An overnight trip by boat from St. Petersburg delivers you out of the bustle of the city and into the Republic of Karelia. The republic is one of the 83 federal subjects of the Russian Federation; though its language is Russian, it has close cultural ties to its neighbor, Finland. One of its most tranquil and beautiful settings is Valaam, a cluster of islands in the northwestern part of Lake Ladoga, Europe's largest freshwater lake. The southern part of the lake borders Russia. The archipelago consists of Valaam Island and about 50 other isles.
Valaam Island is the site of an ancient monastery said to have been started by Saints Sergey and German, missionaries who came to the region (probably from Greece) sometime in the 10th century—perhaps even before the "official" conversion of the land of the Rus' to Christianity. The next 1,000 years are a sorry story of Valaam and its monks battling to survive a regular series of catastrophes—including plague, fire, invasion, and pillage—only to bounce back and build (and rebuild) Valaam's religious buildings and way of life. In 1611 the monastery was attacked and razed by the Swedes; it languished for a century until Peter the Great ordered it rebuilt in 1715. Valaam was also to pass into the hands of Finland on more than one occasion, the longest period being from the end of World War I to 1940. After World War II, during which the islands were evacuated and then occupied by Finnish and German troops, the monasteries fell into almost total disrepair, and it was only in 1989 that the monks returned.