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Mother Serafima and the Restoration of Novodevichy Convent

Wallace L. Daniel

Novodevichy Monastery in Moscow provides an excellent perspective from which to view the renewal of the church in Russia. This perspective is, in large part, bound up with the story of a remarkable woman, Varvara Vasil’evna Chichagova, Mother Serafima. Despite great odds, Mother Serafima managed to live within the Soviet system and accommodate herself to it, while maintaining a dynamic personal and internal religious life. Her personal journey is, in many ways, a microcosm of the story of Novodevichy – the struggle to regain one’s roots, to reestablish identity, and to redefine the church’s role in Russian society.

Novodevichy’s Storied History

Novodevichy was founded in the first quarter of the 16th century by Grand Duke Vasilii III, the father of Ivan the Terrible, to commemorate Moscow’s conquest of Smolensk in 1522. The monastery served as the main fortress on the southern ring, joining a chain of other fortress-monasteries (Andron’evskii, Danilevskii, Donskoi, Novospasskii, Simonovskii) built to protect Moscow. The monastery has thick, red-brick walls, with towers, loopholes, and battlements. The walls form an irregular pentagon whose length measures more than 3,000 feet. From the beginning, the monastery’s main building was the Smolensk Cathedral, a majestic, richly decorated, beautifully proportioned structure that is today one of the country’s best preserved monuments of 16th- and 17th-century architecture. The cathedral is home to the icon of the Mother of God of Our Lady of Smolensk, placed there following Smolensk’s defeat.

Soon after its founding, Novodevichy became a women’s monastery of the court. To it were sent the wives and daughters of the great princes – sometimes willingly, sometimes forcibly. While women’s monasteries may have represented places for control, they fulfilled another purpose that, to some women, represented quite the opposite. These women saw monasteries as places from which they might find a voice that enabled them to challenge socially prescribed values, either through social action or reflective writing. Such was the case for many Russian women who entered monasteries later, in the 19th and 20th centuries: these women were seeking alternative communities and ways of providing service to people in need – the unfortunate, disposed, disabled, elderly, or impoverished members of society who had nowhere else to go. Thus, monasteries could be sources of strength, traditional places, but also, the means by which women could establish communities at the grassroots level, making small inroads toward personal freedom.

In addition to Novodevichy’s contribution to the formation of the Russian state, it also provided the setting for key events in Russian history. In the Smolensk Cathedral in 1598, the Patriarch proclaimed Boris Godunov Tsar. During the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), the monastery served as the site of bloody combat with Polish armies. The first Romanov tsar, Mikhail Fedorovich, ordered the monastery’s restoration following its damage in battle. In 1689, Peter the Great compelled his half-sister Sophia to take the veil here in the power struggle that developed over Peter’s taking the throne. Later, when Peter made his historic first trip to Western Europe in 1697, Sophia’s family attempted to seize power in a mutiny led by palace guards (streltsy). Following the uprising’s failure, Peter had 772 participants executed in October 1698, including 193 dispatched directly beneath the windows of Sophia’s cell in Novodevichy’s Nadprudnaia Tower. In 1724, more in keeping with Novodevichy’s charitable purpose, Peter the Great founded an orphanage in the convent, which by 1750 cared for approximately 250 girls.

In the historical imagination, Novodevichy thus became a place whose relationship with people was many-sided: the monastery played an important part in Russia’s early historical development; it was a place of great beauty and serenity; it served as a fortress to which people could go in times of danger; it was a refuge for women in times of misfortune. These multiple elements were part of the national memory, and, while they might be suppressed, they were not obliterated.

Burials of Note

The monastery’s two cemeteries contain the graves of some of Russia’s most renowned political and cultural figures. They include Napoleonic war hero Denis Davydov; writers Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, and Mikhail Bulgakov; composer Aleksandr Scriabin; artists Isaac Levitan and Valentin Serov; philosopher Vladimir Soloviev; theatrical director Konstantin Stanislavskii; and the Tretiakov brothers, Pavel and Sergei, founders of the famous art gallery that bears their name. The Soviet period is also well represented: poet Vladimir Mayakovsky; Joseph Stalin’s second wife, Nadezhda; Nikita Khrushchev; and Boris Yeltsin.

Closure and Reopening

While the spiritual influence of monasteries and convents would continue to resonate in the national memory, their physical presence after 1917 was severely curtailed. While the Russian Empire had 1,025 operating convents in 1914, by 1929 the Soviet government had closed them all, including Novodevichy in 1926.

Not until fall 1994 did Russian authorities return the famous convent to the church. On 13 October, Mother Serafima was welcomed into Novodevichy, given holy orders, and charged with restoring its religious life. On 27 November 1994, 72 years after its closure by the government, Novodevichy Convent was officially reopened.

