Insights into St Petersburg

What is lavra? A short dictionary of Alexander Nevsky Monastery

When Peter the Great founded the Alexander Nevsky Monastery at Chernaya River 300 years ago, the city, this window to Europe, became forever associated with the Grand Prince Alexander Nevsky, a hero of the Russian nation and a Saint of the Orthodox Church. Today the Monastery, or the Lavra, is one of the city’s highlights every tourist and pilgrim must visit. Below you will find a brief but comprehensive outline that will help you understand how the oldest monastery in St Petersburg is linked to the history of the city, the country and the world.


This was the name Peter the Great gave to the spot for the future Monastery where the Chernaya River (currently called Monastyrka) flows into the Neva. According to the legend of those times, this was the spot where on 15 July 1240 a group of warriers from Novgorod and Ladoga led by Alexander Nevsky routed the Swedish army that had stopped for the night on its way to Novgorod. Today, archeologists say that the legendary battle actually took place at the mouth of the Izhora River near Kolpino, and that the Chernaya River near the present bridge of Alexander Nevsky most likely witnessed the battle that took place in 1301, the battle which enabled Novgorod troops to take the Swedish fortress of Landskrona.
The fact that Peter the Great turned to the memory of the Battle of the Neva was no accident, as the emperor saw a vivid resemblance between the Northern War and the wars waged by the Grand Prince Alexander. Both Peter the Great and Alexander Nevsky defended the northern Russian land and their Orthodox religion. Both faced major historical challenges and each of them was able to stand up to his challenge. Alexander Nevsky succeeded in defending the independence of the Novgorod lands, and Peter the Great in turning the only European Orthodox state into a superpower.
Monastic life began with the first Liturgy in the wooden Church of the Annunciation on 25 March (7 April in the Julian calendar, that is, on the day of the Annunciation) in 1713. With the founding of the Monastery, Alexander Nevsky became a patron saint of St Petersburg, and this saint is now commemorated in a prayer as the defender of the Neva lands. The icons seek to portray Alexander Nevsky in his royal robes, meaning that this saint was glorified not as a monk but rather as an Orthodox warrior. It is worth mentioning that the Order of St. Alexander Nevsky, defender of Russian lands, is the only Imperial order that continued to exist in the Soviet Union and then in Russia.


Although the Greek word λαύρα can be translated as "public place" or "city block”, it was this word that Byzantine writers used to refer to the monasteries that were not fully of a hermit type, consisting of a central temple and hermit stekes. Constant threat of the nomads in Palestine at the end of 5th century forced monks to surround monastic buildings with walls, creating a sort of an impregnable fortress, a kind of a city block. For instance, this is the image you will see in looking at the ancient Orthodox Monasteries such as Sabbas Monastery founded in 484 in the Kidron Valley.
Since the end of the 16th century, all large monasteries were called Lavra, referring to the special importance of the monastery. First, Kiev-Pechersk Monastery in 1688 was proclaimed a Lavra, and then in 1744 the Trinity Monastery of St Sergius changed its name to Trinity Lavra of St Sergius. Before the revolution, this status meant the direct subordination of the monastery to the patriarch, and, with the abolition of the patriarchate, subordination to the Holy Synod. Lavras had special rights, and there was no limit as to the number of monks there.
Alexander Nevsky Lavra was the third Lavra in Russia. The decree for renaming was signed by Emperor Pavel I in 1797. By this decree, the Holy Synod sought to "rename [Alexander Nevsky Monastery] and allow the number of monks equal to that of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra and Trinity Lavra of St Sergius."


The name came from the educational institution established by Plato in the countryside near Athens. In Russia, the word was used to refer to all the religious schools for higher education where, along with theology, students were given classes which today we would call secular.
The Theological Academy at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery made its first steps to existence during the reign of Peter the Great. In 1721, a Slavic school was established at the monastery. In his reforming of the Orthodox Church, Peter the Great sought to turn it into an instrument of ideological support for the new political direction, whereby St Petersburg would become "the window to Europe." The Church was to become more modern and some of the clergymen were to adopt the views of Europeans so that they could go into science, as was done by Jesuit monks or Protestant pastors.
During the era of Peter the Great, the Orthodox churches in the capital started to have pulpits from which the priests would read their sermons. This same skill was cultivated among the monks of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery where preaching became a work of penance. In 1797, when the monastery was converted into a Lavra, the Slavic school, which by that time had become the main seminary, was reformed into the Theological Academy. Along with the Moscow, Kiev and Kazan Academies, the St Petersburg Academy played a prominent role in the history of the Church. By the way, from the sixth patriarchy of the Russian Church elected after the restoration of the patriarchate in 1917, four members were the graduates of the St Petersburg Academy.


