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As one takes a closer look at the rich bouquet of the Russian cultural legacy and traditions-including painting, music, architecture and the applied arts-one immediately becomes aware of what one could call an unmistakable "flavor of ascetism". This flavor has been left to us by centuries of ascetic and prayerful life of the founders of the early Russian monasteries and their devout flock.

With his famous Word on the Law and Grace (written between 1037 and 1050) Metropolitan Hilarion traces the origin of the first monastic communities to the reign of Prince Vladimir of Kiev (?-1015, honoured with the title "Equal to the Apostles" for making Christianity the official religion in his dominions in 988). The Word hails that time as "the dawn of the true faith" when "heathen altars were smashed and replaced with churches, idols were torn down and replaced with icons of saints, when demons fled and the towns were sanctified with the Cross". It was then that "cloisters stood up upon mountains with hermits who dwelled therein". According to the Old Russian chronicle The Tale of Bygone Years, it was in the reign of Prince Yaroslav the Wise (978-1054) that "monks grew in number and monasteries began to appear". This process got a new momentum with the establishment in 1062 of the famous Kiev- Pechery Lavra, or the Kiev Crypt Monastery (originally a grotto near Kiev dug by the monk Antony from Mount Athos). As the Christian faith continued to spread across Eastern Europe promoting cultural links with the Byzantine (East Roman) Empire, Athens and Bulgaria, the number of monasteries continued to grow. By the time of the Tatar invasion (early 13th cent.) there were no less than 70 or 80 such cloisters with most of them located, until the middle of the 14th century, at towns.

The famous Russian historian Vassily Klyuchevsky (1841-1911) points out that the prevailing atmosphere of coenobitic life was that of work, meditation and prayer. Many chose to withdraw from the "vanities of this world" so as to lead a life of perfection, in greater security possible, under the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In the decades before the Tatar-Mongol invasion two thirds of all the monasteries in Russia were founded by princes and boyars who wanted to have prayerful intercessors of their own to supplicate the Almighty for the remission of the heavy burden of their sins even after their death. And it was not uncommon for Russian princes to take monastic vows on their deathbed in the hope of being granted the Life Everlasting.

Christian Monasticism owes its origin to the desire of withdrawing from this insecure world into a monastic cell with its life of spiritual joy, and blissful dedication to the Truth and Beauty Supreme. The style of life in a cloister, a desire of its dwellers to gain the bliss of mystical communion with the Lord, the Blessed Virgin and the saints held a peculiar aesthetic attraction. This feeling was generated by the very monasteries most of which were usually located on the high banks of rivers and lakes, amidst "green forests" and "clear fields". Their walls and towers and the golden domes and shining crosses of their churches blended into a sacred space evoking the images of Heavenly Jerusalem or the Garden of Eden. A monastery comprised the "holy ground", or cloister, with the main church, cemetery and the Holy Gate, all that surrounded by monastic cells, household structures and the like.

The brethren had to abide by the special norms of monastic ethics as the standard of perfection. In the words of Yuri Lotman, a leading cultural expert (1922-1993), it must be both dogmatic and individual at once with the latter in a measure whereby man should strive for an unattainable ideal in all areas of his activity


Medieval Christian conscience combines rejection of this world and its acceptance. As the leading Russian philosopher Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944) noted, "it is this combination of the opposite things in its intensity that generates the greatest energy of ascetic and religiously-motivated work. This free ascetic labor is the spiritual- economic force which cements the foundation of all European culture." He also stresses that "the idealistic nature of labor ... has also been a powerful

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factor promoting economic development". A searching analysis of the causes of economic prosperity of monasteries was offered by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). In his view the most radical religious ethics urged monks to give up the ownership of material benefits and prohibited personal property: one had to toil for a living. But the paradox was that ascetism produced wealth which it denied: everywhere monasteries turned into foci of rational economy "Thanks to the ascetic discipline of labor," - Sergei Bulgakov pointed out, - "monasteries had a great role to play in the economic development of Europe in epoch when colonization and the cultivation of wilderness involved particular problems."

