VALAAM – a pilgrimage for the soul

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It’s a beautiful late summer morning as the ferry pulls away from the pier at Sortavala on the north shore of Lake Ladoga. The ferry is a Meteor, a Soviet-designed hydrofoil, built in the 1960s and widely used in these waters. Most of the passengers are women on day trips to Valaam. The tour guides have made sure their clients board first and the women rush to fill up the popular seats at the front of the ferry. I pay the captain and ask for a ticket. Потом, (later) he says. After a week of travelling in Karelia I’m beginning to understand this is a paperless society.

The hydrofoil moves slowly to the open water before lifting up and accelerating across the lake. The passage between the front and back sections is open to the air and filled with backpackers, cyclists, and photographers. The air is cool and exhilarating, and the view, spectacular. We are the first to cut the waters today.
We’re heading to the monastery on Valaam, the largest island in an archipelago of about 50 islands in Lake Ladoga. We had arrived the night before in Sortavala (pop. 19,235) from Petrozavodsk, a four-hour bus journey. The town was Finnish before the Soviet Union annexed the Karelian Isthmus in 1944, following an earlier attempt in 1941. Indeed, the name Valaam comes from the Finno-Ugric word ‘valamo’, which means the ‘high, mountainous land’.

The islands have a ‘back-and-forth’ history of control. The area was ruled in early times from Novgorod. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the monastery was attacked and burnt down by the Lutheran Swedes, taking advantage of the Time of Troubles. Russia recaptured the islands about one hundred years later. An extensive renovation of the monastery started in 1715 with the blessing of Peter the Great. Valaam flourished, and among extensive developments of churches, chapels, forests and orchards, the monastery became one of the largest centers of printing in Russia.

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Historians have no single view of the date of the monastery’s establishment. Church tradition asserts that its antiquity dates back to the spread of Christianity in Russia, in the 10th century. The official website is emphatic about this: ‘The Valaam monastery headed by a Abbot was established soon after the adoption of Christianity in Russia’. Other scholarly consensus points towards a later period at the end of the 14th century.

In 1812, the islands became part of the Grand Duchy of Finland, at that time an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. Following the 1917 Revolution, Valaam went along with newly independent Finland and was the most important monastery of the Finnish Orthodox Church.

The ferry trip takes about 50 minutes. The Meteor slows and lowers into the water as we approach the quay below the monastery. The pilgrims disembark and immediately bow and cross themselves in front of the small chapel on the pier. The chapel commemorates a visit in 1896 by Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, uncle to Tsar Nicholas II, and great-grandfather to Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna, resident of Spain, and the current claimant to the Romanov throne. We head up the stone staircase to the monastery to find accommodation.
The majestic blue and white Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior is the centerpiece of the monastery. Commissioned in 1896, it is swathed in scaffolding and undergoing restoration. The women check their outfits before entering. No photographs are allowed within the Cathedral property.

The Soviet authorities shut down the monastery in 1944. Centuries of monastic prayer are silenced for almost 50 years. The monks were evacuated earlier, in 1940, taking the most valuable artifacts with them to form a new monastery at Heinävesi in Finland. The Cathedral became a storage shed for vegetables grown on island’s collective farm. The altar became a counter in the local shop. Gravestones were willfully smashed in the monk’s cemetery (a current initiative is using ancient records to restore the grave sites). Between 1952 and 1984 Valaam was run as a rehabilitation center for invalids. In the 1960s, recognition is given to the history of the monastery, and the island was opened to tourists arriving on cruise ships.

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We find lodging in the Igumenskaya Hotel, a renovated section of the old monk’s quarters. The walls and floors are polished red brick and the rooms are simply furnished. There is a communal bathroom. It’s rather like living as a monk, only with lights and hot water. The dining hall has however closed for the year. Some of the pilgrims move into the Hotel Mansadra, where there are up to 16 beds in each room, men and women residing separately.

There are few dining options on Valaam. The café on the pier offers a range of local foods, blini, borsch and similar fare. There is a dining hall serving meals to visitors and workers in the monastery, and a bakery that offers fresh-baked bread. Valaam prides itself on its apples and farm-raised trout.

I am woken at 4.30 am the following day by a loud rhythmical knocking on wood. My first thought is of the builders starting up early, in good monastic tradition. It turns out to be an ancient ritual, the call for the Midnight Office, part of the cycle of daily worship and which summons the monks to prayer.

Another tradition revived by the monks is a sacred chant, Znamenny, the ‘chant of signs’, specific to Valaam, and lost for years. It’s aimed at recovering the ‘heart and essence’ of Valaam, along with the physical restoration of the structures. We attend a recital by a group of four worshippers. As we leave there’s a stir at the door to buy CD recordings. “It’s also on YouTube,” one of the pilgrims tells me.
There are several hundred people resident on Valaam during summer, including monks, guides, volunteers, and locals. There is a school and a medical center. The monastery has reportedly gained significant legal power over the island, in endeavors to return to a state of spiritual seclusion. Local residents are dwindling and those remaining have no official administrative status. Rather, they are registered in Sortavala. Most live in a decaying red brick apartment block across from an equally dilapidated football field.

We take a taxi to the cruise ship pier, in Bolshoi Nikonovsky Bay, about 6 kilometers away at the opposite end of the island. It lies next to the Red Skete, one of about a dozen sketes, or hermitages, on the island. Not all of them are accessible to outsiders. Tourists pass through a souvenir bazaar before being shuttled onto a tour of the monastery. The driver tells us he has lived on Valaam for years. “We have no problems living here,” he says, “It’s a good life.”
That evening we walk out to the St Nicholas Skete. The sunset lasts for ages and the light changes constantly. A woodpecker pecks away at the top of a tree. A group of women stand on the edge of the water and sing together. It’s a beautiful, serene ambience.

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Valaam is a walker’s paradise. Pine forests cover most of the island. There are more than 480 other plant species recorded here. One afternoon we stroll down the row of tall pines to the Igumenskij church where the abbots (‘igumens’) and senior monks are buried. A monk is ringing the bells, immersed in conducting an array of cords, and oblivious to visitors. On the way back we pass rows of hothouses, the dairy farm, workshops, and even a helipad, a sign of modern times.

After two days on the island we depart Valaam, this time in the opposite direction, westwards to Priozersk. It’s a more direct route to St Petersburg. The pilgrim’s office informs us that the ferries are running. “The ferries don’t always run,” we’re told, “They leave Priozersk only if there are enough passengers coming to Valaam.” There is no way to buy tickets in advance so we get to the ferry departure point early to be sure of seats. As usual, the pilgrims board first, then those anointed by the crew, before the rest of the waiting crowd are attended to.

The views on leaving Valaam are magnificent, a mix of blues, greens and golds. The passengers sit quietly. Winter is approaching and the inaccessibility of the island will again provide the monastery with a spiritual solitude. For many, the journey to Valaam is a pilgrimage for the soul, an opportunity to absorb and enjoy the quiet and tranquility of the monastery, and the outstanding natural beauty that surrounds it.

Ferries to Valaam leave from Sortavala and Priozersk 2 to 3 times a day during summer months, weather conditions permitting. VKontakte has a useful site which lists daily lake conditions and ferry departures (see ‘Валаамский причал’ г. Сортавала). Sortavala offers a wide range of accommodation. The official site of Valaam Monastery is well presented and provides information about accommodation on the island (www.valaam.ru). Details on pilgrimages are available from Valaamski Palomnik (www.vp.valaam.ru).

The Karelia tourist portal (www.ticrk.ru) provides useful information on travel in the region.