The far north has always been a magnet for pioneers and social misfits — a place where those who cannot or choose not to conform can find the freedom to make their own rules. In Canada it was the Yukon; in European Russia it was the Lake District midway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The country along the Sheksna and Kovzha rivers, low lying and covered with patchy forest of birch, pine and spruce, is remarkably like that along the Yukon River. Standing on the deck of the riverboat Kirov and looking across Lake Siverskoye I could easily have been on the MV Klondike looking across Lake Laberge. But the illusion ends as we round a bend and cruise past the fortified walls and towering spires of the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery.
Today the Monastery is the official “State Museum Reserve of History, Architecture and Art” — the cultural centre of the town of Kirilov. But back in the 1300s, long before the first boats came, Lake Siverskoye was surrounded by a wilderness of dense forest, about as far from the cities and bureaucracy of Russia as it was possible to get. And it was in 1397 that a disenchanted Reverend Kirill resigned from a prestigious hierarchical position at Moscow’s Simon Monastery and traveled north in search of personal freedom. Accompanied by another monk by the name of Ferapont, he chose a spot on the shores of Lake Siverskoye to set up a small cloister. But rather than dropping out of sight Kirill gained new respect for his asceticism and, as his popularity and spiritual authority grew, so too did his wilderness retreat. Many others followed the spiritual trail blazed by Kirill and Ferapont and their tiny cloister on Siverskoye Lake was destined to become one of the largest and most influential religious centres in all of Russia.
We wave to a group of kids playing beside one of the fortified towers and a few minutes later our ship is again surrounded by wilderness. The narrow, 40 km stretch of river between Siverskoye and Beloye (White) lakes is probably much as it was 600 years ago when Kirill was searching for a spot to build his retreat. Except for a few pioneers’ houses where the trees have been cleared to make room for a garden the banks of the river are covered with dense forest. About midway between the two lakes the tiny settlement of Goritsy, population 60, boasts a small nunnery with an impressive multi-domed cathedral, a few souvenir kiosks, and a dock where we are met by local guide Gaylina for an overland trip back to the Monastery.
“This is still a frontier region of Russia,” Gaylina explains as we bounce along the dirt track road back to Kirilov. “People here still have to protect their gardens from deer and their livestock from wolves and bears. The summers are short but the days are long and crops grow quickly.”