Sunday, March 23, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Looking for Kitezh, the City Russians Believe God Saved from the Mongols

Paul Goble

Baku, March 23 – As the Christian West marks Easter and the Turkic world Novruz, both of which celebrate the triumph of life over death, many Russians are looking back to the legend of Kitezh, the city they believe God intervened to save from conquest by the Mongols.
According to the story, the people of that city in the Vladimir-Suzdal principality prayed for salvation when the forces of Baty Khan attacked them in the 13th century. God heard their prayers, the legend says, and He saved their city by making it disappear – according to one version, by covering it with the waters of what is now Late Svetloyar.
Ever since, many Russians have considered the waters of that lake not only sacred but curative, and in recent decades, scientists and the simply curious have employed a variety of means, scientific and otherwise, to prove or disprove a legend in which many people both near the lake and further afield passionately believe.
Last week, Svetlana Kuzina of Komsomol’skaya Pravda discussed this remarkable legend, one that has informed the thinking of many writers, artists and even politicians, and recent efforts to determine whether this miracle occurred or find a scientific explanation of what has been found (
“The Orthodox,” Kuzina reports, “come here to pray. They say that a handful of local land cures ailments” and that water from the lake has magical properties. And they assert that “if you go around the lake clockwise three times, then all your fondest desires will be fulfilled.”
Others believe that Lake Svetloyar is somehow connected to the mysterious Shambala, and “thousands” of them travel to its shores as “pilgrims” from all parts of the world every year. But the Komsomol’skaya Pravda journalist notes that “the single real reports” about the city are to be found in a late 17th century manuscript.
Sergei Volkov, a professor at Penza State Technological Academy, has collected the reports of local people about the lake. Some there say, he told Kuzina, that people there inexplicably “disappear. Some forever, [but] others return, although they do not remember anything” about their experience while away.
When Kuzina asked him in what she says was a joking way whether these people had “visited the residents of Kitezh,” he responded “in all seriousness” that “according to rumors, this happens.” There is supposedly “an entrance into the city” in the depths of the lake which “only the truly faithful” can find and pass through.
The Penza researcher said that some local mystics believe that Svetloyar is a place where people can enter another “time dimension,” but even scientists he said have discovered what he called “invisible” but powerful energy fields that can affect people and thus explain what local residents say.
Russian geologists have been able to explain how a city could have been flooded almost instantly as some insist happened to Kitezh – the later manuscript does not in fact mention flooding but only a magical disappearance – and they have even found submerged features that could be the remains of a city.
Russian chemists have analyzed the waters of he lake and found it extraordinarily pure, something for which there are entirely natural explanations but one that those inclined to believe in the legend take as confirmation. And other scholars, using hydrophones, have heard sounds that some say sound like the ringing of a city’s bells.
Most of the scholars are skeptics, and they are backed by the Russian Skeptics Club, whose president, Mikhail Leytus, argues on his website that everything has a natural explanation. He says that what some say are the sounds of bells in fact are the sounds of water passing through broken bottles.
But even those who believe in the Kitezh legend are divided as to whether Lake Svetloyar is the site of that ancient Russian city. The Russian nationalist artist Ilya Glazunov, for example, placed the city at the bottom of Kyrgyzstan’s magic Issyk-Kul in his well-known 1989 painting.
And even some of the people living near the lake itself believe that the actual site of the city God made disappear so that it could not fall to the Mongols is not in the depths of the lake but rather in a nearby field where there are a group of extraordinarily large and otherwise unexplained graves.
Obviously the debate Kuzina describes will go on between those who want to see the story of Kitezh as an act of God and those who seek more earthly explanations, but the passions on both sides reflect a deeper and more common human desire to comprehend and celebrate the triumph of life in a world of death.

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