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The Beautiful Architecture of Optina Pustyn, Spiritual Retreat of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

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This article is from a series by the invaluable William Brumfield, (Wikipedia), Professor of Slavic Studies at Tulane University, New Orleans, USA.

Brumfield is the world’s leading historian of Russian architecture.  He makes frequent trips to Russia, often to her remote regions, and records the most unusual examples of surviving architecture with detailed, professional photography.  

<figcaption>A cornerstone of Russian culture and spiritual heritage</figcaption>
A cornerstone of Russian culture and spiritual heritage

His most recent book is a real treasure, Architecture At The End Of The Earth, Photographing The Russian North (2015). (Amazon).  This truly beautiful book was made possible by the support of a US philanthropist, and its true cost is 3 times its retail price, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.  Here is our 2015 review of it.

Bravo to RBTH for making Brumfield’s work possible, and providing such a great platform for his beautiful photography.  We recommend visiting the RBTH page, which has a slide show for each article with many more pictures than we can fit in here.

Don’t believe in miracles?  Well, we can assure you, Brumfield’s work is undoubtedly just that.  You can find a complete list of his articles on RI here.


Located in the Kaluga Region just south of Moscow, Optina Pustyn is among the most venerated and beloved of Russian monasteries. Part of the appeal is its favored natural setting in a majestic pine forest overlooking the small Zhizdra River.

Popular legend says that the name derives from Opta, a brigand who renounced his mayhem, accepted the monastic name of Makary and formed a forest hermitage in the late 14th century. “Pustyn” is related to the word for “wilderness” and is often used for small monastic communities in forests.

In the 15th century, the retreat accepted both men and women who lived in separate areas, but were led by a common spiritual father. This practice was banned by the Russian Orthodox Church Council of 1503, and the Optina community was reconstituted for men only as the Holy Presentation Optina Pustyn Monastery. Tenuously surviving in the 16th and 17th centuries, the monastery was destitute by the early 18th century and briefly closed in the mid 1720s.

For centuries the monastery consisted of log structures. Work began in 1750 on a new main church dedicated to the Presentation of the Virgin, yet the monastery continued on the brink of destitution, exacerbated in 1764 by Catherine the Great’s secularization of monastery holdings.

By the end of the 18th century, however, the monastery and its attractive location gained the attention of a church hierarch, Platon, the Metropolitan of Moscow and Kaluga. His support led to a revival, including the construction in 1802-1806 of a large bell tower and flanking cloisters.

Throughout the 19th century there followed other churches, chapels and monastery buildings, including a large refectory with imposing murals and ceiling paintings that have survived.

Of special significance was the monastery’s hermitage, or skete (retreat), devoted to a more strict form of spiritual observance. Dedicated to John the Baptist, the skete at Optina Pustyn was established in 1821 at its own compound a short distance to the east of the main monastery walls.

The center of the skete remains the Church of the Nativity John the Baptist, built in 1822. Surfaced with red plank siding, the attractive wooden structure is accented with a white neoclassical portico.

Other buildings at the skete include small residences and a library housed in a graceful structure that served as a museum during the late Soviet period.          

During the 19th century the hermitage became widely known for its sages who achieved the designation starets, or “elder”. Although the concept of starchestvo was brought to the monastery by the church hierarchy in the 1820s, the starets designation came primarily through popular respect for certain monks who led an ascetic existence at the hermitage and in whom charisma merged with deep spiritual wisdom. The church venerates all 14 monks known as “starets” at Optina Pustyn.

The Optina Pustyn Monastery attracted all levels of society, including Russia’s intellectual and artistic elite. Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the brothers Ivan and Konstantin Aksakov, Konstantin Leontiev – these are but a few of the major artists and thinkers who visited Optina Pustyn. But the monastery is best known for its encounters with Fedor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy – encounters that in each case involved a severe personal crisis.

