The Nuns and the Kremlin

« THE BAD, the Good AND THE holy »

A short story of two monasteries in Uzbekistan with an interview of Superior Mother Yekaterina from Saint-Nicholas monastery in Tashkent.

Photos by Fred Daudon & Nabila Laajail

« By those time (ndlr: from 1933 to 1945), in the entire Central Asia, in Samarkand, in Tashkent, Tajikistan, every church, every monastery was closed. Only this church was open. They served traditional service in the morning everyday and in the evening as well.

Pope Alexey, who is in charge of Saint-George monastery in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. This monastery also welcomes poor families.

Mother Superior Yekaterina is waiting for the visit of the Bishop of Tashkent at the nunnery of Saint-Nicholas in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

« – Only men are conducting the service. Could you explain why?

– Because it is not allowed for women to go to the altar.

– I thought it was only for people who are not part of the clergy.

– Only the Bishop can enter in the altar and read the Bible. From the moment Jesus is born, women were not allowed to conduct the service.

– We saw also women next to the altar, singing. Who are they?

– Seminarists. They are studying and singing is part of their daily practices. »

« – How long does it take to become a seminarist?

– Seminarist training lasts 3 years. They do not wear a special robe. Nowadays they are studying separately from men. They are supposed to become the priests’ wives. They should be virgins.

Any man seminarist who wants to marry, he has to marry with a virgin woman. If not, God will see it. »

« – And the seminarists are living here?

– The men are living in a building next to the cathedral. For example if the seminarist wants to be a priest. They will receive a training on the liturgy, how to sing, what to sing…

– And to become a nun, how long does it take?

– Usually when the person comes here and says I want to become a nun, they stay here for 3 days and then, if they want to stay more, they can stay for one week, and then they can stay even one month so they see if they can deal with monastic life. Usually when a woman comes, it takes 5 to 6 years to become a nun. When I came here, 3 years ago, there were nuns and their hair were not cut. »

– We saw different nuns wearing different garments. Can you explain?

– The first one a nun wears is the same as any other cloth. Then the second one, it is black. For the fourth one, she becomes a nun and promises she will not get married. For those garments which are embroidering with inscriptions, they are received by old nuns who made the vow for the second time that they will not get married and stay in the monastery until the rest of their life. That is why they are covering their faces and they try not to speak. Silence is cold.

– Is there only one class of nuns in Russian Orthodox Church? Not like Franciscans or Capucin in Catholic Church?

– Only one order. There is one Jesus-Christ and so many orders and separations, it is a shame. We have all shared the same blood since Adam and Eve.

– Explain us the problem with the hair? Do you need a superior nun to cut the hair of other nuns?

– When I came, I indeed cut their hair. (coming back to the question « how do you become a nun? ») You don’t have to hurry up for this. On God’s wish, you don’t need to come but if you want, you can. There were sometimes some women who were offended by their husband, father, mother… and they just come here to stay, but it was just emotional reaction. When this reaction fades, they want to come back to their ordinary life. Time heals.

– It is good because it helps them.

– Yes. People come here to relax, for the mass. When they do, they say that it is so calm here, that the city is really noisy and stressful.

– What are you doing in terms of social activities? Charity?

– We make a lot of events for the country. They really respect the government and the previous president, Islam Karimov. His wife was Russian and Orthodox. I like the new president also. I only saw his picture but I can feel that he is a good person. No one offense us. Everybody respect our monastery and Uzbek women like the way nuns behave.

– Is there another monastery of women in Uzbekistan?

– There are 3 other monasteries in Uzbekistan. In Chirchik region, there is a men monastery. In Soldanstky, there is a women monastery. Uzbekistan is a muslim country but Muslim women are coming to the nuns to ask us to pray for them. In the church, we cannot pray for a person who is not Christian but we can do it in our own rooms; we can do it there for someone who is not Christian. We also pray for our government, for everyone. For us, the main important thing is to pray. It is our day-to-day duty.

What about this monastery?

– The monastery itself has been built 130 years ago but it was officially registered 115 years ago and on October 24th 2016 was the anniversary of the foundation of the monastery. (…) Before the monastery was located in another place, 5 kms from here, on the banks of the river Talapik in Qo’yliq district.

All the monasteries were closed in 1920 and this women monastery transformed into a prison for women. This women prison was destroyed a year ago. In 1996, we started back the monastery. Before destroying the monastery, we took everything inside (sacred objects, paintings) and moved them in the new monastery). The nuns live here in two different buildings. The one who is under construction is meant for seminarists. The building in which we are discussing is the administrative building, and we also live on the second floor of this building. There is also a little hospital for the nuns who are suffering from different diseases. Everything is done for the nuns to stay in the monastery and live our all life here. Currently one of them is paralyzed and the other broke her leg.

– How many women are living here?

– When I arrived here three years ago, there were 25 women and now, there are 18 women. I arrived with the young nuns and the old nuns stayed there.

– Do you have new nuns?

– When I came here, I brought with me 5 nuns from Yekaterinburg. Since I am here, no nun has joined the monastery. I think that it is related to materialism: you have to wear a beautiful watch, everything should be comfortable.They love the things that they see, but God is not visible. If you become a nun, it means that you have to follow strict rules and fight yourself, live simply and just be with your mind, your soul. Recently I was in Rome, I saw also young people coming to monastery there. But in Uzbekistan, people who wants to become nun and priests, they are going to Russia. We have also their own Sunday school where the kids and adults come and learn about Orthodox church and Bible teachings. On December 7th, it is Angels day. The kids made an event for me, I cried, it was very lovely.

– Is there many monasteries for women in Russian Orthodox Church?

– 80 monasteries (men + women) in total.


– Where do you come from?

– I am from Yekaterinburg, in Oural region. I arrived in Tashkent 3 years ago. During 8 years there were no superior nun in this monastery. That’s why I came here, that’s why I have to work a lot here. Before there was a nun in the old monastery, near the river in Qo’yliq district. After it was destroyed, the main nun was sent to Slavsky region in 1920. There was a place where the clergy was sent. She lived there during 8 years. After she was sentenced to be killed, because it was Soviet union. In 1928, she was sent to Achgabat in Turkmenistan in order to be sentenced to death. Uzbek people loved her and the guardian of the monastery went to Achgabat. He helped her to escape and took her back to Tashkent. She lived here with her soul sister. They spent all their time praying. In 1934, she passed away. She was a holy person, helping everybody. She is buried in the cemetery near Alexandar Nevsky church. At the moment, we are praying for her, to God to protect her and we are also asking help from her.

In Alexander Nevsky Church and cemetery around there is a specail place where all the holy persons are buried. »