Novospassky Monastery: Romanov shrine

This holy site in Moscow’s southeast factored heavily in the early years of Russia’s best-known dynasty.

Photographs by William Brumfield

Nestled in a small hill downriver from the Kremlin, the Novospassky (New Savior) Monastery is one of the oldest religious institutions in Moscow. As is the case with the city's other monasteries, the spiritual and political are intertwined in Novospassky’s history. 

By some accounts, the monastery was established in the 1150s by the founder of Moscow, Prince Yury Dolgoruky. At that time, it was located south of the Moscow River on the site of what is now the Danilov Monastery. 

In the early 14th century, the Savior Monastery was reestablished inside the Kremlin by Grand Prince Ivan Kalita. Its main church, Savior in the Forest, was Moscow's oldest surviving structure until it was destroyed in the Soviet reconstruction of the Kremlin in the 1930s. 

In 1490, Grand Prince Ivan III (the Great) moved the monastery to its current location on Krutitsky Hill overlooking the Moscow River and reconsecrated it as the New Savior Monastery. Strategically located, the monastery had stout walls and towers in a rough pentagonal plan that enabled it to serve as a fortress. Along with other major monasteries on the southern fringe of Moscow, the New Savior Monastery played a role in repulsing a major raid by Crimean Tatars in 1591. 

Like much of Moscow, the monastery was sacked during the early 17th-century dynastic crisis known as the Time of Troubles. With the establishment of the Romanov dynasty in 1613, the Novospassky Monastery gained unprecedented prominence as a favored institution of the new ruling family. 

The monastery's ties to the Romanovs date to the end of the 15th century with the burial of a member of the Zakharin family, ancestors of the Romanovs. In the 16th century, others from the Zakharin family were also interred at the monastery cemetery, including Roman Yurevich Zakharin (d. 1543), father of Anastasia, the first wife of Ivan IV (the Terrible).  

How to get there

The Novospassky Monastery is located at the Krestyanskaya sqare, 10 (near the "Krestyanskaya zastava" subway station, light green line).

Indeed, as the source of the Romanov name, Roman Zakharin can be considered the dynasty's forefather. His son Nikita is considered the founder of the dynasty and his grandson Fyodor Nikitich (subsequently Patriach Filaret, head of the Russian Orthodox Church) was father of the first Romanov tsar, Mikhail (1596-1645). Toward the end of Mikhail’s reign, a major expansion of the monastery began with the rebuilding of its massive brick walls and towers in 1640-1642. 

Mikhail’s successor, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (1629-1676), presided over further expansion of the site with the rebuilding of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior in 1645-1649. This monumental structure replaced the original monastery church, built at the end of the 15th century over the graves of the Romanov ancestors. 

In 1650, Transfiguration Cathedral gained its monumental five-tiered icon screen, with icons painted by master artists from the Kremlin. The frescoes that cover the cathedral interior were painted in 1689 at the order of Tsar Peter I (the Great). Both icon screen and frescoes have recently been restored. 

Next to the Savior Cathedral is the Church of the Intercession, built in 1673-75 and connected to the cathedral at its southwest corner. The present wall paintings in the large refectory of the Intercession Church were done in 1877. 

By the turn of the 18th century, royal favor had enabled Novospassky Monastery to become one of the wealthiest in Moscow. The most notable addition to the monastery in the 18th century was its bell tower, one of the largest in the city.

Designed by Ivan Zherebtsov, construction began in 1759 but was completed only in 1785. The tower’s second level contains a small church dedicated to St. Sergius of Radonezh, the founder of Muscovite monasticism 

In the 1791-1795 the Church of the Znamenie Icon of the Virgin was rebuilt at the northeast corner of the Transfiguration Cathedral. Originally built by Tsar Mikhail Romanov over his ancestors' graves, the new structure was supported by the Sheremetev family, members of whom were buried on the lower level. 

During the French occupation in the fall of 1812, the Znamenie church was used as a stable, and the monastery generally suffered extensive damage. Churches were reconsecrated in 1813, and the monastery retained its favored status. In 1913, a brightly painted chapel was erected after a visit by Nicholas II to commemorate the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty. 

In 1918, in the midst of the Bolshevik Revolution, the monastery was closed and the Romanov crypt vandalized. In the late 1930s, the territory served as a place of execution for the secret police, the NKVD, whose victims were buried in common graves next to the walls.

During the Soviet period, the noted cemetery on the monastery grounds was destroyed in stages up to the early 1970s. However, a small chapel stands over one grave that survived – that of the nun Dosifeya, better known as Princess Tarakanova.

Although her origins remain wrapped in obscurity, Dosifeya, or "Princess Volodimirskaya" as she called herself, claimed to be the daughter of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna and her favorite Alexei Razumovsky.

The intrigues surrounding this claim were seen as a threat to the legitimacy of Catherine II (the Great), who had similar skeletons in her own closet. Catherine commanded Count Alexei Orlov to abduct the alleged princess from Italy, and at the beginning of 1775 she was delivered to the Sts Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.

There are lurid stories and paintings of Dosifeya’s death later that year. The official version was that she died of tuberculosis and was buried in the fortress. But a rival account has her taking the veil as Dosifeya and eventually living in Moscow's John the Baptist Convent from 1785 to 1810. The remains of the nun Dosifeya were buried at Novospassky Monastery, and in 1907 a small chapel was erected over her grave to the left of the great bell tower.

Novospassky Monastery was officially declared a historical and cultural monument in 1965, the beginning of a slow process of restoration that lasted over two decades. In March 1991, the monastery was returned to the Orthodox Church and soon thereafter resumed its function as a Romanov shrine.  

In September 2013, the model of a monument depicting Mikhail and Nicholas II – the first and last Romanov tsars – with the Kazan Icon between them, was unveiled near the apse of the Transfiguration Cathedral. The statue is eventually intended for the main entrance to the monastery.

A witness to so much turbulent and dark history, Novospassky Monastery is now a carefully maintained refuge from the bustle of Moscow just outside its walls.

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