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    Wise words from Dostoyevsky. I didn't understand their deeper meaning until I got older. Its the ultimate dichotomy. If like me, you don't believe in a literal heaven and hell, you understand these words to be true. I can't help but think of these things, of good and evil and all the philosophical analysis that comes with it every time I come back to Russia. I guess it comes with the territory.

    I am aware of the contradiction that a hilltop with a church on it is this atheist's favorite place on earth. I rejected the notion of magical beings in the sky early on and since then, I always viewed all stories associated with religion just as that, stories. It never occurred to me to take them literally. So how did a church become part of my favorite place on earth? Because when I fell in love with this magical place located roughly 3 hours outside of Moscow, the church was abandoned and in ruins and thus, it belonged to me.

    I must have been 8 when I first saw the church. At the time, my grandparents had traded their car for a little shack with some land that they would later turn into their bustling and blooming dacha (aka, a Russian summer cabin). I had some understanding of what churches were used for and growing up in Russia and in Moscow of all places, churches are the face, history and character of this great land. And it should stay that way. But until then to me, they didn't have any particular meaning, they were just beautiful architecture.

    When my grandparents acquired the dacha I immediately set out exploring the area. Because the dacha is on a hill, one cannot miss the big red brick church with the giant domes at the very top of the hill. The church is actually quite small, its simply very tall. The local kids seemed to have all sorts of stories about the church, how it was abandoned, and a crazy story about the architects hiding gold crosses in the red bricks. I once grabbed a loose brick and smashed it on the ground just to see if it was true. Of course, it was a farce.

    Some of the kids were too afraid to climb into the gaping windows loosely covered by a metal fence because rumor had it, there were crypts at the bottom of the floor. Because half the floor was caved in and dark, we thought it was possible. I had to see for myself. Of all the things I fear, heights is not one of them. I quickly scaled the loose bricks like a staircase and slipped into the tall window as the door was barricaded. I was alone in the church with the caved in floor and crumbling paintings. There were no crypts or gold or ghosts, there was just me and the church. I stared at the art, the tall ceilings, the broken floor, the abandoned altar. I thought ruins were the most beautiful thing on earth. I still do sometimes.

    Over the years, even after I moved America, I would come back during my trips to Russia in the summer, even though 4 or 5 years would pass between the visits. Just as I had changed, the church began to change too. During my 3rd visit my grandma informed me that the church was getting renovated now that some money was coming in and more people have moved into the area. The last time I saw the church abandoned I was about 14, and it was still mine. I was still able to climb in, explore and dream, although now with an awkwardness and self consciousness of a chubby and painfully shy teenage girl.

    The next visit the church had windows, golden domes and was starting to hold services. The visit after that, all the domes were repaired, a beautiful door had been put in and it was fully functional, although still partially in scaffolding. Things in Russia take a while to fix, you see. But the church was also no longer mine and I no longer found it as beautiful or interesting. When there are no services held, the church is shut and its hard to peek into the tall windows. Little do the patrons know, that the girl now locked out is the same one that the whole church once belonged to. I had once been inside before they were even around and I thought it was spectacular. I found peace, adventure and had a connection with nature on top of that hill, full of lush grass, apple trees and a river running at its base.

    Each time I returned, the church blossomed, shone, and became more inviting to others. Much like it had transformed from something that no one but a broken little girl found interesting, so did I. I am no longer shy, awkward or broken. Each time I return to Russia I grow and blossom and change. While I no longer have an abandoned church in my possession, that church and the glorious hill that it sits on is still my favorite place on earth. It reminds me of the power of nature, introspection and change. This is how a church came to be my favorite place on earth.

    PS: All photography for the 52 Week Project is taken by me. See the church and surround area photos here:

    Week 11 of 52 - Story a Week in 2014
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