Cult Labyrinth or Mental Exercise Device: Finds of the Expedition of the Russian Geographical Society on the Island of Seskar

Закат на Внешних островах Финского залива. Фото: Екатерина Хуторская
Закат на Внешних островах Финского залива. Фото: Екатерина Хуторская

Since 2013, the team of the Russian Geographical Society has been exploring the outer islands of the Gulf of Finland. The ninth season of the expedition "Gogland" ended in the outgoing year. Ekaterina Khutorskaya, project coordinator, talks about its results.

– We are used to the fact that the media actively covers the work of the "Gogland" team, but this year the journalists did not visit you. Has everything been explored and found?

– There are enough discoveries on the outer islands for generations. It’s just that some tasks are of interest to a wide audience, while others are for specialists or are important for preparing further events. We are now in the stage of that preparation. Plus, there are COVID-19 restrictions and other problems. We are a team of volunteers. As much as we would like, we cannot work on the project all year round. So the 2021 season turned out informationally quiet. But not empty at all.


Команда "Гогланд" перед выходом на Тютерс. Фото: Екатерина Хуторская

– What was the ninth season of the expedition like?

– Due to the whims of the weather, we got held up on the island of Bolshoy Tyuters. We did not waste any time: cleared sections on old roads of debris, and continued monitoring coniferous trees damaged by bark beetles. We also fixed directions for continuing cooperation with the combat engineer units of the Western Military District and with the Ministry of Natural Resources, the East of the Gulf of Finland Nature Reserve (of which Tyuters is a part). New pockets of rubbish have been discovered. We calculated how many and what kind of signs and stands are needed – both with environmental and historical content. Including on the site of the monuments we installed.

We were shocked to find that someone had been trying to knock off one of the pistons of the Pe-2 engine fragment, which we had placed as an element of the monument to the crew who died in 1943. Unfathomable barbarism. And after all, everyone who enters the island is under the close supervision of the lighthouse keepers; the guys always help tourists, suggest the best locations, and conduct excursions. And of course, look after the guests. There are all kinds of people after all: some don’t put out a fire, some would throw away a cigarette – and that’s it. There will be blaze in a moment. And the Ministry of Emergency Situations will not arrive faster than in one and a half to two hours, try as they might.


Маяк острова Сескар и памятник защитникам Балтики. Фото: Екатерина Хуторская

And the season began with us going to the island of Seskar, known for its exceptional natural beauty and a unique lighthouse. And all this splendor was complemented by hospitable staff of the lighthouse service and gorgeous weather.

– Is Seskar a new island on your list?

– No. Except Vigrund, we have visited all the named outer islands. We just spent there different amounts of time. The time has come to focus on Seskar as well.

Little has changed here in a few years. It is just incredibly sad that Nikolai Safronov, the former lighthouse keeper, an amazing person, dependable, responsible, not indifferent, passed away. But the order he has established, the well-maintained property is in good hands.

I would like to take this opportunity to once again thank the guardians of Seskar, the lighthouse keepers. Hard-working, sincerely generous and loving people, representatives, alas, of a disappearing profession. I want to say a huge thank you to our long-term partners, friends of our expedition – the Department of Navigation and Oceanography of the Russian Ministry of  Defense, the Hydrographic Service of the Leningrad Naval Base and the crew of the "Vaygach" hydrographic vessel, who ensured our arrival to Seskar and the opportunity to work.

And to Tyuters, we, already traditionally, got on one of the landing boats. The crew of the "Aleksey Barinov", which, like the crew of the boat "Ivan Pasko", has long been an integral part of the team "Gogland", this time had to come for us twice. The first time, the crew selflessly conquered the Baltic, churning with foamy waves, but the southeast wind did not let them enter the bay. The second run, five days later, was brilliant, but the way home had never been so difficult in all nine years: four-point side wind, overfalls. But the military sailors delivered us safe and sound. Just heroes.

– One of the most interesting objects on Seskar is the lighthouse. Could you tell us about it?

– It is indeed a very curious lighthouse. Even with quite a traditional, concise appearance. This is the first all-metal lighthouse in Russia. It is made of huge, perfectly joined tubings, cast in 1858 in England from cannon iron. The process of its construction is technically clear, but the pinpoint calculations of the masters are still amazing. And special thanks to the London engineer brothers Grissel for the quality: their creation is now in a much better state than  a number of other much "younger" lighthouses.

There is probably some higher justice to it, because Seskar hadn't had  luck with lighthouses for a long time. The Swedes erected the first wooden lighthouse here in the 17th century. The second appeared in 1725 as part of the global campaign of Peter the Great to build lighthouses, but a year later it was demolished by a storm. The third rose in 1727, existed for 14 years and was burned by the Swedes. Fate had measured out as much as 80 years for the fourth one. The fifth, already made of stone, but carelessly made, had been given only a few. The sixth, wooden again, was destroyed by the British during the Crimean War. And  the seventh one, erected in a hurry, was quickly replaced by the current one – the eighth.


