Orthodox treasures in Muslim republic

Although being at the first glance a purely Muslim republic with strong national traits and traditions, Tatarstan has many venerated shrines of the Russian Orthodox Church. The capital of Tatarstan itself observes the strict rule that regulates the number of churches and mosques within the city limits.

The region boasts unique Russian churches and monasteries that are stunningly picturesque, yet in the middle of nowhere, with the mighty Volga on one side and virgin wood covering steep slopes on the other.

Sviyazhsk is a tiny island on the Volga, upstream to Kazan. The place, as far as I know, has never failed to impress a single tourist. Protruding from the surface of the river, it resembles a fairy tale island where Russian life stopped somewhere in the good old middle ages. Not long ago, in fact, it was an isolated island (although it became such only after a power plant was constructed on the Volga) and the only way to get there was by boat, which made it a challenge in itself to reach Sviyazhsk unless you are not passing by with some tourist ship cruising the Volga.

However, a dam has recently connected it with the mainland and a constant tourist flow is expected. Moreover, Sviyazhsk was submitted to the waiting list of the UNSECO World Heritage, both natural and cultural. Some tourists do visit in the summer, but in winter it is almost completely abandoned. The majority of the remaining folks - about a hundred local people - desert the place for cold seasons. Thus, the place is tremendously impressive in winter, with few or no people for kilometers around and vast and white snow and ice spaces of the Volga squeezed between high hills of the shores.

The place literally breaths history. It all began with Tsar Ivan the Terrible who founded a secluded island in the vicinity of Kazan. The steep shores and isolation of the island made it a good outpost before a final assault on the capital by the then mighty khanate.

A big fortress was built upstream of the Volga, dismantled, drifted downstream and put up again in a short time much to the surprise of the Tatar hordes. Kazan surrendered in 1552, becoming a part of Russia, while Sviyazhsk's history took another turn. The remote spot became one of the places where the road to Siberia had a ferry crossing over the Volga. For some time the island hummed with life. Even the prominent architect Postnik Yakovlev (nicknamed Barma) came to work there which, by the way, completely denounces the beautiful but untrue legend about architects Barma and Postnik who were made blind after they created the famous Saint Basil's Cathedral (devoted to the conquerer of Kazan). By the beginning of the 19th century, Sviyazhsk became a small town and a pilgrimage place with its two monasteries and six churches dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.

The oldest church of the Holy Trinity is new from the exterior, but retains original arch interiors. If walls could talk, they would certainly tell about Ivan the Terrible, who prayed there in 1551. So do not delude yourself by the look. Try visiting every church. The poor rundown condition may look very pitiful, but every cloud has its silver lining. Centuries of bad weather wreaking havoc has left many houses and churches practically unchanged. If you are willing to make a travel in time just go to Sviyazhsk. The streets and paths here have never been paved, and it seems that the last noticeable construction works took place at the beginning of the 20th century with the erection of the huge red brick Byzantine-style Church of Our Lady, the dominant structure of the island. Visit also white stone Assumption Cathedral originally built in the middle of the 16th century by the renowned author of Saint Basil's Cathedral. The Cathedral's main feature is hid inside: all the walls and ceiling are painted in the splendor and style like in the Assumption Cathedral of Moscow's Kremlin. The feature here is in the unique fresco of Saint Christopher with a horse's head. Later, such a depiction was considered heretic and was destroyed almost everywhere in Russia. Walk around the streets noticing the gloomy decline and fall of dwelling area and the whole infrastructure.

Throughout its history, Sviyazhsk had to survive through tormented Soviet years when it was one of the thousands of Gulag affiliates. Just after the coup d'etat of 1917 the island achieved the unique monument to Judas who happened to be considered a revolutionary there. The monument did not last long and vanished into thin air one fine day. As many things did there.

Nowadays, Sviyazhsk present a very controversial picture. On one hand it impresses with the complete absence of modern life and a peaceful isolated atmosphere of distant monasteries, but on the other hand it is the image of invaluable monuments falling into peaces, poverty and despair. The breathtaking views of the Volga may in themselves be a reason to visit the place.

By Alexander Usoltsev