

They say, s’il vous plaît, tell us what this is. The angel makes it clear to them that family life must be clean.

They say no, keep it for yourself. You do not know, monsieur, where you came. We have only learnt from our fathers, and that is beautiful for us.


No, no, keep it for yourself, we are of a different opinion. Perhaps try to go to England, maybe they will agree with you.


iz der malakh gefloygn vayter in veg
kumt kayn London afn breg
un di Englender di Toyre vayzt er
un fregt zey a baln iz ver

zogn zey Tenk yu ser
vayzt nor eyn gezets aher
zogt zey der malakh Lo Sakhmoyd
tut zukh nisht glustn vos yener hot

zogn zey neyn halt es aleyn
ir veyst nisht mister vuhin tsu geyn
mir hobn gelernt ba di tates aleyn
az glustn darf men vos meyn

neyn neyn halt es aleyn
mir hobn an ander meyn
efsher pruvt kayn America geyn
efsher vet men aykh farshteyn
איז דער מלאך געפלויגן ווײַטער אין וועג
קומט קײַן לאָנדאָן אויפן בּרעג
און די ענגלענדער די תּורה ווײַזט ער
און פרעגט זײ אַ בּעלן איז ווער

זאָגן זײ טענק יו סער
ווײַזט נאָר אײן געזעץ אַהער
זאָגט זײ דער מלאך לא תחמוד
טוט זיך נישט גלוסטן וואָס יענער האָט

זאָגן זײ נײן האַלט עס אַלײן
איר ווײסט נישט מיסטער וואוהין צו גײן
מיר האָבן געלערענט בּײַ די טאַטעס אַלײן
אַז גלוסטן דאַרף מען וואָס מײן

נײן נײן האַלט עס אַלײן
מיר האָבּן אַן אַנדער מײן
אפשר פרואווט קײַן אַמעריקאָ גײן
אפשר וועט מען אײַך פאַרשטײן

The angel flew on, and landed in London. He shows the Torah to the English, and asks them whether they are buyers for it.

They say: Thank you, sir. Just show us one law from it. The angel says: Do not covet, do not desire other man’s property.

They say no, keep it for yourself. You do not know, mister, where you came. We only learned from our fathers that we must crave for others’ property.

No, no, keep it for yourself, we are of a different opinion. Perhaps try to go to America, maybe they will agree with you.


iz der malakh gefloygn vayter mit zorg
er iz gekumen kayn New York
di Amerikaner di Toyre vayzt er
un fregt zey a baln iz ver

zogn zey Tenk yu fayn
vos fara biznes vos fara layn
zogt zey der malakh hert mit kop
koved tate mame git op

zogn zey neyn halt es aleyn
mir gibn op koved nor di yugent aleyn
far di eltern genug iz far zey
der yom tiv moders day

neyn neyn halt es aleyn
mir hobn an ander meyn
efsher pruvt tsu di Araber geyn
efsher vet men aykh farshteyn
איז דער מלאך געפלויגן ווײַטער מיט זאָרג
און איז געקומען קײַן ניו יאָרק
די אַמעריקאַנער די תּורה ווײַזט ער
און פרעגט זײ אַ בּעלן איז ווער

זאָגן זײ טענק יו פײַן
וואָס פאַראַ בּיזנעס וואָס פאַראַ לײַן
זאָגט זיי דער מלאך הערט מיט קאָפּ
כּבוד טאַטע מאַמע גיט אפּ

זאָגן זײ נײן האַלט עס אַלײן
מיר גיבּן אָפּ כּבוד נאָר די יוגענד אַלײן
פאַר די עלטערן, גענוג איז פאַר זײ
דער יום טוב מאָדערס דעי

נײן נײן האַלט עס אַלײן
מיר האָבּן אַן אַנדער מײן
אפשר פרואווט צו די אַראַבּער גײן
אפשר וועלן זײ פאַרשטײן

The angel flew on assiduously, and reached New York. He shows the Torah to the Americans, and asks them whether they are buyers for it.

They say, Thank you, fine. What kind of business is it, what kind of a brand? The angel tells them: listen to me: respect your father and mother.

They say no, keep it for yourself. We only respect young people. For the parents, the feast of Mother’s Day is enough.

