The Novodevichy Convent (or how Peter the Great became a tsar)

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The Novodevichy Convent – another wonderful architectural ensemble in the city, one of the 3 places in Moscow on the UNESCO list of world heritage. The Novodevichy Convent is probably the best example representing Moscow baroque style.

Sovereign of Moscow Basil III founded this Convent in 1524 to mark the re-conquering of the Russian town of Smolensk located on the western border of Russia from Lithuania in 1514. It was a part of a chain of monastic ensembles which were integrated in the defense system of the city. The Convent is the only nunnery which served as a fortress at the same time.

The Convent is enclosed by a high masonry wall with 12 battle towers and with entrance gates to the north and south. The northern gate is topped with over the gate church of Transfiguration. Another major building is the Bell Tower (236 feet) second tallest in Moscow at that time after Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Kremlin.

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The predominant structure inside the convent is huge five-dome Cathedral of Our Lady of Smolensk. It is one of the oldest buildings on the grounds and dates back to 1525. The Cathedral was closely modelled after the Kremlin’s Assumption Cathedral. Inside there is a spectacular iconostasis of XVI-XVII centuries (Simon Ushakov and Fyodor Zubov).

Due to the high initiative, Novodevichy Convent enjoyed an elevated position among the many monasteries and convents, and became a convent primarily for noble women to retire – some more willingly than the others. Little remains from the original structure, today’s complex dates largely from the XVII century when the convent was significantly rebuilt and enhanced by half-sister of Peter the Great Princess Sophia, and represents the so-called Moscow baroque style. The combination of red-brick and rich white stone ornate decorations is typical to Moscow baroque.

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Among the first noble women who took the veil in the Convent was Irina, wife of tsar Fyodor (son of Ivan the Terrible) and sister of Boris Godunov, who was actual ruler of the country during the reign of this feeble-minded tsar Fyodor.
Godunov was a powerful nobleman, and when Fyodor died childless, Godunov was the logical successor to the throne. Rather than proclaim himself tsar, he followed his sister to Novodevichy. Biding his time, Godunov waited until the clergy and the boyars (high rank nobility) begged him to become tsar. His election took place in the Convent inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Smolensk.

In the next century Novodevichy became the residence of Sophia, the half-sister of 2 under-aged tsars: Peter, future Peter the Great and Ivan. The astonishing double-throne which was designed for them you can see in the Armoury Chamber in the Kremlin. Sophia ruled as regent for 7 years. During her rule she rebuilt the Convent to her liking.

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When Peter came of age, Sophia was supposed to step down as regent but she had no intention of giving up power, instead she started to plot against Peter and to prepare his assassination. However, she lost her supporters and was deposed and sent from the Kremlin to Novodevichy Convent which now became her lifetime residence.

Sofia lived under guard in the convent, she received food from the tsar’s table; had the money allowance same as other royal princesses, had 13 servants.

For 9 years Sofia lived quietly in the convent but she continued to intrigue exchanging secret letters with her supporters. When tsar Peter was away from Russia, she made her last attempt to regain power and organized a revolt of loyal musketeers. The revolt was severely suppressed; 2000 musketeers executed; Sophia was forced to take the vail; her allowance was slashed, servants changed and security tightened. Now she was imprisoned in the Convent.

She died 5 years later at the age of 46 and was buried on the grounds of the convent. For 7 years in rule she paid by 15 years in the nunnery.

Another of the convent “inmates” was Eudoxia, Peter the Great first wife. Peter considered her a pest and sent to a faraway convent in Suzdal, and only after his death his grandson let Eudoxia (his grandma) to return to Moscow and spend her final years here in the Convent.

The Convent was closed and transformed to museum in 1923. In the 1990s it was decided to return the Convent to Russian Orthodox Church. Now it is an acting nunnery and according to the Convent’s website 30 nuns and novices live here on the permanent basis.

The Novodevichy Cemetery sits adjacent to the Convent and is one of the most prestigious resting places in all of Russia. Of course, place number one is the necropolis in Red Square near Lenin’s Tomb. Now that they do not bury people in Red Square any more, Novodevichy cemetery became the prestigious burial place for the most outstanding intellectuals as well as political and military figures.

Over 26 000 people are buried here, including Russian and Soviet notables such as writers – Chekhov and Gogol; poet Mayakovsky; former Soviet leader Khrushchev and former Russian President Boris Yeltsyn, the wife of former Russian leader Gorbachev – Raisa. A few more names which may be familiar to you: theatre director Stanislavsky, film director Eisenstein, who shot “The battleship Potemkin”, 2 most famous composers of the XX century Shostakovich and Prokofiev, bass singer – Feodor Shalyapin, ballerina Ulanova and many other famous people.

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