The history has seen two ways in which monasteries emerge: the first way is when monastic abodes develop by themselves, in desolate locations, based on "monastic feats" of saintly hermits; the other way is when monasteries are created by devote Christians, largely near cities or towns, as church fortresses to protect and extend the Christian faith and the Christian culture. Without doubt, the Alexander Nevsky Lavra emerged following the latter way.
One of St. Petersburg's oldest historians wrote that as early as the autumn of 1704 Peter the Great had chosen a place for a future St. Petersburg's monastery. That place, like all the space now occupied by St. Petersburg, was covered with swamps and forests and required a great amount of labour and time for its development. Meanwhile, the continuing military action, as part of the struggle with Sweden for the possession of the mouth of the Neva River, did not allow starting, in the near future, to found a St. Petersburg monastic abode.
On 13 June 1710, Peter captured the castle of Vyborg, thereby having ensured that the capital was protected from the side of the nearest borders. After that, in July 1710, staying in St. Petersburg, the tsar "inspected the location for future buildings". It was then that he ordered that "the Monastery must necessarily be constructed on that place". It was decided that the monastery's name would be "the Monastery of the Life-Giving Trinity and of Saint Blessed Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky"; it was also decided that to the right of the Chyornaya River there would be a stone monastic building, whereas to the left of the river there would be a wooden private building. Archimandrite Theodosius, appointed to be the Monastery's head, erected 2 crosses on the selected site, one on either side of the Chyornaya River. On the cross erected on the right side, the following inscription was made: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, by order of His Most Serene Majesty the Tsar, a Monastery will be created on this place." And on the left side of the Chyornaya River the erected cross bore the following inscription: "What this cross symbolises is told by the cross on the other bank".
The site selected for the Alexander Nevsky Monastery was of historical significance.
Legends attributed to it the historic battle of 15 July 1240, when the Novgorodians crushed the army of Birger Jarl, which invaded the borders of Russia. However, it was not in the mouth of the Chernaya River that the famous battle took place, but in the mouth of the Izhora River, around 43 kilometres up the Neva, where as early as the 16th century a wooden church was constructed, to commemorate the victory over the Swedes. Nevertheless, the legend existed, and it is possible that a different battle served as a basis for it: on 18 May 1301, led by Prince Andrey, Alexander's son, the Novgorodians crushed the Swedes again and destroyed Landskrona Fortress, constructed by the Swedes in 1300 close to the site of Alexander Nevsky Lavra.
On 20 February 1712, Peter the Great ordered to announce to Archimandrite Theodosius that "he must start building the Monastery on the inspected site". At the same time, funds for the construction were allocated: it was the new St. Petersburg monastery that the rich Monastery of Iviron was handed over to, with all its estates and profits; and from the Novodevichy Convent the village of Oyatskoye was handed over, together with all the hamlets and all the agricultural land that belonged to it. Besides that, for the construction and maintenance of a hospital, the Monastery received a half of Olonets District's monastic estates. Moreover, the peasants were exempted from taxes and the transport service.
The precise start date of the works was soon forgotten. A certificate, issued by the Chancellery of the Nevsky Monastery as early as 1723 and preserved among the papers of the Cabinet of Peter the Great at the State Archive, determines the start date of the works based on a research in documents only, setting it in mid-June: "The wooden construction started in 1712, and a contract with the carpenters mentions 14 June." As a document describes it: "The same year, foundations for a wooden church were laid, on the site where the cross had been erected and the chapel had been standing. In 1713, the mentioned church was completed, and on 25 March, in the presence of His Most Serene Majesty the Tsar and his distinguished entourage, the church was consecrated in the name of the Annunciation to Our Most Holy Lady, and that day His Most Serene Majesty the Tsar, together with everybody who was around him, deigned to have a feast at the new Monastery." A holy antimins and a charter blessing the Church's consecration had been sent by Metropolitan Iov and delivered by Presbyter Georgy Petrov as early as January 1713. Thus, the day of 25 March (Old Style) 1713, when the Divine Liturgy was performed, muSt. be considered the day when the Abode started its existence.
With the church having been constructed, pilgrims started arriving to the Monastery from the city. Archimandrite Theodosius (Yanovsky), the Monastery's abbot, was the first member of the fraternity of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. He was appointed the head of the Monastery, at a time when there was not a living soul in the Monastery yet.
