Russian Monks Making Famous Italian Cheeses, and Music in a Vegetable Garden - Daily Life in the Valaam Monastery

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Sampling the vibrant life in one of Russia's most famous monasteries, often called the "Northern Athos"

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Our arrival at Valaam coincided with the patronal festival. At the pier, large white motor ships crowded; numerous pilgrims scurried along the shore. The monastic brethren had no time for journalists. Left to ourselves, we wandered along the forest paths and from time to time joined one of the pilgrimage groups to listen to some amazing stories from the monastery life.

Northern Athos

Monastic traditions preserved the story of how the Apostle Andrew the First-Called, heading from Kiev to Novgorod, reached Lake Ladoga, and then Valaam, "baptizing everywhere and placing stone crosses at all places." And in the 10th century, the monks Sergiy and German settled on the island and founded a holy monastery here.

View of the central estate across the Monastyrskaya Bay

More than once it was ravaged by militant Swedish neighbors, destroying monastery shrines and books. And in 1611, the monastery was completely ruined, the abbot and the brethren were brutally murdered, and the Swedes built their fortifications on the ruins. For a long hundred years, the monastic life on Valaam was interrupted. The revival of the monastery began only in 1715, when Sweden, having been defeated in the Northern War, lost control over these lands. And the highest flourishing of the monastery came in the middle of the 19th century, when Abbot Damaskin was its Father Superior. It was a time of the highest spiritual uplift. It was then that hermitages, temples, and chapels appeared in different parts of Valaam.

"In this place in the 1830s, the Valaam hegumen Damaskin (1795-1881) labored for more than 6 years in a deserted cell"

After the revolution, the monastery remained on the territory of independent Finland and successfully existed until 1940. But when, after the Soviet-Finnish war, the island went to the Soviet Union, almost everyone, who was there, left it. And soon new settlers appeared there - cadets of the school of boatswains of the Navy. The monastic hotels were adapted for barracks, and the rest of the buildings for educational establishments.

This road was made in 1845

But already in September 1941, Finnish troops occupied Valaam. For three years their fortified area was here, and then girls from the rear unit arrived on the liberated island, and a state farm was organized, supplying the front with dairy products. And since 1952, Valaam has become a haven for war invalids for thirty years, who were settled here in a special boarding facility.

Konevskiy hermitage

During this time, almost everything that had been created for centuries was destroyed. The Spaso-Preobrazhenskiy Cathedral (of the Transfiguration of the Savior) lost its unique murals, a vegetable store was built in the lower church, the altar of the Uspenskaya (Assumption) Church became a store, and the Voskresenskiy (Resurrection) hermitage was given over to a camp site... The last of the surviving wooden chapels, Pokrovskaya, burned down already in 1982.

The modern dome of the Spaso-Preobrazhenskiy (Transfiguration) Cathedral

And only on December 14, 1989, the monks again landed on the island, and a new chapter began in the history of the monastery.

Italian cheese and Orthodox prayer

A favorite route for local guides is through the monastery farm. They enthusiastically talk about the secrets of cheese making and about the shepherd Alyosha, who performed Ravel's Bolero on his pipe. It is true, we did not manage to talk with Father Agapiy, the main person on the farm - he was expecting distinguished guests. But he gave us a guide from the novices.

Until 1917, there were about 30 industries on Valaam, including small factories - resin, candle, leather, pottery, and brick plants. There was a horse stable; there was a dairy farm. The monastery not only provided itself with everything necessary, but also sold its products on the mainland.

Restored in 2014, the farm replicates the original 1881 building

The farm here is truly unique. It was built in 1881. The steam engine supplied water to all floors of the house, where the brethren lived, and to the barnyard; with its help they whipped butter, ground potato flour, and chaffed straw for animals. But after 1940, when the monks left the island, the monastery economy turned into ruins.

The farm began to be restored only in 2014 - first it was necessary to restore the hermitages, temples, and chapels. In two years, all buildings and premises were put in order and equipped with modern equipment: all animal care processes - distribution of feed, drinkers, milking, cleaning of premises - are automated as much as possible.

The farm still provides the monastery with milk, butter, sour cream, and kefir. But the famous Valaam cheese brought real glory to the monks-farmers.

It is made here according to Italian technologies - the monks traveled to Italy to comprehend the secrets of cheese making.

Famous Italian cheeses are made on Valaam: Cachotta, Ricotta, and Mozzarella. And also branded cheese Monastiko - according to the original recipe, developed by Italian cheese makers especially for the Valaam monks.

The monks say that the main secret of success in making cheese, like in any business, is prayer, humility, and obedience.

Smolenskiy hermitage. Memory eternal.

We reached the Smolenskiy hermitage shortly before the evening service. The head of the hermitage Father David - he is also the conductor of the monastery choir - was in a hurry to the service, but still gave us a few minutes.