Старинная открытка с маяком острова Сескар. Фото предоставлено участниками экспедиции

– You said that the condition of the Seskar Lighthouse was better than that of other historical lighthouses in the Baltic...

– Nevertheless, it is necessary to hurry with the repairs in order to prevent irreversible processes. At the moment, just  some simple work is required. But it's hard to provide it. You need serious equipment and powerful scaffolding. And the big question is how to deliver all this multi-ton equipment to the lighthouse. The island is surrounded by shallows and sandbanks. Only light, flat-bottomed boats are suitable.

I really want to restore its former beauty. The lighthouse, simple on the outside, impresses inside: a lot of stylish details, ornamental cornices, canopies, railings. And the completeness is amazing. All brass plates, original ventilation devices, locking mechanisms of windows and doors are in place. Even a gigantic chest of drawers for storing watch logs and lanterns, standing on one of the flights of the circular staircase, is intact. What a pity that the "twin" of the lighthouse on Seskar, placed a year later on the island of Nerva, was blown up during the Great Patriotic War...


Латунная табличка производителей на маяке острова Сескар. Фото: Екатерина Хуторская

– Previously, the members of the "Gogland" expedition had carried out LIDAR surveys of Bolshoy Tyuters Island. And this year?

– In 2021, laser scanning of the surface of the outer islands continued. And only thanks to the participation in the project of the St. Petersburg engineering company "Fertoing"

Thanks to scanning, we will be able to model islands, create holograms of the highest accuracy, and most importantly, study the landscape remotely, and much more efficiently than on location. LIDAR survey "removes" the vegetation, leaving only the contours, depths and heights. From a quadcopter you can’t see what the crowns of trees, grass and roots hide, but here everything is like under a microscope. For the reserve, civil and military sailors, such information is fundamentally important. Detailing the coastline, coastal waters dotted here with sandbanks is just worth its weight in gold. Well, and for us, of course, this is invaluable help.

Having received data on Tyuters, we began to check out locations that we hadn’t even paid attention to before. We debunked another myth that the island is so rich in – about the "underground parking of the Kriegsmarine". We explored the foundations in the wilds, examined – however, alas, to no avail – new possible burial places of the Soviet soldiers who went missing on the island in 1942-1943. We also figured out the irrigation system, once created by people, and began to chart an actual layout of the village and the objects of the island.


Лидарная модель острова Родшер

– The history of the outer islands is also the history of the people who lived there…

– Yes. There are communities of descendants of the inhabitants of Tyuters who keep the memory of their ancestors. No politics. Just personal matters. The layout of their village with house numbers and names is very arbitrary. This year, a Finnish woman asked the lighthouse keepers to find the location of her great-grandfather's house. The guys found it with great difficulty, photographed it, sent the information  ... Ancestral  memory, mutual assistance are also important. Therefore, we are slowly putting the island cemeteries in order. It's all someone's family. And one more thing that everyone forgets: from 1721 – on some islands from 1743 – to 1919, the inhabitants of the outer islands of the Gulf of Finland were subjects of the Russian Empire, our fellow citizens. And in general, keeping the burials neat is a moral, civil and spiritual duty of citizens of any normal, modern civilized state.

– What about other islands?

– Same for the other islands. For the once inhabited – Gogland, Moshchny, Seskar, that also have communities of descendants – as well as for those where there were no settlements. Of these, Maly Tyuters, Sommers, Rodsher, Northern and Southern Virgins were surveyed this year.

Particularly interesting are the results for Virgins. We have such tiny border islands. Numerous cairns are placed in even rows on North – cone-shaped stone mounds that sailors from time immemorial created for navigation. On  South, labyrinths: a spiral with a radius of five meters, lined with rounded stones the size of a kolkhoznitsa melon.

In 1838, one of the founders of the IRGS, the outstanding anthropologist Karl Baer, ​​who was forced to land on the island due to a storm, described the stone labyrinth located there. It's not the only one on South Virgin, by the way. We accidentally discovered this while shooting the film "The Lost World of the Baltic" in 2015. Now we are wondering if there is any system for arranging labyrinths. This would make it possible to clarify their purpose. It hasn't been determined yet.

– Are there any guesses?

– We are leaning toward the purely practical hypothesis, as opposed to mythical or cult one. We have a professional psychologist on our team. And he is sure that this is a "mental exercise device".


