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In 1591, the Russian army stood waiting for an impending attack from Tatar troops grouped on the opposite side of the river. According to legend, the Russians awoke one morning to find the Tatars gone. Their sudden retreat was considered a miracle, and Boris Godunov ordered a monastery built to commemorate the miraculous victory. The monastery, now in a secluded, wooded area in the southwest section of the city, was named in honor of a wonder-working icon of the Virgin of the Don that Prince Dimitry Donskoy had supposedly carried during his campaign in 1380 in which the Russians won their first decisive victory against the Tatars.
The monastery grounds are surrounded by a high defensive wall with 12 towers, the last of the defense fortifications to be built around Moscow. When you enter through the western gates, the icon looks down on you from above the entrance to the imposing New Cathedral, built in the late 17th century by Peter the Great's half-sister, the regent Sophia.
The smaller Old Cathedral was built between 1591 and 1593, during the reign of Boris Godunov. After the plague swept through Moscow in 1771, Catherine the Great forbade any more burials in the city center and the monastery became a fashionable burial place for the well-to-do, and many leading intellectuals, politicians, and aristocrats were buried here in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.
From 1934 to 1992, a branch of the Shchusev Architecture Museum kept architectural details of churches, monasteries, and public buildings destroyed under the Soviets inside the monastery walls. Bits and pieces of demolished churches and monuments remain, forming a graveyard of destroyed architecture from Russia's past.