One of the enduring tragedies of Napoleon’s conquest of Moscow in 1812 was the destruction of the city by fire. With the exception of the Kremlin churches, few buildings of architectural significance survived the blaze that swept through the city upon Napoleon’s arrival. So to witness the splendor of pre-19th century Russian architecture today, you need to get out of town. Sergiev Posad, an 80-minute drive from Moscow, holds a collection of beautifully preserved churches and 700 years of history.
In the 14th century, Orthodox believers called hesychasts — people who believed they attained direct knowledge of God through a life of asceticism and simple, repeated prayer to Christ — played an important role in the Church. The movement attracted many educated and well-born Russians. Among them was the remarkable Sergei of Radonezh, born in 1314 and for many years a hermit in the forest outside Moscow.
Sergei’s reputation for holiness and spiritual wisdom attracted many followers and in 1340 he and his disciples founded the Monastery of the Holy Trinity in present-day Sergiev Posad. By the late 16th century it had become the seat of the Moscow Patriarchate and the center of the Russian Orthodox faith. In 1744 Empress Elizabeth formally named it a lavra, a word derived from Greek denoting a monastery of the first rank. Both the monastery — now called the Holy Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius — and the town, are named for Sergei of Radonezh.
The icon master Andrei Rublyov worked here in the 14th century and some of his icons are still in the Trinity Cathedral. A visitor with only a few hours in Sergiev Posad will head straight for the Trinity and spend some time exploring the more than fifty other structures within the monastery walls. The Cathedral of the Assumption in the center of the lavra is breathtaking, and look for the tomb of Boris Godunov.
The museum in the vestry of the of the Trinity Cathedral holds a collection of over 120,000 pieces and is one of the greatest historical repositories in Russia. Founded in 1920 it was used as a safe-keeping place for many of the Church’s treasures during Soviet times — an era of frequent persecution when the town was called Zagorsk.
Sergiev Posad is also where the first matryoshka was created over a century ago by Sergei Malyutin, though legend has it that the inspiration came from dolls made by Sergei of Radonezh himself. Sergiev Posad is a small city with a magnificent history and cultural tradition. Thank goodness Napoleon didn’t get that far.