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Alexander Nevsky Monastery

Alexander Nevsky Monastery

Historic and revitalized Alexander Nevsky Monastery is a beautiful complex of churches dating back to the time of the city's founding and prestigious cemeteries that house the graves of some of Russia's historic cultural giants including Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, Glinka and others.

Peter I founded the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in July 1710 on the left bank of the Neva River close to the Black River in the place where Swedish maps of the 17th century showed the Swedish fort "Landskrona".

Landskron was the first reinforced settlement on the territory of future St. Petersburg, according to S. Shultz in his book St. Petersburg Churches. It was built in the summer of 1300, a year later it was sacked by troops of Prince Andrei, son of Alexander Nevsky.

When Peter I decided to move the holy remains of St. Alexander Nevsky to St. Petersburg, he himself marked the spot where the remains were to be preserved.

A place was selected and a chapel built on the upper left bank of the Neva River in remembrance of the famous Nevsky Battle of 1240 between the troops of young Novgorod Prince Alexander Yaroslavich and Swedish commander Berger, ending in the defeat of the Swedes. Peter I knew the actual location of the battle was higher up on the left bank of the Neva River, closer to the mouth of the Izhora River where a wooden church was already built at the beginning of the 16th century. However, he thought it was more important to put the monastery closer to his new Russian capital city.

After Peter I's armies defeated the Swedes at Poltava in 1709 and seized Viborg, Riga and Reval in 1710, St. Petersburg was considered secure. In 1712 on the left bank of the Black River the first wooden church was constructed on the site of the future monastery. It was consecrated on March 25, 1713 in the presence of Peter I. Soon after, monastic cells were added and monastic life officially began on the site.

In 1717 on the northern bank of the Black River over the grave of Tsaritsa Natalia, Peter's favorite sister who died on July 18, 1716, a stone church was built. In the same year according to the plan of architect Dominico Trezini, construction on a two-story church in the name of St. Alexander Nevsky began. On August 30, 1724 the church was consecrated and the remains of St. Alexander Nevsky were triumphantly placed in the church. The remains were brought to St. Petersburg from the ancient Russian city of Vladimir. The journey took several months. To move the remains a special ark coated in raspberry velvet was built. The holy remains were met and escorted in all the villages and cities on the way with crosses and icons and with short church services and chiming church bells. The day the remains were moved into the new church was celebrated each year as a holiday.

In 1750 Empress Elizabeth ordered that a silver shrine be built to shelter the holy remains. The shrine measured eight feet three inches in length by three feet seven inches in width.

The shrine was decorated with symbols of the famous Battle on the Ice fought on the ice of Lake Peipus in 1242 and the victories of Alexander Nevsky at the Battles of Pskov and Nevsky.

Incredibly, over a ton and a half of pure silver was used to build the shrine.

Each year on August 30 Empress Elizabeth walked in an annual pilgrimage from Kazan Cathedral to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and after the liturgy had lunch in the monastery.

A new cathedral was built in the monastery from 1776-90 according to the plan of architect Ivan Starov. The new cathedral was consecrated in the name of St. Trinity on August 30, 1790 in the presence of Empress Catherine II. On the same day the silver shrine with the holy remains of St. Alexander Nevsky was moved. In 1797, Emperor Pavel I re-named the monastery the Alexander Nevsky Monastery of the Holy Trinity.

By the beginning of the 20th century the territory of the monastery complex was home to an impressive 16 churches. Today, five still survive: the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Church of the Annunciation, St. Lazarus' Church, St. Nicholas' Church, and the Church of the Holy Mother of God "the Joy of all Mourners" which is over the monastery gates.

Over the course of two hundred years the churches of the monastery interred royalty and top government and church officials. The office of the St. Petersburg Metropolitan and St. Petersburg Spiritual Committee were also located within the walls of the monastery. In addition, the monastery housed the St. Petersburg Alexander Nevsky religious school. The monastery also owned a large amount of land on the right bank of the Neva River, which it rented to individuals.

The monastery and churches within the complex suffered the tragic destruction of most churches in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution but have gradually been revived with the end of the communist state.

