The Novodevichy Convent, Moscow

The Novodevichy (‘New Maiden’) Convent is one of the most beautiful, and most visited, sites in Moscow. It was in the news recently when a fire broke out on scaffolding surrounding the bell-tower. There are various theories about the cause, but the important thing is that the fire seems to have been extinguished before any major damage was caused to the structure.


Novodevichy was one of our favourite places when we lived in Moscow in 1987. There was a playground in a wooded area across the lake from the convent with little wooden houses, a sand-pit, slides and swings, and we took the children there often. I can still remember the way by Metro – from our local station, Kievskaya, one stop on line 5, changing to line 1 at Park Kultury, getting off at Sportivnaya… I also remember a bakery just across the road, behind the playground, where we bought buns filled with that delicious soft sweet curd cheese that you often find in eastern and central Europe.


By the lake at Novodevichy in 1987 – Bryony, in the buggy, with our friends Kate and Julie. (The bell-tower was under scaffolding at that time too.)

I took more photos when I visited again in 2011, with my friend Larissa. As well as the cathedral and various other churches, there are a few interesting graves within the convent walls, but just outside there is also the huge Novodevichy cemetery, which I’ll write about later. Larissa drew my attention to Sofia’s Tower and told me that it’s the custom to make a wish whilst touching the wall. (My wish hasn’t come true yet, as far as I know, though I’m still hoping it will.)

Within the convent walls

Some details of the cathedral interior

While I was writing this and thinking about Sofia’s Tower, I remembered a painting by the renowned Russian artist, Ilya Repin, depicting Peter the Great’s rebellious half-sister Sofia, whose punishment for attempting to prevent Peter from becoming Tsar was incarceration in the Novodevichy convent. Note the body of one of her supporters hanging outside the window.


Ilya Repin: ‘Princess Sofia Alexeyevna a year after her incarceration in the Novodevichy Convent during the execution of the Streltsy and the torturing of all her servants in 1698′. Painted in 1879. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

In 1698 the Streltsy regiment rebelled against Peter’s rule and rose up in favour of Sofia.  There’s another famous 19th-century painting showing the aftermath of their failure.



Vasily Surikov: ‘Morning of the execution of the Streltsy’. Painted in 1881. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Notes on the painting from the Tretyakov’s website:

‘Surikov’s work was the culmination of Russian historical painting of the second half of the 19th century. The artist was interested in the turning points in the fate of the nation. As he said, ‘I do not understand the actions of separate historical figures taken apart from the people, without the crowd; I have to pull them out onto the street.’ The theme of the painting is Peter the Great’s suppression of the Streltsy uprising of 1698 in Moscow and the execution of the rebels. Peter and his close associates personally took part in the execution. Surikov intentionally defied reality and brought St Basil’s cathedral closer to the Kremlin walls, making the space of Red Square compacted and oppressive. This enhanced the basic psychological collision depicted in the canvas – the duel of views between Peter (on horseback) and the Strelets with a red beard.’

Legend has it that the Novodevichy lake and its shores are haunted by the souls of the Streltsy, many of whom were executed by Peter himself, on the frozen surface of the lake. I’m glad I didn’t know about that when I was there with the children!


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