The Samara St. Nicholas’s Monastery occupies a special place among Ukraine’s monastic residences. The history of this bastion of Orthodoxy is inseparably linked with that of the Zaporozhian Sich. According to Dmytro Yavornytsky, the historian of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, it was here that the first church and monastery school were built below the rapids of the Dnipro River. Many well-known priests were educated there, and for a long time Cossack regalia were stored at the monastery, which also served as a burial site of the zealots and fighters for the Orthodox faith.
The exact date of the founding of the monastery is not known. Legend has it, however, that the Zaporozhian Cossacks received lands along the Samara River, the Dnipro’s left tributary, and other liberties as a gift from King Stefan Batory of Poland in 1576. The church historian Feodosii Makarevsky writes in this connection that the Zaporozhians were given “an old town named Samar with a bridge,” while Yavornytsky also mentions an Orthodox monastery and recounts a charming legend in his History of the Zaporozhian Cossacks.
According to this legend, two hermits, who wanted to escape the vanity of the world, settled on an islet overgrown with centuries-old oak trees and reeds between the Samara and a branch of this river. Soon they were joined by some brigands, who engaged in robbery on the Dnipro rapids and recognized the advantages of this serene woodland. Only later did the monks understand to whom they had given shelter, Yavornytsky says. They tried to flee, but the brigands, fearful of being exposed, captured them. In any case, the Zaporozhians, who soon tracked down the robbers, were astounded to see monks among them.
Learning about the existence of a monastery tucked away in the forest wilderness, the Cossacks in the fortified Zaporozhian camp (kish) ordered a small fortress built there. Next to the fortress they erected a small wooden church in honor of St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker, as well as a hospital and a few homes for wounded, sick, and elderly Zaporozhians.
Later, the property of the church and the refuge acquired private status: a section of forest, a plot of land for cultivation, and pastures. In 1602 the Zaporozhians decided to legalize the monastery and invited Hieromonk Paisii of Kyiv’s Mezhyhiria Transfiguration Monastery to serve as abbot. An ethnic Wallachian, he was a well-read person and an expert on the Holy Writ, who could also heal wounds and help the sick.
After arriving at his new abode, Paisii soon turned it into a true monastery. He established rules for all the monks, introduced a common repast, and a monastic statute of prayer time. Soon the Samara St. Nicholas’s Monastery became a shelter and a sanctuary for the Zaporozhians. Many of them, especially those without families, came to the monastery when they were old to serve as monks and brothers or settle in the nearby hamlets and villages.
Feodosii Makarevsky writes that the Zaporozhians called the Samara cloister a “Cossack Palestine” and preferred it to the Trakhtemyriv monastery, where there was an infirmary and a refuge for old and crippled registered Cossacks. It should be kept in mind that the Cossacks would often return from their southern expeditions not up the Dnipro, where Turks and Tatars might ambush them in the river’s lower stretches, but through the Strait of Kerch, the Azov Sea, and further on along the rivers up to Samara, where the Cossack monastery was located.
It was convenient for the Cossacks to recover there from their wounds and wait for the right opportunity to reach the Sich across the Dnipro rapids. The first rapid — Kodak — was near the mouth of the Samara. Tellingly, in 1635 the Polish government decided to establish a fortress near Kodak to cut off both waterways. The Samara monastery was also targeted many times.
The monastery experienced especially difficult times in the period of the Cossack uprisings, the war led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, and the ensuing period known as the Ruin. After the Treaty of Andrusovo, when the Zaporozhian Cossacks became subordinated to both Russia and Poland, the Tatars and Turks repeatedly plundered the monastery. It was not until 1670 that the Samara cloister was restored and a new church was built.
However, a new misfortune occurred in 1688, when the monastery received a visit from Prince Vasily Golitsyn, Tsarina Sophia’s favorite. After donating 15 rubles, he examined the area and, after consulting with Hetman Ivan Mazepa, ordered the construction of Novobohorodytska Fortress near the monastery. Viewing this as an infringement of their rights and freedoms, the Cossacks and the monks openly opposed the construction of the fortress. Since discontent was being fomented mostly by the monks, Prince Golitsyn treated them as rebels. Russian troops surrounded the monastery, captured the ringleaders, and subjected them to interrogations and tortures.
Yavornytsky says that Hetman Mazepa was also going to wreak revenge on the recalcitrant Cossacks, but a terrible epidemic, known as the “brazen death,” broke out in 1690 in the vicinity of the Samara monastery, and later the entire Zaporozhian region was devastated by a swarm of locusts. The surrounding lands remained barren for several years, as did the Cossacks’ monastery.