Гурии на острове Северный Виргин. Фото: Андрей Стрельников

Stone spirals made of stones are not uncommon for coastal areas and are found near the water's edge. The exit from the labyrinths is oriented exactly to the north or from the sea deep into the coast. They themselves have from 9 to 15 circles. And the distance between the lines of these circles, the passage, always corresponds to the width of the human foot.

Our psychologist decided to go through the maze to see what it would feel like. And he said that at first it was very difficult to mince, putting the toe of one foot against the heel of the other, constantly turning. He barely kept his balance, constantly stumbled, struggled with the "rebelling" vestibular system. But the longer he walked the spiral, the more confident he felt. And at some point, both unnecessary movements and nausea disappeared, the body was "flying" by itself, and the head became clear, like during meditation. So it turns out that going through the labyrinth could well have been done to prepare  the body before difficult matters.

There is evidence that Baltic sailors were entering the labyrinths until the 1930s, but they had never been able to explain the reason. They would  say "this is how it is done" or that it was "to confuse evil spirits." Talks about spirits, by the way, are also understandable. Remember how often the image of a labyrinth can be found in front of an altar  in Christian churches, many of whose rituals and symbols are rooted in paganism. What about the drawing of the labyrinth? It is popular not just on amulets. It is also found on fishing floats, and on baby cradles, on houses, mills.

In a word, our version is this: mazes are exercise devices for increasing the sharpness of attention and improving coordination.

– What else is special about this island?

– Of course, its history. During the Great Patriotic War, our garrison stood on Seskar, there was a small airfield. As part of the expedition, based on archive data, we explored the island for objects of military equipment history and found a number of very interesting exhibits. For example, large fragments of aircraft were found at the sites of aviation accidents, one of which has already been identified as IL-2. Also found were the parts of a diesel tractor S-65 ("Stalinets-65"), which was used during the war years for  towing medium-caliber guns; parts of an automobile gas generator unit, structurally similar to the Soviet truck ZiS-21 (gas generator version of the ZiS-5 truck); and even parts of a steam engine of the first quarter of the twentieth century.


Фрагменты паровой машины. Фото: Артём Хуторской

The issue of the further use of the objects found on Seskar will be decided by the Commission for the Identification and Preservation of Objects of Military Equipment History of the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Aircraft lost in the course of aviation accidents were most likely dismantled for spare parts during the war years by the Soviet garrison of the island. But the remaining fragments should be used to complete the models and monuments of aircraft that Russian restorers are working on, to be presented in museums of local history and military history. All this also applies to the remains of the steam engine, tractor and car.

As for more ancient history, Seskar is in the "forefront" here. This is the first of all the islands of the Gulf of Finland, mentioned in the now known written sources. In the archives of the Tallinn Town Hall there is a kind of memorandum dated 1395, which records the fact of unauthorized trade. Two merchants went to Retusaari (aka Kotlin Island, where the legendary Kronstadt appeared three hundred years later), got lost and landed on the first island they came across. It was Seskar. The merchants decided to sell the goods to "local Russians", without having the permission of the governor of the Vyborg castle. And everything would have been fine if there hadn't been a Swedish patrol vessel nearby, tracking both pirates and such “smugglers”.

Seskar was one of the most prosperous and wealthy islands in the bay. Unlike, for example,   Tyuters, it has fresh water sources, but, most importantly, it is located closest to the mainland. It was easier for its inhabitants to sell herring and blubber, which served as the main source of fishing and income for the islanders. And it is not surprising that on a piece of land of 4.16 sq. km once there were as many as three full-fledged villages. Even on Gogland, with an area of ​​21 sq. km, which has fresh lakes, there were only two.

In general, the history of the inhabitants of Seskar and other islands is a fascinating but sad topic. Every time, looking at the skeletons of houses, wading through the thick forest that appeared instead of courtyards and streets, exploring archival sources, old photos, you think about the people who lived here, worked honestly, got married, gave birth to children ... And now I’m not talking about to whom and when these islands belonged and who is to blame for what. Everything is obvious here. I'm talking about simple, "small" people who at all times fall into the millstones of big politics, pay for the ambitions of the "powerful of this world". Ordinary people do not need any conflicts, wars. They live with their families, their worries, sorrows and joys. And their good deeds are worthy of grateful memory.

This, in fact, will become the leitmotif of the exhibition dedicated to the outer islands of the Gulf of Finland, which we have conceived with our friends. So far, there are two small halls in the plans, where we will try to "embrace the immensity", fitting in the main thing.

– Where and when will this exhibition open?

–  I'll keep quiet about this for now. Don't cross the bridge until you get to it.  Let me just say that it will be on the territory of St. Petersburg, in close proximity to the places of the events described. And always, in at least three languages: Swedish, Finnish and Russian. According to the number of "main players" in the amazing, controversial, rich, unpredictable history of the outer islands of the Gulf of Finland.