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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lifelong Secret Brings Murder In a Convent

On a hill above Rozhdestvensky Bulvar rises a melancholy fortress, the Nativity Convent. Behind its solemn walls lived a nun with a secret, a secret that would ultimately kill her.

Varvara, like most other Orthodox sisters, no doubt believed that she would live out her days in humble service and obscurity behind the convent wall.

She had entered a nunnery with a history dating from 1386 and at least one miracle to its name. Like other convents which doubled as prisons for the cast-off wives of tsars, Nativity was the place of exile for Solomonia Saburova, the wife of Vasily III.

During the War of 1812, the French tried to steal the ornate silver frame of the convent's icon of Saint Nikolai the Miracle Worker, but according to legend a French soldier who touched it was taken so ill that he had to be carried away. After that, the French left the icon alone.

By the early years of this century, when Varvara became a novice, the convent was operating a shelter for young girls, who were taught how to read and do needlework.

Then came the Revolution. In 1923, almost 800 nuns were evicted from Nativity. The militia received one of the empty churches as a clubhouse. The rest of the convent was converted to dormitories or offices.

Varvara and a few of the other novices were allowed to continue living in the cells. One wonders what their lives were like. Were they able to fulfill their vocations in some limited, furtive way? Were they frightened, or did the crumbling convent offer at least a modicum of the safe and familiar amid the chaos beyond the walls? Where was God?

By 1978 only Varvara and a fellow nun, Viktorina, were still living. Then Varvara was found murdered, strangled to death by a neighboring resident. The man, a bookbinder by trade, was captured trying to make off with a few insignificant icons. He was sentenced to 10 years. A year later Viktorina, in her 90s and almost blind, was taken in by compassionate strangers. And that would seem to be the end of the story.

But two years later a man was caught at the Soviet border trying to smuggle out a cache of valuable icons and other religious objects. It was established that many of them had belonged to the Nativity Convent. Investigators returned to the case of the murdered nun, which is recounted in Peter Palamarchuk's excellent chronicle of Moscow's churches and monasteries, "Forty Times Forty."

Varvara, it turns out, was no mere novice, but the convent treasurer and a close friend of the last mother superior, who had entrusted Nativity's most precious sacred items to her before dying. The items found on the murderer were a red herring, meant to deflect suspicion from a ring of thieves who had received the real treasures.

Who betrayed poor Sister Varvara? Or, more likely, did she, in the loquaciousness of old age, reveal her own secret? That we will never know.

One pictures her through the years locking the door to her cell, taking the beautiful icons from their hiding places to pray, and thinking of days gone by, when the convent's bells still chimed and the choir still sang.

Helen Womack is on vacation.