The Legend of the City of Kitezh Submerging Itself in Svetloyar Lake
Religious Fables, Folklore, Legends, and Stories
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By Lyubov Tsarevskaya Submitted by Yuri Klitsenko, Russia

There is a legend under which the city of Kitezh resisted a Tatar invasion by submerging itself in Svetloyar lake. The lake is in the Nizhny Novgorod Region north-east of Moscow. I visited it recently. According to legend, Prince Georgy of Vladimir as he traveled about the Trans-Volga Region in the 13th century took a particular liking of a picturesque area on the Lyunda River and built there a city with a large number of white-stone golden-domed churches, boyar chambers and trading quarters. That was a fortress city, a monastic city and it was called Kitezh. The population was mostly believers, so the city was a sort of Slavic spiritual center and was considered holy.

In 1238 North Eastern Russia was invaded by Tatar hordes under the leadership of Khan Baty. Baty besieged the capital of the Suzdal principality – Vladimir. Despite fierce resistance from the population and army, Vladimir fell to the enemy and was plundered and burnt. Other cities of the principality were captured and burnt too. Prince Yuri of Vladimir and Suzdal retreated with the remaining troops to the woods and took shelter in Kitezh. Baty rushed to trace him but failed. He then ordered to torture all imprisoned Russians so that they would tell the hidden routes leading to Kitezh. The warriors kept silent, for they knew letting out the secret of the holy city of Kitezh would inflict an eternal curse on them and their descendants. Eventually the Tatars found a traitor, Grishka Kuterma by name, who led the enemy to the holy place. On seeing Baty’s hordes by Kitezh’s walls, the prince and his armed force started to pray to God ardently. God heard their heartfelt prayers, took a pity on them and saved the city from devastation. Khan Baty and his army watched in dismay the city of Kitezh submerge itself in Lake Svetloyar and disappear in its waters.

In folk tales the city of Kitezh exists to this day but is invisible. The occasional church bells coming from the lake’s depths in the dead of the night suggest the city is alive. In the old days the pilgrims used to spend nights on end on Svetloyar in the hope to hear the bells. They prayed to the hills for they saw them as buried churches, set sail wood chips with candles attached to them and left alms for the city’s dwellers in a belief that their prayer to God was a fairly strong one. Mothers arrived to the lake all the time during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 to pray on their knees for their sons who fought on the fronts. The water of Svetloyar is healing and clears the body of disease and sin and the herbs that grow on its banks are medicinal too.

Scientists have long been struggling to explain the mystery of the lake from a scientific point of view. In their assumptions, Lake Svetloyar formed more than 1000 years ago as a result of a crack in the earth’s crust, is shaped like a saucer bottom up and is pointed downward. It is 340 meters wide, 453 meters long and about 30 meters deep. The water contains elements good for human health. But the mystery of the lake escapes people. God opens it to those worthy only. A local woman, Zinaida, knows it only too well.

“Ten years ago I and Father Yevgeny came to the lake to erect an oak cross in place of a ruined chapel,” Zinaida says. “The priests consecrated it and said a prayer. In the evening we came back to look at it once again. As we stood on the lake’s side we suddenly saw a big cathedral fenced by a serrated wall and the golden church domes reflected on the surface of the lake. I gasped. Father Yevgeny says quietly: “You keep silent and watch.” So we stood in silence for another ten minutes and then the reflection gradually vanished. I asked a psalm reader standing nearby whether he had seen the miracle of the invisible city of Kitezh as it got reflected on the water surface. But he said he had seen nothing of the sort. So God revealed the city of Kitezh to me.”

Lake Svetloyar and the city of Kitezh have got ingrained in the Russian soul as the symbols of purity, tenacity and immortality. The lake absorbed the city of Kitezh to the end of time and according to legend, it will emerge from it again before the end of the world and the army of the Russian prince will come out of the city’s gates to face Doomsday along with all other Christian souls.


Copyright 2003 The Voice of Russia

See: How Fables and Legends Get Started

Yuri Klitsenko is a Russian living in Moscow.  He works for the Russian Orthodox Church.

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