The fortified convent of Novodevichy
I was in Moscow in 1968 to catch the Trans-Siberian Express on my way to Hong Kong. Although I visited Red Square - I missed Lenin - he was on holiday to see his embalmers - but from the walls of the Kremlin, we rattled off to the Moskva River and the 16th Century fortified convent of Novodevichy.
It was a visit I never forgot...
For there lingered the smoldering wrath of the incarcerated Sophia, half-sister to Peter the Great. Her last succession plot had failed and she was compelled to take the veil and kept in seclusion at the convent; there was no other way to keep her from scheming.
Her Royal blood saved her from the fate of her fellow conspirators who were hung. To make the point, their bodies were strung up outside her bedroom…
“Where they hung, blackened and rigid,
turning idly in the wind,
all winter long,
their frozen boots tapping
against the windows…”
Quote from Lesley Blanch in Journey into the Mind’s Eye
Sophia was immured in the convent for the rest of her life. Only once a year, at Easter, was she allowed to join the other nuns in worship at Smolensky Cathedral. This brief interlude offered little consolation to the large and formidable figure, once a patron of the convent and the first woman to rule Russia, who found herself hostage to the church that her brother, Peter, controlled and derided.
All the magic of a Russian Easter
Sophia joined the congregation on Easter night when the cathedral’s dark interior was lit by guttering candles and a choral litany reverberated over row upon row of nuns prostrated in prayer before one miraculous icon after another. Chill draughts wrestled with wafts of warm incense and anticipation built hour after hour, as the time for the resurrection
Before the midnight bell tolled
Tapers were lit and fresh incense set to smoulder on burning charcoal. At midnight, crosses and icons were borne aloft and from the Cathedral's inner sanctuary emerged the bearded priests in ivory-white vestments heavy with gold embroidery. As clouds of holy smoke billowed from swinging censers, the solemn procession began down the aisle of the Cathedral and led the congregation out into the starlit night.
Thrice round the cathedral under a frosted moon
Three times, the procession circled the Cathedral. Its magnificent golden cupola gleamed above, while a river of reflected candlelight traced a path along the stone walls. The Priest halted at the open door and waited to hush his mustered flock. They held their breath as he walked forward, craning his neck to look inside the empty cavern of the darkened cathedral and symbolically discovered anew Christ’s empty tomb,