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Pskov Monastery of the Caves

Photographs by Vova Pomortzeff

At first glance, it would seem that the Pskov Monastery of the Caves was not very lucky with its location. The most western borders of the Russian state in the 15th to 17th centuries weren't the ideal place for the solitary monastic life. The monastery always was the first target of every attack of the enemies. The nearby Izborsk Fortress and well-fortified Pskov were only the second in order, if were at all. The monks had regularly defended the own monastery and the Russian borders by their bodies and build stronger and stronger walls between the sieges. However it was the borderline location that saved the monastery finally. According the Russian-Estonian Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920 the Pskov Monastery of the Caves with surrounding lands ceded to Estonia. Thanks to that, the monastery avoided an imminent destruction by the Bolsheviks. After the Second World War, when the Pechory district with the monastery was annexed to Pskov Oblast of Russia, the Soviet authorities were already not so aggressive towards the Orthodox Church. The pressure of the Soviet officials was limited with the prosecution of hegumen Pavel Gorshkov, the head of the monastery during the Second World War was arrested and charged with an unproved collaboration with the Nazis. Thus, the Pskov Monastery of the Caves also known as the Pskov-Caves Monastery is the only one Russian monastery, which wasn't close even for one single day during more than five hundred years of its history.

1. View of the Pskov Monastery of the Caves from the Holy Hill. Blue domes of the Dormition Cave Church decorated with golden stars in the traditions of Ukrainian baroque have to remind the Kiev Monastery of the Caves or the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, from where the first monks came here. St Nicolas' Gate Church is seen in the right, from which the Bloody Path, a steep descent to the main monastery courtyard, begins. The golden dome of St Michael's Cathedral rises above the monastery belfry in the centre.

 

2. Pilgrims visit the sacred caves under the Pskov Monastery of the Caves. The first monks lived in these caves, discovered miraculously almost a hundred years before the monastery was found. In 1392 local peasant Ivan Dementiev came to the Holy Hill to cut firewood. Some of the trees fell down suddenly, showing the entrance under the ground with the inscription over it: 'The Cave Given by the God'. Later the caves became the monastery cemetery. Several thousands people are buried here; include St Mark, the first hermit lived in the caves, and St Jonah, the founder of the monastery.

 

3. Monks Baruch (L) and Vitaly (R) pull out freshly baked bread from the stove in the monastery bakery. Baruch has lived in the monastery for 14 years and works continually in the bakery for last 10 years. It's possible to bake here in one time 46 loaves of 6 to 7 kilograms each. This amount is enough for several days in winter, but in summer, when many pilgrims come to the monastery, it's necessary to bake bread around the clock.

 

4. Gilded iconostasis of the Dormition Cave Church with the wonderworking icon of the Virgin of Tenderness. The main church of the monastery was dug in the ground by the founder of the monastery St Jonah near the entrance to 'The Cave Given by the God'. The cave church was consecrated on August 28, 1473 on the feast of the Dormition of the Virgin. This day is considered the official date of the foundation of the monastery

 

5. Monks ring for the vespers, the evening service, at the monastery belfry. Special type of the bell ringing called the 'ochepa' ringing is used in the Pskov Monastery of the Caves. The bells are moved from the ground and the nearby building with wooden levers and long ropes called 'ochepas'. In the past this type of the bell ringing was widespread in Russia, but the only one monastery still uses the 'ochepa' ringing nowadays. There are 17 bells at the monastery belfry now. At first a bell-ringer starts to move one of the three large bells. After several tolls of the large bell the groups of smaller bells join to the ringing.

 

6. Monks Dionysius (L) and Cyril (R) work in the monastery kitchen. Working day in the kitchen starts early morning before dawn. It's necessary to prepare food for all monks and all pilgrims. Although electricity and gas there are in the monastery now, all dishes in the kitchen are prepared in the old style with the traditional stoves heated by firewood. It's believed that firewood give an incomparable taste to the dishes.

 

7. Cow in the monastery barn. Twenty cows cover the needs in dairy products almost completely.

 

8. Collective morning praying of all monks in front of the wonderworking icon of the Dormition of the Virgin in the Dormition Cave Church. Every day of the monastic life begins with the praying in front of the most sacred and revered icon of the Pskov Monastery of the Caves at six o'clock in the morning.

