Интернет-приложение альманаха «Соловецкое море»

Дарэл Хардман (Daryl Hardman)

По следам Святых: путешествие в самый труднодоступный монастырь России

In the Footsteps of Saints: a Visit to Russia’s Most Inaccessible Monastery

Панорама Богоявленского Кожеозерского монастыря. Лето 2006 г.

Богоявленский Кожеозерский монастырь. Лето 2006 г.The directions given in the guidebook of monasteries of the Moscow Patriarchate for getting to the Monastery of the Apparition of Our Lord on Lake Kozhe are brief, «110 km from Onega. No roads. Access only by all terrain vehicle or helicopter».

How then did the first monk to settle on Kozhe, St Niphont, make his way there and how did the convert from Islam, St Serapion, travel to join him in 1565? Not long afterwards St Nikodim arrived, but he found the little community already too distracting for his liking and so set up his hermit’s cell in the forest some 5 km distant. Presumably these monastic pioneers travelled neither by all terrain vehicle nor helicopter? In the summer of 2006 a small group set off to retrace their footsteps, following the clues left behind by St Nikodim himself.

Богоявленский Кожеозерский монастырь. Лето 2006 г.If you look at the map of Arkhangel oblast and take a more or less straight line down from the town of Onega on the White Sea you will see a long blue smudge, Lake Kozhe (Kozhzero). At 27 km long and 6 km wide, there are places where you cannot see the opposite shore and the wind whips up waves several metres high that give serious pause for thought to canoeists and small boaters. The map is literally peppered with dozens of lakes of all sizes and closer inspection reveals that these are joined by a web of thin blue threads. These threads are the very lifelines of Russia and the key to understanding her settlement patterns. They are the natural waterways which carried early settlers and invaders, where prosperous villages, towns and monasteries were built, along which trading vessels travelled and timber was floated to the sea for export. Russia it seems has never had good roads. Its arteries were the waterways until the vast railway network gradually took over. Many of these rivers have now fallen into disuse and returned to the condition of centuries ago when the first settlers and monks forced a passage along them.

Постройки монастыря. Лето 2006 г.This must certainly be true of one of the threads, the River Nikodimka, named for our hermit and where local people say you can still see a stone with the twin impression of his knees where he spent hours on end in prayer. The Nikodimka can be traced on the map from just below Nimenga, today a desperately downtrodden and depressing logging settlement on the railway, but historically a parish of six villages with its own wooden church and belfry of some note. Nowadays it is alleged that the inhabitants of the concrete three-storey tenements plonked in a muddy wasteland are descendants of camp inmates, exiles and their guards. The Nikodimka is roughly 120 km long and, like its namesake, we too launched our boats on Lake Ludo, (although unlike St Nikodim, we used lightweight inflatable Schuka canoes and covered the first part of the journey from Nimenga in a car belonging to the entrepreneurial Armenian owner of the shop there. We were dropped at the point at which the dust road abruptly ends by a collapsed bridge. St Nikodim would have used a small wooden boat that he built in the Karelian and Arkhangel manner using planks hewn by axe and wedge from pine trees. Then he would have taken larch roots which are easy to pull up, and torn them apart to make thick fibres to literally sew his planks together. To this day the northern Russians do not refer to building a boat, but to «sewing» a boat. There were «sewn» boats with no nails or metal parts still in use shortly before the war, the technology not having changed since it was first imported to Novgorod by the Vikings and later, in the Middle Ages, taken to the north by Novgorodians. The River Nikodimka is narrow, hemmed in by dense forest on both sides which seems dark and forbidding, particularly when one comes across fresh bear tracks and realises how far from help one is. The river is never very deep, in fact, at times so shallow that the only way forward is to wade, towing the canoes behind you. Conglomerations of tortured looking dead trees with fantastically twisted limbs that have fallen across the river present frequent barriers which we had to overcome by lifting the canoes and luggage over, or, if the barrier was lodged high enough, by pushing the canoes beneath as we either lay flat inside or else by clambering out to perch precariously on the slippery trunks without falling in (not always successful in my case). The third and most time consuming method was to unpack the canoes and carry them, plus luggage, past the obstruction along the bank (this meant hacking a path through thick undergrowth and was a very slow process). There were so many of these tree blockages, that at times it seemed as if they would never end. The constant accompaniment of humming clouds of hungry mosquitoes made life unpleasant, while overhanging twigs conspired to snag and lift mosquito nets from face and neck so that by the end of the day, soaking wet, cold, tired, aching all over and covered in itching bites, one began to get a sense of the huge achievement of the early explorers in this Russian wilderness.

Установка поклонного креста архангельской экспедицией. Лето 1997 г.I don’t suppose St Nikodim had a waterproof tent, three season sleeping bag or matches to light his camp fire. Neither would he have had reconstituted meat (which looks a bit like dried cat food until added to hot water, but tastes marginally better). As a nod to St Nikodimite survival techniques we used birch bark instead of fire lighters, picked mushrooms which we added to our soup, brewed tea with willow-herb and picked abundant bilberries. We also managed to catch fish, the main source of protein in this area for monks past and present: perch, pike and grayling featured on the menu ever more frequently as our overnight net-setting skills improved.