After the Abode had developed a little bit, it started being populated with monks. It was proposed to concentrate Russia's best monastic forces at the Monastery. Using lists that had been compiled by Archimandrite Theodosius, the tsar's and the Senate's decrees summoned monks from monasteries of almost every diocese.
The Alexander Nevsky Monastery was conceived by Peter the Great as an exemplary one. Here, he wished to realise his idea of a utilitarian use of the monasticism for the purpose of serving the world: he conceived the Monastery as a charitable, correctional, educational and medical establishment. Here, it was planned to establish a shelter for crippled and retired soldiers, for the disabled in the Great Northern War and for the mentally ill; to establish a hospital at the Monastery, where all the Monastery's monks would have to serve, and to found a medical and correctional establishment for compulsory treatment of drunkards. However, these intentions have never been realised. And it was fortunate for the Abode, because a realisation of all these projects contradicted to the very essence of a monastery, with it being a source of the spiritual light and a model of the saintly life in which every monk's most important duty is prayer. As time progressed, the Abode opened new services and departments that helped to complete the vitally important task of spreading religious services, not only for the Monastery itself, but also for the entire Church and the entire society of that time.
A print shop emerged at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in 1720, after the Monastery received a church printing press and seven workers handed over by a St. Petersburg print shop, by the tsar's decree as of 13 December 1719. The first book issued here was "A Lesson in the Day of St. Alexander Nevsky". The printing shop printed an ABC book and issued anti-schismatic books, instructions and sermons, later followed by Russian-language and translated research works and liturgical books.
The School at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, which became a forerunner of a host of brilliant St. Petersburg's religious educational institutions, was created by a decree of Archbishop Theodosius (as of 25 October 1721). As it was put officially: "According to decrees of His Imperial Majesty and to "The Spiritual Regulation" ... the Slavic School at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery is being established for the universal benefit; the School will teach reading and writing to little children from five to thirteen years old and will admit not only children of the Monastery's people, but also orphans, who have no parents nor are able to earn their own living, and also outsiders brought by whoever wishes so; the School will teach them to read and write Church Slavonic using newly-printed ABC books, followed later by grammar." The main teaching aid was "The ABC book, or The Primary Education for Children" by Theophan Prokopovich.
In 1726, the Slavic Greek Latin Seminary of Alexander Nevsky was created based on the School. It provided future clergy with a serious (for the time) general and theological education. The Seminary's mentors were also involved in scientific research and publishing. It was by the effort of Hierodeacon Nicodemus (Puchenkov), the rector of the Seminary, and of Archimandrite Joasaphus (Matkevich), the rector of Novgorod Seminary, that the lives of saints, compiled by the enlightener Demetrius of Rostov, and Kiev Pechersk patericon were prepared for republishing.
Catherine the Great's education reform transformed the Slavic Greek Latin Seminary of Alexander Nevsky into the Principle Seminary in 1788 and later, in 1797, into the Alexander Nevsky Academy. According to Paul I's decrees as of 18 December 1797 and 11 January 1798, the new Academy became a higher theological education institution as did the newly established Kazan Academy as well as with the then already existing Kiev and Moscow Academies, and these institutions had to admit, as it was officially put, "those students from diocesan seminaries who distinguished themselves by success in their studies, in order for them to be able to improve their knowledge of advanced sciences and to receive an education suitable for teaching positions." In 1800–1804, Archimandrite Eugene (Bolkhovitin) was the prefect of the Alexander Nevsky Academy; later, he would become famous with his works on church history. In 1809, during a reform of Russia's ecclesiastical education, the Alexander Nevsky Academy was transformed into St. Petersburg Theological Academy.
On 29 May 1723, two years after the end of the Great Northern War, Peter the Great again visited the Monastery established by him. On the same day, he issued the following decree: "The relics of Saint Blessed Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky that are being kept at the Vladimir Monastery of the Nativity must be transferred to the Alexander Monastery".