 

9. Monk Baruch from the bakery makes prosphoras in the monastery prosphora workshop. A prosphora is a small loaf of leavened bread used for the Communion during the Eastern Orthodox religious service. The prosphora workshop bakes 26 trays or about 2.5 thousand prosphoras in one day. This quantity is enough for three days in winter, but it finishes in one day in summer. Another monks and novices help to Baruch in making common prosphoras, but large service prosphoras used by priests only are prepared by Baruch himself.

 

10. Collective praying of the pupils of the Sunday Orthodox School under the Pskov Monastery of the Caves.

 

11. Walls and towers of the Pskov Monastery of the Caves. The monastery is situated on the steep slopes of the ravine, in the bottom of which the stream of Kamenets runs. Shape of the walls repeats the terrain. The Taylovskaya Tower also known as the White Tower rises in the foreground and the Tower of the Upper Bars, which protected the place where the stream flows into the monastery, is seen in the background.

 

12. Monk Alexander rings for the vespers with the largest bell called the Weekday Bell.

 

13. The monks attend the morning liturgy in the Dormition Cave Church.

 

14. St Nicolas' Gate and the beginning of the Bloody Path, the main entrance to the Pskov Monastery of the Caves. According to the legends, St Cornelius, who headed the monastery in the 16th century, was killed at this place by Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible with his own hands. The tsar suspected the hegumen of high treason. Ivan the Terrible repented sincerely immediately after the crime, carried the body of the murdered old man on his hands to the Dormition Cave Church and mourned him there. Steep descent to the monastery, along which the bloodied body of St Cornelius was carrying by the tsar, is known as the Bloody Path since that.

 

15. Archimandrite Tikhon, the head of the Pskov Monastery of the Caves, leads the morning liturgy.

 

16. Monks ring for the vespers at the monastery belfry.

 

17. Medieval tiled slabs covering the burial niches known as 'ceramidas' seen in the caves under the Pskov Monastery of the Caves. There are about 350 'ceramidas' in the caves, the oldest one dates from 1530 year.

 

18. Making prosphoras in the monastery prosphora workshop.

 

19. Monk Baruch and novices make prosphoras in the monastery prosphora workshop.

 

20. Monk Baruch bakes prosphoras in the monastery prosphora workshop.

 

21. Icon painter Abel works in the icon workshop. Monk Abel has lived in the monastery for almost 10 years. Andrei Tolkunov, as Abel was known before taking of monastic vows, had his first painting lessons in his childhood from his father Yegor Tolkunov, famous painter from Kherson, Ukraine.

 

22. Children from the children's church choir 'Blagodat' at the class of solfeggio in the monastery. Children's choir under the Pskov Monastery of the Caves exists for over twenty years already. The children have regular classes in the monastery and attend every major religious service. The monastery also pays extra classes for the children in a municipal musical school.

 

23. Monk Evstihy prepares traditional Russian quark cheese in the monastery milk kitchen.

 

24. Monks Dionysius (L) and Cyril (R) cut up zanders in the monastery kitchen. This morning monks and novices cut up about 150 kilograms of zanders, one of the most valuable fishes in Russia, for cooking fish soup, fish cutlets or fried fish. Meat eating is prohibited by strict monastic rules, only fish and vegetable products are allowed. The monastery's menu is quite various in spite of this.

 

25. Novice Mikhail eats his buckwheat porridge for breakfast in the monastery kitchen.

 

26. Novice Kirill collects new eggs in the monastery chicken house. Fifty hens produce approximately one hundred eggs daily here.
 

 

27. Icon corner in the monastery barn with the portrait of father John Krestiankin, who died five years ago. Father John Krestiankin was a monk of the Pskov Monastery of the Caves and one of the most revered spiritual fathers of Russia in past decades.

 

28. Female volunteer works in the monastery barn.

 

29. Monk Alexander with a chopper at the monastery service courtyard some one kilometre outside the monastery walls. Alexander has lived in the monastery just for two years. He was born in Eastern Ukraine, than moved to Moscow and led quite ordinary life of a young man. Everything changed in 2006 when Alexander has been baptized, three years later he took of monastic vows.

 

30. Walls and towers of the Pskov Monastery of the Caves.

 

The photographs of this feature story were shot in January 2011 in the town of Pechory, Pskov region, Russia.

Copyright 2011 Vova Pomortzeff

 
   
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