Novodevichi Convent, a branch of the State History Museum, ranks among the most significant historical and artistic monuments of medieval Moscow. Its picturesque architectural ensemble, the work of talented Russian masters, and collections of fine and applied arts contribute to the artistic wealth of the Soviet Union. As early as in 1919 the Soviet Government decreed that an account should be taken of all the artistic values contained in the Novodevichi Convent and measures taken to preserve them. A museum was established in its territory in 1922. In 1934 it became a branch of the State History Museum.
Novodevichi Convent lies on the left bank of the Moscow River four kilometres south-west of the Moscow Kremlin. It was founded in 1524 under the Grand Prince of Moscow Vasily III and was to mark the recapture of the old Russian town of Smolensk which had been seized by the Grand Principality of Lithuania more than a century before. Moscow's new convent was given the traditional name of all Russian convents - "Novodevichy" ("New Maidens"). It soon turned into a stronghold on the approaches to Moscow, having control of the crossings across the Moscow River and the road to Smolensk.
The fortress of the Novodevichi Convent stood up to the attacks of the Crimean Tatars (the raids of the Khans Del-vet-Girei and Kazy-Girei in 1571 and 1591 respectively).
During the Polish and Swedish intervention in the early 17th century the Polish troops occupied the convent on several occasions.
The liberation battle for Moscow of August 22, 1612 was one of the greatest battles of its time. The convent was defended by a garrison of 300-350 men who was joined in time of war by the male population of a large settlement in Devichye Pole (Maidens' Field). During the war of 1812 Napoleon's troops used the convent to store provisions; he himself inspected the convent on September 25 and gave the respective orders. In the early hours of October 9 the French troops abandoned the convent following an attempt to blow up its main cathedral.
By the end of the 17th century Novodevichi Convent was among the wealthiest Russian convents. It owned vast tracts of land in the nearby districts and also near Lake Onega and in the lower reaches of the Volga, to say nothing of its 15,000 serfs in 36 villages located in 27 districts of Russia. This extensive economy called for a system of rigid control and such was ensured by the staff of stewards whose job was to collect taxes from the Convent's villages. The peasants' complaints were investigated by the Convent's junior scribes and elderly nuns. It was actually a collective land owner and hence had vested interest in the feudal landown-ership in 16th—17th century Russia.
The Convent's wealth was largely derived from a large number of nuns made from among the daughters and widows of Russian princes and boyars, and even of the Tsar's relatives, since the 16th century Princess Ulyana Palets-kaya, widow of Tsar Ivan's IV brother Yuri, took the veil in 1563; Yelena Sheremeteva and Irina Godunova, the widows of Prince Ivan V and Tsar Fyodor loannovich also joined the Convent. With the arrival of tsarinas and princesses the Convent strengthened its ties with representatives of the Russian feudal aristocracy. Its documents dating to the 16th—17th centuries show the land and monetary contributions made by the Princes Kubensky and Belsky, the Boyars Zakharyin-Yuriev, Sheremetev and Morozov.
In 1598 Boris Godunov was elected a Tsar in the Convent. Thereupon he contributed greatly to its assets. The receipt-book of 1603-1604 mentions the hundreds of icons, objects of value and huge sums of money granted to the Convent by the Tsar.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries the Convent was surrounded by a stone wall and a magnificent gilt wood-carved iconostatis was installed in Smolensk Cathedral.
In the mid-17th century Novodevichi Convent received a large contingent of nuns from Ukrainian and Byelorussian Orthodox convents, which fact reflected the Moscow state's policy of protectionism towards the native population of the Ukraine and Byelorussia who were persecuted by Catholic Poland.
The late 17th century brought big changes into the Convent's architecture. During the rule of Peter's sister Sophia (1682-1689) extensive construction work was carried out. Stone was used to build new churches, a bell-tower, refectories, cells and living chambers. The Convent received a splendid interior: hundreds of masters and among them stone masons, fresco and icon painters, wood-carvers, gilders and forgers took part in developing its layout and ornamentation.
In 1689, following an abortive attempt to retain the throne with the help of the strelitz troops Tsarevna Sophia, and later her sisters, were confined in the Convent. They did not take the veil in the hope that they would one day return to power.
In 1698, the mutiny of the strelitz troops broke out, "initiated by a letter from Novodevichi Convent". It was suppressed by government troops and in October mass executions of the mutineers were carried out in Moscow and near the Convent's walls. A decree issued by Peter the Great confined Tsarevna Sophia to the Convent which since then was closed to the world. Falling out of favour with the Tsar's court which was removed to St. Petersburg, the Convent lost its ties with the royal house. The Convent came under the control of the Preobrazhensky Office, followed by that of the Sinod and the Economic Collegium. In 1764, its vast land property was secularized by the state.
After the Patriotic War of 1812 the life of the Convent passed without any significant wordly events. In the recollections of Muscovites living in the late 19th - early 20th centuries it is presented as an old cloister with a large cemetery and extensive fete grounds - Devichye Pole - stretching from the Convent's walls to Sadovoye Ring, where popular festivities were held.