No, no, keep it for yourself, we are of a different opinion. Perhaps try with the Arabs, maybe they will agree with you.


iz der malakh gefloygn un geblibn shteyn
in Asye in Eyver HaYardeyn
di Araber di Toyre vayzt er
un fregt zey a baln iz ver

zogn zey gut mabsut
vayzt nor frier vos men tut
zogt zey der malakh Lo Signov
nisht ganve un nisht bluf

zogn zey neyn halt es aleyn
ir veyst nisht khavazha vuhin tsugeyn
mir hobn gelernt ba di tates aleyn
az ganvenen darf men vos meyn

neyn neyn halt es aleyn
mir hobn an ander meyn
afsher pruvt tsu di Yidn geyn
efsher vet men aykh farshteyn
איז דער מלאך געפלויגן און געבּליבּן שטײן
אין אַזיע און עבר הירדן
די אַראַבּער די תּורה ווײַזט ער
און פרעגט זײ אַ בּעלן איז ווער

זאָגן זײ גוט מבּסוט
ווײַזט נאָר פריער וואָס מען טוט
זאָגט זײ דער מלאך לא תגנוב
נישט גנב'ע און נישט בּלאָף

זאָגן זײ נײן האַלט עס אַלײן
איר ווײסט נישט חאַוואַזשאַ וואוהין צוגײן
מיר האָבּן געלערענט בּײַ די טאַטעס אַלײן
אַז גנב'נען דאַרף מען וואָס מײן

נײן נײן האַלט עס אַלײן
מיר האָבּן אַן אַנדער מײן
אפשר פּרואווט צו די אידן גײן
אפשר וועט מען אײַך פאַרשטײן

The angel flew on, and stopped in Asia, in Transjordan. He shows the Torah to the Arabs, and asks them whether they are buyers for it.

They say all right, mabsut [happily], but show us first, what we are supposed to do. The angel tells them: don’t steal and don’t cheat.

They say no, keep it for yourself. You do not know, khawaja [master], where you came. We learned only from our fathers, that stealing is a must.

No, no, keep it for yourself, we are of a different opinion. Perhaps try with the Jews, maybe they will agree with you.


un mitn veg der malakh shteyt
zet er a Yid a meshulakh geyt
a talis kotn lang un breyt
hot er zikh derfreyt

di Toyre hot er em derlangt
un der meshulakh hot badankt
vart nor, zogt er ayl zikh nit
ikh gib aykh a resit.

kayn glaykher porl hot ir nit
vi der Toyre mit dem Yid
beyde zenen di beste fraynd
vayl mhot zey beydn faynd

in dem Boyre gleybt der Yid
un kayn shlekhts ton ken er nit
un koved tate mame git
un dem heylign Shabe hit

vi der malakh hot dos derhert
hot er zikh tsurikgekert
un gezogt afn himl dort
az di Toyre iz afn besten ort
און מיטן וועג דער מלאך שטײט
זעט ער אַ איד א משולח גײט
אַ טלית קטן לאַנג און בּרײט
האָט ער זיך דערפרײט

די תּורה האָט ער אים דערלאַנגט
און דער משולח האָט בּאַדאַנקט
וואַרט נאָר זאָגט ער, אײַל זיך ניט
איך גיבּ אײַך אַ רעסיט

קײַן גלײַכער פּאָרל האָט איר ניט
ווי דער תּורה מיט דעם איד
בּײדע זײַנען די בּעסטע פרײַנד
ווײַל מ'האָט זײ בּײדן פײַנט

אין דעם בּורא גלײבּט דער איד
און קײַן שלעכטס טאָן קען ער נישט
און כּבוד טאַטע מאַמע גיט
און דעם הײליגן שבּת היט

ווי דער מלאך האָט עס דערהערט
האט ער זיך צוריקגעקערט
און געזאָגט אויפן הימל דאָרט
אַז דער תּורה איז אויפן בּעסטן אָרט

And as the angel stops on the way, he sees a Jewish [gift-collector] coming there, with a long and large talis. He was glad for him.

He handed over the Torah to him, and the meshulakh thanked him: wait, he said, don’t rush, I write you a receipt.

