Ekaterina and Natalia Mansurova (1861-1927/1868-1934)
Aristocratic Nuns in Riga
The Mansurova sisters came from a noble family with long ties to the Orthodox Church. Their father, Boris Pavlovich (1828-1910), had begun his bureaucratic and political career as a diplomat working in the Ottoman Near East. Stationed in Constantinople, Palestine, and elsewhere in the Levant, he dedicated himself to assisting Russian pilgrims in their trips to the Holy Land, building up the Orthodox mission to Palestine, and studying Byzantine antiquities. Later publishing these studies in learned journals and well-received books, he came to be regarded as something of an expert, taking a leading role in various academic and public societies dedicated to extending Russian Orthodox influence in the Levant. Boris was also an assiduous social climber: his marriage to Mariia Dolgorukova (1833-1914), a member of an ancient aristocratic clan of impeccable pedigree, was no doubt a good match, since he zealously cultivated influential patrons in the very highest spheres of government. These were connections that Boris’ eldest son, Pavel, was able to exploit when he, following in his father’s footsteps, also began to establish a diplomatic career in Constantinople and the Balkans. Later, Pavel and his younger brother Sergei were active participants in the fractious politics of the Russian Orthodox Church, playing a prominent role in debates around ecclesiastical reform between 1905 and 1918: Pavel died in 1932, while Sergei, who became a priest in 1926, was killed by tuberculosis he contracted in prison in 1929.
The two young Mansurova sisters, Ekaterina and Natalia, thus grew up in a highly religious aristocratic family with strong links to both church and government figures. They spent most of their young lives in Moscow, where they were pupils of the well-known abbess of the Strastnoi convent, Evgeniia (Ozerova): before taking monastic vows, she, too, had been a noblewoman. As befitted both their religiosity and sense of noblesse oblige, the siblings undertook charity work in the old capital, becoming acquainted with the terrible price that rapid industrialisation and urbanisation was inflicting on the city’s poor.
However, Natalia suffered from considerable health problems: the doctors prescribed a coastal environment. So, in 1887, the two sisters and their mother relocated from Moscow to Riga. The largest city of the Baltic provinces was undergoing enormous changes: increasing integration with both the rest of the Russian Empire and international trade meant that the port town was booming. As in Moscow, however, the transformation was bringing new challenges: peasants from the surrounding countryside flocked to find work in the expanding dockyards and factories, repeating the same grizzly vision of urban impoverishment that was playing out across Europe’s major cities. In religious terms, too, it was a time of transformation. Another wave of mass conversions to Russian Orthodoxy in the 1880s and the russifying policies of the central government led to a renewed focus on parish foundation and church construction: in 1881, the Riga diocese gained its first convent in the Kurland town of Ilukste, while another was taking shape in the Estonian countryside at Puhtitsa between 1885 and 1892. Much of this was thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of Archbishop Arsenii (Briantsev), who also arrived in the diocese in 1887.
Seeking to continue their charitable activities in their new home, the Mansurova sisters set up a Sunday school. However, they missed the monasteries and convents of Moscow, with their spiritually rejuvenating atmospheres: they also looked on their fellow Russian Rigans with alarm, noticing the prevalence of German habits and fashions among them. So, they set up a women’s community, renting an apartment in a central housing block: the women who joined them devoted themselves to following the rule of Metropolitan Filaret (Drozdov), which dictated a clock-work cycle of daily prayers, psalm reading, contemplation, communal meals, and work. Schooling and care for abandoned orphans was their main occupation. In 1891, the fledgling community received official recognition, becoming the Sviato-Troitse-Sergeev Women’s Community.
It quickly became apparent that the apartment was unsuitable: as well as being too small, it was surrounded by the clatter and clamor of Lutheran tenants, which disrupted the prayerful atmosphere the sisters strove to maintain. Now it came time to utilise their family’s numerous links with powerful figures, especially Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev, the secular head of the Holy Synod in St Petersburg. As well as donating a large sum from his own pocket, Pobedonostev lobbied for the sisters before Alexander III himself, and with great success: the tsar donated 27,000 roubles for the construction of a convent complex in 1893. Furthermore, Pobedonostsev prompted the Synod to give the community a lot of land in a working-class district on Riga’s outskirts: originally intended for the seminary before a better location had been found, this land gave the community direct access to the city’s urban poor.
