Valaam

Located in the center of the lake’s northern part is the archipelago consisting of fifty islands and named after the biggest, Valaam. There on the high cliffs stands the Valaam Transfiguration Monastery, a major place of pilgrimage in Russia, a realm of elders and ascetics, a land steeped in holiness. The monastery founded in the 10th century is stauropegial, which means that it is directly guided by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia (not by a local bishop). The name of Valaam can be translated from Finish as “the high land”. Sometimes the name of the island is attributed to the biblical prophet Balaam or, more likely, to the Slav pagan idol Baal (Veles, Volos). One of Valaam legends says that a long time ago the island used to be a huge site of pagan sacrifices.

The total area of the Valaam archipelago is 36 km, with a maximum length of 13 and 8 km. Its rocky islands are covered with coniferous woods, picturesque grasslands and green meadows. It is the place where the God-created beauty of the islands and the man-made beauty of architecture and art blend harmoniously. The imposing blue cathedral domes of the monastery located in the southern part of the island near the Monastery Bay can be seen from almost any point.

Some of the Valaam islands are joined by bridges. There are nine small lakes in the main island of the archipelago. Straits, bays, lakes surrounded by thick plants and sullen granite rocks reflect everything in their azure depths.

The nature of Valaam is unique. The monks did not cut down trees, they used only fallen ones for construction and heating. The only large beasts here are elk, but one can encounter hares, foxes, and squirrels which are not afraid of people because they have never been hunted.

Valaam separated by nature from secular settlements is an ideal place for monastic life and soltitude, as if especially destined to glorify God. Austere, almost vertical rocky shores, like sullen granite walls, rise as high as 50 m above sea-level.

According to tradition, the monastery was established in 992 by the Greek monks Sergius and Herman (canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church) who came here seeking soltitude for their ascetic endeavours. Over and over again the monastery was destroyed. Located on the border of the Novgorod-the-Great lands and Sweden it was ravaged by the Swedes several times. In 1611 they alighted at Valaam for the last time and gave everything to fire and the sword. The island remained deserted until 1715 when the monastery was revived by Peter the Great. Russian emperors Alexander I, Alexander II and Nicholas II came to venerate this sacred place. Most of the elegant monastery structures date from the 19th century. The heart of the cloister is the Transfiguration Cathedral (1887-1896) designed by Karpov and other architects. Another marvelous construction is St Nicholas’ Church in the skete (monastic community) of the same name by Gornostayev. The monastery was a source of inspiration for many well-known figures of Russian culture, the poet Tiutchev, composer Tchaikovsky and painter Shishkin among them. The long austere service sung in plaintive ancient Znameny chant bespoke the timelessness of eternity. The church glowed in the light of a thousand candles and the icons reflected the uncreated light that emanated from the rites and the mysteries.  About 200 monks led an ascetic life on Valaam at that time. They lived in prayer ans ascetic labour. The monastery had different workshops: a smithy, carpenter’s, candle-making factory, icon-painting studio, photographer’s, diary, library, printing house, shipyard and shoe-maker’s. Monks were also occupied in wood-carving, fishing and gardening. Though the climate of Valaam is harsh, the monastery gardens yielded large crops, even watermelons and pumpkins grew here. The monastery farm produced milk, butter and cheese for both monks and pilgrims.

In 1940 Valaam became the Soviet territory. The monks had to move to Finland where they founded the New Valaam cloister. They took with them the monastery library consisting of 30.000 books. During World War II the archipelago was occupied by Finns. In the days of the war Valaam was bombarded but the damage was not derious, Sts Sergius and Herman protected their monastery. Only the ruins of the Finnish officers’ club, some fortifications and dining-hall reminds us of those days. After the war the monastery was used as a boarding house for disabled soldiers and elderly people.

In 1986 the Transfiguration Cathedral was given back to the Church. In 1992 most of the clerical and administrative buildings were returned to the monastery. However the main monastic aim is not the restoration of the walls but raising man in Christ’s spirit, living in patience and keeping a clean conscience.

Thousands of tourists and pilgrims come to Valaam. The sky seems closer to one standing on its hills. “Let God give you what you are seeking here!”, said one monk to the popular Russian writer Ivan Shmelev who visited the island in the early 20th century.

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