And right from the start monasteries became centers of education and book-learning. They amassed rich collections of manuscripts and works of art, and they set up workshops and depositaries. Monasteries also sponsored schools and other educational establishments. Prince Vladimir of Kiev "sent our messengers to pick children from the best families and send them for book-learning" {The Tale of Bygone Years). Monasteries had a special role to play in the propagation of letters and culture, because this was regarded as an activity especially pleasing unto God. In-depth studies of books were regarded as a duty of monks. Dating back to the time of Prince Yaroslav the Wise is this inspired hymn to books: "Great is the benefit of book- learning... They (books) are the rivers which fill the Universe, the well-spring of wisdom. Books have immeasurable depth and they comfort us in our sorrows; they are the bridle of abstinence" (The Tale of Bygone Years). It was in the monasteries that manuscripts (and not only divine MS!) were copied and decorated with miniatures, and there were also workshops of builders and painters (of icons, frescoes and mosaics). Nuns were skilled in the making of fabrics and in the art of embroidery with gold thread and pearls.

Monasteries reared famous Christian thinkers and preachers who carried the message of spiritual salvation into the wide world with its lurking threats and demoniac temptations. Closely linked with their countrymen, monastic communities absorbed people from all social groups. In economic activities, as well as in churches and in schools, the monks came in touch with the nobility and the common town and village folk. In their preaching missionaries tried to adhere to the traditional mind- sets of the majority, trying to avoid delving into theological subtleties. Cloisters evolve into charity institutions with hospitals and asylums for the elderly and needy

The Kiev-Pechery Lavra (Monastery) was the cradle of Russian chronicles. The Reverend Nestor is traditionally honoured as the writer of the first Russian chronicle (he lived in the latter half of the l lth century), while the Father Superior of another Kievan monastery, Silvester (early 12th century), compiled the first collection of chronicles.

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The building and decoration of churches and the icon-painting were always regarded by monks as a salvific mission. This was not just a matter of skills, but a sacred act which involved an elevated state of mind and spirit, and called for some special ritual mode of behavior.

The Kiev-Pechery Patericon (llth-13th cent.) - a collection of instructive narratives about the feats of faith of the Lavra brethren-abounds in the descriptions of the daily chores (ora et labord) of the local ascetics. Lives of saints contain vivid accounts of the ascetic life of the monks who took care of all of their daily needs thus urging the laymen to follow their lofty example.

It was through their traditional way of life and with the help of "teacher-monks" that the Russian monasteries, especially in the process of the establishment of Christianity in Russia, exerted a beneficial influence upon the societal mores which remained pagan in many respects. In the decades before the Tatar conquest it was customary for the common folk to flock to the monastery for a word of consolation and edification.

Princes and members of their court sent in certain amounts of gold, silver or expensive tableware as gifts of commemoration for the departed. And wealthy persons wishing to join monastic orders often brought in expensive "entrance fees".

What the Soviet historical science mentions but in passing in connection with the development of literacy, architecture and decorative arts is the crucial cultural and creative mission of the monasteries.


The celebrated Kiev-Pechery Lavra (Monastery) was founded on the high right bank of the Dnieper near Kiev in the middle of 11th century And practically right from the start the monastery produced a strong impact on the spiritual mold of the nation. The Lavra owes its special place among all other Russian monasteries as a focal point of Orthodox enlightenment, a center for the propagation of the Christian faith across this country and also as a school of monasticism. The list of its brethren includes such truly brilliant personalities as the painter Alimpiy whose radiant colors are said to have cured a leper and who painted his icons with the assistance of holy angels in the flesh. Father Agapit of the Lavra cured many of the sick. The monastery sheltered within its walls the early Russian schools and later opened a big printing house. The Lavra had a special status of its own being independent from the Metropolitan of Kiev and being under the direct authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople himself. Its Father Superior (hegumen) held the high rank of archimandrite (from the Greek "ruler of the fold").

The cloister was founded by St. Antony (?-1073)-the pioneer of coenobitic communities in Russian monasteries, and St. Feodosiy (?-1074). They represented two different, though hardly distinguishable, shades of sanctity. The former took monastic vows on Mount Athos and was the follower of the strict ascetic life of the monks of the Holy Mount. He established

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himself in a grotto some three miles away from Kiev. In that grotto, located in a virgin forest on the right bank of the Dnieper, he led the life of a hermit for several years during which time he was joined by other brethren. When they were twelve, they dug a cave in which they made a church and monastic cells. Their Father Superior was monk Varlaam after whose departure Antoniy gave his blessing to Feodosiy to take up that post as a person "skilled in all kinds of good works". But brother Antoniy wished to lead a life of strict seclusion and dug for himself a separate crypt-the starting point of what are now the St. Antoniy Caves (commonly known as the Near Caves). His style of life was reminiscent of the ascetic feats of the early recluses of Egypt and Syria, and the local faithful honored him for his gift of miraculous cures and prophesies which he received in the constant struggle against evil temptations.