The events leading to Dostoevsky’s visit occurred during a particularly stressful time in his life. In Spring 1878, he had begun work on The Brothers Karamazov – his final, triumphant masterpiece. In mid-May, however, his beloved younger son, Alyosha, suddenly became ill and died from a seizure at the age of two years and nine months.

Seeing her husband’s unfading anguish, Anna Grigorevna Dostoevskaya turned to their friend, Vladimir Solovyov, himself a profound writer and mystic philosopher. She noted that Dostoevsky had long thought of going to Optina Pustyn, and the essential moment had come. Solovyov agreed to take Dostoevsky with him to the monastery in late June.

Dostoevsky hoped to arrive on June 24, which was the feastday of the Nativity of John the Baptist as well as the 40th day since the death of Alyosha. (The Orthodox church places special emphasis on remembering the deceased at that point.) They arrived, however, on the 25th, and Dostoevsky requested a memorial service (panikhida) for his son on the 26th.

Dostoevsky remained at Optina Pustyn through the 27th, and during that time he sought consolation from the venerable starets Amvrosii (Ambrose), known for his compassion and penetrating intelligence. Dostoevsky subsequently conveyed these qualities in the figure of Father Zosima, the starets who appears in The Brothers Karamazov.

Father Zosima’s consolation of the woman who had lost her son (in the chapter “The Believing Women”) likely derived from Dostoevky’s encounters with starets Amvrosii – in particular, their private conversation at his modest cottage near the entrance to the skete. Anna Dostoevskaya noted that her husband returned from Optina Pustyn a different person, at peace and no longer crushed by grief. He resumed his work on The Brothers Karamazov with a new spiritual strength.

Leo Tolstoy’s encounters with Optina Pustyn were more frequent, but ultimately without spiritual resolution. After visits in 1877 and 1881, he returned for a meeting with starets Amvrosii in 1890, the year before Amvrosii’s death. The meeting was evidently tense and difficult for the elderly monk, who was wearied by Tolstoy’s pride.

By this point Tolstoy had publicly broken with the Orthodox Church and had attacked basic tenets of Christian dogma. Nonetheless, he returned to Optina Pustyn in 1896 at the urging of his sister Maria, who in 1891 had entered the nearby Shamordino Convent. During that visit he met with starets Joseph, whose calm generosity of spirit brought a temporary measure of peace to his existence.

But Tolstoy’s turbulent spiritual quest would not be eased. His final existential crisis led him to flee his home in the early hours of October 28th, 1910. Accompanied by his physician, Dushan Makovitsky, Tolstoy arrived at Optina Pustyn toward the end of the day.

During the difficult trip he asked frequently about the elders at Optina Pustyn. Despite his refusal to reconcile with the church, his anguish apparently led him to seek the wisdom and solace that they might provide.

After spending the night at the monastery, Tolstoy approached the hermitage on the morning of the 29th. At this critical moment he was beset with doubt and the fear that he would not be received. Instead, he made his way to his sister Maria at the Shamordina Convent and even mused about staying nearby for a period of time.

But the arrival of his daughter Alexandra (Sasha) on the 30th again roused him to flight. Together with Makovitsky, they made their way on the 31st to Astapovo Station, where Tolstoy died a week later.

In a final turn of the tragedy, Tolstoy’s retreat from the hermitage quickly became known at Optina Pustyn, which received the news with dismay. Starets Varsonofy journeyed to Astapovo but was not allowed in the presence of Tolstoy despite repeated requests. Tolstoy’s closest associates had no interest in such a meeting.

In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Optina Pustyn was closed in January 1918. Dispersal, executions and exile ensued. During the Soviet period, most of the religious artwork was lost or destroyed. In 1931, the skete became a rest home, and the monastery housed various enterprises.

The darkest page in the monastery’s history occurred in the fall of 1939, when some 5,000 captured Polish officers were sequestered there in what was called concentration camp Kozelsk-1. Walled monasteries were frequently used as prisons during this period. In 1940 this group was sent to Katyn and shot in a mass execution.

