Monastery of Optina Pustyn - An Important Spiritual Centre

In the 19th century Optina Pustyn, a male monastery located by the right bank of the Zhizdra River, near Kozelsk, was a very important spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church. There is no documentation as to when the Optina Pustyn monastery was established, but legend states that a former outlaw by the name of Opta founded the monastery in the 15th century. It was here that he took the monastic vows, changing his name to Makarii, and asked forgiveness for his sins. The Russian words Optina Pustyn means, “living together”, because before 1504 nuns were allowed residence in the cloister. The first piece of evidence was found in the 17th century during Tsar Mikhail Feodorovich’s reign. At this point it was a small wooden structure with a few monastic cells, one church and less than twenty monks.

The majority of the monastery was built during the 18th and 19th centuries when it was being changed to a center of Russian staretsdom, where many starets or glorified elders were sought for their advice. In 1821 a hermitage for startsy only was built about 400 meters away from the monastery. This attracted many pious Christians to Kozelsk because of their desire to see the startsy. Vasily Zhukovsky, Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Gogol, Vasily Rozanov and Leo Tolstoy also visited the monastery of Optina Pustyn but Leo Tolstoy did not support the staretsdom.

Within the cloister an extensive library could be found. Slavophile Kireyevsky brothers, who were later buried within the Optina Pustyn walls, collected this library. Konstantin Leontyev, a philosopher, spent four years of his life at the monastery; going as far as taking the tonsure where part of his head was shaved.

When the Russian Revolution finished, any of the startsy left at the Optina Pustyn were forcibly removed and deported, and the monastery was declared a gulag. In 1938, the last of the hegumen was executed in Tula. The monastery had some of its original structures broken down, while the main cathedral became a literary museum. At the start of the Perestroika in 1987, the Optina Pustyn monastery was given back to the Russian Orthodox Church and in the 1990s many well-known startsy were glorified as saints.


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