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An Island of Spiritual Treasure
 Oct 2, 2011

Zalit Island on Lake Pskov (Lake Peipus) has gone the full circle from burgeoning prosperity to complete degradation over the course of the 20th century. But just when it seemed that the village here would completely die off, small miracles begin to happen. Kind people and a well-remembered local priest provide hope that this far western island of Russia might see its own renaissance. And perhaps this is how things should be for this tiny piece of land that has been considered holy since ancient times.

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Photo provided by author

Father Nikolai Guryanov came to the island in 1958 and lived here through 2002, when he passed away at 92 years of age. The few written records about this man testify that he was a visionary, and his renown brought a steady stream of pilgrims to Zalit. Such a description immediately brings to the mind pictures of an inaccessible fortress, a severe elderly man on an icon and excursion buses bringing women in shawls. But Father Nikolai achieved a different kind of fame – one more human and authentic.

Up until 2005 a ferry service from the regional capital Pskov served the island with regular trips aboard hydroplanes called “rockets”. These days one can only arrive there by departing from a small fishing village where locals may or may not be willing to take you out aboard a small motorboat. The trip is 15 kilometers one-way.

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Boats provides the daily bread of many residents of Tolba, a fishing village on the lakeshore / Photo provided by author

A local resident by the name of Anatoly, who I met on the street, invited me into his home. He turns out to be a former resident of St. Petersburg who had a dacha on the island starting back in the 1990s. Having spent some time with Father Nikolai, he decided to make his home on the island. Anatoly is around fifty years of age and recognized master of the marital art Sambo. With his young wife and interesting manner of speech, he seems as if out of crime genre television miniseries. A collection of inexpensive icons decorate his home and a portrait of Nikolai Guryanov is given a special place. “You think he cast aside lightening with his arms? No, he talked conversations,” explains Anatoly. “Personally with each person. And not one piece of advice was off mark, not one comment. As if tuning a guitar, he could set people on a path of kindness, toward self-development. Over the forty years that he lived her I don’t think there was one murder, despite fishermen being strong and vengeful lot. He could foresee events precisely, and the date of his death in particular. That evening the sky was an unreal raspberry red. I have never seen anything like it.”

Anatoly doesn’t have his own motorboat. His neighbor Mikhail agreed to take us out to the island for 1500 rubles. It’s clear why the island has ceased being a major pilgrammage destination. An icon with the image of Nikolai is installed above the instrument panel of Mikhail’s boat.

“He was more than a holy person,” explains Mikhail. “Where do the religious sentiments of parishioners usually come to an end? Right, at the doors of the chapel. When he was alive, you wouldn’t see rubbish on the streets, despite the fact that the island (one and a half kilometers by 400 meters) is partically completely built upon. When he gav his blessing to the fish harvest, it was hauled off the island in tons via helicopter. He taught that dignity didn’t mean bashing someone else’s face but rather minding one’s one behavior. Before his time, many thought that Christianity meant lighting candles, bowing one’s head before the alter and saying: ‘Help me God!’ He hasn’t been with us for nearly ten years now and many semi-literate fishermen still read the Bible every evening.” 

No Ordinary Island

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Portraits of Father Nikolai can be found everywhere / Photo provided by author

Zalit is one of three Talabsky Islands. The largest of the islands is Belov, which has about three dozen houses, an old church and great old forest. The third island is uninhabited and rather small – no larger than a football field. During the winter, travel between the islands and the mainland usually takes place atop the frozen lake’s ice. However, several anomalously warm winters made this impossible and products had to be brought in via helicopters of the Emergency Situations Ministry. As a result the regional government purchased a large boat which is tasked with making several trips to the islands each week. However, the boat use agreement includes some strange self-supporting clauses, and local residents fear that the connection with the mainland could soon once again be cut off.

The dock on Zalit is made of two-meter planks and an old rusty barge lies half-sunken nearby. The trail from the dock leads up a hill past the cemetery and to the church where a beautiful view of the immense lake opens up. An elderly man sits nearby with his back to the view. It seems that he is only person remaining on the island.

But at the church we see that even on weekdays there are plenty of pilgrims – those who are not turned off by having to find their own way to the island. The church is clean as a whistle and has recently been restored, which is a sign of a rather decent flow of donations. There are even more pilgrims gathering near Father Nikolai’s final resting place.

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The grave of Father Nikolai is the main attraction of Zalit Island / Photo provided by author

“His portrait can be found in evey house here and each person will tell you something personal about him,” says Alexei, a resident of the island. “When Father Nikolai began to get really old, some people from the mainland came and started to taking some fee for coming to visit our island, for handing a note to Father Nikolai and for organizing a meeting with him. All of us Talabs (locals) got together and drove them off into the water. Nonetheless, there was some control over him: we learned of his death from people from Moscow, imagine that! He had a housekeeper named Valentina, who first of all informed some high-place pilgrims from Moscow about his death. And then they started calling her asking if this was so. That’s when I came to know such public grief and true faith.”

On an island where unemployment is about 90%, the only way o make money is to place oneself as close as possible to the church and Guryanov’s grave. But we did not see one beggar here. Across the street from the grave stands his old house, which has been converted into an informal museum. Two small rooms, a bed, icons, photographs and drawings of Father Nikolai.

There is no admission fee charged, but they do actively promote the sale of various viles of oil, religious literature and icons with the image of “Nikolai of Lake Pskov”. The head of the museum explains that in early Christianity it was not the church hierarchy but rather people’s reverence that determined who numbered among the saints. None of the pilgrims present find this disagreeable. “You understand, he asked for several years to be sent to this island back under the Soviet authorities,” says one teenage girl among the pirlgrims. “That means that this is no ordinary island.”

