At the bed of the soul
Roars the underwater Kitezh
Our unbegotten dream,
(Max Voloshin 1877-1932)
In 1903, the Russian symbolist poet Zinaida Gippius
(1869-1945) visited Lake Svetloyar (literally radiant shore) in Russia’s Nizhegorod region. The occasion was
‘Ivan Kupala’: Midsummer’s Eve and the eve of the Nativity of St John the Baptist.
The scene that met her would be have been familiar
to any visitor to the lake in the century before the Russian revolution, for this was a favourite place of pilgrimage.
Incense drifted between the trees and the forest echoed
with the plainchant melodies of the pilgrims – bearded men in black kaftans and women in full length sarafans,
their faces framed and heads covered by large Russian scarves.
The worshippers stood before folding lecterns,
arms crossed, chanting from large leather bound volumes, inscribed in oak gall black and cinnabar red. Carefully making the
sign of the cross with two fingers, they bowed and made prostrations to the earth, head and blessing hand kept clean by the
small prayer mats – podruchniky – at their feet.
ascetic pilgrims crept around the lake three times on their knees, lestovky (leather rosaries) passing through their fingers
and prayers through their lips. Having drunk from Svetloyar’s healing sacred waters beeswax candles were set afloat
on slithers of wood, illuminating the surface of the lake.
The pilgrims watched and waited
in the hope that they would be rewarded with a glimpse of the sacred mystical world, normally concealed from human eyes.
A century after the poet’s visit the pilgrims still come: mainly Old
Believers – the preservers of Russia’s ‘ancient’ Christianity, who rejected the reform of the state
Church by Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century.
Deeply spiritual, traditional in all aspects of life and close-knit, they have preserved their
own distinct spiritual path and older, mystical expressions of Russian Orthodoxy.
Belief shapes every aspect of their
lives from the cradle to the grave. Faith is not one aspect of a multifaceted life, but the very breath of life itself: a
life defined and shaped by inherited wisdom, framed by the richness of sacred ritual, bound and given stability by sacred
tradition: a life of intense prayer, long hours of worship, and measured by the passing holy days and seasons of the of the
Their world is one shared with saints and angels, lived before the solemn
gaze of icons and expressed in the Old Church Slavonic language of scripture and holy writings. Following the spiritual paths
of their persecuted forefathers, they walk their ways, which they in turn traced back to the coming of Christianity to Russia
in the 10th century – and beyond that to Christ and the Apostles.
Having faced excommunication, violent
martyrdom and persecution from the political and religious leaders of the state, they continue to preserve their own churches
and communities, maintaining the ‘Ancient Piety’ and worshipping and praying according to the Old Rites of their
The strictest Old Believers, exiled
to the depths of the Russian North, Siberia or beyond Russia’s borders, preserve Old Russian speech; they wear the clothes
of past centuries, treasuring a vast oral folklore and knowledge of healing and the mysteries of nature.
The key question is why do they
come to Lake Svetloyar? What are they looking for and hoping to experience?
The answer is simple: Kitezh.
The chronicles tell us that Prince Georgi Vsevolodovich, Prince of Pskov built
Bolshoy Kitezh (Great Kitezh) on the bank of Lake Svetloyar.
With the Mongol-Tartar invasion
of 1238, the hordes of Batu Khan swept across the Russian land with great loss of life and the near extinction of the Russian
cities. Prince Georgi led his warriors against the Mongol horde.
When the princely city of Vladimir fell to the
Mongols, the Prince and his remaining warriors travelled down the Volga to Little Kitezh (modern Gorodets), passing through
the forest to Great Kitezh under the cloak of darkness. When Little Kitezh fell to the Mongols a tortured prisoner betrayed
the escape of the Prince, revealing the hidden paths to Great Kitezh.
The chronicles initially
describe the conquest and destruction of the city. However, another part of the same text and the oral tradition preserved
by the Old Believers describes the deliverance of the city from destruction.
As the Mongols attacked, waters bubbled from the
ground. Great Kitezh sank beneath the waters of Lake Svetloyar, miraculously preserved: its citizens wrapt in prayer to the
Virgin Mother of God to deliver the city. Great Kitezh was translated to a spiritual plane as a hidden reality, only to be
fully revealed at the second coming of Christ.
of the miraculously preserved city became particularly important to the Old Believers for whom Kitezh mystically preserves
the ancient spiritual life of
Holy Russia. It is an icon of sanctity and true piety, revealed to those who seek it in purity of heart, with prayer and fasting.
It is a symbol of the Holy Russia reflected in their lives, as they preserve the past represented by mystical Kitezh. The
power of the hidden city lies in the Old Believers’ experience of history and the place of the past in their consciousness.
The past gives meaning and context to the present. The present is defined by the past and the past shapes the future.