You won’t find a similar couple anywhere, like the Torah with the Jew. They are best friends, because both have many enemies.

The Jew believes in the Creator, and he cannod to anything wrong. He honors his father and mother, and keeps the holy Shabbat.

As the angel heard this, he immediately turned back, and said there in the sky that the Torah was in the best place.


Kizhi and the submerged Karelia


As a child, I read in a collection of Russian folk tales about the Kitezh, which, according to legend, was a beautiful and rich city somewhere along the Volga, until the Tartars coveted it. Batu Khan personally launched an attack on the city, which promised to be easy prey, as it did not even have walls. But as the Mongols approached the city – or, according to Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, they broke through the army of defenders at the Kerzhenets River –, suddenly water erupted from the ground all around, and the city sank quietly into the depths of a lake. It has been there ever since. Shepherds grazing in the area still hear the bell from the depths, the crowing of roosters, the roaring of cows.

Konstantin Gorbatov: Kitezh, 1913. Below, the same painter: Kitezh, 1933


Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: The Battle of Kerzhenets, Act Four of the opera The legend of Kitezh, the Invisible City (1905). The full opera can be seen here. The illustration is Nikolai Roerich’s The Battle of Kerzhenets (1911)

Aleksandr Benua: Kitezh Castle, 1933.

Ilya Glazunov: Kitezh, 1990. Perhaps the most touching take on the topic. While on the shores of the lake, beneath the soulless blocks of flats, some kind of communist holiday is celebrated with red flags – Asian barbarism has actually won –, the lost Russia, composed of icon details with St. George, saints, angels and processions, lives on in the depths of the lake.

Even if I was a child, but I could already read, so I knew it was just a fairy tale. However, around the same time I also saw a picture of Kizhi’s fabulous church in an album. Something like this:


The two similar names merged in my head, and from then on I was convinced that the fairytale city of Kitezh was still standing somewhere and it could be visied. And I decided I would visit it.

In my childhood and youth, getting to the Soviet Union was just as impossible as getting down to the depths of a lake. Later, my paths necessarily meandered elsewhere. But a few months ago I finally reached the degree of freedom that I managed to realize my childhood dream, and even two dreams at once: to get to Kizhi, five hundred kilometers north of St. Petersbug, and then another five hundred kilometers further to Solovki Island (which will be discussed in the next post).


Although Kizhi’s church is located on an island in the geographical center of Lake Onega, it is not a protruding church of an immersed city (like the several ones in flooded Russian settlements). This church was built in 1714 for all (then fourteen, now only three) villages on the island of Kizhi. Many similar churches were built in the area, on other islands and throughout the surrounding Karelia. The unique fortune of this church was that architect Aleksandr Opolovnikov came here as a restorer in the late 1940s and restored the wooden churches of Kizhi and the surrounding area with incredible energy and dedication. At his suggestion, the southern, uninhabited part of the island was converted into an open air museum, to which many endangered old wooden buildings of Karelia were also transferred. Characteristically, a lot of important and high-impact positive decisions in the Soviet Union depended on someone’s taking personal responsibility.

The center of the Kizhi museum: the church complex and the Oshevnev farmhouse from Oshevnevo to its left. In the foreground are the lands still cultivated in the traditional way.

The history of Kizhi as a museum thus dates back only seventy years. Even the buildings guarded there are only a few hundred years old. But the history of a museum is not the same as the history of the collection. It also includes the story whose memories it preserves. The Kizhi open air museum is the custodian of the millennial history of all former Karelia. To understand it, therefore, we must first learn this history.


Karelia is the plain rich in rivers, lakes and forest, stretching from St. Petersburg to the Kola Peninsula. Its natives have been Finno-Ugric fishermen-hunters, among whom the Karelians and the Vepsians south of Lake Onega have survived to this day.

Whether Karelian is an independent language or a dialect of Finnish, is a contested issue, and depends on the political attitude. The Finns and the early Soviet system considered it a Finnish dialect, and therefore, in addition to Russian, Finnish was made the official language of the Karelian Autonomous Region. In the 1930s, however, Finnish became the language of the bourgeois border revision, and was therefore banned in 1938. Work began on the development of a new Karelian official language based on the South Karelian dialects most distinct from Finnish. Today, Karelian is an independent language, but the approx. 50% of Karelians who still speak a Finno-Ugric mother tongue, still use one of the local dialects instead of the official version. (Paul M. Austin: “Soviet Karelian: The language that failed”, in: Slavic Review 1992, 16-35.)