No sooner had the monks restored the monastery than it suffered another blow in 1709. After the Old Sich was sacked and following the Poltava debacle, the monastery’s Zaporozhian defenders abandoned their ancestral home. The situation worsened after the Pruth (Prut) Peace Treaty of 1711, when the Samara monastery as well as the cultivated lands, forests, and hamlets came under Turkish rule and became a shelter for nomadic Tatars. The monastery’s property was plundered, the sanctuary turned into ashes, the natural preserve was partly deforested, and the meadows were turned into Tatar pastures.
The devastation lasted for almost two decades, and it was not until much later that Ukrainians began returning to the area. This was made possible thanks to the efforts of the colonel of Myrhorod, Danylo Apostol, and his son Pavlo. The Apostols invited a new hegumen, Hieromonk Ioanikii from Mezhyhiria Monastery, who worked strenuously to revive the Samara monastery: he built several cells, blessed the Holy Trinity Church in 1732, and restored religious services.
But the greatest contribution to the restoration of the monastery was the return of the Cossacks from the Turkish-controlled lands and the founding of the New Sich. The Zaporozhian fortified camp spared no expense to breath new life into the monastery. Also conducive to its revival were the preparations for a new war against Turkey. The Russian command regarded the monastery as an important element of the old Ukrainian line of fortifications. This is why not only the churches but also the cellars and other underground structures were renovated for the purpose of storing food supplies and housing the sick and wounded.
In the war that began in 1735, the Cossacks twice defeated the Tatars and Nogais beneath the monastery walls. One time the Zaporozhians hid inside the monastery after one of the battles. During the night, the praying Cossacks saw a miraculous aura surrounding the icon of the Samara Mother of God, and in the morning they confronted the enemy and inflicted a crushing defeat on him.
From that time onwards, owing to the efforts of the monks and the camp otamans, the Samara monastery expanded its holdings and prospered. The Zaporozhian Kish gave the monks a large chunk of forest, meadows, fishing lakes and rivers, as well as the large Monastery Island on the Dnipro. They also set up an annual donation for the monastery from their granaries, shops, taverns, fish and meat from their catches, war booty, and wages.
The monastery also strengthened its internal organization: the abbots introduced the so-called Athos Statute, increased the number of monks, built inns, and opened schools and hospitals as well as monastery-run apiaries and hamlets. One of the latter soon expanded into the large village of Cherneche, home to the monastery’s monks, servants, and assorted personnel, both male and female, whose numbers exceeded 500.
As early as the mid-18th century, the monastery became the center of the entire northern rim of the Zaporozhian free land. Two annual fairs that were held next to the monastery attracted people from all over Little Russia (Ukraine), Polish and Slobidska Ukraine, the Don, and Russia’s Orel and Kursk gubernias. The monastery continued to take in monks and lay brethren, mostly elderly Zaporozhians. For example, the former camp otaman Pylyp Fedorov, who donated “a sack of gold coins” to the monastery, died there in 1795 at the age of 101.
Among other famous Ukrainians who died there were the former military dragoman Ivan Shvydky, the secretary Dmytro Romanovsky, the judge Moisei Sukhy, and many Cossack officers and rank-and-file Cossacks. The monks also conducted baptisms, officiated at weddings, and read funeral prayers for the residents of the surrounding villages and hamlets. Their children attended the church school, and people who had donated their property found their final resting place in the monastery graveyard.
The monastery was so prosperous that it often helped the Zaporozhians during natural calamities, such as a destructive fire at the Sich or a severe winter frost, when the Cossacks badly needed firewood and timber for rebuilding. Sometimes the monastery even funded the official visits of Cossack officers to the Russian capital, even furnishing them with a carriage that the Zaporozhian Kish had once received as a gift in Vienna.
Yavornytsky writes that the monks often gave moral support to the Zaporozhians or set them on the right path. For example, they advised them not to give open support to Maksym Zalizniak’s revolt and ordered a representative of the Polish confederates who were inciting the Cossacks to side with Turkey to be caught and turned over to the authorities.
The Russo-Turkish war of 1768-74 did not greatly affect the monastery, which offered assistance to the sick and wounded. The monks did not deny hospitality even to captured Tatars and Turks. Abbot Iiessei managed their everyday problems, and the learned hieromonk Herman conducted soul-searching conversations with the Muslims and converted many of them to Christianity.
Two of these proselytes, the Turkish-born monk Mykola and the Tatar-born monk Heorhii, later glorified themselves with zealotry. The former was considered a clairvoyant, while the latter was esteemed as a skilled doctor, who could heal various maladies with medicinal herbs and roots.
