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Each and everyone of us has been aware, sooner or later in life, of an urge for being left completely alone. The urge could be prompted by an unconscious desire to get to know one's own self and what one really wants in this life. For hundreds, if not thousands, of "solitude seekers" over the centuries the ultimate bliss was attainable in the seclusion of a monastic cell-a place where one's exhausted soul finds a compassionate listener and Interlocutor Divine...
By Kseniya DYADКОVA, science editor, Nauchnaya Kniga journal
This line of human reasoning and logic is discussed in one of the latest NAUKA publications - a book called "Monasticismand Monasteries in Russia. XI - XX: Historical Essays" which came out at the end of the year 2002. The book is a collection of articles by staff of the Center for History of Religion and the Church of the RAS Institute of Russian History. And it goes without saying that there has been any number of books in this country on various aspects and activities of the Russian Orthodox Church. Most of them, however, focused on just one historical period, event or problem. But this time around the aforesaid monograph, thanks to a lucky choice of the surveys, follows what one could call a single line of narration which helps the reader to see a comprehensive picture of the history of Russian monasticism and monasteries. The story begins from the very beginning until the closure of all monasteries in the years from 1917 to 1938, and their gradual recovery that has been going on since 1943 (during the Great Patriotic War with Nazi Germany).
The monograph examines the key stages in the lives of Russian cloisters, starting with their original introduction to Rus. After the earliest monastic-ism of St. Anthony of Egypt (later 3rd-early 4th centuries) the system and doctrine found its way to Kievan Rus shortly after its formal adoption of Christianity - its "Baptism" in 11th century. And the most famous symbol of that time was the celebrated Kiev-Pecherskaya Lavra which was founded in 1051 by the recluse St. Anthony of Pechery. And practically since that time one can trace the appearance of landed possession of monasteries (originally as gifts from the princes and wealthy parishioners), accompanied by the development of farming and cattle breeding. With time the range of such economic activities broadend, including all sorts of charities and the establishment of orphanages and asylums for the needy. Being in possession of some considerable sums of money (from donations of the faithful, farming, etc.) monasteries engaged in certain financial affairs. At the same time they turned into major centers of learning and education, opening their own schools where pupils studied
reading and writing and theology and where monks copied and distributed religious manuscripts. And it were monks who recorded in manuscript chronicles historical and political events taking place in various principalities of the Early Rus.
By the time of the Tatar-Mongol invasion (early 13th century) the total number of Russian monasteries approached 80 and the growth continued up to the mid-14th century. And the important fact was that these monasteries were located either in or near urban centers, and one striking example of this kind was Novgorod the Great where 27 cloisters sprung up within a short time.
The monograph under review offers a detailed picture of the period of Russia' unification which was closely linked with the figure of St. Sergy of Radonezh (circa 1321 - 1391)-the most celebrated Russian saint*), the founder and the first hegumen of the famous Trinity-St. Sergy Laura**. He took an active part in the spiritual life of the nation, founding several monasteries and bringing up a number of his followers and spiritual heirs. His personal feats of faith and asceticism made him famous far and beyond the boundaries of the Moscow Principality. And although the years of what we call the Mongol-Tatar Yoke - the Tartar invasion-produced a toll of destruction of Russian monasteries, it also triggered the construction of new ones (from the start of the 16th century to the middle of the 15th century as many as 180 of them appeared, with most of them being located in "wilderness" - virgin forests).
Russian monasteries provided an immeasurable contribution to the spiritual growth and development of this nation. They amassed fine libraries, built churches of outstanding artistic value, perfected the art of icon-painting and produced fine works of applied art and painting. In many monasteries of that period, for example (Ferapontov Monasteries in the Vologda Region, the Pafnutyevo-Borovskoi and Iosifo-Volokolamsky near Moscow, and the Dormiti-on Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin) we find frescoes and icons of the famous Dionisy (circa 1440-after
* See: B. Kloss, "Being a Saint in Russia' Science in Russia, No. 1, 1993.- Ed.
** See: V. Darkevich, "Monastery of St. Sergy' Science in Russia, No. 2, 2000.- Ed.
1502/1503)*. Craftsmen of the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery (Vologda Region) produced remarkable carved frameworks (oklady) for icons, beautiful crosses, table spoons inlaid with walrus bone which were treasured all over the land, and wooden tableware. And the monks also produced table salt and threshed grain**.