Since the foundation of Novgorod in the 10th century, the area rich in noble furs and blond population – these two most valuable luxuries in long-distance trade – was the subject of constant border disputes between Novgorodians and Swedes, until it was divided among them in 1323. Novgorod received East Karelia, marked in yellow on the map above, and the Swedes the green-colored West Karelia, where they immediately built Vyborg Castle for a strong center. The border remained unchanged for six hundred years, until the Finno-Russian War of 1940, only the countries changed behind it: Novgorod was annexed by the Moscow Principality slowly becoming Russia, while in eastern Sweden, the Grand Duchy of Finland was established, which was ruled from 1809 to its becoming independent in 1917 by the Russians (the Finnish Grand Duke was always the Russian Tsar). The religion of the two regions was also different, since the eastern part was converted to Orthodoxy by the Russians, and the western one to Catholicism and later Lutheranism by the Swedes.

Finnish nationalism, which unfolded in the 19th century, regarded East Karelia as an integral part of the nation, all the more so, as Elias Lönnrot largely collected here in the 1830s and 1840s the songs on the basis of which in 1849 he compiled the national epic Kalevala. The irredenta movement for the annexation of the territory to Finland ceased only with the end of WWII. Since then, the region seems to have fallen out of Finnish national memory and identity as well as the Kresy, the eastern Poland annexed to Ukraine, did from the Polish one.

The Finnish (red) and Karelian (blue) villages where Elias Lönnrot, the physician of Kajaani (green) collected the songs of the Kalevala. In 1963, the town of Uhtua was officially named Kalevala.

Encouraged by the Western successes of their Nazi allies in 1940, the Soviets saw the time had come to reclaim the former imperial territories lost in Eastern Europe, even beyond what the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact allowed them to annex. Thus, Bessarabia was occupied with an ultimatum and annexed, under the name of West Moldavia, to the narrow strip of East Moldavia, which had previously been created as a basis for legitimacy. And so they tried to recapture Finland as well, to annex it to the previously established Karelian Republic. However, the Finns, funded by George Soros, among others, repulsed the Soviet attack and were eventually forced to surrender only two areas of West Karelia, from where the four hundred thousand natives were evacuated to Finland. The two territories have since belonged to Soviet Karelia, which was downgraded from a republic to an autonomous territory in 1956 with the abandonment of the annexation of Finland. In 1941, the Finnish army occupied all of Karelia, but in 1944, the Soviets restored the 1940 borders. With the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Karelia regained the status of a republic, but unlike the other republics, it no longer seceded from the Soviet Union.



Before Kizhi, it is worth to overview the most important settlements in Karelia and its vicinity. We begin with the city of Vyborg, founded by the Swedes in 1293 as the center of West Karelia. The city was occupied by Peter the Great in 1710, a hundred years earlier than the rest of Finland, and then re-annexed to it by Alexander I after the occupation of the entire Grand Duchy of Finland in 1809. In the pictures at the turn of the century, we see it as a calm, beautiful and educated Scandinavian small town. In the winter of 1940, its entire population was evacuated to Finland. The Soviets marched into an uninhabited ghost town.

kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1 kizhi1

The Orthodox Valaam Monastery, built in the 14th century on an island of Lake Ladoga, was a Finnish territory until 1940, so the monks were not killed as in the Russian monasteries. In the next post about the Solovetsky Islands, I will show photographs of the community still living in the 1930s as a counterpoint to the gulag-turned monastery of Solovki. In 1940, before the Soviet occupation of the territory, the monks were also evacuated. They have since lived in the New Valaam Monastery in Heinäves. Until 1990, Valaam was a military object, a strictly closed area. Since then, it has been reclaimed by the Russian Orthodox Church, the monastery has been repopulated, and today it is once again one of the most important centers of Russian church music, as it had been for centuries before.



