Optina Pustyn: The Forest Retreat; the Monks Were Descendants of Merchants, Peasants and the Nobility ... They Came from All over Russia ... Humble and Seeking Answers to Life's Questions, the First Monk Came to Optina Pustyn in His Old Age. the Last to Arrive, before They Were All Exiled or Executed by the Bolsheviks, Was 19

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Do one knows for certain exactly when Optina Pustyn (officially known as "Svyato-Vvedenskaya Optinskaya Pustyn") was founded. According to legend, however, the monastery was founded in the 14th or 15th century by a repentant thief named Opt, who decided to take monastic vows and establish a retreat in the thick forests near Rus' border with Poland ("Pustyn" means a deserted place; "Optina" is a possessive form of "Opt." Thus, the name means Opt's Empty Place).

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Optina was initially mentioned in local chronicles during the reign of the first Romanov tsar, Mikhail (1613-1645). It was called the "Tsar's Pilgrimage" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and had one church and six cells for monks.

Over the next 200 years, the monastery struggled along as a remote outpost and increasingly fell into disrepair. The residents of the nearby town of Kozelsk took possession of the monastery's mill, and, as a result, the monks sometimes only had stewed cabbage leaves to eat.

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During the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), just three monks lived on the banks of the Zhizdra river at Optina Pustyn. But then, toward the end of the 18th century, a hermitage ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) was built for some of the monastery's elders, where they could meet with visiting pilgrims. As a result, over time, the monastery began receiving visitors and donations from all over Russia, enabling its steady rise to prominence.

In the century that followed, the monastery developed as an important center for starchestvo (a community of wise, monastic elders--startsy--respected for their discernment and prophesy). In fact, Optina Pustyn soon became the most important spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church--an object of pilgrimage that was unique in appealing not just to commoners, but to nobles as well, particularly famous writers and thinkers like Vasily Zhukovsky, Ivan Kireyevsky, Pyotr Vyazemsky, Ivan Turgenev, Lev Tolstoy, Vladimir Solovyev, Nikolai Gogol, Konstantin Leontyev, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vasily Rozanov and others. So popular did the startsy become, that in 1821 a special residence was built for them in the hermitage, so that the pilgrims would not disturb the monastic order. Over the ensuing century, the remote monastery had a powerful effect on Russian culture and literature.

Elders and Intelligentsia

"THEY RUSH TO OPTINA from all over the world, not groaning as before, but roaring. They come seeking consolation and comfort," wrote Elder Varsonofy in his diary, dated 1911.

In fact, it was Varsonofy who had rushed to Leo Tolstoy's deathbed a year before. In November 1910, Tolstoy decided to renounce all that he owned and loved, leaving his Tula estate for Optina Pustyn. But, falling deathly ill en route, he only got as far as the train station in Astapovo. The Orthodox Church's Synod sent Varsonofy to Astapovo in hopes of convincing the dying writer to repent and convert (the Orthodox Church had excommunicated Tolstoy in 1901 for his anticlerical views, in particular those expressed in his novel Resurrection).

"The Synod sent me to him before his death," Varsonofy wrote on December 27, 1910. "I arrived in Astapovo, but they didn't allow me to come in. I turned to his elder daughter, but she replied to me plainly, with courtesy and refusal. I turned to his other daughter. She was deeply agitated and said that I couldn't visit the Count, because on seeing me, he would certainly die. In vain I sought to convince them that I would not raise theological debates. I merely asked to be admitted to bless the dying man from afar. They did not hear me."

Despite Leo Tolstoy's excommunication, his family's connections with Optina were many. Not far from Optima was Shcharmordino, a nunnery, where Tolstoy's sister, Maria Nikolayevna, was a nun. …