Even before construction on the convent was completed, the sisters were looking to expand: they wanted to offer a more contemplative and quiet place to those sisters whose spirituality was focused on prayer and solitude rather than the hustle and bustle of charity. In 1894, they chose a secluded forest glade near Valgunde, a few miles to the north of Jelgava (Mitau), the capital of Kurland province: this site was also close to the River Aa, where thousands of Russian migrant workers lived during the summer to labour in brick factories. The new Spaso-Preobrazhenskii hermitage thus offered seclusion for the nuns and church services to the workers: from 1900, it also functioned as the final destination of an annual pilgrimage which brought the miracle-working Iakobshtadt icon of the Mother of God on a trip that spanned Livland and Kurland provinces.
The beginning of the sisters’ monastic life was by no means simple. In 1894, they decided to make the first step on their journey by taking vows as beginner (rassaphore) nuns, a ceremony conducted by Archimandrite Pavel (Glebov) of Moscow’s world-famous Troitse-Sergeev monastery. However, this infuriated their father: the break in relations lasted several years. Although it is not quite clear what provoked Boris Pavlovich’s anger, Alexa von Winning, the most recent biographer of the Mansurovs, suggests that he was devastated by the fact that the sisters would no longer be able to marry: this severely dented his ambitious plans to make connections and set up alliances in high society. However, the siblings were determined to see through their ambition: in 1901, they renounced their secular names and took full monastic vows, with Ekaterina becoming Sergiia and Natalia taking the name Ioanna. In 1902, the Synod officially recognised the women’s community as a convent, with Sergiia taking the role of abbess.
The convent continue to blossom over the course of the next decade, running a school, an orphanage, a women’s shelter, and a clinic. The free daily lunches on offer in the convent’s refectory were especially popular, drawing in a diverse and colorful ground from Riga’s multi-national populace. When not serving the needs of others, praying, or singing in the choir, the nuns produced icons and candles or worked on the convent’s lands. By 1914, there were 139 nuns and novices in the convent, along with 61 counterparts in the Spaso-Preobrazhenskii hermitage.
However, catastrophe loomed just over the horizon: in the summer of 1914, the Russian Empire entered the First World War. The convent initially adapted well, placing itself on a war footing: rather than crafting candles or fashioning icons, the sisters turned their hands to making bandages and underwear. Hospital beds were provided for wounded soldiers and sick refugees. But then the fortunes of war changed everything. In the spring of 1915, the Germans launched a colossal and overwhelmingly successful offensive, bringing large portions of the Russian Empire’s Polish and Baltic provinces under their rule: the front line was now mere miles away from Riga itself. On 19 July 1915, the government ordered the evacuation of all government personnel and valuable industrial workers and assets from Riga: this included the clergy and their property. After a tearful final liturgy, the nuns were packed into a goods train heading for Pskov province, an already distressing trip made worse by the lack of any seating in the wagons. The convent’s treasures were set to Moscow. Many of the sisters and holy items were never to see the convent again.
Sergiia and Ioanna spent the next couple of years shuttling between Riga and Petrograd, where they implored government figures and senior churchmen to give assistance to the monastic refugees. Some relief was given at the end of 1915 by the provision of an emptied male monastery in Novgorod: however, tragedy struck again only a year later when the monastery burnt down. Finally, the Mansurovas were cut off from Riga when the German army launched a fresh assault on the Baltic and seized the provincial capital in September 1917.
In 1919, the sisters made the faithful decision to resign from their positions in the convent: perhaps the difficulties of civil war, revolution, and Orthodoxy’s new position as a minority faith in the independent Latvian republic persuaded them to move on from their life’s work. The two sisters moved to the town of Pushkino near Moscow, perhaps to be close to their childhood home town. Sergiia died in 1927: Ioanna, after accepting the schema (the most severe monastic vow) and taking the name Anna, moved to the Black Sea town of Genichesk, dying in 1934.
However, their convent certainly did not perish. In her final act as abbess, Sergiia asked that her long-time friend Evgeniia (Postovskaia) (1864-1948) be made the convent’s new head. Evgeniia and a small team of nuns managed to return to Riga: although their home had almost been ruined by years of fighting and neglect, she was able to re-open it in 1921. While many of its former occupants were never able to return, some never stopped trying. One, Melaniia Lotkovskaia, had entered the convent as a 19-year-old novice in 1911: in 1947, now 55 years of age, she once again showed up at the convent gates.
Author: James M. White
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