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A monastic revival: Stella Rock sees a renaissance of religious traditions at what was one of Russia's most vibrant monasteries before the Soviet purge.

The Russian Orthodox Church has played a powerful role in post-Soviet society's efforts to reassess and reclaim the pre-revolutionary past--it has canonised Tsar Nicholas II, rebuilt ruined monuments, researched and commemorated Christians persecuted by the Soviet regime. The revival of its monasteries is one of the most astonishing aspects of this process. While Western convents are closing and selling their property, the reverse is happening in Russia: monasteries and convents are reclaiming--or recreating--the physical and spiritual fabric of their pasts.

For over 70 years the Ekaterinburg Novo-Tikhvin convent existed only in local memories, and in the walls of various institutions among whom its buildings were redistributed. Once one of Russia's most significant monastic institutions and home to over a thousand women, Novo-Tikhvin reopened in 1994 with just a handful of sisters and a 25-year-old mother superior. Since a state hospital continues to occupy much of the main convent complex, the first sisters slept in the convent church. Today, most of its 150 nuns and novices live in a former Soviet holiday home: conditions are cramped, but on average the convent accepts ten novices a year.

Sister Sophronia stresses the importance of their spiritual adviser Father Abraham, whom they consider a rare representative of true Orthodox tradition, in rebuilding the convent successfully: 'There are plenty of golden domes in Russia now, but it is much harder to build up spiritual life ... In order to learn you need someone to show you, to pass on the tradition as a master craftsman does to his apprentices. Father Abraham's spiritual adviser witnessed the spiritual life of the most important monastic centres of pre-revolutionary Russia, and was able to pass that on to him.'

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Novo-Tikhvin's nuns are enthusiastic students--and now teachers--of Russia's religious traditions, singing ancient Russian chants from old notation and recreating Byzantine iconography in their icon-painting and embroidery workshops. But the lacunae created by Soviet anti-religious campaigns still hamper this revival. The original Ustav or Rule which regulated Novo-Tikhvin life was destroyed, and the nuns have found only oblique references to it in the Russian State Historical Archive. The nuns have worked hard to rediscover the history of their convent after the cataclysmic break of the Soviet period, interviewing local pensioners and combing archives for evidence.

Novo-Tikhvin's story begins during an inauspicious period for Russian monasticism, when Catherine II's 1764 reforms had more than halved the number of convents and subjected religious life to stringent restrictions. Women who wished to live celibate, spiritual lives were often obliged to do so informally, gathering in small, self-sustaining communities. One such community, formed around an Ekaterinburg cemetery church in the late 18th century, was led by a soldier's widow, Tatiana Mitrofanova.

According to local historian Marina Nechaeva, when Tatiana successfully applied to the town council in 1789 for a small income for her community, she represented nine women surviving on money made by singing prayers for the dead. Like most of the numerous women's communities formed during this period, they aspired to become a formal convent and, in 1807, Tatiana travelled to St Petersburg to lobby the Holy Synod for monastic status. Permission was granted in 1809, by which time her fledgling community housed over 30 women. Tatiana was finally tonsured as the nun Taisia in 1810, and was appointed mother superior.

Her convent was named 'New Tikhvin' after the miraculous Tikhvin icon of the Mother of God, a copy of which Mother Taisia brought to the convent with great ceremony in 1811. Novo-Tikhvin's subsequent success reflects the great flowering of female piety in late 18th-and 19th-century Russia: by 1819 there were 152 inhabitants, and numbers increased rapidly after the 1861 emancipation of the peasantry. By the time revolution engulfed Russia, over a thousand women lived in the convent, busy with a wide range of industries as well as their primary task of prayer. They made candles and lace, painted icons, embroidered with gold and silk, spun flax and wove cloth, grew crops and raised animals. They ran a bakery, a library, a hospital, an orphanage, a school, an enamelling workshop, even a photographic laboratory.

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All this was shattered by the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917. The Decree on Land (1917) and the Decree on the Separation of Church and State (1918) nationalised all Church land, livestock, buildings and property (although local authorities could grant religious societies the use of religious buildings and objects). The Novo-Tikhvin Convent, like all others, ceased to exist as a legal entity. Monastic institutions across the land scrambled to reform as workers' collectives and parish societies, but by 1930 no functioning monasteries or convents remained on Soviet territory.

Only fragmentary evidence of life in the convent during the revolutionary years survives, but one august source is the last empress of Russia, Alexandra, who recorded that while the Romanovs were imprisoned in Ekaterinburg pending their execution in July 1918, the nuns brought them baskets of food. The convent was finally closed some time between 1920 and 1922, its library, chronicles and archive burned. Regional state archives reveal that the nuns registered as a parish society and for a decade some sisters continued to live by the one convent church which remained open for worship. In 1930 this church was turned into a storehouse, and some of the remaining sisters were exiled to Kazakhstan. Mother Magdalena, abbess at least until 1919, continued to live a monastic life until her death in 1934, aged 96. Repeatedly interrogated, she avoided prosecution by pretending to be mad.

Now Novo-Tikhvin is again flourishing, attracting women at a faster rate than that of Mother Taisia's early community. Until last year, however, there was one important figure missing. Like the convent's Rule, the sisters' Tikhvin Mother of God icon disappeared during the Soviet period. As with most icons, theirs was based on a holy 'prototype', an ancient wonder-working icon which--after a peripatetic existence in Russia, Latvia, Germany and the US--is now housed in the Tikhvin Monastery, St Petersburg region. The Novo-Tikhvin nuns travelled there to replicate what they considered the miraculous image--working by night because it is venerated in the daytime by a constant stream of pilgrims--and in 2008, almost 200 years after Mother Taisia first brought her image of the 'heavenly abbess' to the convent, the new Tikhvin icon was escorted home over a carpet of flowers.
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Author:Rock, Stella
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Feb 1, 2009
Words:1055
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