On 11 April 1723, the ancient city of Vladimir resounded with the chime of many bells. The entire city gathered by the walls of the Nativity Monastery. After the Liturgy, according to the Imperial order, the reliquary containing the relics of Saint Blessed Grand Duke Alexander Nevsky was put into a casket, richly decorated, covered with a cloth out of dark-cherry velvet with trimming and crowned with a gilded cross. It was decided to bring the casket to the city of Tver via Moscow and then to the town of Borovichi by land, from Borovichi across Lake Ilmen, via the city of Novgorod along the Volkhov River to Lake Ladoga, from there along the Neva River to St. Petersburg. A decree of the Most Holy Synod appointed Archimandrite Sergius, the abbot of the Nativity Monastery, to accompany the solemn procession, "as the one having the third degree among Russia's most important archimandrites". Among his duties was to ensure that "the casket with the relics would be carried through towns and through distinguished places by the clergy". Along all the entire way of the procession, it was greeted by crowds of people flocking to bow to the sacred object, and solemn prayer services were performed in the cities.
After it had become clear that the procession would not be able to have reached the capital by the day of the conclusion of the Treaty of Nystad, the tsar ordered to place the casket in the Shlisselburg stone church. After a year, on 30 August 1724, the third anniversary of the Treaty of Nystad, the remains of the saint prince were solemnly transferred to St. Petersburg. In the village of Ust Izhora, on the site of the Battle of the Neva, the procession was met by Peter himself. Having moved closer to the capital, the procession was joined by the festively decorated galleys from the tsar's retinue, led by the Little Boat of Peter the Great, the "father" vessel of the Russian navy. Accompanied by a gun salute and a bell chime, the reliquary containing the relics was solemnly placed in the Monastery's Church of St. Alexander Nevsky, which had been consecrated for the occasion.
After the construction of the main Monastery's church, the Church of the Holy Trinity, had been completed, the remains of the saint prince were solemnly transferred to the Church and placed in a niche behind the right choir gallery. Over the remains, a superb silver reliquary was placed; it was made in 1752, by order of Empress Elisabeth, and decorated with inscriptions by Mikhail Lomonosov. The sarcophagus is covered with bas-relieves that tell about the most important events in the saint prince's life. In 1743, Empress Elisabeth established a cross procession from the capital's cathedral to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Since that time, every year on 30 August, after the Liturgy had been finished, all the capital's clergy, dressed in white, accompanied by the bishop, carrying gonfalons and icons, went along Nevsky Avenue towards the Abode to perform a solemn prayer service to the Saint Blessed Prince.
On 18 December 1797, Emperor Paul I issued a decree to the Most Holy Synod that commanded to rename the Alexander Nevsky Monastery "the Lavra, with the staff equal to that of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra and of the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius".
The Alexander Nevsky Abode received the high honours deservingly. Its life was full of internal and external creation. In parallel with improving its own life, it did work for improving church life of the newly created capital and of the entire vast region linked with it. Before the Most Holy Synod had been established, the Alexander Nevsky Monastery concentrated all the Church's administrative affairs related to St. Petersburg and the neighbouring districts. Every summer large groups (10, 20, 30 and more) of priest-monks of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery went to perform church services onboard ships, at hospitals and churches of Russian missions in Western Europe. The Alexander Nevsky Monastery had nurtured a theological school, which exists and performs its high mission even now. The Abode had done a lot of work in the area of theological education, by its preaching and, especially, using the printing press, having supplied all the churches of the enormous region with books that provided beginner's lectures on the faith and the virtues, printed at the print shop of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.
The Monastery's monks had dedicated every day of their lives to the high duty of salvation of their flock, hoping for God's mercy and for prayer assistance of their saint patron, Venerable Alexander Nevsky.
In 1922, the Monastery was deprived of its sacred object. The saint prince's relics were confiscated, and for a long time they were kept at the Museum of Atheism. The precious reliquary ended up at the Hermitage. Only as late as the summer of 1989, the relics of Saint Alexander Nevsky were handed over back to the Church, and again, just like many years ago, a cross procession went along Nevsky Avenue to the Holy Trinity Cathedral at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra.
The reliquary was placed in its historical place, accessible to every soul attracted to it. Every day, prayer services are performed, akathistos hymns are sang and individual prayers are said in front of the relics. The patron of Peter's city, the blessed prince and the venerable man, again became the main sacred object of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra, the intercessor of its active monks, of the other, hard-working, members of the Monastery's community, of its numerous pilgrims and of its parish people, which hope to "obtain salvation through a Son of Russia".
With the help of St. Alexander, the Monastery grew from a small wooden church and cramped wattle-and-daub houses to a vast system of magnificent and monumental structures, which had happily existed until the early 1930s, when the monks were driven out of the Abode.