The Valaam Monastery is the only one, where for more than 100 years they have been praying for those who died in the First World War. This tradition was interrupted only for the time when the monastery was closed. Today, here again every day they pray for the fallen soldiers. It was for this that Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolayevich Romanov founded a hermitage in honor of the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God, the patroness of warriors: 12 elders-schemers had to read the Psalter day and night, commemorating everyone who died on the fronts of the First World War.

The place for the hermitage was chosen on the Bobylyok peninsula, where the Smolensk chapel was built as yet under Abbot Damaskin.

Smolenskaya chapel

The temple was consecrated in 1917. It was the last one built in the Russian Empire.

When the Valaam monks fled to Finland in 1940, the old synodics were lost. And in the mid-1960s, the locals tried to dismantle the church of the Smolenskiy hermitage into bricks.

But in 2005, the tradition of reading the Psalter was revived. Today, the monks commemorate the names of 74 thousand soldiers and officers of the First World War and the names of civilians from Leningrad who died in the blockade - according to the book “Blockade. 1941 – 1944. Leningrad".

And the pilgrims carry notes with the names of their dead relatives – war veterans: "Afghans", "Chechens", "Angolans", and more recently also "Syrians".

Father David says: “The temple in the name of the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God is a monument to military prowess.

Temple in the name of the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God

There, on the iconostasis, there are the gospel words: “There is no greater love than this that a man lays down his life for the sake of his friends.” And the military regulations of the Russian army say that a soldier, performing his duty, must be ready to sacrifice even his very life.

Music on the vegetable patches

But Valaam is not only a monastery and hermitages, monks, laborers and pilgrims. It's also "locals". At different times, by the will of fate, they ended up on the island - some on the instructions of the Motherland, some at the call of the heart, and someone was born and raised here. Now they are gradually moving away from the island.

Perhaps, walking along the Valaam forest paths, you will meet a fragile woman with a violin and hear her playing it. This is Yelena Nikolayevna Gruzdeva, a school teacher, musician, head of the “ValAns” children's ensemble, winner of numerous competitions, songwriter, and performer. She is one of those, who could, despite all the difficulties, settle down on the island.

We met Yelena Nikolayevna in the monastery garden; now she, along with her mother Tatyana Vladimirovna, is looking after tomatoes and cucumbers here. And when she has a free minute, she plays the violin for the pilgrims.

After graduating from the Petrozavodsk branch of the Leningrad Conservatory in 1987, she refused to be assigned to a symphony orchestra and came here to teach children music. We are sitting on a bench next to the greenhouse. Yelena recalls:

“As a young specialist, they gave me a room on the first floor of a winter hotel. It was a sunny day, but there was twilight, so I had to turn on the lights. Water flowed down along the walls. I say: "I will not live here." - "Interesting, - they answer, - we have prepared a room for you, we have done some repairs..." - "But you can see - humidity." - "So what? Many of us live like this.” “But I have four violins! They will fall apart." “Ah, violins... Well, then wait, we’ll give you another room.”

Yelena remembers, what Valaam was like 25 years ago - without a church service, without bell ringing, without a prayer. She remembers how the first monks appeared, how the island began to change.

“We were waiting for their arrival on December 13,” she says, “we even went down into the bay. But a severe storm began, by nightfall we decided that no one would come, and dispersed. And yet they did come. I then bought two loaves of white bread and carried them along. Quite unusual bread was baked on Valaam – so huge, so fragrant, and so savory. I went up to the second floor, the door was opened by Hieromonk Serafim, the first of the priests, with whom I met. Seeing me, he covered his face with his hand in a theatrical gesture and exclaimed with a smile: “Temptation!” I still didn’t understand: the temptation was me or the bread.”

“I became the first monastery cleaner,” Yelena continues. - I washed the floors in the refectory, in the prothesis (prosphora bakery). The floors are stone, and the water is icy - December is outside. I had to be the first seamstress. Once Father Varsonofiy brought a cloth and said: “We need to have sown a curtain separating the altar from the temple.” I was scared: “Father, I don’t know how.” “Who else should I ask?” I began to scribble at random, ripped open, sew again. Then I also had to sew veils for Christmas and Easter, until professionals replaced me, clumsy.”

Thirty years flew by like one day. Yelena Nikolayevna taught children music, worked in a local house of culture, traveled half the country with her school ensemble, and was outside of the country. Here she got married, here she gave birth to children, and here they were baptized in the monastery church.

And on Easter May Day 2016, the building of the winter hotel burned down. The school was also burned down. After this fire, it was no longer restored, and there is already no one to teach in it - there are practically no children left on the island. Yelena Nikolayevna and her husband lost both housing and work.

Yelena picks up a guitar, and in the monastery greenhouse, among cucumbers and tomatoes, we hear the piercing words of her song:

I am treated with pain from various ailments,

from idle ideas, poverty of indifference,

from quick friends, those hiding in a corner,

from low passions, from suffocation of the gain.

Valaam, July 2019

For the opportunity to visit Valaam, we express our gratitude to the St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation and ZAO “Borisfen”.

In preparing the article, materials published on the website, as well as on the personal page of Yelena and Sergey Gruzdevs "VKontakte" were used.


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