Feodosiy represented a different-Russian-type of sanctity which was close to the Palestinian and Byzantine ideals. He sacrificed the feat of silent contemplation of a recluse for the sake of communal labor and fraternal life, striving for a harmony of the ideals of prayer and work (ora et labord). As was noted by the Russian thinker Georgi Fedotov (1886-1951), "the holy father did not exclude worldly and political controversies from his spiritual judgement. Standing up for the truth, he was ready to accept banishment and death... This was his stand at all times and on all matters: far from one-sidedness and radicalism, and enjoying the full measure of Christian life". In the person of Feodosiy Russian Orthodox spirituality, while preserving the Byzantine ascetic tradition, accentuated the evangelical principle of active love and service for your neighbor and charity The Lavra chronicler Nestor left us a vivid description of Feodosiy as a teacher, his active stand on the actions of the ruling prince and his championship of social peace. And it is St. Feodosiy, and not St. Antoniy, who is regarded as the father of Russian monasticism and honored as the founder of the Lavra which was hailed in the years of his primacy as the Russian Mount Tabor.

Around the year 1070 Father Feodosiy adopted the Rule of the Studios Monastery established by St. Theodore the Studite (?-826), the father superior of that famous monastery of Constantinople which was later adopted by other monastic communities.

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He regimented the whole order of life of the Lavra, including the conduct of services of worship, the rules of behavior in church and at meals, and the food for different days of the week. Every member of the monastic community had to work for the common good, spending his days in fasting and wakeful prayer, and having no personal possessions. Monastic life was submitted to strict discipline with the brethren fully submitting themselves to the Father Superior and the Father Confessor.

Since the time of St. Feodosiy the Lavra never severed its broad and manifold links with the outside world. Almost all of the first Bishops of Novgorod, for example, came from the Lavra brethren. Its many missionaries risked their lives and even sacrificed themselves in their Christian preaching, conveying to the tribes in various regions the principles of humanism in the spirit of the Gospel Commandments. Among them was St. Kuksha, who preached among the tribe of Vyatichi and who suffered a martyr's death. The list of the famous church figures associated with the Pechery Monastery also includes St. Nikita, the Bishop of Novgorod (1108), who is remembered as a model of piety St. Leontiy, the bishop of Rostov who baptized the flock (circa 1051) and St. Stefan, the Bishop of Vladimir-Volynsky (1094). The history of a whole number of what were borderline dioceses of the Russian Church is tied up with the Kiev-Pechery Lavra, the "mother of Russian monasteries".


The Tatar-Mongol conquest turned some monasteries into ruins and promoted the building of new ones in their place. From the beginning of the 14th to the middle of the 15th century as many as 180 new monasteries sprung up in various regions. This numerical growth was due to the concessions granted to the Russian clergy by the invaders who did not want to have them on the side of their opponents. And the general religious sentiments among the people were accentuated by the atrocities of the invaders and mounting oppression.

In those years monasteries had a progressive role to play in consolidating the Muscovy Principality. Of particular importance in this respect was the Monastery of the Holy Trinity founded by St. Sergiy (Sergius) of Radonezh in the middle of the 14th century in the vicinity of Moscow. Some of its brethren went on missions in the country's north, setting up new cloisters in Moscow, Tver, Nizhni Novgorod and in the vicinity of Kostroma, Novgorod the Great and Pskov. Among them were the Prilutsky Monastery near Vologda, the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery (of St. Cyril on Lake Beloye) and the celebrated Solovetsky Monastery on an island in the White Sea. The number of monks in monasteries of this period ranged from 300 in some to 5 or 6 in others, and there were stone churches and cathedrals in the biggest of them. During that period by far not all such cloisters were located in capital cities and towns under the patronage of apanage princes and also boyars, wealthy citizens and church hierarchs. Most of these new monasteries sprung up "in the wilderness" that is, in virgin forests.

Hagiographic literary monuments describe Orthodox ascetics coming to grips with wild nature and bandits who often hid in such out-of-the-way places. In keeping with traditional views the common folk in Russia of that period regarded thick woods and remote swamps as abodes of demons and all kinds of evil ghosts that vanished when some recluse entered this wilderness and placed an Orthodox cross there. Prayers of saintly hermits scattered away the evil legions.