The abolition of the Zaporozhian Sich in 1775 barely affected the Samara monastery because some church hierarchs pleaded its case with Prince Grigory Potemkin. At the time, the monastery possessed considerable properties, including 18,000 desiatynas (1 desiatyna=1.0925 ha) of various types of land. Later, the monastery was declared the country retreat of the Katerynoslav archpriests, which covered an area of a little over 300 desiatynas.
However, the monastery was in no way destitute. In the early part of the 19th century wealthy donors helped build a few strong stone structures, including a tall belfry with a large bell weighing about 169 poods (1 pood=16.39 kg) and three churches — St. Nicholas, Divine Transfiguration, and St. George the Victorious. In each of them were stored ancient artifacts, such as richly-adorned icons, church utensils, and books presented by the Zaporozhians. Yavornytsky describes an icon of the Mother of God from Novy Kodak, whose silver and gilded frame was made at the request of Petro Kalnyshevsky, camp otaman of the Zaporozhian army.
The main church of the Samara St. Nicholas’s Monastery was built with the assistance of the distinguished figure Kyrylo Tarlovsky, known in the history of the New Sich as the “savage priest.” Tarlovsky’s life was full of incredible adventures, many of which beggar belief. It is known that in his youth Tarlovsky was educated at the Kyiv Theological Seminary. He later served as a parish priest in the small town of Kozelets located on the banks of the Oster River.
Word has it that it was he who officiated at the secret marriage of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna and Count Oleksii Razumovsky, who was born in the village of Lemeshi in Kozelets district. Tarlovsky ended up in St. Petersburg and became a priest at the church of the Guards Corps, where he met many influential persons, including the future Empress Catherine II. During the palace coup he was on the side of Emperor Peter III and, fearing reprisals, fled to Ukraine, where fate led him to a group of Zaporozhian Cossacks in the steppe. He then went to the Sich, where he served at the Church of the Holy Virgin’s Intercession.
Catherine II soon pardoned Tarlovsky. Now a military chaplain, he was awarded a large plot of arable land after the Russo-Turkish war. As a landowner, he did much to settle the Novomoskovske and Pavlohrad districts, supplying peasants with cattle, farming implements, and money. Using his own funds, Tarlovsky provided the Samara monastery with all necessary supplies and built a new stone church of St. Nicholas to replace the old wooden church.
Every September he held dinner parties on his Voskresenivka estate to mark the church’s feast day, which amazed his contemporaries. He would set up tables full of food and drinks along the road and invite passersby, mostly the residents of local villages, to join the festivities. After the repast, everybody was given a three-kopeck piece called an altyn and a gift. It is no wonder that the generous priest is still remembered to this day in the vicinity of the Samara monastery, where he later died and was buried.
Starting in the late 18th century, the monastery trained men for the priesthood to serve not the Zaporozhian Sich but the Russian Black Sea Fleet. On the orders of the top church hierarchy, “reliable hieromonks” were periodically assigned to Russian warships to serve as chaplains.
Troubled times came to the monastery under the Bolshevik regime. In the mid-1920s the monastery began to be used as a refuge for disabled veterans of the Civil War. The wounded and sick revolutionaries took over much of the premises, leaving the monks only St. Nicholas’s Church and a house with monastic cells. The numbers of Red veterans continued to increase every year, and soon the authorities ordered the monks to create a House of Invalids.
In the previous centuries, the monastery had survived raids, fires, and devastation, only to revive every time. But it could not resist the Bolshevik onslaught. The monastery was finally closed in the early 1930s. During the Second World War almost all the monastery’s structures were destroyed, except for some walls and chimneys. After the liberation of Novomoskovske, on the outskirts of which stood the monastery, it was decided to restore and rebuild the former monastery as an orphanage.
However, in the mid-1950s the Dnipropetrovsk oblast party committee passed a different resolution: to set up a 150-bed rest home for retired steel-workers. But according to local residents, there were almost no true steel-workers there. One could only get a place in this rest home if a boss pulled some strings. Later, as a result of new trends, this elitist institution was converted into a boarding school for mentally handicapped children. The new designation led to a change in the pattern of funding, and the school went into a final decline in the early 1990s.
During the years of Ukraine’s independence, the Dnipropetrovsk authorities finally met the Orthodox Church halfway and allowed the revival of the ancient Cossack monastery. The first monks, headed by Abbot Dosyfei, arrived at the Samara cloister in 1993. The churches, refectory, and monastic cells are gradually being rebuilt. Excavations have revealed such vestiges of the ancient monastery as underground passages and rooms.
The clergymen claim that before the 1917 revolution the Samara St. Nicholas’s Monastery was considered as important in the religious world as the Pochaiv and Kyivan Cave monasteries, and the authoritative words of its hierarchs were heeded far outside the borders of Ukraine. Today the monks and lay brethren are determined to revive the former glory of the monastery once known as the “Cossack Palestine.”