Following a brief period as a military hospital, the monastery was used in 1944-1945 as an NKVD “filtration camp” for Soviet officers repatriated from German camps. In later years the territory served as an agricultural school.  

The Presentation Optina Pustyn Monastery was finally returned to the Orthodox Church in 1987 and services resumed in 1988. In 1990 the John the Baptist Skete was also returned to the monastery.

Thus began a process of restoration whose results are so impressively visible today. Like the Solovetsky Monastery in the Russian North, which also witnessed tragic events during the Soviet era, Optina Pustyn has experienced a revival that each year attracts thousands of pilgrims and visitors.

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Ex-Ireland rugby player charged with stealing almost €600,000 from BOI

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Former Irish rugby international Brendan Mullin is to face trial accused of deception, false accounting and theft of close to €600,000 from Bank of Ireland where he held a senior executive position.

Mullin (57) appeared at Dublin District Court on Tuesday following an investigation by the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) into bank fraud allegations going back a decade.

The former rugby star won 55 Irish caps between 1984 and 1995 before he went into financial services and became managing director at Bank of Ireland Private Banking Ltd.

He was arrested at 9.08am on Tuesday when he met gardaí in Dublin city-centre. He was brought to the Bridewell Garda station where he was charged with 15 offences which allegedly took place between 2011 and 2013.

He is accused of stealing €500,000 on December 16th 2011, at Bank of Ireland Private Bank at Burlington Plaza, Burlington Road, Dublin 4.

Mr Mullin, of Albert Lodge, Stillorgan Road, Donnybrook, Dublin 4, is charged with eight further thefts of amounts totalling €73,000 from the bank.

Five counts of false accounting were also put to him.

He was also charged with deception by inducing a named man and woman to sign a payment instruction with the intention of making gain for himself or another on July 27th, 2011.

Dressed in a grey suit and light blue shirt, he sat silently during his hearing before Judge Michael Walsh.

GNECB Detective Sean O’Riordan told the court Mr Mullin made no comment when charged.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has directed trial on indictment meaning his case will go before a judge and jury in the circuit court.

The DPP has also stated that he can be sent forward for sentencing on a signed plea, should that arise, but defence solicitor Robert Purcell told Judge Walsh a book of evidence will be required.

Bail terms had been agreed, Judge Walsh noted, and it was set in Mr Mullin’s own bond of €10,000.

He was ordered to surrender his passport but this was not made a precondition of release; Judge Walsh warned him that it must be handed over to gardai within 48 hours of taking up bail.

Mr Mullin needed to travel for work purposes and that could be done once the GNECB detective is notified in advance, the judge said.

He must appear again at the District Court on November 11th next to be served with the book of evidence by the prosecution.

A trial order can then be granted.

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Shock in Germany after cashier shot dead in Covid mask row

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The killing on Saturday evening in the western town of Idar-Oberstein, Rhineland-Palatinate, is believed to be the first in Germany linked to the government’s coronavirus rules.

The row started when the cashier, a student, told the customer to put on a face mask, as required in all German shops. After a brief argument, the man left.

The suspect then returned about an hour and a half later, this time wearing a mask. But as he brought his six-pack of beer to the till, he took off the mask and another discussion ensued.

“The perpetrator then pulled out a revolver and shot him straight in the head,” prosecutor Kai Fuhrmann told reporters on Monday.

The suspect, a 49-year-old German man, walked to a police station the following day to turn himself in. He was arrested and has confessed to the murder.

He told police he felt “cornered” by the coronavirus measures, which he perceived as an “ever-growing infringement on his rights” and he had seen “no other way out”, Fuhrmann said.

Idar-Oberstein mayor Frank Fruehauf called it “an unfathomable, terrible act”, and residents have laid flowers and candles outside the petrol station.

The murder comes just days before Germans head to the polls for a general election on September 26 that will see Chancellor Angela Merkel bow out of politics after 16 years.

