Wednesday, February 29, 2012
On the trip from Petersburg to Vytegra we experienced the transition from center to periphery through the windows of an old creaky bus. Initially the shifts in landscape came quite quickly as we rapidly transitioned from Petersburg, to Leningrad (outer Petersburg / Soviet era apartment blocks), to the beginnings of the countryside. While we were prepared for it, many of us were struck by the abrupt change from city to country that took place on the border of Petersburg. As one student (Dennis) said “you could have a Leningrad apartment, with a provincial view”.
Once in the country, the view from the bus window remained much the same for miles and miles. If you removed the nuanced distinctions in buildings, vehicles, and signage, the road out of Petersburg felt like it could have been in northern Michigan. Having spent a large part of my childhood “up north”, I found a certain comfort came with the view.
Small pockets of houses came and went, with various lone buildings spread sparsely in between as we made our way the Alexander Svirsky Monastery. I had known from our class discussions that this was an important monastery. Yet I missed the significant detail that this was not just any monastery, but the holiest site in all of Russian Orthodoxy. Its significance is due to the appearance of the Holy Trinity to Alexander Svirsky, this being only the second time they have appeared to man. The implication of this began to sink in as we walked onto the grounds of the monastery: this is holy land. I was initially, and through the course of our visit, struck by the modest humility of this place. I have visited other places of religious importance such as Notre Dame, and St. Peters. Those were intense in a grand, and spectacular way, but the Svirsky Monastery’s stark simplicity was a sharp contrast to its religious significance. To me this contrast only served to heighten the intensity of our visit. I did find it interesting that the holiest place in Russian Orthodoxy had only about twenty monks in residence. Is this function of the decline in monastic life in general in Russia? Or does this have to do with the monastery still healing from the trauma wrought upon it during the Soviet era? While at the monastery, a group of professional singers from Moscow performed two songs for us. The cliché “you had to be there” immediately comes to mind as I reflect upon this performance. I don’t think any of us was prepared for the intensity, or the power with which these five men sang.
Leaving the monastery with a new respect for the orthodox religion, we boarded our bus to finish the trip to Vytegra. We experienced our final transition from center to periphery after leaving the monastery and crossing the border between Leningrad and Vologda Oblasts. Almost immediately the road went from paved to a bumpy, slippery, and unpaved one. We rattled and bumped our way along for the next few hours, only stopping when our bus briefly broke down to the rapid drop in temperature. Our capable drivers quickly fixed the bus, and we finished the journey to Vytegra.