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Danskoi Monastery, Russia

Experienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyager Joshua Brook
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Donskoi Monastery dates back to 1591 when Boris Godunov erected a church on the site in honor of the Donskaya Icon of the Mother of God and in gratitude for delivering Moscow from the attacks of the Crimean Khan Khazi-Girei. Godunov's victory was attributed to the icon, which had accompanied the Grand Prince Dmitry Ivanovich to war against the Mongols and ensured his victory at Kulikovo in 1380.

Legend has it that St. Sergei Radonezhsky blessed the Grand Prince himself, and after the victorious battle on the banks of the River Don, the Prince came to be known as Donskoi, as did the icon. To raise the spirits of his troops, Godunov paraded the icon around his military camp on the eve of the battle and placed it in the field chapel.

After a sleepless night during which the Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich prayed before the icon, a vision appeared and revealed to him that he would gain victory through the strength of Christ and the protection of His Mother.

The next day the Tartars fled in terror after a brief skirmish and the Russian army erected a church to house the icon and founded a monastery on the spot. The same year Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich ordered the construction of a stone cathedral on the same site, most likely the work of the Muscovite architect Fyodor Kon, in which the icon was placed.


The monastery was robbed and abandoned during the Time of Troubles in the 16th century and, although restored by Tsar Alexei, it remained small and impoverished until refreshed attacks by the marauding Tatars forced the Regent Sofia and her lover Prince Golitsyn to strengthen its fortifications.

This building program was continued by Peter the Great between 1684 and 1783 and resulted in the construction of the existing defensive walls and the Great Cathedral, erected next to the first and with walls and towers similar to those of Novodevichy Convent, which was built between 1686 and 1711.

By the late 18th century the Donskoi Monastery was not only prospering, but had become a popular burial ground for Georgian and Golitsyn princes and notable cultural figures; the veritable Saint Germain of the Muscovite dead.



Many former residents of the literary and artistic neighborhoods of Moscow (the Arbat, Prechistenka and Povarskaya Streets) were laid to rest there, including the historian Klyuchevsky, S. Trubetskoi, the first elected rector of Moscow University, the architect Osip Bove and the philosopher Chaadayev.

In the 1930s the remains of the 19th century artist Vasily Perov were transferred here from the Daniilov Monastery. Visitors wandering around the mostly plain and featureless graves may also spot the resting places of Tolstoy's grandmother and Pushkin's grandparents.

The cemetery is also dotted with small chapels and churches built by Moscow's major aristocratic families and host to generations of their dead.

The 20th century history of the monastery is just as varied and dramatic.

Shortly after the Revolution of 1917 the monastery was closed, although its monks were permitted to live there until 1929, when a Museum of Atheism was established and they were evicted from their cloisters.


The monastery also became a prison for the Orthodox Patriarch Tikhon, invested in office just on the eve of the Revolution but arrested by the Bolsheviks and kept imprisoned in two small cramped cells in the monastery until his death on 7th April 1925.

Having endured a miserable period of incarceration and persecution in the hands of the new regime, Tikhon is said to have left this life with the words "There is a long, long dark night ahead of you…".

Thousands and thousand of Orthodox Muscovites attended the funeral of the martyr patriarch, amongst them the painter Pavel Korin who took the funeral as the subject for his famous but tragically unfinished painting, Farewell to Rus. Not long after the burial a fire devastated the cathedral, destroying all its icons apart from the Donskaya Icon of the Mother of God, which remained unscathed. During restoration the unmarked coffin of the patriarch was discovered inside the cathedral and his remains found to be undamaged by the fire. He was consequently canonized by the Orthodox Church and his body placed in a dedicated shrine in the cathedral.

It was also here in this monastery that the priest Nikolau Golubtsov secretly baptized Stalin's Daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, with the name "Fotina" (Greek for Svetlana).

Donskoi Monastery was also the site of Russia's first crematorium. The Russian Orthodox Church has always advocated Christian burial rights and even prohibited cremation amongst its believers. But as early as 1919 Lenin signed a special decree stating that cremation was a permissible and even preferable means of disposing of the dead. After a competition to design a crematorium in 1925, the winning architect Osipov rebuilt the Church of St. Serafim Sarovsky, which stands in the southern cemetery of the monastery, and transformed its interior into the country's first crematorium. It remained in operation, as constant reminder of the persecution of the Orthodox Church, until 1973, when a second crematorium was constructed at the Nikolo-Arkhangelsky Cemetery outside Moscow.

The monastery has often been described as the "Cemetery of Architecture" too for its role in preserving the architectural heritage of the city as it was being torn down and destroyed by the Communists during Soviet times. From 1934 onwards an official Museum of Russian Architecture existed there and fragments of demolished buildings and monuments were brought here from all over the city to be kept as a reminder of what had existed in the past.

Amongst these last vestiges of Moscow's architectural heritage are the high reliefs from the original Cathedral of Christ the Savior, now mounted on the east wall of the convent, and on the north wall visitors will find the ornate window casings from the Sukhareva Tower and the Church of the Assumption of the Mother of God in Pekrovka. In 1936 the dismantled Triumphal Gates that once stood on Brest Station Square were also brought to the monastery, before being reclaimed and reassembled some thirty years later to be set up on Kutuzovsky Prospekt in 1967. More info on: www.moscow-taxi.com

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