Katrin Goering-Eckardt, the parliamentary leader of the Green party, tweeted that she was “deeply shaken” by the killing, which she said was “the cruel result of hatred”.

Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner from Merkel’s centre-right CDU party, who hails from the region, said the murder was “shocking”.

The Tagesspiegel newspaper said far-right chat groups on Telegram were applauding the murder, with one user writing “Here we go!!!” while others posted thumbs-up emojis.

Germany has seen repeated protests from anti-mask demonstrators throughout the pandemic, some of them attracting tens of thousands of people.

The Querdenker (Lateral Thinkers) movement has emerged as the loudest voice against the government’s coronavirus curbs and regulations. Its marches have drawn a wide mix of people, including vaccine sceptics, neo-Nazis and members of Germany’s far-right AfD party.



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Remains found in Dublin adds intrigue to search for Robert Emmet’s grave

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Skeletal remains have been found at one of the locations identified as a possible last resting place of Robert Emmet who was executed on this day in 1803.

The remains were found during an excavation at the back of St Paul’s Church in Stoneybatter in Dublin.

The disappearance of the body of Robert Emmet is one of the great mysteries of Irish history.

Emmet was tried and then hanged for instigating the ill-fated 1803 rebellion. He became a symbol of Irish martyrdom for his speech from the dock in which he concluded: “Let them and me rest in obscurity and peace, and my name remain uninscribed, until other times and other men can do justice to my character. When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.”

After he was publicly hanged outside St Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street on September 20th, 1803, his head was displayed to the crowd by the hangman Thomas Galvin. The remains of Emmet’s body was taken to Bully’s Acre in the grounds of what is now the Royal Hospital Kilmainham and buried there.

When some of his friends went to reintern his remains from Bully’s Acre to St Michan’s Church in Church Street, a church associated with the United Irishmen, they found there was no body there, and so began a search which endures to this day.

Robert Emmet was publicly hanged outside St Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street on September 20th, 1803.
Robert Emmet was publicly hanged outside St Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street on September 20th, 1803.

His great-nephew Dr Thomas Addis Emmet requested an archaeological dig at the family vault in St Peter’s Church in Aungier Street to mark the centenary of Emmet’s death in 1903, but that proved to be unsuccessful.

Speculation

St Paul’s Church is another contender in the saga of Emmet’s remains. It was the parish church of Kilmainham Gaol’s doctor and effective governor Dr Edward Trevor.

In his book In the Footsteps of Robert Emmet, JJ Reynolds speculated that Trevor removed Emmet’s body and put it in an unmarked grave in the grounds of St Paul’s Church. This was to ensure that his grave would not become a shrine for Irish nationalism.

The church, which was the venue for the consecration of the philosopher George Berkeley as Bishop of Cloyne in 1734, has been converted into the Spade Enterprise Centre, a not-for-profit social enterprise unit.

The land where the skeletal remains were found is being turned into a shared kitchen for small business enterprises in the area.

The yard at the the back of St Paul’s Church in Stoneybatter, Dublin where skeletal remains were found.
The yard at the the back of St Paul’s Church in Stoneybatter, Dublin where skeletal remains were found.

Archaeologist Franc Miles said burials in the grounds were from 1702 to the 1860s. A extant set of burial records remain, but Emmet, if he really is buried there, would have no record.

Previous exhumations were carried out when the graveyard was closed in 1860s to make way for a school on the site.

“With all the evacuations, we were left with bits and pieces of body. There weren’t many full skeletons,” he said.

Mr Miles said it all the gravemarkers and stones were removed in the 1860s “so all you are left with really are bones.”

Mr Miles said it would be difficult if not impossible to identify Emmet’s remains even if they are buried in the grounds of St Paul’s Church.

His own “educated guess” is that Emmet’s body is still buried somewhere in Bully’s Acre.

As many of his supporters have said over the last two centuries: “Do not look for him. His grave is Ireland.”

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