TRAVEL / Resurrecting an island for the soul: On a lake north of St Petersburg, a forgotten monastery is being rebuilt. Catriona Bass made a pilgrimage there

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The Independent Culture
IN LAKE Ladoga, north of St Petersburg, there is a secret island. Strawberries and blueberries carpet its wild pine forests; salmon and sturgeon swim off its sandy beaches. Within the ruins

of an ancient monastery lies a mushroom-

picker's paradise.

The island is secret because it was taken over by the military after the Second World War and erased from Soviet maps. Although it has now been returned to the Orthodox Church, few St Petersburgers know of its existence. On the shore, charred, half-sunk ships rise from the water; a forest path, through pine needles and dappled sun, ends at a chapel surrounded by rusting barbed wire. Stencilled in red paint on the church wall a sign reads 'Explosives. Keep Out'.

Konevets is still in a military zone but three years ago Father Nazari, a dynamic man in his forties and a former biologist from Kiev, was appointed by the church to restore the island to the religious sanctuary that had made it an important Russian monastery for 600 years.

This week, the Konevets Choral Quartet arrives in Britain as part of a concert tour of Europe to raise funds for the monastery's restoration. The four male singers are not monks - on Konevets there are not yet enough monks to form a choir. But Fr Nazari has trained them in strict observance of Orthodox tradition. At a time when monastic chant is hitting the charts in the West, the haunting beauty of their a cappella singing is proving particularly popular. Theirs is not the austere sound of the Western Gregorian tradition. They have a richness and sonority, which the Russian language seems to accentuate.

Strictly speaking, monastic ground is forbidden to lay people, but plans such as Fr Nazari's could never be realised without the help of lay volunteers like the singers. The task is enormous. Konevets Island is cut off for several months a year when Lake Ladoga freezes; funds are almost non-existent. Nevertheless, Fr Nazari is building up a community on the island. Today he has 12 monks and novices and a group of about 20 volunteers. Some are Christians who were persecuted during Communist times, some are new Christians and some are ex-prisoners and drug addicts who have come to Fr Nazari for help.

For Fr Nazari, the restoration of Konevets is not just a question of bricks and mortar, although that is a colossal project in itself. He wants to re-establish monastic culture in its entirety: 'The monastery should not be an isolated place where a few people find salvation,' he told me. 'It's a place where many people can come to receive spiritual nourishment and blessings for the road of life.' He believes the monastery should become the spiritual and cultural centre of the region and eventually be able to provide for the needy, both materially and spiritually.

At this year's Easter service, which began at midnight, the size of Fr Nazari's task became clear. We assembled in the makeshift chapel on the stairway of what was once a pilgrim hostelry and later an officers' mess. The congregation consisted of volunteers, ex-prisoners and a few sailors from the port. Finally, at five in the morning, Fr Nazari shouted: 'Khristos Voskres]' Christ has Risen] We replied: 'Vo Istinye Voskres]' Truly he has risen] The peel of bells in the trees outside came from the clanging of three torpedo cases, discarded by the army. They sounded extraordinarily sweet.

The challenges confronting Fr Nazari are those which confront many religious leaders in Russia today. Financially and spiritually, Konevets is beginning almost from zero. Economic development is essential if the monastery is to be resurrected. But, with such a small community of monks and volunteers, there is a constant danger of the religious spirit drowning in the economic struggle to survive.

The following day, when I visited the rest of the monastery, the extent of its economic problems became clear. The architect working on the restoration, Nikita Veselov, showed me the frescos around the main church, which have been defaced and covered with military graffiti. They need experts to restore them. Some Finnish pilgrims had left money for copper roofing for one building, but by the time Nikita could get to town to order it, the price had doubled.

'The only way forward is to become self- sufficient, to use a modern expression,' Fr Nazari said. The expression may be modern but self-sufficiency is an ancient monastic tradition. In the past, the monks at Konevets made their own bread, pottery, caught fish, grew vegetables, and provided for visiting pilgrims. 'Before the war, the monastery even exported apples to Germany,' Fr Nazari added.

One of the obvious routes to self-sufficiency is through the the pilgrim tradition and its modern equivalent - tourism. Fr Nazari hopes tourists will be moved as pilgrims once were. 'In the past one of the main sources of income for the monastery came from pilgrimages. Pilgrims received solace and comfort from the trials of life and so, in return, they left donations to embellish the monastery thus allowing it to offer prayers and praise to God.' Already there have been visits from Germany, Finland and France.

But material advantage comes at a cost. On Valaam, the more famous monastic island in Lake Ladoga, the tramp and shuffle of tourist feet is threatening the religious spirit. 'Wild tourists', as they are known in Russian - those without a tour guide who come in boats and camp on the beaches - are feared above all. But in this at least, Konevets has found an ally in the navy: as it is still in a military zone, those without permits are liable to be arrested.

Fr Nazari has recently recruited experts to establish how many visitors the island can sustain. Nikita Veselov and Heikki Hanninen, a Finnish supporter, have set up Ortotour, the Konevets pilgrim agency, which aims to take the business of pilgrimage away from the heart of monastic life and to make sure it is strictly controlled: tours limited to three-hour visits; no more than 30 pilgrims on the island at once.

It will be a long time before the island is the paradise it was before the war. Nevertheless, Konevets retains a profound spirituality. Nikita Veselov said as we left: 'Simply launching out into Lake Ladoga, you begin a process of cleansing. Once on the island you look at your soul in a different way, and begin to look differently on the problems you left behind.'-

GETTING THERE: From 18 August to 31 October British Airways (081-897 4000) has return flights to St Petersburg for pounds 249, departing Heathrow. This is a special offer which must be filled by Wednesday 31 August. After that, prices start at pounds 405. Campus Travel (071-730 3402) offers a flight for pounds 216 from 1 October for people under 26. If over 26, Campus offers flights from mid-September for pounds 253 return. It is advisable to obtain travel insurance when visiting Russia.

FURTHER INFORMATION: For how to get to Konevets Monastery, contact Ortotour, 1-27 Troitskaya Square, St Petersburg, 197046, Russia (010 7812 232 6965).

CONCERT TOUR: Konevets Monastery Choral Quartet will be touring Britain from next week. Dates include:

All Saint's Russian Church, Ennismore Gardens, London SW7 (081-995 2769), 4 September, 3pm.

Rye Festival, Playden Church (0797 223084 ), 6 September, 7.30pm.

Barbican Centre Foyer (071-638 8891), 7 September, 6pm.

Barbican Centre, St Giles Church (071-638 8891), 7 September, 7.45pm.

Cockfoster's Benedictine Monastery (081-440 7769), 8 September, 8pm.

Trinity Church, Guildford (0483 67716), 9 September, 8pm.

Douai Abbey, Berkshire (0734 713806), 10 September, 8pm.

St Mary's Church, Aylesbury. (0296 28518), 11 September, 3pm.

Salisbury Festival, Medieval Hall (0722 324731), 12 September, 7.30pm.

The Mansion, Luton Hoo, Luton (0582 22955), 13 September, 7.45pm.