One of the articles in the collection is devoted to the famous Russian church figure - St. Nil Sorsky. At the Church Council (convention) of 1503 he raised - for the first time in the history of Russian Orthodoxy - the problem of monastic ownership of property. Motivated by concern about the spiritual and mystical aspects of monasticism, he called for a stricter observance of the vows of poverty. In his view this could be achieved by abandoning both personal (of individual monks) and "collective" monastery ownership of property and renouncing excessive economic activities, like commerce and financial operations. And, as one could expect, the "utopic" program of St. Nil did not arouse any positive response on the part of the Council (and the Tsar) because in the 16th-17th centuries monasteries were actively involved in the social and economic activities of Russia (the conflict of "Possessors" and "Non- Possessors").
There are some very interesting articles in the collection shedding light on the difficult situation of the Russian church in the 18th century. One of the burning problems of the time was that of monastery independence which did not fit into the policy of a centralized state. Many sources call this "synodal period" because after the demise in 1700 of Patriarch Adrian, Emperor Peter the Great, anxious to secure the subjugation of the Church to his authority, delayed the elections of a new head of the Church, replacing this office in general with the Holy Synod in 1721.
In the reign of Peter the Great many monasteries were simply closed, while others, "with few brethren", were reorganized into bigger ones and formal restrictions were introduced on the opening of new cloisters. An Ukase (decree) of December 30, 1701, established money allowances to monasteries from the state. By 1707 an inventory of church property was completed.
The church reform was completed by Empress Catherine II by her Decree of February 26, 1764, under which all landed possessions of the Holy Synod, bishoprics, cloisters and parishes had to be surrendered to the Economics Collegium. Special regulations determined the number of monasteries entitled to annual government grants, their size and the number of brethren in each registered cloister. As a result, the number of monasteries in Russia dropped sharply (by two thirds during the Synodal period).
But even despite such formal restrictions by the powers that be new monasteries sprung up here and there, turning
* See: V. Darkevich, "Frescoes of Dionisius", Science in Russia, No. 4, 2000.- Ed.
** See: V. Darkevich, "In the 'Northern Thebaid'", Science in Russia, No. 3, 2000,- Ed.
into the spiritual centers of the nation in the late 18th and 20th centuries. The Temnikovskaya Sarovskaya Hermitage (not far from Nizhni Novgorod) rose to fame thanks to the ascetic feats of Brother Serafim (St. Serafim of Sarov) (1758 - 1833). This was Mowed by the rise of the Vvedenskaya Optina Hermitage (Kaluga Region) with the fame of its elderly monks (starets - under the vows of schema - the strictest monastic rule in Orthodox Church) spreading all across the land. Suffice it to say that hundreds of devout peasants, craftsmen, merchants, aristocrats and prominent intellectuals (like the great Russian writers Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy) went there for a meeting with the famous Starets (recluse) Amvrosy.
The legal status of the monasteries was determined by the "Code of Laws of the Russian Empire", compiled by Count M. Speransky, which went into force in 1832. Apart from the regulations on federal ownership of land (under a Decree of 1797 issued by Emperor Pavel I in 1797 monasteries were allowed to possess 30 desyatins of land) it was stated that cloisters could accept gifts of land, but only with royal permission. Monasteries were also banned from having landed possessions populated by local peasants.
But apart from landed possessions, monasteries had other sources of income at their disposal. These were, above all, federal subsidies, small as they really were. And the most significant share of income remained private donations from numerous pilgrims and wealthy individuals. Some monasteries were running mills, had icon-painting and book-binding workshops, workshops for candles, etc. And some monasteries even acted as landlords or house-owners.
Summing it up, the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century was a very favorable time for Russian monasteries and their number doubled over this period.
But then came the Revolution of October 1917 and events which brought to a halt the normal progression of 1,257 monasteries across Russia... This hurricane of destruction could not pass without a trace for the ethics and morality of the nation... By 1938 not a single functioning monastery was left in the Soviet Union.
1943 saw the first signs of revival of the Orthodox Church in this country: the government decided that its authority and influence on the masses could be used to promote the objectives of the ruling elite-completing the war with the nazi invaders and introducing Communist ideology in the countries of Eastern Europe which had strong religious traditions. This revival, however, went on under strict state control.
The late 1950s saw another change in the policy of the Soviet government in this field-a campaign was launched against "religious vestiges", with churches and monasteries being shut down just like in the past. And it was only in the mid-1980s that changes favorable for the Church began to take place in this country. One hopes against hope that this period will continue now and become irreversible, making it possible to produce and preserve for our future generations monuments of spiritual and material culture of this nation.
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