Photographs by William Brumfield
Of the hundreds of revived monasteries in Russia, none has a more idyllic location than that associated with St. Nilus Stolobensky. Located on a small island in Lake Seliger (Tver Region), Nilova Pustyn — as it is often called in Russian — is captivating in all seasons. Its beauty is especially lyrical in midsummer, when the shores of small Stolobny Island are fringed with reeds and water lilies.
The monastery’s guiding spirit, the monk Nilus (Nil in Russian), was born in the Novgorod region in the late 15th century. Orphaned at an early age, he entered the Kripetsky Monastery near Pskov and took the name of St. Nilus of Sinai, a 5th-century Byzantine monastic and theologian. In 1515, with his abbot’s blessing, he went into the deep forest for a more rigorous form of monastic isolation.
Word of Nilus’ saintly reputation spread, and he was increasingly visited by those who sought his blessing and prayers. After 13 years in the forest, Nilus followed God’s voice (according to hagiographical accounts of his life) and in 1528 made his way to an uninhabited island nestled in one of the many inlets of Lake Seliger near the settlement of Ostashkov. Nilus was known to practice extreme forms of self-abnegation, including a vow not to lie down. It is said that in order to sleep, he rested with his armpits on wooden supports extending from his cell wall.
Sensing his impending death, Nilus dug his own grave and expressed a desire for a monastic community to arise on the island. After taking last rites, he passed away in December 1555. In 1560, a log chapel was erected over the site of his forest cell.
In 1594, Patriarch Job, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, assented to the existence of the monastery, and the following year, the first icon of the Venerable Nilus was painted. Locally venerated after his death, he was acknowledged as a saint throughout the Russian Orthodox Church in 1756.
The actual founder of the Nil Stolobensky Monastery was the monk Herman from the nearby St. Nicholas-Rozhkovsky Monastery. Inspired by Nilus’ example and laboring to restore a chapel over his grave, Herman and others erected a log church dedicated to the Epiphany on the island in 1591-1594. Shortly thereafter, a monastic community took root with the patriarch’s blessing.
The efforts of Herman and his brethren were soon threatened by the Time of Troubles, a dynastic crisis that led to a decade of widespread social and political chaos following the death of Tsar Boris Godunov in 1605. In 1610, the small monastery was devastated by marauding forces, and although Herman struggled to maintain the community, little remained after his death in 1614.
Fortunately, Herman’s follower, Nektarius (1586-1667), possessed many practical talents and in 1622 was able to erect the monastery’s second church, dedicated to the Intercession of the Virgin. His abilities were eventually noted by the Muscovite court and in 1636, Tsar Mikhail Romanov oversaw his elevation to Bishop of Siberia and Tobolsk.
Exhausted by severe Siberian conditions, Nektarius was permitted to return to his beloved monastery in 1640. In 1647 he resumed control of the community, which began to receive major gifts from Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. After a fire devastated the monastery in 1665, Nektarius launched a rebuilding that continued with royal support after his death.
Although fragments of 17th-century walls survive in some of the monastic structures, most of the monastery’s churches were rebuilt from the middle of the 18th century. Among the earliest is the Church of St. Nilus Stolobensky, a Baroque structure built in 1751-1755 over the East Gate. Although vandalized during the Soviet period, fragments of 19th-century wall paintings have survived in the dome.
The oldest surviving church within the monastery was built in 1699-1700 next to the monastery infirmary and dedicated to St. Nilus. Re-consecrated in 1723 as the Church of All Saints, it was modified during 19th century, and its traditional five cupolas were reduced to one. Severely damaged during the Soviet period, the Church of All Saints is now under restoration at the northwest corner of the monastery’s main square next to the West Gate.
The West Gate itself supports another imposing Baroque tower church, built in 1760-64 and dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul. Beyond the West Gate is a second quadrangle bounded by a hostel for pilgrims, a hotel for guests, and other cloister structures — all built in the 18th century.
The main square is dominated by the great Epiphany Cathedral and its bell tower. Since the end of the 16th century, there has been an Epiphany Church on the island. It was rebuilt over the centuries as the monastery expanded. Throughout this period, the monastery benefited from royal favor, and in 1820 it received a visit from Tsar Alexander I.
The following year work began on the present cathedral, a grand neoclassical design originally conceived by Carlo Rossi, but completed by another major St. Petersburg architect, Joseph-Jean Charlemagne (1782-1861). Consecrated in 1833, the new cathedral required several more years of interior work that included extensive wall paintings. Most of the art work was destroyed during the Soviet period, but paintings of archangels miraculously survived in the dome.
During the first half of the 19th century, other components of the majestic ensemble were completed, from the exquisite Doric-style Archbishop’s Landing (1814) to the grand south cloisters and Bishop’s Chambers in a refined mixture of the neoclassical and the Gothic Revival. The sense of imperial St. Petersburg was amplified by the massive granite building foundations and embankments among the south and east sides.
To the south of the main monastic ensemble stood two additional 18th-century monuments. The tall Church of the Elevation of the Cross, built in 1784-1788 at a picturesque location overlooking Lake Seliger, had exuberant Baroque plaster decoration on the interior, Vandalized during the Soviet period, the interior is now undergoing a painstaking restoration.
Just to the west along the lake shore stood a church built in 1781 with a dual dedication to John the Baptist (the altar on the upper floor) and to the Intercession of the Virgin for the lower altar, located next to the cave hewn by Nilus. The cave was especially venerated by pilgrims and contained a late 18th-century prototype for the carved wooden sculptures of the saint that are known throughout Russia.
Because of its status as an object of special veneration, the Church of John the Baptist was demolished in the 1930s. The remains of its foundation have been uncovered, and there are plans to rebuild the church with the reinstallation of the statue of St. Nil that is currently on display in the monastery’s excellent museum.
The territory along the south and west shores, dotted with tall pines, also had a number of service buildings such as boat sheds, warehouses, and large icehouse and stables. Many were built in the 18th century and are themselves interesting reflections of the monastery’s history.
Following the Bolshevik Revolution, the monastery endured many difficult trials. Closed in 1928, it was long used as a place of incarceration, primarily for juvenile offenders. Its darkest moment occurred in 1939, when it was filled with 4,700 Polish prisoners of war (the “Ostashkov Camp”). In the spring of 1940 they were transferred to a prison near Tver (then called Kalinin) and shot in April and May as part of a mass execution of Polish prisoners by the NKVD. Their common grave at the village of Mednoe is now the site of a large memorial.
With the outbreak of war, the monastery and the town of Ostashkov were close to the front line from the fall of 1941 until January 1943. The monastery itself was used as a military hospital throughout the war. From 1945 to 1960 it again housed juvenile delinquents, then for a decade was used as a home for the elderly. Despite the natural beauty of the location, attempts between 1971 and 1990 to create a tourist base within the former monastery failed for lack of resources — not to mention the inherent contradiction within the idea itself.
In 1990 the territory of the monastery and its ransacked buildings was returned to the Orthodox Church. The next year, the first liturgy was celebrated in a section of the Epiphany Cathedral. The restoration has required enormous effort and resources, but each year brings significant progress. In 1995, the relics of St. Nilus were returned from the Ostashkov Museum to the Epiphany Cathedral, and in 2003 the relics of St. Nektarius were elevated.
Today visitors who cross the small bridge from Svetlitsa village to Stolobny Island are greeted by a statue of St. Nilus in cowl and cap. His deeply meditative expression reminds not only of the resurrection of a great monastery on a sacred island, but also of what the monastery has endured over the course of its long history.