The Russian North has always appealed to monks and saints. Since the 15th century numerous monasteries and cloisters have been founded throughout the northern part of the country and reached the White Sea coast line. The relics of the saints' bodies still lie intact in the monasteries. Maybe the cloisters and monasteries went through all the troubles and turmoil of the 20th century thanks to them.
Here in the land of white nights one can step back in time to an era that exemplified grace and tranquility where many Russian sanctuaries and sacred places are preserved in their original appearance. The points of interest historically are Kirillo-Belozersky and Ferapont monasteries which date back to the 14th century.
The history of the monasteries begins with the two monks Kirill and Ferapont who travelled a long way from Moscow in summer 1397. They spent the beginning of their monastic life in the monastery of St.Simon of Moscow. The destination place was known to Kirill long before the journey. It appeared in Kirill's prays one night. He heard the voice of the Virgin Mary telling him as follows: "Kirill, leave for White Lake, there is a place chosen by God for you, you'll be safe there". Accepting this as a mandate from above, Kirill was glad that his prays were heard. Soon after this wonderful night Ferapont returned from a trip to the North of the country. Kirill showered the monk with questions whether there were any places suitable for a life in complete solitude. Ferapont shared his impressions and agreed to leave the monastery with Kirill and get away from Moscow's bustle.
The monks chose a hill on the bank of Siverskoye Lake, dug an earth-house and lived for a year in it. In 1398 Ferapont left Kirill and picked another place where he founded a monastery.
Kirill was mistaken thinking that his flight to the north would isolate him from the secular world. He repeatedly asked the princes to stop civil intestine dissensions. Kirill like his teacher Sergius of Radonezh understood how difficult it might be to run the country ravaged by wars.
Spiritual influence of St.Kirill and his disciples was great. Under his guidance Savvaty, the founder of the famous Solovets monastery and Martinian, the organizer of the Ferapont monastery took the monastic vows.
After Kirill's demise in 1427 his cloister became the place for taking vows for other founders of the northern monasteries - Kornily Komelsky, Alexander Oshevensky and Nil Sorsky. Kirill was buried in the monastery and later canonized.
The groundwork for household development of the monastery and its architectural structure was laid to mark the 30th anniversary of Kirill's being Father-Superior. Old wooden churches were replaced with stately masonry temples. In the mid 17th century the estate of the monastery stretched in 16 districts of the Moscow State and a century later the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery was one of the largest landowners of Rus'. The reign of Moscow princes was a good time for the monastery. The boyars and princes often sent gifts: church utensils, books, cattle, money and bread.
Less than two centuries after Kirill's death a small wooden cloister was turned into a marvellous masonry town. Now the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery astounds everybody by the enormous size of its fortified walls and towers. The architectural monuments laid out and built in the traditions of early Russian architecture are mainly productions of the 15th-17th centuries. Among the structures that merit special attention are the Cathedral of the Assumption (1497), the Church of the Archangel Gabriel with an attached bell-tower and the refectory. Their distinctive traits lie in the simplicity and accuracy of the external décor.
The Kirillo-Belozersky monastery did not avoid the times of trouble at the turn of the 17th century. Russia was in a state of total disarray when in 1604, a pretender to the throne claimed to be Ivan the Terrible's son Dmitry who actually had died as a child. This "False Dmitry" seized power from Boris Godunov, only to be deposed the following year. Muscovy's chaotic political situation invited both popular rebellion and Polish invasion.
The Polish invaders were aware of the countless riches and jewelry kept in the sacristy of the monastery. When the enemy draw nearer the heads of the monastery decided to buy weaponry and fortify the walls. When the liberating forces of Pozharsky rid the capital of Moscow of the Polish invaders the seperate units of Poles and Lithuanians started for the North ravaging cities and towns on their way. The Russian army suffered defeat on the approaches to Vologda, Belozersk, Tot'ma and Sol'vychegodsk. On August 20, 1612 the hostile units approached the walls of the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery, but they seized only food supply and livestock. The monastery repulsed all the attacks and proved to be one of the few north-eastern Russian fortresses able to resist the foe.
The wars with the Swedes and Poles, inner disarray made the tsar rise a strong fortress in the North of the country. Under the decree of tsar Alexei Mikhailovich in 1643 construction of a new town started which lasted for 30 years. The territory of the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery tripled. Towers 50 metres high were erected at the corners of the enormous structure. The monastery at White Lake was assumed to be the biggest in Rus'.
Being situated far from the capital and surrounded by strong walls, the Kirillo-Belozersky monastrey was one of the main places of exile for many centuries. Among those deported to Kirillov there were a lot prominent Russian historical personalities, Partriarch Nikon, the Sheremetyevs, the Vorotynskys among the most famous prisoners.
Alexei Mikhailovich's reign was a good time for the monastery. The tsar and his spouse visited the monastery on several occasions and made generous donations. On the contrary, their son, Peter the Great, practically never came to the place. The monastery was falling into decay, state subsidies needed for repairs were scarce. Some reconstruction work was carried out in late 19th century, when the monastery marked its 500th anniversary. Then came the revolution of 1917. The fortress to which no other Russian monastery could compare was closed in 1924 and turned into the State Museum Reserve of History, Architecture and Art. In 1998 one part of the complex became a monastery once more.
The Goritsy Nunnery located in a tiny settlement 7 km from the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery is affiliated with the latter.
The Goritsy Nunnery is one of the remarkable convents situated near Kirillov. It is 7 km off the city on the bank of the Sheksna river at the foot of the Maura hill. A magnificent view opens up from the hill in summer season - dark-green foliage of forests, green meadows and fields and shiny surface of lakes scattered throughout the place. The Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery could be seen in the distance. On the opposite side among the hills and the lowlands the Sheksna river flows. One could catch sight of the white buildings of the Goritsy Nunnery on the left bank of it.
It appears that the Goritsy Convent of the Resurrection was founded by the Moscow princely family in 1544, namely by princess Ephrosiniya, spouse of the last appanage prince Andrei Staritsky (younger son of Ivan III). Paradoxically the cloister turned out to be Ephrosiniya's place of imprisonment. In 1563 Ivan the Terrible exposed the Princess and her son, prince Vladimir Staritsky "as liars". As a result, she was forced to take the veil and was exiled known by the name of Evdokiya. In October 1569 Ivan the Terrible brutally killed Vladimir Staritsky and the members of his family. Soon after it Evdokiya was drowned in the Sheksna river at the order of the tsar. Since then the Goritsy Nunnery situated in a remote district has become the place of imprisonment for spouses and relatives of the noble that fell into disgrace.
Despite some damage the convent has many elements of interest. The Cathedral of the Resurrection set up by princess Ephrosiniya in 1544 is a monumental and stately structure. This building is quite characteristic of its era: northern embroidery on the walls, ceramic balusters and bays, cupolas and altar apses. The external décor of the cathedral is rather austere and laconic in comparison with other temples and churches of the Belozersk district. Thus we can consider it to be erected by the local masters.
Next to the cathedral stands the Side-Chapel. It was built in commemoration of Dmitry, Maria Nagaya's son. The construction of this chapel was finished in 1611. In the same year the bellfry was erected.
All other structures of the cloister - Trinity Cathedral built on the spot of the graves of nuns Ephrosiniya and Yuliania, and the low fence - date back to the first part of the 19th century.