Having torn ourselves away from our kind friends at Ilkeäsaari for a time, and digressed from our story to describe Finnish baths, we must now own that the prospect of a night in a monastery was very exciting—more especially when that monastery chanced to belong to Russia, and to stand alone on an island in the middle of the great Ladoga lake, which no doubt once joined together the White Sea and the Gulf of Finland. It is the largest lake in Europe, and celebrated also for the cold temperature of its water, which, in spite of its vast size, is always more or less frozen over in winter. It never warms in summer, and therefore there can be little or no bathing around its shores.
Sordavala, where we embarked—of which more anon—is Finnish, staunch Finnish, while Valamo, where we landed, is a Russian monastery; therefore no love exists between the two centres, and few arrangements are made for the comfort and transport of strangers, with the result that a couple of steamers go and come as they like; no one knew when they would start, and much less when they would return. Nevertheless, on one eventful Sunday morning, the longest day of the year, we were hoisted on board the Baallam (the V, true Russian fashion, had turned into a B) from our little boat below, and seated ourselves comfortably on the vessel which belongs to the famous monastery. Though we had been in many ships, manned by many types of sailors, from the swarthy Moor to the short sturdy Icelander, the agile Italian to the fearless Norseman, we here encountered a class of sailor we had never seen before.
He was tall and lank and lean; he wore a sort of long gown of black cloth, green on the shoulders with age, and frayed at the elbows, while a girdle of plaited wool encircled his waist. He had no collar or cuffs, but his feet were encased in long sea-boots, which peeped out from under his petticoats, and his hair—well, his hair hung over his shoulders almost to his waist, and on his head was placed a high round black-cloth cap. He was like no class or form of sailor we had ever seen before. He was something weird and uncanny. His face was neither bronzed by the sea nor tanned by the sun, but had an unhealthy pallor about it, and his sunken eyes looked wistfully over a world of which he seemingly knew nothing. Yet he was a sailor, this antithesis of a Jack Tar, and he was also—a Russian monk! His hands were none of the cleanest, his clothes none of the sweetest; but it was not salt water that made them so—it was oil and age.
We were well armed with an introduction to the Igumen or head of the monastery, the sort of cardinal or bishop of the island. And we were also provided with a large basket of provisions, since no one can get anything at Valamo except such food as the monks eat and cook themselves, not but that their food is generally good enough as simple fare goes; but at the precise time of our visit there happened to be a great fast in the Greek Church, during which it is impossible to secure even milk and butter, the monks being forbidden such luxuries. The only things obtainable were black bread, soup made from cabbage, groats, a sort of buck-wheat porridge cooked in oil, and small beer or tea. On such diet or on potato soup, the seventy monks and four hundred probationers live for six weeks in the height of summer, as well as at Easter and other festivals. Oil is used profusely in cooking at such periods as a sort of penance. At other seasons milk and butter are allowed, fish is eaten on Sundays, and more farinaceous and vegetable foods enjoyed, although strong beer, wine, and meat are never touched.
Valaam, Russia, 1897
Source: Ethel B. Harley (Mrs. Alec Tweedie), Through Finland in Carts, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1913