Being self-organised, all the most important activities of the Alexander Nevsky Abode developed, became stronger and then, following the natural order of things, became independent. The Church's administrative affairs went to the Consistory. The school education formed an independent chain of religious educational institutions. The Church's didactic publishing went to the Church's supreme administrative agencies and to theological science agencies. The navy clergy and the foreign-stationed clergy formed their own independent institutions. The Abode of Alexander Nevsky itself focused on prayer and charity. And this remained the Abode's distinctive feature during the entire subsequent, long-lasting, period of its history.
The everyday-life aspects of the Abode remained the same. There were people who took the monastic vows in the Lavra itself and there were monks who came come from other monasteries, though not appointed as before, but either summoned or at their own request. It also happened that monks left the Lavra for other monasteries. Merited monks from the Lavra of Alexander Nevsky became abbots at provincial monasteries. Some monks were appointed to go to the navy, abroad and to various other places.
Monks of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra did missionary work among heathen peoples. After his return from China, Father Hyacinth (Bichurin), who in 1807–1820 was the head of the Russian ecclesiastical mission in Beijing, lived here for some time. Here, he was preparing his works for publication; these works played a significant role in the formation of world sinology. Farther Hyacinth died in 1852 and was buried at St. Lazarus Cemetery, at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra. The feat of the missionary service in America was performed by Father Gedeon, the monk who in 1804–1807 worked at the Orthodox mission on Kodiak Island, and by many others.
The Lavra's land holdings in St. Petersburg continued to diminish: a part of the land was given away for religious educational institutions, charitable organisations and administrative agencies; the Lavra had to cede another part for public structures such as the Obvodny Canal and the Nicolas Railway. On the remaining land, the Lavra starting building houses, which would become one of the main sources of funds for covering expenses on maintaining the Abode.
The Alexander Nevsky Lavra was a residence of the capital's ecclesiastical authorities and a place of frequent pilgrimage for the Imperial Family. Here, solemn church services were often performed in the presence of the Most August persons, and, for this reason, all the Monastery's structures and churches were distinguished by their sumptuousness and splendour. The Monastery's cemeteries were St. Petersburg's most privileged ones.
In the Monastery, the stone construction started as early as the times of Peter the Great. The Italian architect Domenico Trezzini was the author of "The General Construction Plan" of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. His design did not correspond to all the Orthodox canons: the facade of a structure and of the main Church of the Holy Trinity comprised by that structure faced the Neva River, i. e., east instead of west, and the Church's entrance had to be made on the east side as well. This slowed down the Monastery's construction, which was completed only as late as the end of the 18th century. On 30 August 1790, the Trinity Church was solemnly consecrated by His Eminence Gabriel, and St. Alexander Nevsky's relics were transferred there. The Holy Trinity Church was distinguished with its richly decorated interior; however, instead of icons it was decorated with works by Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacopo Bassano, and by many famous Russian painters.
The Monastery and the Trinity Church were often visited by Russian emperors who made rich donations. Among them are golden sacred vessels, donated by Catherine the Great soon after the Church was consecrated; four precious, 17th century altar Gospels; a golden cross, made in 1660 for St. Cyril's Monastery; and even an Agony in the Garden icon, sent as a gift from Pope Pius IV to Catherine the Great. Among the most precious objects kept in the Monastery's sacristy were St. Alexander Nevsky's crown, made, according to one description, "similar to the hierarch’s cap, of white stoat and crimson velvet".
Church services at the Trinity Church were distinguished with beauty and solemnity. The Lavra's the choir of the metropolitan's singers was in no way worse than that of the court singers. As early as in the times of Peter the Great, note singing was introduced at the Monastery. By Imperial decree, it was ordered to make copies of, as it was put, "all the translation of the Znamenny Chant, so that the Nevsky Monastery's choir-gallery singers known it". In the early 19th century, Protopriest Pyotr Turchaninov was the Monastery's choirmaster; he who scored many of the ancient and famous chants. Since the times of Empress Catherine, it was an order to have one priest-monk, reader and singer at the Lavra who would perform services in Greek.
After the 1917 February Revolution, Bishop Benjamin (Kazansky) of Gdov was elected the ruling hierarch of St. Petersburg Diocese. In May 1917, an audit of the Lavra's financial and operational administration was done; the conclusions of the audit caused the removal of Archimandrite Philaret, the vicar of the Lavra, from office. Bishop Procopius (Titov) of Yelizavetgrad (now Kirovograd) was appointed the new vicar. From 14 December 1917 to 26 January 1918, Bishop Procopius was the abbot of the Abode. On 26 January 1918, Metropolitan Benjamin was appointed the holy archimandrite of the Lavra. Archimandrite Victor (Ostrovidov) became the vicar.
