WHEN the white nights illumine the 60,000 lakes of Karelia in northern Russia, there is no finer sight than the shimmering cupolas of the old wooden Church of the Transfiguration on Kizhi Island, across the waters of Lake Onega from the city of Petrozavodsk.
Legend has it that Nestor, a master carpenter, built the Russian Orthodox church with its 22 domes of silvery aspen wood over a period of seven years at the beginning of the 18th century. When he had finished, he threw his axe into the lake, saying: 'Never has there been and never will there be again such beauty on the face of the earth.'
Unfortunately, what it took the ancient craftsmen years to create, it took modern incompetents only a few weeks to put at risk of destruction. At the end of the 1980s, 'experts' noticed that the church was tilting slightly and decided to shore it up. But instead of using wood, which would have married with the original timbers, they erected inside a crude metal frame, Wood and metal expand at different rates and the metal attracts damp to the wood.
Immediately after the botched restoration, there were dire prognoses for the church, which is no longer used for services but kept as a museum. Russian architects said there was nothing for it but to pull it down and build a replica. This would have been a bitter blow. Most Russian wooden architecture has long since decayed and the Church of the Transfiguration has survived only thanks to the severe cold in Karelia which keeps the wood beetles at bay.
Now, however, assessments are a little more optimistic. 'We have been observing the church for several seasons and it turns out the deformation is not as bad as we expected,' said Tatyana Vakhrameyeva, head of restoration in Karelia, an autonomous republic bordering Finland. Plans have been drawn up to reverse the damage. Unesco, which lists the church as one of the world's architectural treasures, has given technical advice. All that is needed is money.
But in Russia at the moment, everyone needs money, every cause is worthy and there is simply not enough cash to go round. 'The Republic of Karelia has given a little,' said Mrs Vakhrameyeva, 'but we are still waiting for the Russian Federation to make an allocation from its budget.' What about private sponsors? She laughed, thinking of the spivs who make as fast a rouble in Karelia as elsewhere in post-Communist Russia. 'They have not got round to thinking about culture yet, they are still at the stage of accumulating capital.'
Perhaps the biznesmeni should think a little harder for it is the church, along with other wooden buildings from all over northern Russia reassembled in an architecture park on Kizhi Island, which draw the tourists to Karelia.
This is the month Lake Onega is freed from winter's icy grip and the hydrofoil starts running from Petrozavodsk to Kizhi, carrying up to 300 visitors per trip. They come from America, Germany, Japan and of course Finland, which lost western Karelia to the Soviet Union in 1945.
They come to marvel at Nestor's craftsmanship - he built the whole church by dovetailing logs, not a single nail was used. Then they stroll out to enjoy the sun in the meadows of dandelions, where pagan rituals took place long before Russia was Christianised.
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