The town of Staraya Ladoga on the shores of the lake boasts that it was the very first capital of Russian lands. Indeed, Ryurik and his Varyagians, invited for prince by the Novgorod tribes in 862, built their first castle here, on the banks of the Volkhov River, which connected Lake Ladoga with Novgorod, and only later they settled to Gorodishche near Novgorod. The castle still stands today, with one of the first large-scale works of Russian art, the Church of St. George decorated with 12th-century frescoes, including the earliest depiction of St. George in Russia. The magnificent Nikolsky Monastery was built next to it after the victory of Prince Alexander Nevsky over the German Knights in 1240.


kizhi2 kizhi2 kizhi2 kizhi2 kizhi2 kizhi2 kizhi2 kizhi2 kizhi2

There is one more important monastery in the area, albeit outside Karelia, south of it, in a former Vepsian area: the Monastery of the Assumption of the Virgin in Tikhvin, where one of the holiest icons of Russian Orthodoxy, the Tikhvin Mother of God, painted around 1300 but traditionally attributed to St. Luke, is guarded. Due to the miraculous icon, the monastery is also an important place of pilgrimage for Karelian believers.


The icon of the Tikhvin Mother of God alone and in festive riza

There are only three small villages left among those marked on the map above, and these are important mainly because of the wooden buildings in Kizhi. The wooden church of Ankhimovo, built in 1708, was a model of the 1714 Church of the Transfiguration in Kizhi. We still see it in all its splendor in the following photo by Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky at the beginning of the century, but then it was locked up by the Bolsheviks, and extensively perished until it burned down in 1963. Fortunately, even before that, it was surveyed by Aleksandr Opolovnikov, the founder of Kizhi Museum, and on the basis of his drawings, a copy of the church was erected in 2003 in the St. Petersburg open-air museum.



The village of Shcheleyki on Lake Onega is important because here is the last surviving example of this multi-domed Kizhi church type. A kilometer away is the village of Gimreka, where another beautiful 18th-century wooden church shows the creativity of Karelian church-building carpenters.

kizhi3 kizhi3 kizhi3 kizhi3 kizhi3 kizhi3

The last village, Syoltozero, is important, because it was the central settlement of the Vepsians living on the banks of Lake Onega. Although repeatedly mentioned in medieval Russian chronicles, and still living in a large area at that time, the language of the Vepsians as an independent Finno-Ugric language was only discovered in the late 19th century. At that time, 25 thousand of them lived in East Karelia. The Soviets initially supported an independent Vepsian culture and education, but form 1937 this was banned. Today about 8000 Vepsians live, mostly in big cities, but they no longer speak their former mother tongue. In Syoltozero – Šoutjärv in Vepsian – there is a museum of Vepsian culture, and on the island of Kizhi, a Vepsian house.

From Evgeny Molodtsov’s photo project The Vepsian forest (2013-2016)

This last picture also offers a different approach to this history: to trying to see what happened here over the last hundred years not through maps and buildings, but through photos of people.

The St. Petersburg/Leningrad ethnographer Aleksandr Antonovich Belikov (1883-1941) was a pioneer of ethnographic photography in the early 20th century. Exactly a hundred years ago, around 1920, he began to travel to the Karelian villages and to document their lives in photos. His photographic legacy was digitized by the St. Petersburg Ethnographic Museum. It is worth looking at them carefully so that among the objects in the houses of Kizhi, we can imagine the life that once surrounded them.


kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4 kizhi4


The revolution only happened a few years ago, and its results did not yet get here to the villages that still live their centuries-old traditional lives. Contrary to what we have learned about the Tsar’s empire, these people do not appear to be oppressed or eviscerated. Despite the obviously difficult life, their faces reflect intelligence, inner posture and balance.


