The Russian Orthodox Church has played a powerful role in post-Soviet society's efforts to reassess and reclaim the pre-revolutionary past--it has canonised Tsar Nicholas II, rebuilt ruined monuments, researched and commemorated Christians persecuted by the Soviet regime. The revival of its monasteries is one of the most astonishing aspects of this process. While Western convents are closing and selling their property, the reverse is happening in Russia: monasteries and convents are reclaiming--or recreating--the physical and spiritual fabric of their pasts.
For over 70 years the Ekaterinburg Novo-Tikhvin convent existed only in local memories, and in the walls of various institutions among whom its buildings were redistributed. Once one of Russia's most significant monastic institutions and home to over a thousand women, Novo-Tikhvin reopened in 1994 with just a handful of sisters and a 25-year-old mother superior. Since a state hospital continues to occupy much of the main convent complex, the first sisters slept in the convent church. Today, most of its 150 nuns and novices live in a former Soviet holiday home: conditions are cramped, but on average the convent accepts ten novices a year.
Sister Sophronia stresses the importance of their spiritual adviser Father Abraham, whom they consider a rare representative of true Orthodox tradition, in rebuilding the convent successfully: 'There are plenty of golden domes in Russia now, but it is much harder to build up spiritual life ... In order to learn you need someone to show you, to pass on the tradition as a master craftsman does to his apprentices. Father Abraham's spiritual adviser witnessed the spiritual life of the most important monastic centres of pre-revolutionary Russia, and was able to pass that on to him.'
Novo-Tikhvin's nuns are enthusiastic students--and now teachers--of Russia's religious traditions, singing ancient Russian chants from old notation and recreating Byzantine iconography in their icon-painting and embroidery workshops. But the lacunae created by Soviet anti-religious campaigns still hamper this revival. The original Ustav or Rule which regulated Novo-Tikhvin life was destroyed, and the nuns have found only oblique references to it in the Russian State Historical Archive. The nuns have worked hard to rediscover the history of their convent after the cataclysmic break of the Soviet period, interviewing local pensioners and combing archives for evidence.
Novo-Tikhvin's story begins during an inauspicious period for Russian monasticism, when Catherine II's 1764 reforms had more than halved the number of convents and subjected religious life to stringent restrictions. Women who wished to live celibate, spiritual lives were often obliged to do so informally, gathering in small, self-sustaining communities. One such community, formed around an Ekaterinburg cemetery church in the late 18th century, was led by a soldier's widow, Tatiana Mitrofanova.
According to local historian Marina Nechaeva, when Tatiana successfully applied to the town council in 1789 for a small income for her community, she represented nine women surviving on money made by singing prayers for the dead. Like most of the numerous women's communities formed during this period, they aspired to become a formal convent and, in 1807, Tatiana travelled to St Petersburg to lobby the Holy Synod for …