Mother Serafima and the Restoration of Novodevichy Convent
Wallace L. Daniel
Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church & Ministry
Report 16 (Fall 2008): 3-5.
Service in Soviet Industry
Mother Serafima’s professional career took place entirely within the Soviet period and was greatly shaped by the Soviet scientific establishment in which she rose to a prominent position. Born in St. Petersburg in 1914, she had no memory of her father who died on the front lines in the First World War. Both her father and her mother belonged to the Russian nobility; her father had worked in the Finnish legation under Nicholas II’s Prime Minister Peter Stolypin. In her later school years, she developed a passionate interest in chemistry. But after the Bolshevik Revolution, she knew she had little chance of gaining admission to a university wither aristocratic and clerical family background. Moscow State University remained for her just dream. Instead, she studied in the Moscow Oil Chemistry Technical Institute, specializing in subject in which there were then few applicants: higher molecular chemistry. It was a fortuitous choice because it led her into rubber technology, which “few people at that time considered to be very important.” During her years of study in the institute, she lived with her grandfather. It was at this time, after she had begun her studies, that he was arrested.
During World War II, the future Mother Serafima worked in a plant that produced rubber. She clearly recalled the enormous effort required in her factory to produce the material that the Soviet army required. Many nights “we would sleep only for two hours and sometimes not at all, and we simply went on working almost desperately to produce this material. During these years,” she emphasized, “I tried to keep my faith inside me – in my soul. “Mother Serafima spent 45 years as a chemist and researcher in the field of rubber technology, charting a highly successful career in Soviet science and technology. She devoted her life to her work, gaining considerable professional standing among the Soviet technical elite. Her accomplishments and the high value in which she was regarded were recognized by the awarding of many prestigious state prizes in chemistry and her appointment as deputy director of her research institute in Moscow. Soviet officials wanted to appoint her director, but she never joined the Communist Party, a requirement for the position. In 1953, following the death of Stalin, Serafima’s mother entered the Pyukhtitsa Dormition Nunnery at Iykhvi-Ukarty, Estonia, one of the three open convents and the largest in the Soviet Union.
From the age of 70 until her death at 80 in 1963, she served in this well-known convent. “Once the Party administration learned that my mother lived in the convent, they didn’t ask me again to join the Party.”
Retrieving a Family Legacy
The death of her husband in 1983 left a large void in Serafima’s life, she admitted, presenting her with a serious personal crisis. In addition, the political changes in Russia in the 1990s opened up religious opportunities that had been impossible for nearly half a century. After reading intensively in theological literature and consulting with priests who encouraged her, she decided to continue her search for the full story of her grandfather’s past. She gathered his sermons, many of which had remained unpublished, and searched archives for his theological writings.
This work moved forward, as she recalled, with great difficulty, as she sifted vigorously – and patiently – through collections that had been closed for many years. Eventually, she collected enough materials for two volumes, published under the title Da budet voyat Tvoya [LetThy Will Be Done]. She issued the volumes under her grandfather’s name rather than her own, adding short biography of his life. At the same time she was being pulled in the vocational direction of her grandfather.
Taking the Veil
In 1986 Mother Serafima entered the service of the church, and in 1992 she took the veil. My decision was quite natural to mesa’s a scientist, I had many rewards; my biography, in terms of Soviet life, was without any shadow. I understood, of course, that I would have to answer for everything. I needed to give up my pride; I needed to discover my humility. I decided therefore, to go to work in the cathedral [of the prophet Elijah]. My job was to sell candles; it was the lowest level work in the cathedral, and I did it for more than two years. And I learned a great deal from the experience because all this time talked with the people I met coming to the cathedral for the first time, people who knew nothing about religion. I had to explain everything to them. As a result, many days I only talked; I had no time to pray. In an attempt to respond to this hunger, she organized a group that met to study religion, art, and architecture and that traveled to many historical sites to examine these connections.
Abbess of Novodevichy Convent
In 1994, when the government returned Novodevichy to the Moscow Patriarchate, Mother Serafima was chosen to lead its revival. At age80 she had earned her retirement, but she chose another course. Her organizational skills, her experience as the assistant director of a scientific institute, and her own personal pilgrimage made her a logical choice to rebuild one of Russia’s most historic religious communities.
From the outset the relationship between church and state was an extremely delicate one, fraught with many problems. Currently, at Novodevichy, the church controls only the Smolensk Cathedral, trying to live peacefully with the other parts of the monastery that the state operates as a museum. Several reasons account for the cooperation between these two tenants: the museum has more funds than the church and can preserve important art objects in the cathedral, whereas the church has not yet been able to afford specialists to restore buildings and murals.
