by Alex Kalamaroff
When I first saw photographs of Kizhi Pogost I tried to imagine the god such structures were built to honor. It could be no simplistic, traditional, all-American god. This had to be some divine behemoth possessing a glaring sense of beauty who understands the brutalities of life and rages alongside us in protest, a Russian deity, a forgotten one. The Church of the Transfiguration is the temple our progeny will construct at world’s end.
Built on pagan grounds without nails but with blood and vision and more importantly local diligence—when the project was done, the craftsman’s ax was tossed into Lake Onega. “There will never be another like it,” the craftsman said.
The three buildings that compose Kizhi Pogost are oneiric in style. The art of wooden architecture was an intergenerational dream. Eventually it sank into the surrounding lake. There are two churches and a rudimentary bell tower. One church for summer, one for winter. The latter is smaller, simpler, easier to heat, closer to earth and far from cantankerous god. This is the Church of the Intercession.
We wander Kizhi, which is now an island refuge for wooden edifices, a UNESCO site. The pine inside the houses is darkened from lifetimes of stove smoke. I think of the useless optimism of Osip Mandelstam’s line, “that one lit match could keep us warm.” In wintertime, the men went to St. Petersburg to work as carpenters for the tsar while the women tended to the children and protected infants from the evil eye of all-encompassing nature.
Adders curve through yellow grass. The Church of the Transfiguration has two-twenty cupolas—onion-shaped domes shielded in aspen shingles, each of which was carved by men whose hands were collages of scars. Yet ask anyone who wields a knife with such proficiency. It takes great gentleness to do this work. To build a place of worship, we must shelter tenderness inside our poisoned hearts.
Beauty, it seems to me, is something only sinners understand.
Alex Kalamaroff is a writer, educator, and adventurer living in Boston. His writing has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, Lambda Literary, and other places. He is the Book Reviews Editor for Entropy. @alexkalamaroff