- Saint Sergius of Radonezh, His Trinity Monastery, and the Formation of the Russian Identity
The Trinity Monastery north of Moscow, founded by St. Sergius of Radonezh in the fourteenth century, was and is the most important Russian monastic foundation. Until the eighteenth-century secularization of monastic lands, it was the richest of the Russian monasteries and for the whole of its history was one of the principal spiritual centers of the Orthodox Church. Like other Russian monasteries, it has come late to historians. There is a considerable literature on the life of St. Sergius and on the texts that inform us about it, and there have been studies of the estates. David Miller has put [End Page 785] together their work and his own extensive studies of the manuscript evidence to draw a convincing portrait of the cult of St. Sergius and the monastery as a center of devotion from the saint's death in 1392 to the end of the sixteenth century. For in spite of the title, the subject is not Russian identity but the veneration of St. Sergius and the institutional structure of the monastery.
Miller begins with a brief account of the life of St. Sergius, a thorny topic because the principal texts come from the fifteenth century and present many textual dilemmas. Miller has thought through the literature but judiciously avoids getting drawn into the intricate battles of the textologists and presents a spare picture uncluttered with speculation and patriotic ideology. The core of the book, however, consists of the chapters on the development of the cult, the donations to the monastery as acts of piety (he leaves the economics to others), female veneration, and the practice of burial at the monastery. He also provides us with a profile of the monks, their social and geographic origins, and the internal ordering of the monastery.
Many of his conclusions parallel the findings of the few other studies of Russian monasteries in the period such as those of Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Zimin and Ludwig Steindorf for the monastery of St. Joseph of Volokolamsk. He finds that both the donors and the monks were overwhelmingly small landholders with a sprinkling of aristocrats and some of lower rank. Not surprisingly the monks of higher social origins became the cellarers and hegumens of the monastery. Many of the monks, including those in higher positions among the brothers, also came from the Moscow clerks, the diaki, who were so central to the formation of the Russian state in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His chapter on female veneration raises issues rarely investigated. Women, mostly widows, gave fewer donations, mostly in memory of husbands and children. They seem to have had control of their property—one more confirmation of an important aspect of the life of women of the Russian landholding classes.
Miller's work is not an account of Russian identity. (Why "the" in the title? Was there only one form?) In the conclusion he describes the appearance of St. Sergius in texts narrating the history of major events such as the conquest of Kazan'. It is the case that the recorded miracles and appearances of St. Sergius are rather "political," but that does not provide a basis for the rather broad claims sketched out by Miller. A few lesser issues: to demonstrate his points about veneration and social origins he lists hundreds of names that make reading difficult at times. It is misleading to describe the Golden Horde in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as "the Mongols." These quibbles aside, Miller has produced a convincing portrait of the Trinity Monastery as a center of veneration and spirituality—a major contribution. [End Page 786]