Novodevichy’s struggle to reassert itself is also closely related to the problem of finances. In pre-revolutionary Russia, monasteries often had extensive agricultural and craft operations, whose sales sustained religious and social activities. But at monasteries like Novodevichy, these economic traditions had been suppressed.
Mother Serafima also had to deal with family problems that confronted the monastery’s nuns every day. A large number of women came to the monastery seeking to rebuild broken lives and broken spirits. “Many women come here asking for help and needing counsel,” Mother Serafima said, “because they don’t have the means to live or because their husband or son often gets drunk and treats them badly. Sometimes these women simply ask me to bless or pray for them – to give them strength to deal with their hardships. “Because government-sponsored social services crumbled in the 1990s, Novodevichy and other religious institutions are struggling to fill the gap, despite extremely limited funds. Seeking to revive handcraft sales, long since banned in Soviet times, Mother Serafima took as her models the Convent of the Dormition in Pyukhtitsa, Estonia, where her mother lived, and the convent in Moscow at Kolomenskoe, which produces porcelain and embroidered cloth. “We are going to develop such possibilities,” she said emphatically. “Right now we are only in the initial stages, but we are going to work hard on these craft activities.”
“Everything, physical and psychological, was nearly destroyed and needs to be restored,” she told me in June 1997. “If I can contribute to this cause, it is primarily because I have 55 years of experience in organizational work.” Her task involved not the rebuilding of physical structures but the reconstruction of memories, traditions, life. Mother Serafima understood that what had to be overcome was the Soviet-spawned atmosphere of fear and terror that had promoted isolation and indifference toward one’s neighbors. Unlike the stereotype of a Russian monastery, Novodevichy under Mother Serafima was not removed from the world, but instead accepted the most difficult social and psychological problems as its own. In the summer of 1997, the nuns of Novodevichy were helping one of the main children’s hospitals in Moscow, caring for the elderly, and feeding the hungry. On 10 August 1997,the day of celebration of the Smolensk Mother of God Icon, Mother Serafima was preparing a dining table for220 people in the refectory of the cathedral. Such acts of compassion illustrate the revival of miloserdie, literally dear-heartedness, which evokes a whole range of Christian impulses: mercy, kindness, trust, and extension of the self to others.
For Mother Serafima this giving spirit came directly in conflict with the aggressive consumerism that was evident everywhere. In entering the monastery, she turned her back on her worldly possessions, including her house in a village and her flat in Moscow. Nevertheless, she had few regrets. Mother Serafima’s odyssey speaks profoundly tithe struggle to keep the spirit of compassion and caring alive and to nurture, under the most difficult circumstances, the religious underpinnings of that spirit. While Mother Serafima did not dispute the significance of Russia’s economic reforms, she did not see them as the forces that would ultimately shape Russia’s future identity. She believed that religion was the key to renewal, and the role that the church played would greatly influence Russia’s political and social development. Whether the church supported the xenophobic nationalism that its past ideology had so often motivated it to do, or whether the church became a more open, tolerant, compassionate, and socially active institution would play a large part in determining the chances for evolving a democratic structure in Russia.
Mother Serafima’s Gifts
In the time I spent with her, listening for hours as she recounted her experiences, Mother Serafima impressed me as a person of courage, conviction, and adaptability, who had united the private and public sides of her life. Her short physical stature belied the intensity with which she spoke, the seriousness with which she conveyed the memories of her family and joined those memories to the present. Kind, unpretentious, full of energy, Mother Serafima had become totally authentic in a way that she could not have realized earlier. And while she had experienced much of Russia’stragic20th-century history, it was the inner resources she commanded that stood out most. A person of character, she reminds us that outward appearance often conceals a great deal of what lies within, powerful resources that have their own way of working themselves out.
Mother Serafima’s attempts to rehabilitate her grandfather, both in name and deed, took dramatic turn in 1997. In February of that year, the bishops’ council of the Russian Orthodox Church voted to canonize two major figures of the 20thcentury,both of whom had perished in Stalin’s labor camps: Metropolitans Petr Polianskii and Leonid Mikhailovich Chichagov. Venerated for his courageous actions and humility in his service to the church, Leonid Mikhailovich represented thousands of priests who had suffered greatly before state authorities. But the bishops’ decision to canonize him also bore witness to the relentless efforts of his granddaughter and her determination to preserve his memory and spirit.
Mother Serafima died in December 1999.She was laid to rest near the main entrance to the Cathedral of the Assumption which she had served so effectively and where she had located her office. The black marble stone that marks her grave bears simply her name. Archbishop Gregory of Mozhaisk,in writing Mother Serafima’s obituary, noted thither sincerity and her ability to reach out to others, to the powerful and to the destitute, were among her Special gifts.
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