The Story of an Atheist
How a masterpiece was saved in Kenozero area
Irina finished her tour of St. George Church and was about to leave when she saw a man on the porch. Standing in front of her was a tall, thin man in his mid-sixties. "I'm Ivan Petrovich," he introduced himself. "I'm sorry, I got here by accident and just couldn't help dropping in. Can I see the bell tower? Please?"

Irina knew she was expected at home. She had a lot of work to do, but she could not say no. They climbed to the top. Ivan Petrovich came to edge of the bell tower and peered into the distance. "Oh God, what a beautiful view," he exhaled. "The lake, the vast fields, the pines, the spruce grove. All of them are real. It's a pity no one lives here anymore. Look at these abandoned houses amid this beauty, they are empty..."

"Did you know that Porzhensky Pogost was until recently in a dilapidated condition, too?" asked Irina. "After funding was allocated in 2013, St. George Church underwent a full range of restoration works. Local blacksmith Yershov forged as many as three thousand nails for the restorers. Now Porzhensky Pogost looks just how it did centuries ago... Anything can be revived. Where there's a will, there's a way."

"Can you tell me the story of this church?" Ivan Petrovich asked. "I know that it was built by local people. It's amazing how this beauty came into being thanks to someone with no drawing or geometry skills."

"Look into the distance and try to visualize how life was here in 1782. Three small villages with around 70 people who want to build their own church. A beautiful place they chose for it, didn't they? The original church was an unheated one and was eventually rebuilt. It wasn't until the 19th century that the church received its second "heaven", which in itself was unprecedented. What's even more surprising is that its second "heaven" has the signature of its author, Mikhailo Skazyvaev..."

"Where are they now, the "heavens"?" interrupted the visitor. "These are the copies as far as I can tell."

"Don't worry. The "heavens" have survived, unlike some of the icons. They are safe in the national park's Barn of Antiques. It is only recently that St. George Church started to be seen as a symbol of the Kenozero area and a landmark, treasure and secret of the Russian North. Closed in 1938, the church received the cultural heritage status twenty years later, although on paper only. It started to show signs of decay already in the 1970s and much of what it had inside got stolen. What saved St. George Church at that time was nothing short of divine providence. In the late 1980s, a group of students arrived from Arkhangelsk to do conservation and restoration works on it. They did a great job. They changed the roofing of the church and its bell tower, replaced the rotten upper logs and beams of the refectory. They also fixed the fence, replaced its rotten wood and installed new top parts, and they put new roofing on the refectory... If it weren't for them and the local residents – true keepers of this church – it would not have lived to see its restoration in 2013… Okay."

"It's a pity," Ivan Petrovich shook his head. "One can revive a church, but not what once was a boisterous village. It's a pity. These houses were once inhabited by families, big families. See the decayed house over there? Its owner was a blacksmith. Day started early in the village. Crowing roosters, cattle driven toward grazing land, clattering axes and hammers. Men hurrying to the fields, 'sewing' their boats, fishing. Women doing handwork in the evenings by the light of kindling or kerosene. Children and old people lying on the stove while waiting for the pies to bake and enjoying the crackling sound of the fire. Someone would start telling a story... And on the weekend, they would put on their best clothes and go to pray to God. The answer to the mystery of Porzhensky Pogost lies in the secrets of the rural life."

"How come a city dweller thinks such thoughts?" Irina asked.

Ivan Petrovich looked into the distance. "That student team, can you remember its name?"

"Atheist. That a student team with such a name was tasked with maintaining churches and chapels in this area is simply extraordinary."

It was difficult to see the visitor's face in the dim light of the church, but Irina thought she saw him smile.