In all it took us five days to paddle down the Nikodimka one of which was spent in the tents sheltering from heavy rain. We patched a hole punched in the bottom of the boat by a drowned and very spiky branch; drying out the resulting sodden sleeping bags and spare clothing over a fire was quite a challenge. We sewed ourselves mosquito proof trousers out of the tarpaulin oar bag and in the four days afloat we passed under-over-around 20 fallen tree obstructions.

Небеса обетованные. Фото 2006 г.Imagine the feeling of release on day six as the breeze stiffened, blowing the insects away, the river broadened, the forest shrank back from the banks and the sky became visible as we emerged on to the sparkling expanse of Lake Kozhe! The pioneering monks must have thought they had reached heaven itself. As energetic waves threatened to engulf our little canoes, we took shelter in the approaches until 11 at night when the wind had died down and, accompanied by one of those glorious northern White Night sunsets, we set out over a pool of mercury, paddling two and a half hours to reach a beach of silky, white sand. Like Nikodim and those before him, we found plenty of driftwood to make a fire and sat drinking tea until 3 in the morning, watching as the splendid magenta and indigo sunset gave way to a perfect crescent moon which less than one hour later retired before a gentle pink and blue sunrise.

What has happened in the four centuries since the Lake Kozhe Monastery was founded? From 1639-46 patriarch Nikon was hegumen here, ever the restless builder, turning the monastery island into a peninsula by creating a causeway. The monastery managed to produce seven saints until it fell into a period of relative inactivity, at one time coming under the control of the famous Solovetsky Monastery. In 1853 it was reopened as a bulwark in the struggle against the Old Believers who were holding out in the north against ecclesiastical reform. What a sight it must have been in its heyday! There were no fewer than six churches, of which five in this land of wooden architecture were built from bricks made in kilns on the spot, an elaborate 3-storey brick and stucco residence for the abbot with classically decorated faзade, brick-built blocks for the brothers, for guests, domestic and farm buildings, bakery and dairy. In 1918 the revolutionary army made a special journey to this remote place along the monastery trakt, a path through the taiga formed over the centuries, and no doubt used and improved by patriarch Nikon. They bayoneted to death the last hegumen, Arsenius, and several monks. Some days later the Whites turned up and sprang a revenge attack, wiping out the Red Army soldiers. The buildings still bear clear bullet marks. The monastery was turned into a commune and later a settlement for exiles under the Stalinist regime. The exiles completed the ruin of the monastery buildings, using the bricks to build their own dwellings in what became known as Kozhe settlement (Kozhposelok). Then in 1998 three monks from Optina Pustyn (the monastery made famous by Dostoyevsky in The Karamazov Brothers), came there. Only one remained to brave the harsh conditions and he, Fr. Mikhei, is still there today, having persuaded the Russian Orthodox Church to reconstitute the monastery and the local authorities to give it back the legal title to the land it had lost some eighty years previously. He now rules over a monastery of three monks and occasional visitors. The charming little church of the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God has been renovated over the monastery gates and every morning prayers start at 5.30 leading into liturgy which ends at 10 or 11. The monks live in what used to be the pilgrims’ accommodation and they go about their daily fishing and agricultural pursuits watched by two horses which each have a good excuse for not working, but both of which add to the brethren’s labours by needing hay throughout the long winter.

Fr Mikhei and the brothers were on a far shore of the lake, collecting bilberries on the day we walked into the monastery from our sandy camp on the isthmus. This was probably just as well, as those in the know warn that women are not welcome. A large, powerful man with long fair hair and beard came out to meet us, a traveller from the shores of the White Sea who, in the tradition of Russian wanderers and holy men, spends the winters in solitude in forest huts and summers at the monastery lending what must be a considerable hand with the manual labour. His name is Vladimir. He was hospitable and friendly and over tea, monastery baked bread and monastery honey, told us of life in Lake Kozhe Monastery – long church services morning and evening, hard physical labour, no electricity or running water, no radio, telephone or post. Occasional pilgrims come and work for a few days bringing sweets and condensed milk as treats. One of them, Sergei from the Ukraine, writes: «If someone is not in sympathy with patriotic feelings towards Russia, or does not feel reverence for the Heavenly Martyrs, or does not like conversations about the struggle for the purity of Orthodoxy or is annoyed by criticisms of the machinations of world government, then it is not worth that person making such an arduous journey, for he will have difficulty finding common ground with the brethren.»

And what of the journey back? There are several choices in the summer: two to three days on foot through the taiga to the start of the logging track where you can hitch a lift on a lorry back to Nimenga; three to four days to Shomoksho following a very boggy all- terrain vehicle track (be prepared to sink in up to your knees), or four days paddling down the River Kozhe with breathtaking scenery and splendid rapids that range from a few thrilling white horses to a foaming 45 degree incline that only the professionals can attempt and memorials record those who died. The beauty of the Kozhe is that there are well-trodden footpaths beside each rapid, allowing for boats to be carried round. These may well have existed for centuries as the Kozhe has been settled since early times (it is now virtually empty until it joins the Onega) and it is nice to think that Niphont, Serapion, Nikodim and Nikon, like Vladimir the modern-day Russian wanderer and like us, may have carried their boats along these very same muddy bypass tracks through the northern Russia taiga.

July 2006

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