June 01, 1997

Northern Citadel

In the great, forested zone of the Russian north, waterways have served from prehistoric times as the main arteries of trade and commerce.  Among the most important of these links is the White Lake (Beloe ozero) and the Sheksna River, which flows southward from it.  Modern reservoir and canal construction has greatly altered the appearance of the Sheksna, but it still serves as a major transportation route connecting the Volga River with Lake Onega. Each summer, thousands of tourists travel the river in large cruise boats that operate between Moscow and St. Petersburg.  If time is no object, these river journeys provide an excellent introduction to the landscape of the Russian north.

As part of the Sheksna route, most of the cruise vessels dock at the small town of Goritsy, whose inhabitants offer various handicrafts for sale.  The town also has an ancient religious ensemble, the Goritsky Resurrection Convent, that played a significant role in Muscovite history during the turbulent reign of Ivan the Terrible.  However, few tourists are aware of this monument, part of which is now under the care of the Russian Orthodox Church and is being slowly restored.  Instead, the tourist buses head some ten kilometers eastward, over paved road to another, far larger monastic ensemble, the St. Cyril-Belozersk Monastery, which this June will observe its six hundredth anniversary.

ounded in 1397 by Cyril (Kirill), a monk of noble origins from Moscow’s Simonov Monastery, the St. Cyril-Belozersk Monastery is located on Siverskoe Lake, not far from the Sheksna River and the great White Lake. Paradoxically, the location was both remote and strategically important. With the revival of monasticism in Moscow during the fourteenth century, pioneer monks deliberately sought remote areas as a test of their ascetic faith and dedication. At the same time, Muscovite princes supported these efforts not only to spread and maintain the Orthodox faith, but also to protect Moscow’s territorial expansion into the Far North, with its rich forests.  Thus, the Belozersk Monastery founded by Cyril received major donations that, by the sixteenth century, made it one of the largest of Russian monasteries, second in size only to the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery near Moscow. Indeed, both of these monasteries played a significant role in defending Russian territory during the Time of Troubles, at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

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