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The Kiev Crypt Patericon


A patericon is a collection of stories about the life of monks in a particular area or monastery. The oldest Russian patericon is that of the Kiev Crypt Monastery. The monastery was founded in the middle of the eleventh century, and already in The Tale of Bygone Years there is an account of its founding under the year 1051 and of some of its monks under 1074. The Patericon was created much later, however, and was based on a correspondence at the beginning of the thirteenth century between Bishop Simon of Vladimir and Polycarp, a monk of the Crypt Monastery, although they, in turn, appear to have made use of records kept in the monastery itself.

Simon and Polycarp had both taken vows in the Kiev Crypt Monastery and were both educated and talented scribes. But their fates were different: Simon first became abbot of a monastery in Vladimir, then in 1214 was made bishop of Vladimir and Suzdal. Polycarp stayed in the monastery. The ambitious monk would not reconcile himself to his position which he felt was not in keeping with his knowledge and abilities, and with the help of influential patrons, Princess Verkhuslava-Anastasia, the daughter of Prince Vsevolod the Big Nest, and her brother Yuri, he began to connive for a bishopric. But Simon, to whom the princess turned for support, did not approve of Polycarp’s ambitious strivings and wrote him a letter denouncing his love of high office and exhorting him to take pride in being a member of such a famous monastery. Simon accompanied this letter with some stories about other monks belonging to the monastery, in the hope that these stories would remind Polycarp of the monastery’s fine traditions and calm his restless spirit. Simon’s letter’ and the nine stories about monks of the Kiev Crypt Monastery that followed it were one of the main sources of the future Patericon.

Another important section of the work was Polycarp’s letter to Abbot Akindin, in which Polycarp wrote that he had finally resolved to realise a plan conceived long ago of writing an account of the Life and “miracles of the Crypt saints”. The letter was followed by eleven stories about famous monks.

Evidently at some point in the middle of the thirteenth century the letters of Simon and Polycarp (together with the stories that accompanied them) were assembled and added to from other writings about the monastery: The Life of St Theodosius of the Caves and the eulogy to him, the Sermon on the Founding of the Crypt Church written by Simon, etc.

Thus gradually the literary work was assembled which later became known as the Kiev Crypt Patericon. What we have is the Arsenius redaction of the Patericon made at the beginning of the fifteenth century on the initiative of Bishop Arsenius of Tver, the Theodosius redaction, possibly mid-fifteenth century, and two Cassian redactions compiled in the 1460s in the monastery itself.96

The literary and ideological importance of the Patericon was extremely great. It not only summed up the development of Russian hagiography over the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but also by recounting the famous monastery’s glorious past aroused patriotic sentiments and in the terrible years of the Mongol overlordship recalled the former flowering and might of Kievan Russia.

The tales in the Kiev Crypt Patericon contain many traditional patericon motifs: righteous monks perform miracles, successfully resist worldly wiles and temptations, overcome demons and expose their cunning snares. All these fantastic collisions, however, take place against the background of real monastery life and the real political events in Kievan Russia in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Alongside the idealised portraits of the monastery’s ascetics appear real characters of cruel princes, greedy merchants and iniquitous judges. Nor are the monks themselves always beyond reproach: they are prey to envy and greed and frequently reproach and quarrel with one another.

Thus, the legend of Prochorus the Orach-Carrier tells how Prochorus supplied the starving Kievans with bread that had been baked from orach, but tasted as sweet as if it were made “with honey”. If anyone stole the bread from Prochorus it tasted as bitter as wormwood. Then Prochorus collected ash from the cells and turned it into salt, which he also distributed to the needy. This angered the merchants who had put up the prices of their provisions. They complained to Prince Svyatopolk97 about Prochorus. After conferring with his boyars the prince took Prochorus’ magic salt away from him, hoping to get rich, but the salt turned back into ashes. On the third day the prince ordered the ashes to be thrown away, and they again turned into salt which was joyfully taken by the needy townspeople. It is easy to see how unfavourably the prince and his counsellors and the greedy merchants of Kiev appear in this story.

Another legend tells of the monk Gregory. Some thieves come to rob him but he sends them into a deep sleep that lasts for five days. He makes other thieves stand rooted to the spot for two days, weighed down by the fruit and vegetables they have stolen. At first the monks cannot see the thieves, but when they finally notice them they cannot move them. Then it tells how the same Gregory on the banks of the Dnieper meets Prince Rostislav Vsevolodovich, who is on his way to the monastery to receive a blessing before his campaign against the Polovtsians. The prince’s men laugh at the monk and “utter shameful words”. Gregory reproaches them and predicts death by water. Angered by the monk’s words, the prince exclaims proudly: “Is it to me, who can swim, that you predict death by water”, and orders Gregory to be bound and drowned in the Dnieper. The monks seek in vain for Gregory for two days, and only on the third does his dead body—with a stone round the neck and in wet robes—appear miraculously in his locked cell. And Prince Rostislav, who had killed Gregory, did indeed drown while crossing the river at Trepolie.98

The story about the monk Theodore is also interesting. He suffers greatly from the wiles of demons who appear to him in the form of his friend, the monk Basil, and cause the friends to quarrel. At last he manages to overcome the demons and even make them serve him: in one night they grind five cartloads of grain at his command, then they carry up the hill heavy logs that have been floated down the Dnieper to rebuild a church and cells damaged by fire and pile them in the right places: for the floor, the roof and the walls. But this fantastic world of miracles is closely intertwined with the world of real people and human relationships. Firstly, the demons incite the carriers hired to transport the logs to the monastery to slander Theodore and, after bribing the judge, demand that he pay for the work done by the demons. Secondly, a demon appears to one of the Prince of Kiev’s boyars in the guise of Basil and tells him of some rich treasure hidden in a place that is known to Theodore. The boyar takes the demon-Basil to Prince Mstislav. The prince decides to hunt for the treasure, sets off “as if to capture some strong warrior” with a large host of men, captures Theodore and tortures him to find out where the treasure is hidden. Theodore’s friend, the real Basil, also tortured. Both monks die after being tortured. True, the prince receives Divine retribution—he is killed by the same arrow with which he put Basil to death.” The interesting point, however, is that the princes and boyars of Kiev, according to the Patericon,  do not even stop at murdering monks in their pride or love of money. The aura of respect which, as the Patericon declares, surrounded the Kiev Crypt Monastery and the aura of Christian piety round the princes of Kiev fade completely. The point is not whether the story is true or not, of course, but the nature of the relations between the monastery and the secular figures who are depicted in one way or another by the patericon legends.

The subjects of the stories about the Kiev Crypt monks are very engaging. Alexander Pushkin drew attention to this in a letter to Pyotr Pletriyov, speaking of the “charm of simplicity and invention” in the legends about the Kiev miracle-workers.100 They combine purely hagiographical devices with the devices of the chronicle narrative; in spite of hagiographical conventions realistic details and lifelike character traits slip in from time to time. The Kiev Crypt Patericon thus represents an important stage in the development of the fictional narrative in Old Russian literature.101