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  • Cross-Dressing in a Russian Orthodox Monastery:The Case of Mariia Zakharova
  • Christine D. Worobec (bio)

In the fall of 1910 a scandal involving the White Sea's famous Solovetskii monastery hit newspapers in Archangel, Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. Reporters informed the public that a woman had lived undetected in the sacred compound for eighteen years disguised as a monk. A subsequent article in Moscow's Russkoe slovo (Russian word) on 26 September announced that the "impending trial promises to reveal much that is curious" about life at the monastery.1 The story sent the Holy Synod, the administrative office of the Russian Orthodox Church, into a tailspin as it sought to respond to allegations of impropriety at one of its most revered spiritual centers and popular pilgrimage sites. Ecclesiastical officials immediately ordered a classified investigation into the rumor.2

In a reply marked "extremely confidential," the head of the Solovetskii monastery, Archimandrite Ioannikii, informed the Moscow Synodal Office's procurator of a report that he was sending newspapers to refute the allegation that this forty-four-year-old woman had masqueraded herself as the monk Artemii or Arkadii in his institution.3 He denounced the story as "an absurd fabrication" that was meant to besmirch the monastery's reputation, noting that the monastery's administrative council was prepared to [End Page 336] sue Arkhangel'sk's editor for giving credence to the rumor. What followed in the report, including some testimony from a justice of the peace court, was an indictment of a woman named Mariia Zakharova. She was arrested on 4 September as a vagrant pilgrim wearing monk's garb in Moscow province's Zvenigorod district, claiming to be an archpriest's son. A medical examination quickly confirmed that the cross-dressing Zakharova was not only a woman but also a virgin. In his statements Archimandrite Ioannikii took great pains to point out that the modern regimen of his monastery, unlike that of ancient Egyptian and Greek monastic institutions, made it impossible for a woman to live there undetected for eighteen years.4

The archival file ends abruptly, without revealing what happened to the hapless cross-dresser Zakharova. Newspapers also stopped reporting on the case, either because of the archimandrite's threat to sue Archangel's newspaper or, more likely, due to the death of one of Russia's greatest writers, Leo Tolstoy, on 7 November 1910. Thereafter newspapers printed panegyrics to as well as reminiscences and biographies of the illustrious man, whose own writings were critical of the Russian Orthodox Church and its monasteries.

Even without all the details, Zakharova's story presents a fascinating lens on Russian Orthodox monasticism as it confronted issues of modernization, gendered notions of religious identity and sanctity, and the attentive gaze of reporters looking for sensational stories that challenged the hierarchical Russian Orthodox Church's reputation. This essay explores the changes that monastic institutions underwent in imperial Russia, from the injunctions against women's presence in monks' cells during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the growth in pilgrimages, which mixed the sacred and profane as monasteries attempted to accommodate more and more pilgrims, especially female pilgrims. At the same time that the Solovki archipelago was thriving as a pilgrimage site and boasting a new electric station, among other modern amenities, it was being threatened by the lack of control over pilgrims who came from far and wide, bringing with them the cares of the world.

That this lack of control was epitomized by Zakharova's transvestism needs to be further explored. The medical investigation to determine her identity as a woman did not have to lead to a physical examination regarding her sexual activities; by subjecting her to such an examination Zakharova was treated as any woman suspected by the police of prostitution. Although her virginity may have come as a surprise, the Orthodox Church did not celebrate it, as it might have done in the ancient period, as a sign of holiness. Rather, Zakharova's virginity probably came as a great relief to church officials that at least no sexual impropriety with this woman had occurred [End Page 337] on monastic lands. What it could not quell, however, were...


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