August 01, 1999

Kizhi: An Island of History

The forested landscape of northern Russia, between Lake Ladoga and the White Sea, was once dotted with great ensembles of log churches. Now only a few precious examples remain, of which the most remarkable are located on the small island of Kizhi, one of almost 1,400 in Karelia’s Lake Onega. The island has long been known as a sacred space, in part perhaps because of its unusually picturesque landscape within a length of only 6 kilometers.

Yet this beauty alone would not have saved the site from the decay and vandalism that destroyed so many other masterpieces of wooden architecture. For over a century, the efforts of some of Russia’s leading preservationists—such as the artists Ivan Bilibin and Igor Grabar—have focused attention on the unique cultural legacy of Kizhi.

In the late 1940s, the architect Alexander Opolovnikov began his tireless crusade to preserve Russian wooden architecture with substantial restoration work on the island. In 1951 the first of several historic log structures from other Karelian locations was brought to the island. Kizhi achieved the status of a national architecture and historic museum in 1966. This open-air museum now contains some of the oldest surviving examples of Russian log buildings, including one small church (The Resurrection of Lazarus) tentatively dated to the end of the fourteenth century.

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