Their well-built houses and equipment, the abundance of their objects of use and their closes do not testify to deprivation either, but rather to a well-kept traditional way of life.


kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6 kizhi6


Most of the pictures naturally depict the jobs with which they spent most of their lives: the production and harvesting of grain and fishing.


kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5 kizhi5


kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7 kizhi7


Twenty years after Belikov, in 1943, another short series of photographs of the region was taken by Finnish soldiers marching into Karelia. During these twenty years, the province suffered enormously, even in Soviet terms, from deportations, massacres, genocide, and from being the cradle of the Gulag with the Solovki Islands and the Belomorkanal, the channel connecting the White and Baltic Seas. The faces of the family hosting the Finnish soldiers reflect this suffering, but also the joy of seeing the “relatives” who have put an end to these for at least a while. The old head of the family, judging by his face and clothes, may have been a local intellectual, a teacher. We do not see the younger head of the family – the younger woman’s husband, the father of the two children –: he had been possibly enlisted in the Red Army before the arrival of the Finns. I can only hope that the family survived the re-invasion of the Soviets without any serious trouble.

kizhi8 kizhi8 kizhi8 kizhi8 kizhi8 kizhi8 kizhi8 kizhi8 kizhi8 kizhi8 kizhi8 kizhi8 kizhi8 kizhi8 kizhi8

Steve McCurry’s 2008 Karelian photos depict the end of the story. Their characters are the former smart, beautiful-faced children, full of hope, that we saw in the pictures of Belikov and the Finnish soldiers – the few who did not perish during the terror, genocide and war, or escaped to the cities as factory workers. People living in misery, tormented, broken. Only goodness in their eyes is the same as it was in that of the old people of the 1920s. And their material environment is completely unworthy of them. It cannot even be compared to the rich, expedient and aesthetic material world of their grandfathers. The old photos, memories of the lost ones, are emphatically present in their apartments. They will be collected by young Russian bloggers from the decaying houses once everyone in the village has died.

kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9 kizhi9

Polish journalist Mariusz Wilk, a correspondent for Rzeczpospolita from Russia, published his book Dom nad Oniego (House on the banks of Lake Onega) in the same year. He bought an abandoned farmhouse here on the shores of Lake Onega, and watched the area from there for years. One of his heavy conclusions was: “The most important event in Russia in the twentieth century was the destruction of the village.”

In this sense, Kizhi is really Kitezh. A submerged city in the middle of the lake, where the beauty and civilization of the former Karelia retreated from the advancement of barbarism.


Kizhi is reached by boat from Petrozavodsk, the administrative center of Karelia. The boat station is near the open-air museum. First I take a walk in the southern tip of the island, the museum itself, starting from the church complex and walking around the former farmhouses, then I go up to the northern part of the island, to the villages that still live today. I don’t have much time: the boat arrived around ten o’clock and leaves early in the afternoon. In the island there is no accommodation.


The former center of the island and the current center of the open-air museum is Kizhi Pogost – “Kizhi village center” –, the church complex. Its multi-domed first building, the Church of the Transfiguration, was built in 1714 by a local master on the site of a 16th-century church that burned down in 1694. Its model, as I said, was the 1708 Ankhimovo church. Legend has it he threw his axe in the lake after the completition of the church, by saying it could not make a more beautiful thing any more. He was right. The church’s small onion domes and the onion-shaped pediments that hold them and draw a halo around the domes on a lower level, thus magnifying them, rise up on the shore of the lake like a magnificent frozen waterfall in a Chinese painting.


kizhi10 kizhi10 kizhi10 kizhi10 kizhi10 kizhi10 kizhi10 kizhi10 kizhi10 kizhi10 kizhi10 kizhi10 kizhi10

Drone photo of the complex from Ilya Varlamov’s blog

When I was there last July, the church was closed. The interior and its iconostasis from the 17th and 18th century – partly from the former church – were being restored, since the eighties. It has been opened since then, and the image of the renovated iconostais has also been published in the Russian press, so at least I copy it from there. A virtual reconstruction of the iconostasis, with a magnifiable image and brief description of each icon, can be seen here.


