16 September 2012

The Monastery Under The Lake

Take a trip up the Volga river in Russia and when you get to the small town of Kalyazin keep your eyes peeled for something unusual.  There, in the middle of an artificial lake stands something a little perplexing.  Is it a weird Russian form of lighthouse? Some weird folly built on an island?

The answer is a resounding no.  During the 1940s the then Communist government had big plans to make the turbulent river navigable all year around.  So a cascade of dams and reservoirs was ordered on the Upper Volga.  It gave the region the much needed transport artery and hydroelectricity in to the bargain.  It also buried hundreds of years of history, of which the bell tower of the Makaryevsky Monastery is the only visible remnant above the waters of the Uglich reservoir.

It may seem today like an awful act of historical desecration and it is difficult to counter that argument, even though the 1940s were years of huge change for the then USSR.  The all important thrust was towards modernization and improving the infrastructure of the war ravaged country.  History could sometimes be buried.

So, the Makaryevsky Monastery, founded in the fourteenth century, disappeared under the waters, together with its ensemble of peripheral buildings including a magnificent refectory. Yet it was not going to allow the people of Kalyazin to forget – its belfry stood proud above the waves. An irony perhaps is that a large radiotelescope is based in the town - and the juxtaposition of the old and new is striking. But what of the appearance of the tower as an island in its own right?  That has its own story.

The early flooding of the area meant that there had been no time to destroy the cathedral before the waters came.  It was decided to keep it as a navigation point as the waters at this point make a sharp bend. However, there was always the risk of flooding.

To counter this is a manmade island was created around the first floor of the belfry above the waters. Although there is a small wooden pier for boats it is rare for people to stop – the interior is bare after all.  However, in Summer months swimmers will sometimes make their way through the pools of algae to the tower.

So, there she stands in the middle of the Volga – utterly alone. Well, perhaps not always. In the winter the reservoir often freezes over and then the monastery received the occasional visitor over the ice.