Mount Athos and Russia: 1016-2016

by Nicholas Fennell (Volume editor) Graham Speake (Volume editor)
©2018 Conference proceedings X, 186 Pages


This book is about the Russian contribution to monasticism on Mount Athos and the Athonite contribution to Russian spirituality and marks the millennium of the Russian presence on Mount Athos. Athos has been the spiritual heart of the Orthodox world for even longer and Russian pilgrims have congregated there throughout its history. Russian monks visiting Athos have returned to their homeland with the treasures of Athonite spirituality such as the practice of hesychasm in the sixteenth century, the Patristic anthology known as the Philokalia in the eighteenth century, and the spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century the Russian monastic population fluctuated wildly, but still they produced influential elders such as St Silouan and Fr Sophrony, and Athonite elders continue to exercise enormous influence on the revived Russian Orthodox Church to this day. The papers collected in this volume, first delivered as contributions to a conference held by the Friends of Mount Athos in February 2017 at Madingley Hall, Cambridge, span the breadth of the millennium.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction (Nicholas Fennell)
  • 1. The First Russian Monks on Mount Athos (Sergey Shumilo)
  • 2. Russian Pilgrimage to Mount Athos in the Light of Pilgrims’ Tales (René Gothóni)
  • 3. St Nil Sorsky: A Hesychast Bridge between Byzantium and Russia (Metropolitan Kallistos Ware)
  • 4. The Slav Philokalia and The Way of a Pilgrim (Fr Andrew Louth)
  • 5. St Panteleimon Monastery and its Sixth Abbot (Nicholas Fennell)
  • 6. St Silouan of Athos and Fr Sophrony (Fr Nikolai Sakharov)
  • 7. The Impact of Athonite Elders on Russian Orthodoxy in the Twenty-First Century (Fr Iriney Pikovskiy)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

← viii | ix →


All the papers collected in this volume were originally delivered at a conference entitled ‘Mount Athos and Russia: 1016–2016’ organized by the Friends of Mount Athos and held at Madingley Hall, Cambridge, in February 2017. The Friends of Mount Athos wish to acknowledge with gratitude the generous sponsorship provided by the Prince’s Trust, the Gerald Palmer Eling Trust, and the A. G. Leventis Foundation. The editors of the volume in their turn would like to thank the Friends of Mount Athos for contributing generously towards the cost of publishing the proceedings. They would also like to thank the St Panteleimon monastery on Mount Athos for permission to reproduce the illustrations. Once again it is a pleasure to record our debt to our publishers at Peter Lang for the courteous efficiency with which the volume has been produced. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →



The year 2016 marks the millennium of the Russian presence on the Holy Mountain because the earliest mention of a Russian Athonite monastery is an act dated February 1016. It is kept in the Great Lavra archive and bears the signatures of twenty-one Athonite abbots. One of these belongs to Gerasim, in charge of ‘the monastery of the Ros’, the first Russian Athonite house, which was later known as Bogoroditsa Xylourgou and which by 1048 had royal lavra status.1 His signature is thirteenth out of twenty-one, a position confirming the special status of the Russian monastery and its seniority. The Russians have therefore been on the Holy Mountain for well over 1,000 years.

The millennium is an event of great importance for the Russian Church. Preparations for the celebrations began in earnest in 2012. A year earlier, the then president of the Russian Federation, D. A. Medvedev, together with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, held a meeting to establish for St Panteleimon monastery a ‘fund dedicated to the restoration of [its] dilapidated buildings and the refurbishment of those in use’. ← 1 | 2 → 2

The precise date of the jubilee in 2016, however, remained a mystery until the last moment. On 10 March 2016 the Patriarch said: ‘For a long time the Church and state have been preparing for this wonderful day. It is assumed that the main celebrations will take place on Mount Athos by the end of May this year.’3 The embarrassing delay was over when President Putin arrived on the Holy Mountain, on 28 May 2016. His visit coincided with that of Patriarch Kirill and he was met in Karyes with the full honours due to a head of state. The jubilee celebrations on Athos at last took place.

