Tsar Vasily III (1479–1533) founded this convent in 1524 on the road to Smolensk and Lithuania. Due to the tsar's initiative, it enjoyed an elevated position among the many monasteries and convents of Moscow and became a convent primarily for noblewomen. Little remains of the original structure. Enclosed by a crenellated wall with 12 colorful battle towers, today's complex dates largely from the 17th century, when the convent was significantly rebuilt and enhanced.
Among the first of the famous women to take the veil here was Irina, wife of the feebleminded Tsar Fyodor and the sister of Boris Godunov, in the 16th century. Godunov was a powerful nobleman who exerted much influence over the tsar and when Fyodor died, Godunov was the logical successor to the throne. Rather than proclaim himself tsar, he followed his sister to Novodevichy. Biding his time, Godunov waited until the clergy and townspeople begged him to become tsar. His election took place at the convent, inside the
Cathedral of Smolensk.
In the next century, Novodevichy became the residence of Sophia, the half-sister of Peter the Great, who ruled as his regent from 1682 through 1689, while he was still a boy. She didn't want to give up her position when the time came for Peter's rule and was deposed by him. He kept her prisoner inside Novodevichy. Even that wasn't enough to restrain the ambitious sister, and from her cell she organized a revolt of the streltsy (Russian militia). The revolt was summarily put down, and to punish Sophia, Peter had the bodies of the dead streltsy hung up along the walls of the convent outside Sophia's window. He left the decaying bodies hanging for more than a year. Yet another of the convent's later "inmates" was Yevdokiya Lopukhina, Peter's first wife. Peter considered her a pest and rid himself of her by sending her to a convent in faraway Suzdal. She outlived him, though, and eventually returned to Moscow. She spent her final years at Novodevichy, where she's buried.
You enter the convent through the arched passageway topped by the Preobrazhensky Tserkov (Gate Church of the Transfiguration), widely considered one of the best examples of Moscow baroque. To your left as you enter is the ticket booth, where tickets are sold to the various exhibits housed in the convent. Exhibits include rare and ancient Russian paintings, both ecclesiastical and secular; woodwork and ceramics; and fabrics and embroidery. There's also a large collection of illuminated and illustrated books, decorated with gold, silver, and jewels. The building to your right is the Lophukin House, where Yevdokiya lived from 1727 to 1731. Sophia's prison, now a guardhouse, is to your far right, in a corner of the northern wall.
The predominant structure inside the convent is the huge five-dome Sobor Smolenskoy Bogomateri (Cathedral of the Virgin of Smolensk), dedicated in 1525 and built by Alexei Fryazin. It was closely modeled after the Kremlin's Assumption Cathedral. Inside, there's a spectacular iconostasis with 84 wooden columns and icons dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Simon Ushakov, a leader in 17th-century icon art, was among the outstanding Moscow artists who participated in the creation of the icons. Also here are the tombs of Sophia and Yevdokiya. Yet another historic tale connected to the convent tells how the cathedral was slated for destruction during the War of 1812. Napoléon had ordered the cathedral dynamited, but a brave nun managed to extinguish the fuse just in time, and the cathedral was spared.
To the right of the cathedral is the Uspensky Tserkov (Church of the Assumption) and Refectory, originally built in 1687 and then rebuilt after a fire in 1796. It was here that the blue-blooded nuns took their meals.
A landmark feature of Novodevichy is the ornate belfry towering above its eastern wall. It rises 236 feet and consists of six ornately decorated tiers. The structure is topped by a gilded dome that can be seen from miles away.