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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nuns Praise God, And Raise Dogs

KOLOMNA, Central Russia -- This small town, a two-hour ride from Moscow, is home to Russia's largest Orthodox Christian convent. Re-established in 1990 in a still-communist country, the convent is now home to nearly 90 nuns and has already earned two interesting claims to fame: as a breeding center for Alabais, a Central Asian variety of sheep dog, and as a shelter for the country's growing number of foreign Russian Orthodox converts.

The convent may still be a bit of an enigma to Kolomna residents - "men are worse than the Devil over there," commented one taxi driver, inadvertently talking his way out of a potential fare - but life behind the convent walls is both peaceful and productive.

The Kolomna order, one of the few in Russia to attract large numbers of converts from abroad, has women from Poland, Finland, Hungary and Holland among its group.

One of the nuns, Sister Elizabeth, was raised in an Orthodox family in Poland but says she was always uncomfortable with that country's predominant Catholicism, particularly in the late 1980s and early '90s, when the fall of communism prompted a rise in spiritual awareness.

After years of shuttling between Poland and Russia, she said she decided not to return home. Waiting at a railway station in Kiev, she said, she stopped to buy a book about Nil Mirotochivy, an Orthodox saint.

The Kolomna convent was featured on the book's cover. "God whispered to me, 'Go there,'" Elizabeth said. She has been at the convent ever since.

Another nun, also named Elizabeth, is a Dutch citizen who was raised as an atheist and first traveled to Russia in the Brezhnev era. She said she found her calling when friends invited her to an Easter service at a cathedral in Sergiyev Posad.

"It was only in Russia that I realized what God was," said Elizabeth, who joined the convent when it first reopened a decade ago. "The Russians have God in their soul, while we in the West have God in our pocket."

In addition to teaching French and English and translating religious works into Russian, Sister Elizabeth shares in the convent's main enterprise, the breeding of the Alabais. Having made a concerted effort to develop proper breeding systems, the Kolomna convent is now a renowned stop for people interested in procuring one of the sturdy, intelligent dogs.

According to the nuns, the Alabais were chosen by the convent because it is believed the breed has survived virtually unchanged for more than 5,000 years, and hence looks no different than it did when created by God.

"Orthodox Christianity teaches us that a dog has a soul but no mind, and therefore no understanding of sin. So they don't deserve punishment," said Sister Taisia, another of the Kolomna nuns. Accepting that the typical puppy's behavior is often less than angelic, Taisia allows that at the most, a disobedient pup might occasionally find itself taken by the scruff of the neck and shaken "like a pear tree."

Feeding the sizable dogs has so far not proven a problem. The convent, which each year raises a variety of crops on nearby fields, also maintains a large herd of cattle - guarded, of course, by the Alabais. According to Mother Superior Kseniya, a former war correspondent in Nagorny Karabakh, the convent has nearly a year and a half of food reserves for its canine residents.

The convent promotes the Alabais by donating puppies to people who are willing to further popularize the breed. Kolomna's local foresters and farmers also receive free puppies. The nuns, however, never sell their dogs, since such a practice would be against Christian norms.

"Apart from that, we will also never give our dogs to the military or to the police," said Sister Taisia. "We are answerable to God for the dogs' well-being, and with the military or police it is very likely that the dogs would someday be killed."