Russia Religion Monasticism Monastery Balaam Monastery of the Transfiguration

Balaam Monastery of the Transfiguration

Balaam is an island in the very north of Lake Ladoga, fourteen miles from the mainland and not far from the Finnish border. This is the home of a famous monastery, which became the spiritual centre of Orthodoxy on Russia’s northern frontiers. The full name of the cloister is the Balaam Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Lord.

The year of the founding of the monastery is unknown, with estimates ranging from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries. According to one legend, shortly after the death of Christ, St Andrew travelled through Russia and planted a cross on the island, as a sign that one day a cloister would be built there. More recent information, however, suggests that it was established under Archbishop John II of Novgorod in the 1390s.

The two “grandfathers” of the monastery are St Ephraim of Perekom and St Sergius of Balaam, who came to Lake Ladoga from the city of Novgorod, accompanied by a small group of followers. The monks decided to settle on an uninhabited island, which became known as the Holy Isle. They put up a cross and built the Church of the Transfiguration.

Although Ephraim soon returned to Novgorod, Sergius remained and became the head of the fraternity, which rapidly grew in number. In order to feed themselves, the monks planted vegetables on the nearby islands. This aroused the indignation of the Karelian pagans, who launched attacks on the community.

St Sergius travelled to Novgorod to officially inform Archbishop John II of the founding of a new monastery in his diocese. The archbishop not only gave his blessing, providing rich endowments of gold and ornaments, but also helped to resettle the fraternity on the largest island on Lake Ladoga – Balaam.

With the help of the military power of Novgorod, St Sergius managed to expel the pagans from Balaam, although some of the monks were killed in the battle. This event is believed to have happened sometime between 1407 and 1415.

A manuscript dating from the mid-sixteenth century, called The Tale of the Balaam Monastery, chronicles the creation of the monastery on the island under Father Superior Sergius. During his tenure as abbot, a clearing was made in the forest, where the wooden Cathedral of the Transfiguration was built with side-chapels of St John the Apostle and St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker.

The next building was also made of wood. This was the Church of the Nativity of Christ, with a refectory adjoining the main premises. Until the early 1450s, the monastery was cruciform and surrounded on all four sides by a stockade. The main entrance was on the southern side.

A scriptorium was opened by St Sergius, who took an active role in the copying of books. The oldest Balaam manuscript is the Commentaries on the Gospel, rewritten by a monk called Pachomius in 1465. This document provides clear evidence of the rapid development of the monastery in the middle of the fifteenth century.

St Sergius established strict rules governing the life of the monastery, based on a communal approach and an ascetic lifestyle. Following a dispute, however, he was forced to leave Balaam and return to Novgorod. Sergius spent his remaining years at the Monastery of St John the Apostle, where he died and was buried.

The following abbot at the Balaam Monastery was St Herman, who had helped St Sergius to found the cloister. He passed away “at a great age” and was buried in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration.

Between 1500 and 1504, a fire destroyed virtually all the monastery buildings, including the exchequer and the library. In 1504, Grand Prince Basil III awarded special privileges to the devastated cloister. The monks were freed from the jurisdiction of the local archbishop and the need to pay taxes to Novgorod.

In 1467, St Alexander of Svir took the habit at the Balaam Monastery and spent some time on the Holy Isle. A hagiography of the saint, dating from the late seventeenth century, contains a miniature depicting the cloister in the sixteenth century. Two stone churches can be seen inside a wooden stockade, at the centre of a circular clearing in the middle of a forest. These are the Cathedral of the Transfiguration with three cupolas and the Church of the Nativity of Christ with one cupola and refectory.

A great event was celebrated during the time of Father Superior Pimen – the relocation of the relics of St Sergius to the Balaam Monastery. The relics were acquired with the blessing of Archbishop Theodosius of Novgorod in the period between 1548 and 1551. They were discovered on the feast day of St John of Novgorod (7 September) and arrived at Balaam on 11 September.

The relics of St Sergius were placed in a shrine, alongside the remains of St Herman, and exhibited in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration until 1573. As sacred objects of great value, they were carefully hidden away whenever there was the threat of an attack by Swedish troops.

Throughout the sixteenth century, the monastery earned money from its land holdings, fishing grounds, saltworks and mill. In the late 1570s, however, the cloister found itself in the middle of the long-running political and military conflict between Russia, Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for control of the Baltic territories, particularly Karelia.

In February 1578, a Swedish army murdered thirty-six monks. In 1581, during intense fighting on the north-west shore of Lake Ladoga, an epidemic broke out on Balaam, killing eighty-four members of the fraternity. During this period, the cloister constantly came under attack.

