Souvenir stalls line the short road that leads, via short-cut steps, up to Valaam’s main attraction. The monastery is radiant in gleaming white and sky-blue, topped with red crosses. With a sturdy spire and five domes, it appears more Catholic than Orthodox at first glance, an impression instantly dispelled upon entering the candlelit semi-gloom. A stairway, splendidly muralled with saints, leads to an upper chapel that’s a soaring masterpiece of gilt, icons and awe.
Mystics like to claim that Valaam was visited by St Andrew within a generation of Christ’s crucifixion. True or not, a monastery was founded here around the late 14th century. Its dual role as fortress against Swedish invaders failed in 1611 when the Swedes destroyed it completely. Rebuilt in the 18th century with money from Peter the Great, the monastery burned down again in 1754. In the 19th century Valaam pioneered the idea of sketes, sort of halfway houses between hermitages and monasteries, where novice monks could retreat and learn from more experienced peers.
When the Soviet Union took northern Lake Ladoga from Finland in WWII, many of the monks and much of the monastery’s treasure were moved to a site near Karvio, Finland, where the Uusi Valamo (New Valaam) monastery remains active. Today there’s a renewed community of about 200 monks, the Transfiguration Monastery is beautifully restored and several outlying sketes have been rebuilt.