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Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery, Russia

Experienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyager Joshua Brook
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The red and white crenellated walls and golden domes of Novodevichy Convent make it one of Moscow's most attractive monasteries. Situated a short walk from the Luzhniki Sports Stadium, in a tranquil southern suburb of Moscow, inside a bend in the Moscow River, the Convent's leafy gardens are a pleasure to stroll in during the summer months and a welcome retreat from the bustle of the city. Most of the capital's monasteries were built between the 13th and 16th centuries, not merely as religious centers but as fortified structures with the express purpose of defending the city from Tatar and Pole attacks.


With this aim in mind, many of Moscow's larger convents, including the Novodevichy, Donskoy, Danilov, Simonov, Novospassky and Andronikov Monasteries, were protected by thick, high walls and towers that together formed a defensive half-ring around the city.

Novodevichy, or "New Maidens Convent" in English, was founded by Vasily III in 1524 to commemorate the recapture of Smolensk from the Lithuanians in 1514. The convent's main cathedral was consecrated in honor of the Smolenskaya Icon of the Mother of God Hodigitria, which according to legend was painted by St. Luke himself. The icon was brought to Rus from Greece in 1046 by Tsarina Anna Monomakh and was later taken to Smolensk and Moscow before it was returned to Smolensk in a ceremony held on the present-day site of the monastery.

The convent is rather like a miniature Kremlin and the magnificent 5-domed Smolensky Cathedral was built in 1525 in the same style as the Kremlin Cathedral of the Assumption, probably by the Italian architect Aleviz Fryazin. In the early 17th century, during the reign of Boris Godunov, the walls of the cathedral were ornamented with frescoes representing historic episodes in the struggle for the formation of a centralized Russian state. In the 1680s a team of Russian artists and craftsmen, including K. Mikhailov and O. Andreyev, created one of the finest ornamental works of the period - a multi-tiered iconostasis, carved from solid gold. The floor of the cathedral was made of ornamental cast-iron plates. The other structures in the convent complex- the refectory, the gateway churches, the Irminskiye and Lopukhinskiye Chambers, and the cells were also built in the 1680s. The convent's bell tower, similar to the famous Bell Tower of Ivan the Great in the Kremlin, was erected between 1689 and 1690, and consists of six octagonal stepped tiers crowned with a gilt cupola. Each tier is decorated with a balcony and parapet supported by ornamental balusters. The convent's fortified walls and crenellated towers were added earlier at the end of the 16th century.
Many of the city's monasteries served as retirement homes for royal and noble women, who either chose or were forced to take the veil and remain in the safety and seclusion of the convents for the rest of their lives. Novodevichy was Moscow's richest convent and many wives and widows of tsars and boyars and their daughters and sisters entered the convent and in doing so handed over all their jewels, pearls, gold and silver. Among the convents more notable residents were Tsarina Irina Godunova, who withdrew to Novodevichy after the death of her husband Tsar Fyodor, and was accompanied by her brother, the boyar Boris Godunov, who remained there until he was crowned in the monastery grounds in 1589.

The convent also served as home to the power-loving Sofia Alexeyevna, Peter the Great's older half sister, whom he confined to the monastery in 1689 due to her unwillingness to concede the throne to her brother and in doing so drew the convent into a dangerous political battle. Sofia remained in the convent against her will until her death in 1704. A similar fate awaited Yevdokia Fyodorovna Lopukhina, Peter's first wife and the mother of the Tsarevich Alexei. She was brought to the convent in 1727 after Peter's death and not long before her own. Both Peter the Great's sister and wife were buried in the convent's Smolensk Cathedral and their royal residents remain within the grounds of the monastery for visitors to see.

Novodevichy has experienced a lively and tumultuous history and was badly damaged during the Time of Troubles, when the Polish and Swedish army captured the convent in 1612. Although liberated not long after by the volunteer Russian army, led by Kuzma Minin and Prince Pozharsky, the convent buildings were restructured at the end of that century in the then fashionable Moscow baroque style. It was during this period that the stately Church of the Transfiguration was built, boasting 5 golden cupolas on high towers, topped with Orthodox crosses. The convent came under attack again in 1812, when Napoleon ordered that the entire Novodevichy complex be destroyed as he and his French troops withdrew from Moscow after the long and grueling campaign of that year. The nuns of the convent discovered the lit candles scattered around the straw-filled Church of John the Baptist and the smoldering fuses leading to barrels of gunpowder stacked in the cellar of the Smolensky Cathedral just in time to extinguish them and save the convent from destruction.

As soon as the convent was founded, a cemetery was opened on its grounds, which subsequently became a traditional burial place for the church dignitaries, noble families and feudal lords of Moscow and later on, in the 19th century, of the intelligentsia and merchants. The cemetery is divided into an "old" section, located within the convent grounds and a "new' section, situated next door. The quiet, "old" cemetery is the resting place of Sofia Alexeyevna and Yevdokia Fyodorovna, the relatives of Tsar Peter the Great, the partisan Denis Davydov, poet and hero of the Napoleonic War of 1812, the historians S. Solovyov and Pagodin and the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov amongst others.

In 1898, the so-called New Cemetery was established behind the south wall of the convent and rapidly became the most venerated cemetery in Moscow. Here lie the bodies of some of Russia's most outstanding writers and poets. Chekhov was one of the first to be buried in the cemetery in 1904 and Gogol's remains were re-interred here from Danilov Monastery not long after. The 20th century writers Mayakovsky and Bulgakov are buried here, as are the famous Russian artists Serov and Levitan and the much-celebrated theatrical directors and founders of the Moscow Art Theater, Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky. The composers Shostokovich and Scriabin, the architect of Lenin's Mausoleum, Shchusev, and the famous art collectors Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov are also buried there. Nikita Krushchev was given a famous memorial gravestone, crafted in black and white marble by the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny and symbolizing the ambiguity and contradictory nature of Krushchev's period in power.

Novodevichy was closed in 1922 by the Soviet Government, its nuns evicted and the convent building used to house a "Museum of Women's Emancipation". The convent was later re-opened as a museum to Novodevichy's history and in 1964 became the official residence of the Orthodox Church's Metropolitan of Kruitsky and Kolomensky. The entire complex is now open to visitors. More info on: www.moscow-taxi.com

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