When the long-awaited peace was finally signed on 28 December 1585, it did not bring relief to the monks. According to the terms of the treaty, Sweden was awarded the fortress of Korela and the shore of Lake Ladoga, including Balaam, until 1590.

Upon the expiration of the truce in 1590, Russia launched a new war against Sweden. In 1593, the two countries resumed peace negotiations, which dragged on for two years, finally ending with the signing of the Treaty of Tyavzino (Teusina) in May 1595.

Under the terms of the new treaty, Russia regained the territories lost to Sweden in 1585. In 1597, Tsar Feodor I issued a decree reopening the Balaam Monastery, ordering the restoration of its lands and “royal exchequer, the creation of a church and refectory, and the building of a stockade and cells, as before.”

The Time of Troubles brought fresh misfortunes to the Balaam Monastery in the early seventeenth century. On 28 April 1609, Tsar Basil IV Shuisky signed the Treaty of Vyborg with Sweden. In return for Swedish help in Russia’s war against the Poles, a secret clause in the treaty promised Korela and all the surrounding lands to King Charles IX.

In early 1610, the local inhabitants were ordered to leave prior to the Swedish takeover. Metropolitan Isidor of Novgorod sent the Balaam monks to the St Anthony of Dymskoe Monastery, which was ten miles from Tikhvin. The signing of the Treaty of Stolbovo in 1617, which left the north-west territory of Lake Ladoga in Swedish hands, seemed to end all hope that they would ever return to their old home.

In 1710, during the Great Northern War against Sweden, Peter the Great recaptured all the lands that Russia had lost to Sweden a century ago. This paved the way for the reestablishment of Orthodox churches and monasteries on these territories.

In 1717, archimandrite Irinarchus of the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery called for the revival of the Balaam Monastery, which had been assigned to his cloister. Later that year, Bishop Aaron (Yeropkin) of Karelia and Ladoga added his blessing to this undertaking and gave permission for the construction on Balaam of a new church in honour of the Transfiguration of the Lord.

The wooden Church of the Transfiguration with side-chapels of St John the Apostle and St Andrew the First-Called Apostle was finished in 1718. The building work was headed by a monk called Alexander. On 13 March 1719, the church was consecrated by Irinarchus.

The reports of the Balaam monks to Irinarchus reflect the great difficulties they faced in their task to rebuild the monastery. In 1720, they asked Bishop Aaron for permission to construct a refectory Church of the Dormition with a side-chapel of St Peter and St Paul. Work dragged on from 1721 until 1728, when the monastery did not even have enough money for the painting of icons or for decorating the altar. The new church was finally consecrated in February 1729.

In 1732, the head of construction at the monastery, a monk called Joseph (Sharov), wrote to Empress Anna Ioannovna, asking her to restore some of the cloister’s land holdings. As a result, the following year, the Crown Department of the Novgorod Archieros started levying an annual tax of twenty-two roubles and sixteen kopecks.

Although the Balaam Monastery had acquired independence from the local archbishop, it was not assigned to any diocese. In 1736, after an analysis of historical documents, including a deed granted back in the early seventeenth century by Tsar Basil IV Shuisky, the Holy Synod placed the cloister under the jurisdiction of the Novgorod diocese, separate from the St Cyril of Belozersk Monastery. In 1740, a total of twelve monks were living at the monastery.

During the Easter celebrations on 3 April 1754, a fire broke out at the Balaam Monastery and all the new buildings burnt down. The gateway chapel was adapted for divine services and reconsecrated as the Church of the Annunciation on 7 October 1754.

Thanks to the generous donations of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, the monks were able to build a wooden two-storey Cathedral of the Transfiguration with five cupolas in 1755. The shrines of St Sergius and St Herman were kept in the side-chapels. The roof of the cathedral was damaged when the belltower was blown down in a gale in March 1759.

The Church of the Dormition was also built from wood in 1755. The side-chapel of St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker was later attached to the parvis. By the early 1760s, the monks had likewise constructed a Church of the Nativity of Christ, which adjoined the refectory in the northern part of the stockade.

The stockade consisted of four walls with chapels of St John the Baptist (above the western gates), St Elijah the Prophet (in the southern corner) and St Cosmo and St Damian (in the north). Outside the walls stood the Chapel of the Life-Giving Cross and the Chapel of St George (at the jetty). A chapel was built in the cave of St Sergius and St Herman on the Holy Isle.