The other church of the complex is the so-called “warm church” dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God (Pokrov Bogoroditsi). In the North, it is a custom to have, in addition to the main church, a smaller, heated church for the winter, from the Feast of the Protection on October 14 to Easter. This is actually a single large rectangular hall, with only an octagonal wooden dome rising above the central part, adorned with nine small domes outside, as a free quote from the main church. The church, erected in 1694, right after the great fire, has a beautiful iconostasis, partly saved from the former church. Its icons can be seen up close here. Other icons from different places were also exhibited in the church, which are linked to the iconostasis by their uniform Northern style, colors and folk motifs. The large Last Judgment icon at the entrance of the church is particularly rich in detail.

kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11 kizhi11

To the south of the church complex, two rich farmhouses stand on the shores of the lake, the Oshevnev House brought over from Oshevnevo, and the Elizarov House, taken over from Klimenetsky Island, both from the 1870s. The houses have an unusual, asymmetrical shape. The block of the barn and the upstair workshop was integrated with the residential building so that one does not have to leave the house for working here in the harsh northern winter, and the farm block is closed by a long sloping roof opposite the nearly 45° roof of the residential block. This model is called кошель, ʻpurse’ by the locals. A balcony runs around the two levels of the residential building, with a lathe railing. The façade, windows and doors are lined with sawn décor, giving the wooden buildings a gingerbred house feel. It’s as if we’re seeing a set of an Art Nouveau opera or a Bilibin drawing, or – more likely – as if the style of the latter had come down into peasant construction.

The two-storey residential building has two heated rooms on each floor, a kitchen/weaving room with an oven and a living/sleeping room with an icon corner. The living room in the second floor is particularly spacious and can accommodate a larger company. Here are the family photographs – which are really photographs of the former Oshevnev and Elizarov families, and museum staff are happy to tell about the family connections –, and, of course, the image of the tsar and the heir to the throne. The material world is very rich, with many urban pieces like the Singer sewing machine (зингеровская швейная машина) or the wind-up gramophone. In the rooms and workshops, artisans from the area work in folk costumes: they make and sell copies of the objects in the collection, give an explanation of the material world, and also teach crafts.


kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12 kizhi12


Walking further, on the southern tip of the island are two wooden buildings from Prionezhye, west of the lake: the Sergeiev House from Logmoruchey, and a blacksmith’s shop from Suysar. In front of the Sergeiev House is a small harbor for the island’s traditional fishing boats, on which you can still sail out to the lake, and the house itself is a large local shipbuilding exhibition and workshop.

kizhi13 kizhi13 kizhi13 kizhi13 kizhi13 kizhi13 kizhi13 kizhi13 kizhi13 kizhi13 kizhi13 kizhi13 kizhi13 kizhi13

Turning back from the houses of Prionezhye, the first thing that catches your eye is the church complex that stands out from behind the bend of the hill. It attracts your eye like the north pole the magnet, showing from every point of the island where you are going.


The first building on the way back is the 17th-century St. Michael’s Chapel from the village of Lelikozero. Its three parts – the tower, the andron and the sanctuary – are in very good proportions, and the 17th-century iconostasis has also survived.

kizhi14 kizhi14 kizhi14 kizhi14 kizhi14 kizhi14 kizhi14

Walking further, we see the central church complex and the Oshevnev House together for a last time, and behind them, the lands, which are still cultivated in the traditional way (the picture illustrating this is from a local publication):



then we slowly leave the church behind


and we reach the still-living village of Yamka on the east coast of the island.


The village was first mentioned in 1563, but its oldest houses survive from the 18th century. They are still inhabited, as are the buildings brought here from other parts of Karelia. Going even further we find two other villages, Vasilyevo and Pudozh. Both are inhabited, both have original wooden houses and ons brought from elsewhere. But to see them, you must speed up the pace, or sail back for another day from Petrozavodsk to the island.

kizhi15 kizhi15 kizhi15 kizhi15 kizhi15 kizhi15 kizhi15 kizhi15 kizhi15 kizhi15 kizhi15 kizhi15 kizhi15 kizhi15

At the end of the village is a cemetery, with colorfully painted tombs, fences and benches, so that the living can eat together with the dead, as is customary in Orthodox cemeteries. The tombs have different symbols depending on the period and creed. The most interesting is Ivan Fedorovich Beresov’s one, the three-part Kizhi church placed in a Kizhi fishing boat, a kizhanka. A veritable identity symbol of Kizhi.

kizhi16 kizhi16 kizhi16 kizhi16 kizhi16 kizhi16 kizhi16 kizhi16 kizhi16 kizhi16 kizhi16 kizhi16 kizhi16

The boat has rumbled. I’m going back.


The church is the last one to disappear from our sight.