Already in January 1918 the Bolsheviks attempted to seize the monastery and its valuables. Armed Red Guards forced their way into the monastery and killed Priest Peter Skipetrov when he tried to stop them. But the church bells were rung and thousands of supporters of the church gathered and staved off Bolshevik attempt to loot the church on this occasion.

However, the monastery, cathedrals and churches were shortly thereafter closed, robbed and looted of their church valuables. In 1919, a Communist Square was organized in front of the portico of the St. Trinity cathedral.

340 people were buried from 1919-1945 in the monastery's graveyards, mainly Soviet military and party leaders.

After the end of the Civil War, the looting of churches was ostensibly legalized. According to a Soviet directive of February 23, 1922 all church valuables including gold, silver and valuable stones were to be confiscated. The valuables were then to be handed over to the commission for prevention of starvation (Pomgol).

On March 6, 1922 Petrograd Metropolitan Benjamin was called to the Pomgol commission headquarters. He agreed to the transfer of all the monastery's valuables that were not absolutely necessary for conducting services. Moreover, he agreed that church officials were also to take part in deciding the fate of the churches' valuables.

However, Soviet officals soon became dissatisfied with the agreements and rounded up Metropolitan Benjamin, church leaders, prominent defenders and sympathizers of the church and had them shot on the night of August 13, 1922.

From 1931-36 all the churches and cathedrals within the monastery were closed including Holy St. Trinity Cathedral.

In 1932 a city museum was organized on part of the monastery territory.

The remaining territory was turned over to the city government, which soon distributed the space to a score of different institutes, offices and warehouses.

A new round of destruction began in the interior of the churches and old monastery graveyards. Hundreds of graves were destroyed in the Lazarevsky and Tikhvinsky graveyards. At the same time, the city moved the memorial graves of scientists, artists, writers, poets, composers and government officials to these graveyards. Many robberies and much destruction of the graves also took place at the monastery's third graveyard, the Nicholas graveyard, located just to the East of the St. Trinity Cathedral.

In 1955 after a number of petitions by believers in the city, the St. Trinity Cathedral was finally returned to the Orthodox Church. However, the destruction of church buildings and monastery graveyards continued. And the trading of graves continued well after 1959 when it was officially sanctioned.

Only in 1985 did services begin anew in the Nicholas church, located in the graveyard behind the St. Trinity Cathedral, and the trading and moving of graves also ceased. In June 1990 St. Trinity Cathedral became the center of the celebration of the 750 year anniversary of the Nevsky Battle, and in April 1992 it was the center of the 750 year anniversary of the famous Battle on the Ice fought on the ice of Lake Peipus in 1242. Moreover, on June 3, 1989 the holy remains of St. Alexander Nevsky were returned to the cathedral. Up until that time they were sheltered in the Museum of Religion and Atheism in the Kazan Cathedral.

One of the most fascinating parts of visiting the monastery complex is seeing the graves of many of Russia's famous artistic figures. The Tikhvin Cemetery, to the right, contains the most famous graves. In the far right-hand corner from its gate, you'll see an impressive bust of Tchaikovsky located above his grave. Close by you'll find the graves of Rubinshteyn, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glinka. If you follow the wall back in the direction of the gate you'll reach the tomb of Dostoevsky.

The other main cemetery, the Lazarus Cemetery, which faces the Tikhvin Cemetery across the entrance path, is the resting site of several great Leningrad architects including Starov, Quarenghi and Rossi.

Across the canal in the main lavra, or large monastery complex, you'll find the 1717-22 Baroque Annunciation Church on the left, now the City Sculpture Museum, which is open daily except Thursday. About 100 meters further on is the monastery's 1776-90 Holy Trinity Cathedral, which is once again open for worship. Large numbers of worshipers come here each year on September 12 to celebrate the feast of Alexander Nevsky. Opposite the cathedral is the St. Petersburg Metropolitan's House. On the far right of the grounds facing the canal is Leningrad's Orthodox Academy, one of only two in Russia (the other is outside Moscow at Sergiev Posad).

The Monastery is centrally located and easy to find on 1 Monastyrki River Emb. You can enter it from Alexander Nevsky Ploshchad opposite the Hotel Moskva. Tickets are sold outside the main gate and in summer you may have to book an hour or two ahead. Opening hours are 11 am to 6 pm, except Thursday and the first Tuesday of the month.

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