The story of Vasily Shishkin
How holy grove punished its intruder
Vasily Shishkin, a native of Shishkina village in Kenozero, knew from early age that the groves near his village were special. They were holy, sacred. The old men in the village would take care that kids knew that holy groves were not be played in. One shouldn't make noise or talk loudly in holy groves. Nor should one touch or take anything out of them. Not even a mushroom or a berry. Not even a dry branch. For they belong to someone else. Who? Some said it was the saint whose name was given
to the chapel in that grove. Others said it didn't matter: its name is long forgotten but was once known to our great-grandfathers. What mattered was to follow what they taught.


"It was here before us. We have no right to destroy it," was the teaching of the ancestors.

Holy groves aren't meant to be cut; they are meant to be left intact.
How can one tell the grove is sacred? Simply by looking at it: holy groves are clusters of pristine trees standing in the middle of a field or meadow. People would visit them quietly to pray and make vows, taking care not to break anything.
Vasily Shishkin knew it and he knew it well.

In 1946, he, a soldier, comes home from the war to find his house dilapidated and in urgent need of repair. He goes to the authorities to ask for timber and is given none: the country is being rebuilt after the war, every log is worth its weight in gold.

"Hold on for a little while, man," they told him.

Nor was the forester of any help.

"I am not allowed to give out wood," he shook his head.

Determined to fix his house, Vasily decides to break the rule. He takes his axe and saw and goes to the holy grove, where he cuts the pines night after night.

He thought no one would notice. But how could a thing like that go unnoticed in a village?

One night Vasily heard a knock on his window. The village men came to talk to him.

"We aren't here to moralize you. You are a grown-up man," they said. "But you did a bad thing, Vasily. What you are doing isn't right for the village. This is against ancestral memory. That grove was used for Easter Egg Roll, women went there for holy water and to pray to the Tikhvin Mother of God for the children and for protection against fires. No one ever cut down trees in there. We don't think it's wise of you. Have you no fear of God?

What do you say to that? Vasily made a helpless gesture.

"I am sorry, guys," he says. "My house was about to collapse and I couldn't let it happen. I'll deal with the consequences."

Left
Right
The renovation completed, Vasily lives in his new house. A year passes and another one, everything goes on as usual. Then, one spring Vasily gets a bad cough. His nighttime coughing attacks lead to chest pain and breathing problems.

He goes to the district hospital and is prescribed medication.

Vasily follows his medication instructions, but the cough persists.

Rumors spread throughout the village: Shishkin's sickness is a punishment, the will of the saint that guards the holy grove.

The verdict from the local wise-woman wasn't an encouraging one:

"He is near death."

She was right. Vasily died three months later.

Everyone in the village remembers what happened to him. No one ever cut trees in the grove since that time.

There are currently 49 holy groves in the Kenozero area, each with its own tree of worship. There are chapels and votive crosses in these groves. Some have sacred stones near them. People come here to ask for strength and blessing. The holy grove continue to be kept intact.