About three hundred years ago it began a little to the north of Tver. Now taiga is not only the Siberian timber reserves mysterious and untrodden. There is some of it left in the north-west where nowadays the territory is mostly covered with forests which had been cut down many times before.
"When looking from the road, the forest seems to be impassable. But when you are in a helicopter all you see is bald patches: everything had been cut down. In Karelia there is only as much as 2 per cent of primeval forests left. There people still feel like guests and not masters", says father Oleg Chervyakov, the author of the idea to create Vodlozero national park who also is its director and the senior priest of two Vodlozero churches. Vodlozero and Ileksa River is where the general stream of the largest fluviolacustrine system in Europe starts via Onega and Ladoga, this water flows to the Baltic Sea.
"The heaven is close to the earth; sun, water everything is simple. Strained ideas dissolve in this open space, one soon remains face to face with God Natalya Chervyakova, mother Natalya, father Oleg's wife, speaks light-heartedly. The topic seems to be quite pretentious, but when you listen to her you will notice that her words are smooth and void of emotions. So many people zealously sought secluded life but gave it up later to go back to their former life."
There is no usual social life here. Vodlozero remained the same as the Lord created it. Primeval paradise, that exists neither in the past nor in another world. It is here, right in front of your eyes. But are we ready for pure and simple life? Are we ready to accept it, become its part, and settle our soul and heart in it without any hostility?
In Ilyinsky Island
The patron saint's day in the St. Elijah's Vodlozero hermitage is just right this time. No festivals, no people who do not belong there. In spring the water inspectorate prohibited to use pontoon on the unquiet lake, and there are very few boats here nowadays. Not like in the past when so many boats used to come to the small island that those late for the service had to leave their boats a little way away, in the second or third row.
We came in time for the evening service. We had tea in a room lighted with an oil lamp, listened to unhurried stories of the Father Superior and then settled for night on benches in a monastic cell. In the morning there was a liturgy, religious procession, Karelian chimes and a meal where all participants simply talked about water, fish and unceasing rain. Everything was without ceremony thoroughly and with care. The only unusual thing about it was the boundaries they set for their home. They considered the whole Vodlozero and Ileksa River with its tributaries to be their home. This is a huge area, even in Russian standards.
The monastery was established a little over a year ago. It was not until the last February that the Holy Synod approved the Hermitage. Before the Bolsheviks closed Ilyinsky it used to be the religious and administrative centre of Vodlozero area. In a small island there lived the priest, the deacon and junior deacons. Other people would settle there, too the poor and crippled, disabled people and those without families: lonely widows and retired soldiers. The churchyard lived a peculiar life of a "parochial monastery" supported by local peasants. People from the entire neighbourhood would be buried here, except for those who died an unnatural death. There were no other cemeteries in the villages. If one died during the season of bad roads, he would be covered with some dirt or snow. However, they would still take them to Ilyinsky to bury when a waterway or sleigh-road was available.
At the moment there are four monks and a novice. In spite of its seclusion, the island is always open towards both curious tourists and religious people. But it is unlikely that odd people will stay here peace of Vodlozero coenobites is guarded by tough life conditions and a long way from the continent.
After the festive service in Ilyinsky, father Oleg Chervyakov, the senior priest of the Vodlozero churches and director of the Vodlozero national park, was supposed to baptize two girls and three guys all locals. In about two hours, after a meal, I came back and stopped by the church. They just came from the lake in a boat the priest took each of them away from the lakeside and immersed them three times, according to all rules. There was a bustle among the girls, they kept asking what time it was and worrying about the ceremony being so long. But father Oleg said all prayers to the end, distinctly and without haste. Then he smiled, congratulated each of them and reminded that salvation was only possible through Calvary.
The priest has his own Calvary. He is a man of exceptional authority: he can stop people by a single glance and put words right into hearts. It is not easy to be the director of the largest European national park and a parochial priest at the same time
Peasants need license to fish; those more resourceful are interested in the timber of the ancient forest. Once in a while church members also get puzzled and wonder how secular projects can be combined with the church life. The priest himself is sure that the park is a small island created by God and that it has to be preserved no matter what:
"After the Park was created the question arose: how are we going to develop it? Is it going to be a tourist reserved territory? Before Bolsheviks came into power a peculiar civilization of "Lake People" had been living here for ages dozens of villages and small farms knew how to live in accord with God and nature. We chose a way of reviving rural life in this land. In this way we will be able to preserve Vodlozero, and it is going to be more attractive to the visitors since our way of life is going to be real, not just a play.
Ilyinsky was restored as an acting temple, not a museum. And our village Varishpelda is the first example of a real farm with traditional way of life. We overcame many difficulties since there is neither electricity nor telecommunications here, and there were serious problems with transportation of hardware. We took care of everything: we restored churches, chapels, arranged for jobs in the park, and established reasonable contacts with the authorities (materials, credit support, etc.). We created a universal reserved area a real Orthodox village. But the problem we faced was completely different from what we were expecting.
As for people desiring to settle here, we never even discussed matters of construction, job placement or education of their children. They would soon give up their decision to stay. Many people come here secular people (singles and families), novices from monasteries, people from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Hungary, Israel and Ukraine all with different life experiences. The pattern is about the same. First, they come here to visit everything is great, they are so enthusiastic, they discuss everything they see. Then they come back here to stay and... disappear after a week.
When one comes here for vacation or as a pilgrim or just for a visit, they can even spend two or three weeks here. And everything is great: both prayers and work. They will do whatever you ask them to reap wheat, dig potatoes, make hay. What a bliss... But it is very different when we make our mind to live like this permanently. Then the worst thing happens we meet ourselves.
Then other problems come up, for instance, unceasing labour. Labour as prayer, not as necessity or duty, when you work for a while and then go home and lay on your sofa for hours. Labour should be like water and air, something natural you cannot do without, something that goes without saying, something that does not influence your thoughts or mood. Labour should be like your breathing. It should make you happy. Any labour even the least complicated like haymaking, barn cleaning, and sheep shearing after all, everything is done with God. Then you do not get distracted from praying.
Another matter is the community where all live together. In a city you can live all your life and not know your neighbours next door, and slyness is no so obvious there. Here, on the contrary, if someone gives you a strange look, takes something without asking permission, or says something weird, everybody will know.
Two years ago five novices of a monastery got together and decided to live here and build an Orthodox village... A week later they refused to go to chapel together, stopped eating together, and three weeks later I heard one of them say: "If he says something else to me, I am going to crush his head with an axe!" And they still consider themselves Orthodox. And a true Christian should be able to forgive. A Christian commandment is to love everyone. Not only good people but also everyone, whatever the case. These commandments prevent lies.
The task we set for ourselves to restore an Orthodox village is beyond a modern person's capacity. It can only be accomplished by a special grace of God. Humans have radically changed over the last century. We mean loss of noble culture, and the way of life and traditions of Russian peasants had been lost forever, too. I can call myself an Orthodox peasant... but now it seems to be unachievable. If the Lord does not turn to us out of His mysterious providence, if He does not help us, then nothing like social projects, programs, investments, teaching, fantastic ideas (like living in harmony with nature and God on earth) will be able to bring back a real traditional village."