Kenozerye Reserv

Today, hardly any territory in the world has managed to preserve its cultural and natural heritage. This is what makes Kenozersky National Park so remarkable: it is the last outpost of the original Russian lifestyle concealed in the northern pristine wilderness.

Kenozersky National Park is located in the Arkhangelsk region in northern Russia. The park spreads out over a plain with numerous lakes and streams and is surrounded by swamps and dense taiga forests. Impassable thickets and bogs were the best protection for the peasant settlements that emerged there as early as the 12th century. Thus, in the 13th century, the Mongol invasion only slightly affected the North. Even when these lands joined the Russian state, it had almost no effect on Kenozerye: the region never experienced serfdom and preserved its special social order and unique cultural traditions.

At present, Kenozerye is the prime example of the cultural landscape of Russian peasantry, which formed over the period from the 12th and 16th centuries. It is a living museum of wooden architecture. There are over 30 chapels and other buildings, enabling visitors to follow the development of the wooden architecture of the Russian North. The highlight of the architectural heritage of the area is the chapels built by peasant craftsmen in the 18th–19th centuries. The most striking feature of such structures is the “heavens” — ceiling paintings depicting the sun, the moon, apostles, and archangels. Such “heavens” can be found only in Russian architectural tradition, with no equivalents anywhere else in the world. These paintings demonstrate how Kenozerye peasants and painters, who came from the same rural background, saw the world. In some cases, these artists even signed their paintings, which kept for us the names of Fyodor Zakharov Iok and Mikhailo Kirikov Skazyvaev. It is remarkable that some chapels and churches are located in the so-called “sacred” groves — the forest areas that were venerated even before the advent of Christianity.

Living past

Apart from religious buildings, Kenozerye has preserved traditional five-wall peasant houses (they look like ordinary four-walled houses with the fifth wall inside, dividing the building into two parts), as well as barns, saunas, fences, mills, and forges. The local residents have preserved such attributes of peasant life as the methods of communal farming, fishing traditions, and ancient crafts, and they remain part of locals’ daily routine. Indeed, it is astonishing that the bearers of traditional culture, the descendants of those who once created this natural and cultural diversity still live within the same cultural landscape — Kenozerye.

Lonely remote forests have kept not only wooden architecture, but also intangible heritage such as ancient epics and Russian heroic ballads. Russian and Soviet folklorists and ethnographers recorded over 3,000 epics, fairy tales, and other works of oral folk art in Kenozerye villages. This area gave birth to the legends about giant warrior Svyatogor, famous Ilya Muromets, Dobrynya Nikitich, and Alyosha Popovich. Later, these epic tales spread throughout Russia and became a source of inspiration for prominent Russian composers, writers, architects, theater figures, and artists working in the neo-Russian style at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Winning global recognition

In 2004, Kenozerye was included in the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves, and in 2014 — in the Russian Tentative List of World Heritage Sites. It took almost eight years to develop the nomination until, finally, in January 2022, the set of documents including the nomination dossier and management plan was submitted to UNESCO. The name “Kenozerye Reserve”, under which this region is promoted into the World Heritage List, reflects two aspects. on the one hand, it is a reserve with a unique landscape and diverse flora and fauna. on the other hand, it is a cultural landscape that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Obviously, many objects of the Russian North reflecting the religious aspect of its cultural tradition are already on the UNESCO World Heritage List, for example, Kizhi, the monuments of the Solovetsky Monastery, Novgorod, and Pskov, and the ensemble of the Ferapontov Monastery. However, folk and peasant traditions have not been represented at the international level yet. The inclusion of Kenozerye in the World Heritage List will fill this gap.

Cultural landscapes are among the most interesting sites on the World Heritage List. At present, this category makes up for about 10 percent of the total, but this figure is growing steadily. Western Europe proposes the highest number of such sites: they are viticultural, mining, palace, and park landscapes. However, the World Heritage List contains no samples of Eastern European peasant landscape, and Kenozerye Reserve may become the first site of its kind.

Nadezhda Filatova and Ivan Ingevatov,
Department of World Heritage and International Cooperation Likhachev
Russian Research Institute for Cultural and Natural Heritage