The act of searching is also a feature of Old
Believer consciousness and spirituality. The stranniki (wanderers) live a homeless, itinerant existence having renounced
the world to engage not only in a physical journeying, but also in a spiritual search. Their life is a long pilgrimage, but
their ultimate sanctuary and destination lies in the world and the age to come. As the Russian spiritual verse ‘Zhiteskoye
more’ (The Sea of Life) says:
The sea of life,
wave by wave,
against our keel.
direct the ship upon the waves,
And you, my
sweet darling, lift up your eyes to the heavens.
Whilst these stranniki are an extreme expression
of Russian Christianity, the Old Believer search for Kitezh engages with this longing, wandering and searching. Many Old Believers
fled Russia and led a life of physical wandering, as the state and persecution caught up with them.
The ancestors of the Old Believers who come to
Svetloyar today also looked for Belovodia, the Land of White Waters – a Christian Shambhala beyond the Altai mountains
in the steppes of Asia: a land where the ancient life, true priesthood and Old Orthodox faith have continued. The Russian
painter, Nikolai Roerich, encountered Siberian Old Believers who spoke of this lost city. The search for spiritual continuity
and stability was ingrained in their souls. In their troubled lives, they longed for a Novy Ierusalim: New Jerusalem.
The stream of pilgrims
that makes its way to the shores of Lake Svetloyar today still that through prayer and devotion they might be granted a glimpse
of Holy Russia preserved in the hidden mystical realm. Last year, Patriarch Alexander of the Russian Old Orthodox Church led
a pilgrimage of the faithful to the waters of the holy lake. Pilgrims still relate spiritual experiences.
According to the locals, people are sometimes said to vanish,
having no memory of where they have been when they return. Professor Sergei Volkov of Penza State University, who documented
these claims, reported that local mystics believed another time dimension could be entered at Lake Svetloyar just as Christian
mystics have always believed that holy men and women have left the world of time and space, as we understand it, experiencing
the Eighth Day – the eternal Kingdom of God.
Is Kitezh a foretaste of this kingdom?
Believers still claim to hear the bells of Kitezh ringing and to have seen the candles and lamps of its religious processions
through the depths of the waters. Others report seeing the images of the city and its churches on the surface of the lake.
I came upon the following Internet report of such an epiphany:
years ago I and Father Yevgeny came to the lake to erect an oak cross in place of a ruined chapel,” Zinaida says. “The
priests consecrated it and said a prayer. In the evening we came back to look at it once again. As we stood on the lake’s
side we suddenly saw a big cathedral fenced by a serrated wall and the golden church domes reflected on the surface of the
lake. I gasped. Father Yevgeny says quietly: “You keep silent and watch.” So we stood in silence for another ten
minutes and then the reflection gradually vanished. I asked a psalm reader standing nearby whether he had seen the miracle
of the invisible city of Kitezh as it got reflected on the water surface. But he said he had seen nothing of the sort. So
God revealed the city of Kitezh to me.”
Of course, this vision
- this glimpse of Holy Kitezh - can be interpreted internally: psychologically or spiritually, as well as literally. With
the stress on purity, fasting and prayer, the search can be a powerful allegory of the souls struggle for spiritual transformation
and for ‘Divine Ascent’, to use the language of Orthodox Christian mysticism.
However Kitezh is sought
and encountered, the vision is sacred and powerful to the pilgrim.
Whilst many Old Believers may no longer believe
in the physical Kitezh, it nevertheless remains a powerful spiritual symbol for all who seek.
The act of pilgrimage is still a spiritual journey
and part of a spiritual process – for some a transformational process. As Rosanne Keller writes in her book ‘Pilgrim
in Time’, ‘Pilgrimage ultimately is a journey leading through the geography of our own hearts – an inner
journey… that brings us in contact with holiness’.
Like the grail, with which it shares such a strong
affinity (see ‘Kitezh: the Russian Grail Legends’ by Munin Nederlander), Great Kitezh is a mystical channel of
grace and, perhaps, a vehicle of spiritual healing, but it is not at the end of the spiritual journey… Great Kitezh
is not the old Believers goal…
For here we have no abiding city,
but we seek after the city which is to come.
letter to the Hebrews
ã Hierodeacon Mark. 2007
Grad Kitezh - Svyataya Rus
O Holy Russia, you
breath, like Kitezh
deep beneath the waves.
You live in every icon face,
in every silent mouth and every eye,
hidden beneath the incense smoke
of centuries past,
In every flickering bee-fed flame,
in every leathered volume, worn
by love and spotted with the wax
oil of midnight prayer
You live in every earthward bow,
in every blessing-folded hand,
and each lestovka climbed with sighs.
You live in every spartan chant,
that flows with yearning from the soul,
and cries aloud through time and change,
yet in faith unchanging, still,
and there for those who seek,
beneath the waves of timelessness
... till Christ shall come again.