Gaze across the Moskva River to the onion domes rising inside the fortress-like walls of Novodevichy Convent, and it is as though you are stepping back into a fairy tale with imprisoned princesses staring out of tower windows. It is not far from the truth!
Founded in 1524 by Grand Duke Vasily III to commemorate a victory over the Lithuanians at Smolensk, the Convent, also known as the Bogoroditse-Smolensky Monastery, served several purposes. It was not only a place of religious worship; its fortified walls and crenellated towers were part of Moscow’s southern defenses, protecting the main access road into the city where it crossed the Moskva River. However, it served another more sinister purpose: this was where Russia’s powerful or inconvenient women — the mothers, wives, and daughters of the ruling class — were essentially imprisoned to remove them from society. Most of these women never left the premises alive.
The half-sister of Peter the Great, Sophia Alekseyeva, was imprisoned here in 1698 after he wrested control from her to rule Russia. Nine years later, when she supported a failed coup against him, legend has it that Peter executed 1,200 of her archers and had their corpses hung outside the convent windows. Sophia herself was sentenced to solitary confinement in the Pond Tower where she died six years later. Other noble women imprisoned in Novodevichy Convent included Peter the Great’s first wife, Eudozia Lupokhina, Ivan the Terrible’s daughter-in-law (Yelena Seremeteva) and Irina Gudonova (sister of Boris Gudonov).
Walk through the Transfiguration Gate Church into the Convent grounds today, and there is little in the hushed, serene atmosphere to recall this dark history. Central to the Convent is the six-pillared, five-domed cathedral dedicated to Our Lady of Smolensk. According to our guide, the grey domes are indicative that there is nobility buried beneath. Nearby are a few graves of Russian nobles as well as senior nuns.
In addition to the Cathedral, several other churches and structures dot the complex, many commissioned by Sophia Alekseyevna including the tall, red brick bell tower. The five-tiered red and white wedding cake structure was once the second-highest building in Moscow.
The Convent figures prominently in Tolstoy’s works. In War and Peace, Pierre was supposed to be executed outside the walls of the Convent. Tolstoy, who liked to skate on the Convent’s “Maiden Field” pond, describes in Anna Karenina how Lyovin, the main character, meets his future wife, Kitty, while ice-skating on the pond.
On the other side of the southern wall of the Convent is the Novodevichy Cemetery, founded in 1898 as a burial spot for Russia’s illustrious society. More than 27,000, including luminaries like Anton Chekov, Nikolai Gogol, Boris Yeltsin, and Raisa Gorbachev, are buried here amidst fantastical, sculptured monuments and tombstones.
As you walk through the cemetery, it is easy to get distracted and wander down tiny side alleys to admire sculptures and statues that essentially offer a window into the lives of the deceased. Look for the grave of Russia’s most famous clown, Yuri Nikulin, cigarette in hand, his loyal dog lying at his feet. Or the statue of actor and director, Boris Babochkin, leaning nonchalantly against a stone, his hat perched rakishly on his head. See the elegant depictions of the ballerina, Galina Ulanova, or a whole series of military commanders, their tombs decorated with airplane propellers or tanks.
Mounds of fresh flowers or single bouquets decorate the shrines, evidence of the respect that Russians give to the departed long after the funeral is over. Hundreds of people throng to the cemetery on every holiday to remember, pray and bring gifts — flowers, vodka, cakes. The spirits of the departed certainly live on in the memories of the visitors.
If fairy tales have a basis in history, then Novodevichy Convent and Cemetery provide the themes and the settings for many a fascinating tale.
IF YOU GO
The Novodevichy Convent is at Luzhnetsky Proyezd (tel +7-449-246-8526. The grounds are open 0800 to 2000 daily, the museums from 1000 to 1700 Wednesday through Monday. The Novodevichy Cemetery is located at 1 Novodevichy Proyezd (+7095-246-8526. It is closed on the first Monday of each month.
Most tour companies organize excursions to both the Convent and Cemetery; however, if you are an independent traveler, you can take the Red Line Metro of Sportivnaya station and walk east about 100 yards until you reach Lyzhnitsky Proezd.