In the words of the historian Vassily Klyuchevsky, "a monastery in the wilderness instilled... a special mood in its brethren; a special attitude was formed as to the tasks of monasticism; the founder of a community withdrew into forests to seek salvation in silent solitude... He was then joined by others who also sought silent prayer and they established a hermitage. Their ascetic way of life and the fame of their acts of faith attracted to them from far and away not only worshippers and donors, but also common peasants who settled around the monastery with its growing wealth which they regarded as their religious and economic stronghold, felling the surrounding forests and clearing the ground for crop fields and villages... In such places monastic colonization met with that of the peasants, offering to the latter its involuntary guidance... A broad colonization movement gained ground which, proceeding from just a few centers, reached out

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into some of the most remote and inaccessible spots over the span of four centuries and planted monasteries in the vast expanses of virgin woods in the middle and northern Russia."

Cloisters gradually came into possession of large amounts of land, and became centers of farming and enlightenment of vast regions. The richest of them launched the construction of stone buildings and structures on a large scale. Sheltered behind stone walls and fortifications, such monasteries turned into strongholds.


Upon their foundation Russian monasteries of the time received from the local princes charters of ownership for the surrounding lands which also provided for all sorts of privileges, such as the lifting of all taxes, and quit-rents; all that attracted more peasants to the flock.

In the 16th-18th centuries many monasteries gradually turned into major landowners. The basic form of their wealth were gifts of land from secular authorities; yet another source of wealth were munificent gifts of commemoration for the departed- not only in the form of land or money, but also in costly church articles, church bells, candles, icons and service books. Upon taking monastic vows people of high rank (few of the

Russian czars passed away without such vows) donated large sums of money and apanage villages. The 16th-century critics kept stressing that, contrary to the church rules, monasteries offered interest loans to their own peasants. Monks attended lavish remembrance and holiday feasts. The book of records of the Solovetsky Monastery dating back to the reign of Czar Alexei Mikhailovich (1629-1676) mentions 191 such feasts.

In the 16th-century sources-both official and literary-one finds complaints over the slackening discipline in monasteries. There were also changes in the composition of monastic communities, and Czar Ivan the Terrible openly declared, "They withdraw into monasteries not for the salvation of their souls, but for the sake of bodily comfort and plentiful meals."

The problem of monastic possessions generated stormy public disputes which went on almost until the end of the 16th century. St. Nil Sorsky (circa 1433-1508) set up, upon his return from pilgrimages to Palestine, Constantinople and Mount Atos (where he was carried away with the principles of non-possession), some lonely sketes, or hermitages, of just two or three monastic cells for his followers which were but few in number. For the saint the main thing in life was a state of inner spiritual concentration when "the mind guards the heart" from the passions and thoughts of this world. He was strongly opposed to monasteries having land and other possessions.

Standing on firmer ground, which was a far cry from the ideology of non-possession, was his ideological opponent losif of Volotsk (1440-1515), a prominent polemicist who founded in 1479 the Volokolamsk Monastery, one of the richest in Russia. An enemy of sundry innovations, he defended the legitimate nature of land possessions owned by monastic communities, upheld the lavish decor of churches and their collections of expensive icons and books. At the Church Council of 1503 the church hierarchy carried the day, defeating the arguments in favour of secularization (return to the state) of monastic landed estates.

The decline of the medieval civilization on Russian soil coincided with the beginning of a cultural and economic decline of the monasteries and their dwindling role in public affairs. When some of them turned into centers of the church schism in the latter half of the 17th century, the Church Council of 1681 banned the building of new cloisters and ruled in favor of a merger of small monasteries. The plight of Russian monastic communities was not alleviated in the reign of Peter the Great. Faced with stubborn monastic opposition to his reforms, the Tzar regarded monks as people living at the expense of others and as a source of heresies and superstitions. Already in the 1690s Peter the Great banned the building of any new monasteries. In 1701 he ordered a census of all of the existing monasteries in order to determine the overall number of brethren. Bitter attacks were directed at hermitages as the ostensible strongholds of schism. In the reign of Peter the Great the former favorites of devout Russian rulers were transformed into institutions of the state. They were subordinated to the civil authorities who regarded them only in terms of their "utilitarian worth".


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Vladislav DARKEVICH, Dr. Sc. (Hist.), RAS Institute of Archeology, CULTURAL LEGACY WITH MONASTIC FLAVOR // New-York: Libmonster (LIBMONSTER.COM). Updated: 07.09.2018. URL: (date of access: 22.06.2024).

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