Novodevichy Convent

Nikolay Galkin/ТАSS

This convent was founded in the 16th century by Prince Vasily III, the father of Ivan the Terrible. In 1514, while fighting the Lithuanians over Smolensk, the prince promised, standing by the town wall, "If it would be the Lord's will that I conquer my native town of Smolensk and the land of Smolensk, I shall put a women's cloister in a suburb of Moscow, and within it, a church in the name of the Holy Virgin." In ten years' time, he did. Right from the start and for two centuries thence, the nuns of the convent would be the wives and brides of the court who had fallen into disfavour. There is a theory that construction of the convent had coincided with Vasily III's pressing need to part with his first wife Solomonia Saburova, who would take the name Sofia when she became a nun. Vasily, who was then 26, had screened 500 potential candidates before he chose Solomonia. Twenty years into their marriage it became evident that Solomonia was infertile, so the prince decided to place her in a convent and find himself a new wife. However, it was not this convent, but the Convent of the Nativity, that he sent her to and, according to one legend, the ex-princess gave birth to a baby boy right away. The boy would grow up to become a notorious brigand, Kudeyar, one of the most controversial figures in Russian history. For centuries to come, many a high-ranking widow and simply undesirable noblewoman would be sent to the Novodevichy Convent to become nuns. Some of the better known ones were Princess Sofia, Peter I's older sister, who was sent to the convent by her brother as punishment for an attempted coup, and Peter I's wife Evdokia Lopukhina, who simply became "redundant:" the veil was practically forced upon her.

Novodevichy is one of the few Russian cloisters that have hardly changed at all since their look shaped up between the 16th and 17th centuries. The convent is a prime specimen of the architectural style known as Moscow or Naryshkin's Baroque, which had emerged in Moscow on the cusp of the 17th/18th centuries. The key landmarks inside the convent are the five-dome Cathedral of the Icon of Our Lady of Smolensk, modelled on the Kremlin's Cathedral of the Assumption, with its 17th-century frescoes still extant, the 72-metre (236-foot) Baroque bell-tower, the second tallest in Moscow after the Ivan the Great Bell-tower inside the Kremlin, and the chambers of Evdokia Lopukhina with Moscow's oldest sun-dial on the wall. There is a graveyard at the convent where many people of consequence were buried, from the writer Nikolai Gogol to the first president in Russia's modern history, Boris Yeltsin. After you have seen the convent and perhaps thought of the royal wives languishing their life away amid these ornate walls, you may want to proceed to the Novodevichy Pond with sumptuous green meadows around it. A monument to a mother duck with ducklings stands by the pond. The convent is under UNESCO protection. All restoration work here is carefully supervised by historians.