Nevsky Prospekt: Part 1 – The Alexander Nevsky Monastery

CC BY 2.0, Ninara, 2018

There is nothing better than Nevsky Prospekt, at least not in Petersbug; for there it is everything. What does this street – the beauty of our capital – not shine with!

Nikolai Gogol, Nevsky Prospekt, 1835.

Nevsky Prospekt is without exception the principle thoroughfare of St. Petersburg. The avenue started life under Tsar Peter I as the Great Perspective Road, the principal thoroughfare upon which the journey to Novgorod and Moscow from his new capital began. Its current form owes much to the urban planning of Pyotr Yeropkin, head of the Commission for Construction established in 1737 after major fires in 1736 and 1737 razed much of Peter’s city to the ground.

With Mikhail Zemtsov, Ivan Korobov, and the Italian-Swiss architect, Pietro Trezzinin, Yeropkin developed a plan for three diverging avenues radiating out from the Admiralty and connected by a succession of semi-circular streets, the axes of which mark the central city today. Yeropkin’s plan took the Great Perspective Road to the still unfinished Alexander Nevsky Monastery, and on its completion in 1738 the avenue was renamed Nevsky Prospekt. Yeropkin did not long survive his achievement. In 1740 he was implicated in a plot against the Tsarina, Anna, and beheaded along with the plot leader, his brother in law, Artemy Volynsky.

Nevsky Prospekt, Anichkov Palace and the mansion of I. I. Shuvalov in the late 18th century. (Unknown artist)

Since 1740, Nevsky Prospekt has been renamed twice more. In 1918 it was designated, Ulitsa Proletkulta, in honour of the Soviet artistic institution, Proletkult, founded in Petrograd in 1917 and located on Nevsky Prospekt from 1918 to 1920 when it was disbanded. Subsequently Nevsky was renamed as the Avenue of the 25th October, before reverting back to Nevsky Prospekt in 1944 in response to the popular demand of its citizens.

Its life and activity have been central to Saint Petersburg’s history, art, and literature. Along its roughly 4.5 kilometres you will discover palaces, shopping galleries, restaurants, museums, cathedrals, monuments, and a stream of people, residents of Petersburg and visitors alike, intermingling in a steady stream of humanity and walking in the footsteps of the millions who have come before them.

At the eastern end of Nevsky Prospekt stands the Saint Alexander Nevsky Lavra, one of the most important Russian monastic centres. It was founded in 1710 by Peter I on the presumed site of Prince Alexander Nevsky’s victory over the Swedes and their allies at the battle of the Neva in 1240. The chosen location being a clear indication of Peter’s desire to link his reign to that of another great Russian. In 1723, at Peter’s decree, Alexander Nevsky’s remains were transferred from their resting place in Vladimir to the Annunciation Church, designed by Domenico Trezzini, a near relative of the Pietro Trezzini, who with Yeropkin was responsible for the planning of Nevsky Prospekt.

The Holy Trinity Cathedral of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra (Pavlikhin, CC BY-SA 3.0, 2014)

In 1753, the Empress Elizabeth, donated a silver sarcophagus to house Nevsky’s remains, and in 1790, with the completion of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the relics were transferred there on one his feast day, the 30th of August. There they remained until 1922 when Soviet authorities transferred them to the former Kazan Cathedral, reconstituted as the Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism, before returning once more to the Holy Trinity Cathedral in 1989. The silver sarcophagus is now in the Hermitage Museum.

Of the sixteen churches that stood on the site in its heyday, just five remain; the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Church of the Annunciation, the Church of St. Lazarus, the Church of St. Nicholas, and the Church of the Holy Mother of God, the Joy of All Those who Mourn. It is also home to the Lazarevskoe, Tikhvin, Nikolskoe, and Kazachye Cemeteries in whose grounds many famous Russians were laid to rest. Among them are the writers Fyodor Dostoevsky and Nikolai Karamzin, the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and all the members of ‘The Five’, Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin.

In the Annunciation Church the tomb of the great Russian general, Alexander Suvorov, one of the few military leaders who never lost a battle, is inscribed at his bequest with the simple epitaph – Здесь лежит Суворов – “Here lies Suvorov”. According to legend the assembled crowd gathered to see him off feared that the monastery gates were too narrow and the hearse would get stuck. Amid the consternation a veteran of Suvorov’s campaigns shouted, “Do not be afraid, it will pass! He went everywhere!”

Alexander Suvorov’s grave in Alexander Nevsky Lavra (A. I., CC BY-SA 3.0, 2007)

During the twentieth century the monastery, along with many other centres of Orthodoxy, suffered a decline. Though parishioners thwarted an attempt by Bolsheviks to seize the monastery and its valuables in January 1918, their success was short-lived. By 1936 all the churches and monasteries within the complex had been closed, and its buildings transferred to the jurisdiction of various non-church institutions who utilised them as offices and warehouses. In 1940 the Annunciation Church was placed under the jurisdiction of the State Museum of Urban Sculpture, who began restoration work on Suvorov’s tomb, which became a focus for the soldiers defending Leningrad during its 872 day siege.

In 1955 Holy Trinity Cathedral was returned to the Orthodox Church, with services resuming in 1957. Restoration of the complex has continued to this day. The Annunciation Church remains under the State Museum of Urban Sculpture, while monastic life returned to the lavra in 1996. Since 1997, with the establishment of the icon painting and restoration workshop, the lavra has seen a revival of traditional crafts, with workshops for jewellery repair, the sewing of vestments, pottery and porcelain, and a graphics workshop specializing in traditional modes of printing. The most recent addition to the lavra’s workshops is the cheese factory, consecrated in 2018.

From its nadir in the mid-twentieth century the Alexander Nevsky Lavra has emerged as a thriving monastic and secular community, in which monastic and religious life coexist with the throngs of tourists and the State Museum of Urban Sculpture. It stands out in Saint Petersburg as one of the most beautiful architectural ensembles in a city that boasts more than its far share of architectural delights.

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