Webcast Recap

“By the early 20th century, monasticism came to epitomize [Russian] Orthodoxy in so many ways in both the minds of common believers and elites, both adherents and opponents,” began Scott Kenworthy, Associate Professor, Department of Comparative Religion, Miami University-Ohio; Former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center at a 28 March 2011 Kennan Institute event. Kenworthy examined the history of monasticism in Russia and the development of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra monastery outside of Moscow in his recently published book, The Heart of Russia: Trinity-Sergius, Monasticism, and Society after 1825.

Kenworthy explained that the changes monasticism underwent throughout history coincided with the prevailing political atmosphere in the country. The initial decline of monasticism occurred in the latter half of the 18th century under Catherine II. Reforms of monasticism stemmed from the policies of Catherine’s predecessor, Peter the Great, who strove for the modernization of Russia. According to Kenworthy, Peter the Great viewed the monks and nuns involved in monasticism as “socially useless;” they did not contribute anything to society, economy or the army. While his successors enforced this ideology, it reached a culmination with Catherine the Great. Per her decrees in 1764, monastic estates were secularized; additionally, sixty percent of monasteries in the Russian Empire were eliminated, and the number of monks and nuns drastically reduced.

However, despite these attacks, monasticism became more prominent in the 19th century as it was embraced and positively portrayed by enlightened artists including Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov. As a result, the influence of monasteries began to increase as they engaged in various philanthropic activities. One of these monasteries, the Trinity-Saint Sergius Lavra, was founded in the 14th century by Sergei Radonezhsky and, according to Kenworthy, was “perhaps the most important pilgrimage destination of the 19th century.” The spiritual rebirth inspired by Sergei and the Lavra coincided with the emergence of Muscovy from Mongol domination, which allowed the monastery to retain and increase its preeminent status. Additionally, Metropolitan bishop Philaret Drozdov was also central in “awakening an Orthodoxy that coincided with a Russian national identity in the aftermath of the Napoleonic invasions,” Kenworthy noted, “seeking what was unique to Orthodoxy in distinction from Russian models that had dominated in the 18th century.”

By 1914, there were over 1,000 monasteries in the Russian Empire and over 95,000 monks and nuns attending to those monasteries. During the Bolshevik Revolution, the Trinity-Saint Sergius Lavra, along with most other monasteries, was closed; however, as a site of great historical importance, Lenin signed a decree to reopen the institution as a museum in 1919, which was staffed by religious intellectuals. Other major monasteries remained closed, although smaller ones stayed open, so long as the institutions transformed into “agricultural collectives”—which even continued to receive pilgrims under the premise of “spiritual nourishment.” Yet in 1928, all monasteries began to close as Stalin consolidated his power and later began the persecution of religious believers in the Great Purge. All remaining monks were rounded up and systematically executed or sent to gulags after being accused of promoting anti-Soviet propaganda, as well as counter-revolutionary activity.

The Soviets attempted to undermine popular belief, but their actions had an opposite effect, angering the pious who felt their faith had been invaded. “While the Soviets did their best to eliminate Orthodoxy in general and monasticism in particular,” Kenworthy explained, “in fact, both outlived the Bolshevik ideology and system.” When Gorbachev took office in 1985 there were fewer than 20 monasteries left in the Soviet Union. “Clearly, there is a revival in monasticism,” Kenworthy concluded: by 2010, the Russian Orthodox Church officially reported that 788 monasteries were now functioning in the Russian Federation.

By Christian Dallago
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute