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Sergiev Posad (St. Sergius Monastery)

May 19, 2009 at 7:53 am
By Laura Roberts, Kevin McGrath

Our mission this week was to go "zagorod," out of the city, to explore one of Moscow's many satellite cities. We chose to visit Sergiev Posad, the site of an ancient monastery dedicated to Saint Sergius. (If the differences in the names of the town and the saint cause cognitive dissonance, put it down to changes in the Russian language since the 13th Century. There have been many, according to my (Laura's) host mother.) 

Sergiev Posad's spires and domes are quite impressive even to travelers who have been visiting a new church every few days (namely, us). They're clearly visible from the highway into town, and are the first things to appear through the ancient, tangled forests that serve as borders between towns. We were fortunate enough to arrive by car, as one of Carleton's past LAs and one of her firends had aggreed to drive us. Masha and Dasha gave us the story of the monastery and guided us around (and gave us helpful tips on blending in - for example, bow and cross yourself three times when entering or leaving a consecrated place).

Architectural Smorgasboard 

Many of the churches weren't open to us, because we neither paid for a professional tour nor were there for personal worship.  We did, however, manage to inspect the outsides of the cathedrals, which did not disappoint. They ran the gamut from 13th century medieval fortress-churches with arrowslit windows and elaborately decorated cupolas to conservative Baroque structures that nontheless looked gaudy next to their more dowdy cousins. One church even had a steeple that called to mind the Kremlin towers, and which Dasha assured us was meant to pay homage to the tents of ancient nomadic Rus.

Since we arrived on Sunday during mass-time, we were fortunate to hear and watch the bells being rung from one of the towers. A zvonar', a bell-ringer, climbed up into the tower and managed to produce a symphony of ringing bells all on his own. We (and many of the tourists) were very impressed, and glad that such an art had survived years of repression under the Soviets.

Bell-ringer of Sergiev Posad 

In fact, we were impressed by the number of priests and supplicants around - and more so by their youth. Most of the priests milling couldn't have been older than thirty-five, and there didn't seem to be too many elder clergy about. Nearly every priest, however, was conversing with someone or other.  This heavy concentration of holy men is due to the fact that the Moscow Theological Academy is located on the premesis.  According to the Academy's website, it was founded in 1685 and was the educational center of the Orthodox church.  In 1742, a branch of the Academy was opened in the St. Sergius Monastery.  It was briefly closed after the 1917 Revolution, but it reopened in 1949 and students were allowed to receive degrees in theology.

Masha & Dasha At St. Sergius 

Sergiev Posad was both a tourist attraction and a holy place - before entering the fortress walls, nearly everyone bowed and crossed themselves. Most then went to the ticket booth right inside the first set of murals depicting the life of Saint Sergei. Schoolchildren on excursion crowded around elderly babushkas wearing headscarves. A massive line formed to see the inside of the oldest church on the grounds, but only a small group of people spilled out of the largest cathedral when services ended, and only few gathered water from the holy fountain in front of the great belltower. It seems, however, that Sergiev Posad managed to find a perfect balance between secular and holy, something that the famous cathedrals of Moscow have yet to achieve.

We seemed to be the only foreigners around, and yet it was a relief to be around the crowds of Russians. In Moscow, those crowds mean fighting for a place on the metro, shouldering one's way through lines, and dodging impatient drivers, but in Sergiev Posad the atmosphere was less . . . rushed. We were going to miss it once we got back to the city.


For more information on the monastery, see their english website: