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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Ravaged Monastery Awaits Resurrection

There was a time when Moscow's 613-year-old Simonov Monastery rivaled the imposing trio of Danilovsky, Novospassky and Novodevichy.


That time has passed.


Seventy-five years of destruction, misuse and neglect have transformed the Simonov Monastery into a ghastly monument to Soviet-era contempt for religion, unknown to most Muscovites and barely mentioned in guide books. Of the city's great monasteries, Simonov suffered more under state atheism than perhaps any other.


But church officials are hopeful that with last week's transfer of ownership from the city to the Russian Orthodox Church after a 2 1/2 year dispute, the monastery's bitter chapter of decline has at last been closed.


"Not much is left, just a corner," said Archpriest Vladimir Sivovlyov, head of the nearby Temple of the Nativity of the Virgin in the Old Simonov. "It's very unfortunate."


During the 1930s, about two-thirds of the monastery was swept away to build Torpedo Soccer Stadium and the ZiL auto factory's Palace of Culture. More than a dozen churches and chapels were razed, including the graceful Uspensky Sobor, first built in 1370. Today, only about 100 meters of original 655-meter-length monastery wall remains.


What was not swept away by "progress," was put to work. For the last 10 years, the remains of the monastery's fresco-covered corridors have trembled with the squeal of table saws and the crackle of welding equipment used by the Rosmonumentiskusstvo plant that once made Lenin busts, and now makes theatrical props. Earlier, it was used by a bamboo fishing rod factory.


The contrasts are striking: an altar is used as a canteen; stained glass adorns the office of the firm's director; a plaque dedicated to Marx, Engels and Lenin is affixed to a fresco-covered wall.


"We never thought much about this being a church," said Vitaly Bank, assistant director of Rosmonumentiskusstvo, standing in the basement of the 17th-century building, which is now used as a woodworking shop. "What the state gave us, we took."


What remains on the site suggests the monastery's pre-revolutionary greatness. Three elegant brick towers stand between sections of a 10-meter-high wall. Buildings and chapels dating to the 17th-century huddle against the wall's span. A magnificent, three-tiered brick gable, rivaling any in Moscow, adorns the top of one of the buildings.


But dozens of coats of paint cover the frescos; in only a few places have the layers been scraped away to reveal the artwork. Trees grow from the roofs and an orange half-cylinder corrugated steel warehouse was erected. Bits of metal lie scattered about, befitting the monastery's incarnation as a factory site.


"There was once beauty here to rival Novodevichy," said Nina Buslayeva, head of the financially strapped restoration project at the monastery. "Unfortunately, it is mostly gone."


The monastery's confrontation with the 20th century is partly the result of geography: It is wedged between the ZiL car plant and the Dinamo stadium on prime real estate by the Moscow River at 4 Ulitsa Vostochnaya. "The monastery was located in an unfortunate place for the growth of Moscow," said Buslayeva. "What is to be done?"


The site's restoration project has been a fiasco with little to show for 10 years of work. Making matters worse, the project is overseen by Rosmonumentisskustvo, the current tenant at the site and Buslayeva's employer, setting up a certain conflict of interest.


In the last two years, responsibility for the project has been passed like a hot potato between five groups involved with restoration. It began under the control of Rosrestovatsya, which transferred it to Rosrestovatsya Association. Later, it was passed to Department 3 of Remstroi, which shifted it to its Department 1. Next in line was Trestmosrestovatsya, which managed until last week when the premises was given to the Russian Orthodox Church.


"I don't know who is in charge of restoration," said Yevgeny Alov, who is ostensibly running the project for Trestmosrestovatsya. "I only found out from the newspapers that it was given to the Patriarchy."


Church officials said this week it was too early to predict what would they would decide. An aide to Bishop Arseny, in charge of property for the Russian Orthodox Church, said Tuesday that the Simonov Monastery had, as yet, not even been assigned to anyone.


But at least one member of the Orthodox Church already had a plan.


Archpriest Sivovlyov said Tuesday that he hoped to open up a Sunday school in the monastery. "Once again, it will be a place to worship God," he said. "That is long overdue."