Across the world there are many tales of towns or cities hidden by a lake, an ocean or watery mists. The Welsh have Tyno Helig, we all know Atlantis, Avalon, even the Scottish Brigadoon…. come to think of it a lot of these come from the British Isles, which makes sense being island nations. In any case today we look at a Russian take on the lost and sunken city meme: Kitezh.
The legend states that Kitezh lay on the shores of Lake Svetloyar in central Russia. It was technically the second town of Kitezh, the bigger one called Bolshoy Kitezh or Big Kitezh. The first was its smaller and less glorious sister town Maly Kitezh or Little Kitezh. The town was beautiful, the Lake magical, etc etc.
Then came the Mongols.
The Tartars specifically. The Tartars were an ethnic subdivision of the Mongols, a Turkish people living in the Eurasian Steppes who were swallowed up by Ghengis Khan and integrated into the great Mongol Horde which ravaged Asia, the Middle East and Central Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries.
So one day Batu Khan was giving the Russian lands a good buggering when he heard about the beauty of Kitezh and decided… you know.. to see it and pillage it. He found Little Kitezh and after taking it and desperately trying to get someone to tell him how to get to the bigger Kitezh he was finally was told by a cowardly drunkard of a secret path to Lake Svetloyar.
The Mongol hordes raced to Kitezh. When they arrived they found the beautiful town didn’t possess a single fortification, nor were the townsfolk preparing to defend it in any way. They were simply praying fervently.
The Tartars looked at each other, shrugged and proceeded to enter Kitezh when suddenly water from the Lake began spouting in great gusts from beneath the town. As they retreated and watched, the Lake rose and swallowed Kitezh. As the city submerged the last thing seen was the cross at the top of the Church standing above the water until finally, it too disappeared beneath the Lake.
However, Kitezh is still there and its people still alive. The town and people live at the bottom of the Lake, but only the true of heart and pious can find it or see the lights and hear the singing and processions that emanate from sunken, holy Kitezh. In perfectly calm weather you may even be able to hear the beautiful sounds of bells ringing from beneath the water where Kitezh lives ever on.
In some versions Kitezh sinks before the Tartars arrive and they find just an empty lake, but they hear the magnificent sound of bells and music from under the lake and are driven mad by the incomprehensible beauty.
So that’s nice, right? Lovely legend, that.
Legends of a lost or sunken city around Lake Svetloyar go back to medieval times. However it wasn’t until the 1700s that the legend of Kitezh as we know it first appeared in print in a book called the Kitezh Chronicle. The book is anonymous but it was written by a member of the Old Believers.
The Old Believers are a sect of Russian Orthodox Christianty that are actually still around today. In the mid 1600s the Russian Orthodox Church enacted a series of reforms and changes to liturgy in order to more closely align it to the original Greek Orthodox texts and rituals. The Old Believers disagreed with these changes, split with the Church and declared the arrival of the Antichrist. Many were persecuted, tortured and executed by the Church/State apparatus which was Tsarist Russia at the time, but the sect still managed to keep going. Finally at the beginning of the 20th century, 1905, the persecutions ended, with Tsar Nicholas granting them religious freedom. This of course lasted all of 12 years as Communism arrive in 1917 and eventually religion became illegal and devout Orthodox of all types were systematically killed and persecuted into declared unbelief.
In the story of Kitezh are numerous religious themes:the hidden glory of Gd’s Kingdom; the invisible pious; the terrible wonder of Gd for the unbelievers, who cannot take the beautiful and unearthly sounds of Kitezh’s bells and music emanating from the lake; the journey of the spiritual pilgrim to an unseen and unknown land of glory.
The legend of Kitezh was made into an opera by Russian musical Master Rimsky-Korsakov and is considered by many, espcially within Russia, to be his finest opera. You may if you wish watch an entire production of it right here:
The last detail of interest here is that in 2011 a team of archaeologists found traces of an ancient settlement on the hillside next to the Lake, a hillside prone to landslides where it is indeed within reason to hypothesize that an ancient village may have indeed been swallowed at the spot giving rise to a legend that would one day become Kitezh.