Mother Serafima’s Family History

When I met Mother Serafima for the first time in the summer of 1995, she had served as the head of Novodevichy for nearly seven months. She was in her early 80s and stood only about four feet, ten inches. But neither of these characteristics bore witness to the vitality and strength she obviously possessed. She greeted me with a firm handshake and a warm smile, and one would immediately sense in her a quiet dignity and self-assured demeanor that bespeaks a person who is well educated and deeply spiritual.

Mother Serafima pulled from a sideboard a family photograph album that contained pictures of her relatives, including several uncles who had served the Russian and later Soviet state before disappearing into labor camps. One of the first photographs in the album showed her father standing with Tsar Nicholas II and his family; in others, her uncle and male relatives were in military uniforms of the pre-revolutionary Russian army. She was clearly connected, not only to the Soviet period, but also to the old Russian nobility and to some of the key events in Russia’s pre-revolutionary history.

Metropolitan Serafim

One ancestor, Admiral Vasilii Yakovlevich Chichagov, explored the Arctic Ocean at the behest of Catherine the Great. Her grandfather, Leonid Mikhailovich Chichagov, wrote a book about the Russian army in which Mother Serafima took particular interest and considerable pride. This work of more than 600 pages focuses on Tsar Aleksander II’s personal participation in the campaigns along the Dnieper River during the Russo-Turkish wars. At the age of 40, her grandfather gave up his position in the army to enter the church, preparing to study for the priesthood. That decision was precipitated by the death of his wife, at the age of 36. In 1898, he took monastic vows and was given the name Serafim, in honor of Serafim of Sarov (1759-1833), whose life and teachings he much admired. He was appointed to the rank of metropolitan in 1917, the ceremony taking place in the Uspenskii Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin. One of Mother Serafima’s photographs showed her grandfather standing beside the last Romanov tsar, Nicholas II, and his family.

After his consecration, Leonid Mikhailovich served in a Moscow cathedral located where the Lenin Library now stands. Just behind the library stands the Church of the Blessed Nicholas, part of the original church complex where Leonid Mikhailovich conducted services for more than 20 years. But the most distinctive feature of his church career was his role in advancing the cause of the canonization of the revered monk, Serafim of Sarov. Leonid Mikhailovich wrote a book that made a convincing case for Serafim’s activities and contributions. Leonid Mikhailovich’s campaign succeeded when Tsar Nicholas II himself, having read this book about Serafim, became a supporter of the idea of canonization and urged the church’s compliance. Mother Serafima had a photograph, taken in January 1917, of Tsar Nicholas II and his family bearing the remains of Saint Serafim. As for her grandfather’s fate, she knew only that he had been arrested in 1937 at the age of 85 and had disappeared into the labor camps.

Honoring the Memory of Repressed Believers

While Mother Serafima had asked the KGB for files on her grandfather, her requests had repeatedly been met with silence. But in 1994 came an important break. From a friend, she learned of a woman living in Moscow who had collected information on the labor camps and their victims. She went to the address she was given, a small one-room apartment in a Moscow suburb. There she found an old woman, living alone in cramped quarters, her apartment filled with boxes of index cards. For years she had collected the names of 20,000 people who had been shot, and she had transcribed the information, preserving a record and fleshing out the story of those who had disappeared into death camps. It was here that Mother Serafima found her grandfather. He had been executed and buried near Butovo, a small village just south of Moscow that had a special rifle range operated by the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police.

With the old woman’s permission, but her insistence on anonymity, Mother Serafima took her evidence to Metropolitan Yuvenaly, a leading member of the Holy Synod, told him her story, and asked for his assistance. He complied, and together the two of them went in search of Butovo and her grandfather’s grave. “I shall never forget that excursion,” Mother Serafima said. “It was in the middle of winter, and the former rifle range was surrounded by some kind of special fence. It had only one entrance gate, which we found and had opened for us. We located the mass grave, the place where in 1937 many priests were executed and buried in the field.”

Following their location of the site, Metropolitan Yuvenaly took the lists of executed bishops, priests, and laity who had suffered for their beliefs to Patriarch Aleksi II. Additionally, the lists included the names of the last monks of the Troitse-Sergieva Monastery at Sergiev Posad. Over several weeks in 1994, the Orthodox newspaper Pravoslavnaia Moskva published the entire list of executed people, with accompanying photographs. On Easter 1994, Patriarch Aleksi II consecrated the field where Mother Serafima’s grandfather and other leaders of the church were shot. F

Editor’s Note: The conclusion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Edited excerpts reprinted with permission from Wallace L. Daniel, The Orthodox Church and Civil Society in Russia (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2006), with additional material added from Wallace L. Daniel, “Reconstructing the ‘Sacred Canopy’: Mother Serafima and Novodevichy Monastery,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 59 (April 2008), 249-71.

Wallace L. Daniel is provost at Mercer University, Macon, Georgia.