Island Mentality

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On Zalit Siland there are very few young people, but the elderly remember the island in better times / Photo provided by author

Residents of the Talabsky Islands (in the ancient chronicles they were called the Gars) have fished these parts since the times of the Novogorod Republic. During the siege of Pskov by Polish King Stephen Bathory (Stefan Batory) in 1581, residents of the island provided products to the city by boat and fought to keep the Poles out of the Pechory Monastery. In 1821, the Talabsky Islands were renamed Alexandrovsky Posad (in honor of Emperor Alexander I). This comes as no surprise as the island residents supplied the royal court with, among other things, boats that never tipped over, and Pskov smelt. The boats were called Troenki and were built by masters in three days. The smelt with their unique taste were dried on stoves of a special local style which gave the smelt its simultaneously crunchy and succulent qualities. Approximately 5000 people lived on the island, which also boasted two schools, three churches and a townhall, as if it some Hanseatic burghers lived here.

Even back in those days the Talabsky Islands were considered a holy place. One of the multitude of local legends says that during a cholera epedimic one fisherman had a dream that if the Smolensk Icon of the Madonna was circled around the church, the cholera epedimic would go away. So they carried it around the church and it was as if the epidemic had never visited the island.

In the 19th century historians wrote that the Talbsky Islands were an unprecedented phenomenon for Russia: Russian hospitality, European economic model and Cossack-like military camradery. It’s no surprise that the Bolshevik representatives on the island headed by school teacher Jan Zalit were drowned in the lake and a brigade of 762 men volunteered to assist General Yudenich. Participation in the Civil War ended in tragedy for the islanders: the brigade was almost completely descimated on the ice of Lake Pskov was they defend the rear of White Army forces retreating to Estonia.

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While official tours are not organized to this island, people from throughout Russia manage to come on their own accord / Photo provided by author

Oldtimers say that Russian and Estonian fishermen were always at each others thoughts. The Estonians remembered past offenses and began to fire at the retreating Talabsky forces as they were simulateously pounded by the Red Army from the opposite shore of the lake. In the following years more residents of the island suffered from repression than during the Second World War. The Island of Talabsk and Verkhny were renamed in honor of the two drowned Bolsheviks – Zalit and Belov.

“Historical memory is a clevere thing,” says Alexander Poletaev, head of the Zalit District. “I proposed returning the historical names of the islands, but our oldtimers got together and said: No, no need. These people wanted good for the workers, and they were rightly immortalized. People around here do not like to remember the Civil War. But when it was decided to put up a cross in honor of the soldiers of the Talabsky brigade on the shore near the church, each seemed ready to give his last kopeck to support this.”

During Soviet times the local fishermen were organized under the Zalit Collective Farm, which incorporated about 40 fishing vessels. It was eviscerated during the 1990s: external managers, front shareholders, strange orders… As a result, many of the fishing boats were sold off, while some are falling apart on the islands shores. And since they do not have their own fleet, the islanders are not given any real fish harvest quota. It becomes absurd at times: three or four women that are selling fish for mere kopecks hide their faces when pilgrims start taking pictures, as they don’t have permission to catch and sell fish.

“Our oldtimers have decent pensions, as they are almost all considered young slave labors of the Fascists,” says Elena Lyamina, who previously was an accountant at the local collective farm. “There are few men around and even fewer young people. The young guys have just one hobby – riding around the island on old motorcycles, as there aren’t any cars on the island. The fishing nets used as football goal nets illustrate the situation with work and schooling on the island. However, efforts to address the schooling issue are providing some hope for rebirth.
 
Back to School

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The once numerous fleet of the Talabsky Islands is living out its final days rusting near the docks / Photo provided by author

It seemed that the village school on Zalit would never be affected by “optimization”. In rural areas the story is usual as follows: schools are closed and children are bused to the nearest towns or even put in boarding schools. It is too expensive to shuttle children from the island, so no one thought to worry about the school, even in 2007 when it had but 8 pupils and four teachers. But in 2010, there were only three pupils, and that’s when serious talk began about shutting down the school.

In order to save the school, residents of Zalit asked some of their famous neighbors: singer Olga Kormukhina and Alexei Belova, the former guitarist of Gorky Park, who long ago took up residence on the island after becoming acquainted with Father Nikolai. Today they are religious people and shy away from public events. But for the sake of preserving the school, Kormukhina and Belov held a benefit concert in Pskov, and the proceeds went to the school.

“Ahead of time we got the people of the Talabsky Islands and decided that the money gathered would be managed by Father Paisy,” explains Olga Kormukhina. The pupils of the Zalit school are little fishermen, who should not be taken out of their native place. Only here can they develop wholly, and we should make an effort for the sake of their future.”

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Only private boats now plough the waters of Lake Pskov / Photo provided by author

For the concert finale, Olga brought out an eight-year-old child, one of the pupils at the school, and he thanked all those who attended. The concert generated much praise, including from the region’s Governor Andrei Turchak, who made a visit to the island’s school on September 1, thus putting an end to all rumors about its eminent closure. In addition to the funds gathered at the concert, the school received a grant from a Norwegian charity. Today the classes are heated by a Dutch stove and there are computers for the pupils.

This past summer a greater number of vistors came – not just pilgrims (for whom charter boats are organized from a monastery on shore) but also several hundred residents of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Pskov who rent dachas on the island. Some have even begun to purchase houses here, which can be had for no more than have a million rubles. Just 10 kilometers away there is an enormous construction project – the Eleazarovsky Monastery is being rebuilt. It is said that some highly placed officials number among the donors for this project, and someone big is said to have visited Zalit and promised to restore the fishing industry. The locals, however, do not like to talk about this for fear of hexing such good tidings, although such superstion is not exactly in line with Christian teachings. 

Denis Terentiev

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