Greek Athonites were unenthusiastic. On 3 March 2016 they claimed that they knew nothing about the proposed visit of Patriarch Kirill to the Holy Mountain for the jubilee. The Koinotis (the parliament of the Holy Community in Karyes) stated that the patriarchal visit breached protocol because the Ecumenical Patriarch would have to be approached first and he in turn ought to let the Koinotis know. Meanwhile, the Koinotis proposed to invite the president of Ukraine, P. Poroshenko, to the jubilee celebrations.4 He declined, but the mischievous intention of inviting the president of a country at war with Russia was clear.

Some in the Koinotis were openly hostile. They said that St Panteleimon monastery had always been Greek until the 1830s; then the Russians settled there, took it over, and by cunning installed their own abbot, although the monastery had never been Russian: its designation, Ton Ros or Rossikon, had nothing to do with the Russians.5 That the Greek and Russian Athonites did not see eye-to-eye was also apparent from the fact that the new ← 2 | 3 → St Panteleimon monastery librarian had no access to the 1016 act held in the Great Lavra.6

Furthermore, a new version has appeared of the discredited Esphigmenou legend about the tonsure of St Antony Pechersky, the founder of the Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra and father of Russian monasticism (see Sergey Shumilo’s paper). Despite the definitive discreditation of the legend in October 1895 by the Kiev Consistory:

a new, unannounced version of the legend has [recently] appeared in the [twenty-first century]: St Antony was tonsured in Esphigmenou monastery in 1016. There is no explanation offered either for this date … or for the basis (or revelations) of the sources upon which this date is grounded. One has the impression that the date has been artificially connected with the Russian Athonite monasticism millennium year, which is based on secure documentary evidence.7

Until the nineteenth century the Russian presence on the Holy Mountain was unextraordinary and excited no especial rivalry or enmity from the Greeks. Vasili Barsky, the Little Russian author and illustrator of a renowned book of travels on Athos and the Near East, reports a bloody fracas, which he heard took place between the Greeks and Russians at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Another clash happened after he left, in 1765, just before the new St Panteleimon monastery was founded by the sea on its present-day site. Neither incident is given much credence by scholars.8 No conflict on Athos involving the Russians was any more serious than the periodic squabbles about boundaries and rights occurring over the centuries between neighbouring monasteries on the peninsula.

The numbers of visitors from Russia started to increase from 1839, when the Greeks once again invited their Russian brethren to reinhabit ← 3 | 4 → the monastery of St Panteleimon. The first Russian abbot was enthroned in St Panteleimon in 1875, by which time its Greek brethren were in the minority. At the end of the nineteenth century there were some 1,000 Russian monks in the monastery, which was by now the largest on Athos, although it was only eighteenth in order of seniority of the twenty independent ruling houses. At the beginning of the twentieth century the Russian Athonite population was 5,000-strong and rapidly growing; for the first time in history the Greeks, whose numbers remained constant at around 4,000, were in the minority.

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century Russian visitors to Athos were mostly clerics and monks, and then pilgrimage to Palestine became increasingly popular with the Russian laity, who stopped off on the way there at the Holy Mountain. Most of the pilgrims were either impoverished, often destitute wanderers, or men from well-to-do merchant families or retired army officers.9 Many of these pilgrims stayed on Athos for long periods of time, some permanently.10

The tradition of wandering from one holy place to another in Russia was widespread among the peasantry. Like the seventy disciples sent out by Christ (Luke 10: 1–12), these stranniki travelled on foot with few possessions (see the papers of Fr Andrew Louth and René Gothóni). In 1856 the Russian Company of Steam-Shipping and Trade (ROPT), was established. Its ships linked Odessa and other Black Sea ports with Constantinople, Palestine, and Athos. From then on, Russian pilgrims arrived on the Holy Mountain in increasing numbers.