In 1764, the Balaam Monastery was home to only ten elderly monks. The cloister was classified as supernumerary and, in 1768, stripped of its privileges. Father Superior Ephremus had every reason to be fearful for the future. Nearing death himself, he asked for a priest to be sent from the mainland to hold divine services at the monastery. But the two white clergymen who arrived made no tangible contribution to the life of the cloister, which virtually ceased functioning.

By 1782, the Balaam Monastery was deserted. Archbishop Gabriel (Petrov) of Novgorod responded by sending an hieromonk called Nazarius (Golovin) to the island with the aim of reviving the spiritual life of the cloister. In 1786, Balaam returned to the fold of the state as a “third-class” monastery. After the fraternity of the Novgorod Monastery of the Holy Spirit was moved to the island, the number of monks grew to fifty-five.

In 1783, Nazarius set about constructing a complex of stone buildings. The foundations of a new Cathedral of the Transfiguration were laid in 1784. On 28 June 1789, the lower church was consecrated in honour of St Sergius and St Herman. Construction work continued in the early nineteenth century under Nazarius’s successor, Father Superior Innocent (Moruyev).

On 23 December 1811, Vyborg Province was joined to the Grand Duchy of Finland, which had been awarded to Russia following the Finnish War with Sweden in 1809. One condition of the peace treaty was that Russia should continue to recognise the existing laws, liberties and religion of the grand duchy. This meant that the existence of an Orthodox monastery on its territory was technically illegal. Fortunately, Tsar Alexander I visited Balaam in 1819 and offered his royal protection. In 1822, the monastery was elevated to the status of a “first-class” cloister.

In 1839, Damaskinos (Kononov) became the new abbot of the Balaam Monastery. His immediate task was not to build new churches, but to improve the overall life of the cloister. He constructed a stone hotel for pilgrims, the Church of St Alexander of Svir with cottages for monks on the Holy Isle and a water station. Utility blocks were built, roads were laid throughout Balaam and a steamer was acquired.

On 28 June 1858, the monastery was visited by Tsar Alexander II, accompanied by his wife and children. In memory of this historical event, the Tsarist Chapel was built. A painting studio and a school of drawing also opened at the monastery.

Many new stone buildings were constructed during the abbacy of Father Superior Jonathan (Dmitriyev). In 1887, the old Cathedral of the Transfiguration was dismantled and work on a new two-storey building began. The new cathedral was designed by Alexei Silin and took ten years to build. The interior was decorated with frescoes painted in an academic style by the monastery’s own artists, working under the leadership of a monk called Luke.

At the very end of the eighteenth century, construction of the first monastery skete began on Skete Island, which lies two miles from Balaam. A stone Church of All Saints, six single-storey stone blocks and a chapel were built on the island. In 1850, a new stone church was constructed. Women were only allowed to enter the skete once a year – on All Saints’ Day.

The Holy Isle Skete lies to the north-east of Balaam, on the Holy Isle. St Alexander of Svir is said to have once lived in a cave on the island. A chapel was built in honour of the saint in the early nineteenth century, followed by a church in 1853.

The Skete of St Nicholas stands on the westerly side of Cross Island, where Lake Ladoga meets Monastery Bay. A stone Chapel of St Nicholas the Miracle-Worker was built there in 1809, followed by a stone church in 1853. Five years later, a stone house with a domestic chapel was constructed. On the south-west of the island, a large granite cross was erected by Father Superior Damaskinos.

The Skete of St John the Baptist was located on the island of the same name, three miles from Balaam. In 1855, the Chapel of St John the Baptist was built there. Three years later, the wooden Church of the Beheading of St John the Baptist was consecrated. In 1860, the Church of St Basil the Great, St Gregory of Nazianzus and St John Chrysostom was opened in its stone basement. That same year, the wooden Church of the Transfiguration, built by the Balaam monks in 1686, was brought to the island from St Basil’s Monastery.

The Skete of St Elijah stands on the island of Lembos (Lembach), seven miles from Balaam. The wooden Church of St Elijah the Prophet and belltower were consecrated there in 1868. On the other side of a strait stood the wooden Chapel of St Elisha the Prophet, which burnt down in the 1950s.

The Konevets Skete lay to the west of Balaam. The wooden Church of Our Lady of Konevets and belltower were built there in 1870. Near the skete stood the hermitage where Damaskinos lived prior to his appointment as abbot. All the buildings were dismantled around 1950.