The word comes from the Latin Latin reliquiarium ‘for the remains’ andrefers to a large, ornate casket for storage of relics, reminiscent of an architectural piece. The reliquary of Saint Alexander Nevsky in Trinity Cathedral was once one of the must-see items in the Lavra: this monument of Elizabethan rococo was mentioned in all guides to pre-revolutionary St Petersburg.
The need for a reliquary came about when, after a triumphant victory in the Northern War in 1724, Peter the Great with unprecedented honours transferred the relics of the saint from Nativity Monastery in Vladimir to St Petersburg. A reliquary was commissioned by the daughter of Peter, Empress Elizabeth. The box in the form of a five-step pyramid was created based on the sketches by the court portraitist George Grote and the librarian Jakob Shtelin. On the front side, you can see the bas-reliefs with episodes related to Alexander Nevsky: the Nevsky Battle, the Battle of the Ice, and the entry into Pskov.
Today the famous reliquary can be seen in the Concert Hall of the Winter Palace. In 1922 it was expropriated from the Church and deposited in the State Hermitage Museum.


The Greek word archimandrite (αρχιμανδρίτης) can be translated into modern Russian as “head of the sheepfold”. This, of course, refers to the sheep of Christ, the monks. During the first centuries of the Church, the word archimandrite was used to refer to those whom the bishop appointed to oversee all the monasteries of the diocese, and then to the abbots of major monasteries. In Russia, the title of archimandrite was used when addressing an abbot of an important monastery and up to the Soviet era referred to the position. Currently archimandrite is primarily a rank, the highest for religious elders.
Today the archimandrite of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery is Vladimir, Metropolitan of St Petersburg and Ladoga, and the vicar is Bishop Nazariy of Kronstadt.


This the ancient name for communal monasteries that came from the Greek words κοινός meaning “common” and βίος meaning “life” (Latin coenobium). This word was used for the monasteries that appeared at the beginning of 4th century after the hermit monasteries. In Russia, the word was used to describe monasteries in which neither monks nor abbots could have any property, and all their needs were provided for by the monastery.
The coenoby of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery was founded in 1820 near the village of Klochki. At present this is the area on the Oktyabrskaya embankment between the Finlyandsky and Volodarsky bridges; during the era of Peter the Great it was where the brick factory owned by the monastery was located. The coenoby was intended for the sick and elderly monks whom the monastery took care of. In 2002, the main temple of the coenoby, Holy Life-giving Trinity Cathedral, was re-consecrated.
Modern maps of the city have the word “coenoby” on them in relation to the Kinovievskoe (“belonging to the coenoby”) cemetery near the monastery where, along with graves of the 19th century, there are graves from the Siege of Lenindrad.


"City of the Dead", this name is used for the cemetery with tombs of noble, honourable people, who made a significant contribution to the history of their homeland.
Alexander Nevsky Lavra is not only the spiritual centre of St Petersburg, but also the burial place of prominent citizens. The tradition goes back to the era of Peter the Great: in 1714, the emperor’s sister Natalia was buried in Lazarevskaya church. Prior to the accession to the throne of Emperor Pavel I, the ashes of his father Peter III were laid to rest in the monastery.
The most famous of the Lavra burials is probably the tomb of Suvorov in the Annunciation Church: everyone remembers the eloquent epitaph on the tomb, "here lies Suvorov". According to a legend, these words belong to Derzhavin. The story goes that during the funeral the hearse would not go through the door, and one of the soldiers cried out, "Come on, guys! There is no place Suvorov ever failed to pass", and, indeed, the coffin made it through the door.
Everyone in the city knows about the Necropolis of Artists and the Necropolis of the 18th century, the former Tikhonovsky and Lazarevsky cemeteries, which became part of the State Museum of Urban Sculpture. Much less is known about the former Cossack cemetery, which is now called the Communist section. This necropolis is in front of Trinity Cathedral. Here rests Mikhail Nefedov, the head of the Road of Life and Captain of the I rank; Ivan Zubkov, the head of the construction of the Leningrad subway and then, immediately after breaking the blockade, the head of the Victory Road leading through the narrow section of the shore of Lake Ladoga. Both tombstones bear the inscription "Died on Duty."