Before the establishment of ROPT, a few intrepid travellers, such as Barsky and Monk Parfeny Ageev, ran the gauntlet of bandits, perilous ← 4 | 5 → crossings over unfamiliar passes, and disease on their way to Mount Athos.11 The voyage there by ship from the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, was far from easy. Stephen Graham, an Edwardian gentleman disguised as a Russian peasant, was an ROPT passenger and graphically describes the danger and discomfort of his passage across stormy seas.12

Why did the often destitute stranniki undergo such hardship to reach Mount Athos? Many had already covered thousands of kilometres from their homes, usually on foot, to reach the port. For them, true pilgrimage meant self-sacrifice; and they had a pioneering spirit of adventure, which impelled them to unknown lands and distant frontiers. They could never, however, complete or even undertake travel abroad without help, so the Russian Athonite houses offered them every assistance.

St Panteleimon and the two Russian sketes (of St Andrew and the Prophet Elijah) had enormous hostels in their dependencies in Odessa and Constantinople. By the beginning of the twentieth century the Brotherhood of Russian Athonite Kellia also had a dependency in Constantinople which could house pilgrims. All pilgrims staying in the dependencies, just as on the Holy Mountain itself, were housed and fed free of charge.

Just as it had been slow to support the Russian Athonite community, Russian officialdom did nothing to help the Russian pilgrim going to Athos. ← 5 | 6 → Pilgrims bound for Palestine, however, were looked after by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (Imperatorskoe Pravoslavnoe Palestinskoe Obschestvo), which offered the same accommodation and services in Odessa and Constantinople as the Athonite houses.13 The Russian Athonites had developed such an efficient organization to receive and assist pilgrims that no official support was needed.

The more pilgrims that arrived, the greater and stronger the Russian Athonite houses became, increasing their trade and wealth. Even the impecunious peasant was profitable, for nearly everyone bought something on the Holy Mountain and exchanged money. The more people that joined the brethren of the Russian houses, the more benefaction they attracted. Russian peasants also formed a huge, free labour force at a time when all the Russian houses were engaged in major building projects. Most pilgrims who thought of becoming novices would spend a preliminary period doing manual work for the Russian community.

Although they came in smaller numbers, pilgrims from mercantile backgrounds played if anything a more important part in the rapid growth and increasing wealth of the Russian Athonite houses. These kuptsy were zealously charitable Orthodox pioneers and builders. They formed the:

powerful class of Russian merchants and entrepreneurial factory owners – the Russian ‘businessmen’ who were famous everywhere for their honesty … and, above all, for their prayerful piety … For this reason, the land of Russia was populated with churches of St Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, the tacit protector of travellers and tradesmen; and this is why there shone in these churches, and in other temples and monasteries, thanks to their roubles, the precious cladding of the holy icons.14

One such pilgrim of mercantile stock was more instrumental than anybody in the meteoric rise of Russian Athonites. Ivan Solomentsov was born in ← 6 | 7 → 1805 in Stary Oskol, whose citizens were zealously church-going.15 His well-to-do merchant father was head of a pious family. Ivan’s eldest brother became a monk and his sister an abbess, in whose nunnery their own mother was tonsured to the Great Schema.16 Encouraged by his grandmother, Ivan became a proficient church reader at an early age. The whole family loved church services:


X, 186
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Russian monks and pilgrims on Mount Athos Orthodox monastic spirituality Slav monasteries and elders
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Berlin, New York, Wien, 2018. X, 186 pp., 5 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Nicholas Fennell (Volume editor) Graham Speake (Volume editor)

Nicholas Fennell is a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a Senior Scholar. He taught at Winchester College for forty years before devoting himself to research into the Russian presence on Athos, and into Greek-Russian ecclesiastical relations. His publications, in Russian and English, include The Russians on Athos (2001) and Il´insky skit na Afone (2011). Graham Speake is a writer and publisher with degrees in classics from Cambridge and Oxford. He is founder and Chairman of the Friends of Mount Athos and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. He is author of Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise (2nd edn. 2014), which won the 2002 Criticos Prize, and of A History of the Athonite Commonwealth: The Spiritual and Cultural Diaspora of Mount Athos (2018).


Title: Mount Athos and Russia: 1016-2016
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