In accordance with the "Decree on the Separation of Church and State and on the Separation of School and Church", all the church property was nationalised, and as early as 13 January 1918 Alexandra Kollontay ordered to expropriate all the buildings of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra. The Lavra managed to stand up for its property; however, the same year all the living quarters were transferred to the supervision of Petrograd Council, and a graveyard for prominent party figures was created in the Lavra's square. In February 1919, a part of the Lavra's rooms was occupied by Petrograd Diocesan Council, and the Gate Church of the Joy of All who Sorrow Icon of Our Lady became a parish church.
In December 1919, Archimandrite Nicolas (Yarushevich) became the new vicar; under his administration, the Lavra's ecclesiastical authorities became more loyal to the Soviet authorities. In accordance with the 1918 Constitution, a church and parish council had to be formed by every church community. Such a council was formed at the Lavra as well. The council's areas were the Lavra's relations with the state authorities, its economy and, in addition, the accumulation of all the monetary donations. All the other affairs were under the authority of the Lavra's Ecclesiastical Council.
On 12 May 1922, in the height of the process of "confiscation of church valuables for the benefit of the hungry", the reliquary containing the relics of Saint Blessed Alexander Nevsky was opened. The reliquary was confiscated and placed in the State Hermitage, remaining there ever since. On 20 November of the same year, the holy relics were confiscated as well, returning to the Holy Trinity Church only as late as 1989.
During the 1920s–1940s Renovationist Church schism, incited by a group of Petrograd priests, the Lavra was controlled by the renovationists for a short time. However, as early as 1923 Bishop Manuel (Lemeshevsky) of Luga, who had been specially sent to Petrograd to fight the schismatics by Enlightener Tikhon, the Patriach of Moscow and All Russia, brought the Abode's brethren back to the Orthodox Church. By as early as 1926, out of 115 renovationist churches only 32 remained.
Under Metropolitan Joseph (Petrovych), the Lavra's Holy Trinity Church became a cathedral, remaining such until 1933. After the Cathedral was shut down in 1933, all that remained under the authority of the Church was the Holy Spirit Church, which was shut down in 1935. Since then, the whole complex of the Lavra's buildings was used for utility purposes.
After the Soviet authorities changed their attitude towards the Russian Orthodox Church in 1943, the state gave back the Lavra's Holy Spirit Church in 1946, for organising and housing Leningrad Diocese Directorate. The new metropolitan of Leningrad, Gregory (Chukov), requested the Soviet authorities to give back the Holy Trinity Cathedral as well, but without success. Only as late as 1956 Metropolitan Eleutherius (Vorontsov) managed to achieve that the Cathedral was given back to the ecclesiastical authorities. After its consecration on 12 and 13 September 1957, Bishop Alexius (Konoplyov) became the newly consecrated Cathedral's first dean. In the Cathedral, daily church services were held again.
In 1961, during "Khrushchyov's persecution", a regulation was issued, handing over the Holy Spirit Church to the state. For this reason, the remains of Eminent Metropolitans Gregory and Eleutherius were carried from the Church to a specially made crypt in the cellar of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, and the Diocese Directorate moved to the building of the Theological Academy at 17 Obvodny Canal Embankment.
Remembering that the ruling archiereus of Leningrad Diocese was also the holy archimandrite of the Lavra, Metropolitan Nicodemus (Rotov) transferred the Holy Trinity Cathedral to his direct authority, with the deans being known as vicars since 1967. This tradition had been kept until 1997 when the parish was abolished; and by a regulation of Metropolitan Vladimir (Kotlyarov) all the parish's property was handed over to the revived Alexander Nevsky Lavra.
In 1985, the Church received the graveyard St. Nicolas Church, which was solemnly consecrated on 22 April 1985. This church keeps the remains of Recluse Matthew (Totamir), a God-pleaser who is revered by many believers. Sunday church services are performed in the church every week, even at present.
Since 1987, the St. Nicolas (graveyard) Church has remained open; now it has been handed over to the Monastery.
The official date of the Monastery's revival is 25 November 1996. At both the churches, services are performed, in accordance with a special schedule.
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