To the south of Balaam, on Yemelianov Island, Father Superior Damaskinos founded the Skete of St Abraham. The Church of St Abraham of Rostov was consecrated in 1873 and dismantled fifty years later.

The Tikhvin Skete stood on the island of Vossinoi (Vossinansaari), seventeen miles from Balaam. The Church of Our Lady of Tikhvin was consecrated there in 1897. In the middle of the twentieth century, the church was pulled down.

In the late nineteenth century, the Skete of St Sergius was founded on Putsari, which lies to the north-west of Balaam. Two churches were built on the island – a stone Church of St Sergius and St Herman (consecrated in 1899) and a wooden church on the shoreline. The Skete of St Herman was founded to the north-east of Balaam, on the island of Suskuansaari, where the Church of St Alexander Nevsky was built.

The Skete of the Resurrection was built on the shore of St Nikon’s Bay in the late nineteenth century. The stone Church of the Resurrection of Christ was consecrated there no later than 1906. The side-chapel of St Andrew the First-Called Apostle in the basement of the church contained a model of the cubiculum in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The Church of the Dormition was built nearby.

The Smolensk Skete was founded on Skete Island in memory of soldiers killed in the First World War. The Church of Our Lady of Smolensk was built there in June 1917.

By 1917, there were a total of twenty-one churches (fifteen stone and six wooden) and twenty-two chapels (eight stone and fourteen wooden) at the Balaam Monastery and its various sketes. The cloister also opened churches in Moscow and St Petersburg. When the revolution broke out, the fraternity numbered 596 monks.

In the turmoil of the revolution and civil war, the Balaam Monastery grew increasingly isolated from the rest of Russia. The monks were worried by the growing nationalistic tendencies among the local population, particularly after Finland won its independence in 1918. In June 1919, the Balaam monks were required to adopt Finnish citizenship, although only some agreed to do so.

The Finnish Orthodox Church broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church, becoming autonomous under the Orthodox Church of Constantinople. The liturgical language was changed from Old Church Slavonic to Finnish, while the Gregorian calendar was introduced.

These reforms were bitterly resisted on Barlaam. In 1925, the Finnish Orthodox Church sent a special commission to the cloister to identify the most intransigent monks, who were put on trial. Forty-eight friars were expelled from the monastery, while another thirty-two were exiled to distant sketes to carry out menial tasks.

When the Winter War broke out in 1939, the Balaam Monastery found itself in the front line. The monks refused to leave the island and only evacuated after the hospital church was bombed and burnt down. The eighty-five remaining friars who had accepted Finnish citizenship were resettled in Heinävesi in south-east Finland, where they established the New Balaam Monastery.

The Winter War ended on 12 March 1940 with the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty, which awarded Balaam to the USSR. But after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Finland resumed hostilities on 26 June 1941. Finnish forces occupied Balaam and opened military bases on the islands.

In November 1941, Father Superior Chariton (Dunayev) sent six monks from Heinävesi to begin restoration work on Balaam. But when peace was finally signed in September 1944, the island was once again returned to the Soviet Union. In 1946, a home for wounded soldiers and a state farm were opened on the territory of the monastery. The Balaam Museum Complex of History, Architecture and Nature was founded in 1979.

The initiative for the revival of the Barlaam Monastery belonged to Patriarch Alexius II of Moscow and All Russia. In July 1988, in his capacity as metropolitan of Leningrad, he visited Balaam. A month later, he submitted a proposal for the reopening of the monastery to the Council for Religious Affairs of the Soviet Council of Ministers. The following month, the Soviet Cultural Foundation visited the island to examine the state of the buildings.

In autumn 1989, the Karelian Council of Ministers granted the Russian Orthodox Church permission to use several buildings on Balaam and the nearby sketes (except the Skete of the Resurrection). Archimandrite Victor (Piankov) was appointed the head of a small community of six monks (four hieromonks and two novices).

The first building to be restored was the lower Church of St Sergius and St Herman in the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, where a temporary iconostasis and a wooden shrine over the saints’ relics were installed. In 1990, before he was elected patriarch, Alexius II returned to Balaam. He consecrated the cathedral, signalling the revival of divine services on the island. On 26 June 1990, the cloister was awarded the status of a stauropegic monastery.

From January 1993 to the present day, the Barlaam Monastery has been headed by archimandrite Pancratius (Zherdev). Patriarch Alexius II consecrated the refectory Church of the Dormition on 10 July 1994 and the Church of Our Lady of Balaam on 10 July 2002. Extensive restoration work continues under the coordination of the Patriarchal Council of Trustees, which was founded in 2002.

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