Valaam Island, the Orthodox retreat in Karelia
Valaam Island on the Ladoga Lake in Russia’s Karelia is a sacred place like no other, terra firma rising out of the waters of the borderless lake, a home to 150 Orthodox monks of the Valaam monastery.
Most of the monks are younger than 35, and they've come from many different places and backgrounds to live in both spiritual and physical isolation, doing all their work and living without much help from the mainland.
They have their own cattle, farm fish and grow their own food. They work on and pray in old churches they repair themselves.
Spiritual life here takes up many hours and the road to becoming a monk requires both hard work and religious dedication.
“For young people it is difficult because they've come from a totally different world. They have been educated with absolutely different criteria,” said Orthodox priest Father Seraphim.
Local shepherd Aleksey wants to become a monk, and as well as years of religious study he herds cattle as part of his preparation for a simple life. He gives his beasts musical accompaniments.
“They can remember sound sequences, you know. They react to the sound signals,” Aleksey declared. “The flutes that herders had in the old days, they needed them. It wasn’t just for fun.”
Valaam’s meadows did not come naturally, requiring decades of composting to bring the soil up to farming standards.
Valaam Island is mostly rock. The soil there is very thin, and the monks cannot simply get more of it, because they are surrounded by the lake, so they have to work very hard in order to provide whatever food they need.
Its not quite self-sufficiency, but it is a practical life as well as a spiritual one that really took off in the 19th century.
The head of Valaam's Estate, Father Yefraim, says the monastery has aimed to provide for itself.
“It took a lot of time for the monks to cut down the trees and prepare the soil for farming,” he said. “They conducted irrigation engineering. They even kept a herd of cows specifically for manure to use to improve the soil.”
But the central purpose of Valaam has always been religious. The main monastery is surrounded by smaller priories spread across the mini-archipelago.
The monks here know their existence is a little different from that of other monasteries.
“Here we are out of the way and we do have pilgrims and sometimes tourists as well, but our tranquility is hardly disturbed,” Seraphim said.
And it's that combination of high religion and down-to-earth hard work that motivates these men.
Spiritual growth and commitment to holy life drive them, the editor of monastery newspaper, Vladimir Zolotukhin, told RT.
“It really works, you can feel it all the time,” he said. “Every time you talk to [the monks], you have this high spiritual feelings coming from them.”