Arkhangelsk Oblast

Kiy Island: The site of Patriarch Nikon's miraculous salvation

An ancient monastery surrounded by pine trees, sea and cliffs

02.03.2023// Many places in the Arkhangelsk Region are closely connected to the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kiy Island is one of them, the site of the miraculous rescue of Patriarch Nikon, a faith reformer and skilful politician who had a huge impact on shaping our country. Surrounded by pine trees, the sea and rocks stands the Cross Monastery, his appreciation of the island and a monument to northern stone architecture. Every year, hundreds of people go there to walk on the beaches, swim in the sea and visit the holy sites.

Kiy, a small, pine-covered rocky island, is located in the White Sea near the mouth of the Onega River, 15 km from the ancient Russian town of Onega. Its history is closely linked with Patriarch Nikon, the reformer of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Legend has it that when Nikon fled from the Solovetsky Transfiguration Monastery in 1639, he was caught in a storm and his boat nearly ran aground. The Hieromonk managed to escape by taking refuge in the bay of Kiy Island. To commemorate the miraculous rescue, Nikon, in accordance with Pomor custom, erected a bowed cross on the shore and vowed to erect a monastery here.

Getting to Kiy Island is fairly easy. First, you need to travel from Arkhangelsk to Onega Island by bus, car or shuttle bus. The trip takes an average of 2–3 hours, but in bad weather, it can take up to 5 hours. A boat runs from Onega Island to the island every day.

In 1656, Nikon, who became patriarch, fulfilled his promise and founded the Cross Monastery on the island. In 1660, the patriarch came to Kiy Island to supervise the construction and stayed there for almost a whole year. According to Nikon's instructions, a system of fresh water collection was arranged on the island, following the model of the Palestinian monasteries. And on 2 September 1660, the patriarch personally consecrated the building of Monastery of the Exaltation of the Cross. The new monastery became one of Nikon's strongholds of power. According to the reformer's plan, the Cross Monastery was to be an ideological counterbalance to the Solovetsky Monastery and support the church reform.

Until the end of the 17th century, the Cross Monastery, towering above all other northern cloisters, continued to be actively built. But after the secularisation carried out by Catherine the Great, the once flourishing monastery fell into disrepair. During the Crimean War, on 9 July 1854, British troops landed on the island and ravaged it, and a year later, it burned down altogether. Many buildings were damaged and some were destroyed.

In 1870, the abbot of the monastery requested 9,000 roubles from the Holy Synod for the restoration of the architectural complex. The monks managed to preserve most of the stone buildings with minimal alterations.

The most extant buildings of the monastery are the Monastery of the Exaltation of the Cross, the church above the nave with adjoining stone cells and the two-tiered Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God. The monastery buildings look particularly striking from the sea: how seamlessly they blend into the island's rocky topography. Their walls are made of granite boulders and bricks and look as one with the rocks on which they are built.

The monastery was finally abolished during the Soviet era, in 1922. From 1924 to the present day, the island has been home to the Kiysky Rest House. It can accommodate up to 180 guests at a time in 80 rooms. It is often visited by pilgrims who come to the Cross Monastery, tourists and locals, as well as often by artists who travel out to do plein air work. A total of about 2,000 guests come to the rest house during the summer season.

Visitors to the island can not only see the extraordinary architecture of the Cross Monastery but also relax on the sandy beaches surrounded by magnificent pine forests. The coastal waters are rich in fish, so Kiy Island is a fisherman's paradise. And in high summer, you can go for a swim as the water near the shore gets as warm as +24°C.

The island is made up of granite rocks up to 25 metres high and is only a kilometre and a half long. At low tide, the sea recedes hundreds of metres and you can walk to neighbouring Faresov Island and the Krestovy Islet. All three islands can be toured in just a few hours.

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