The word lavra in Russian is reserved for a monastery of the highest order, of which there are just four in all of Russia and Ukraine. Named in honor of St. Alexander Nevsky, this monastery was founded in 1710 by Peter the Great and given lavra status in 1797. Prince Alexander of Novgorod (1220–63), the great military commander, became a national hero and saint because he halted the relentless eastward drive for Russian territory by the Germans and the Swedes.
Peter chose this site for the monastery, thinking that it was the same place where the prince had fought the battle in 1240 that earned him the title Alexander of the Neva (Nevsky); actually, the famous battle took place some 20 km (12 mi) away. Alexander Nevsky had been buried in Vladimir, but in 1724, on Peter's orders, his remains were transferred to the monastery that was founded in his honor.
Entrance to the monastery is through the archway of the elegant Gate Church (Tserkovnyye Vorota), built by Ivan Starov between 1783 and 1785. The walled pathway is flanked by two cemeteries—together known as the Necropolis of Masters of Arts—whose entrances are a short walk down the path. To the left lies the older Lazarus Cemetery (Lazarevskoye kladbische). The list of famous people buried here reads like a who's who of St. Petersburg architects; it includes Quarenghi, Rossi, de Thomon, and Voronikhin. The cemetery also contains the tombstone of the father of Russian science, Mikhail Lomonosov. The Tikhvinskoye kladbische, on the opposite side, is the final resting place of several of St. Petersburg's great literary and musical figures. The grave of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in the northwestern corner, is easily identified by the tombstone's sculpture, which portrays the writer with his flowing beard. Continuing along the walled path you'll soon reach the composers' corner, where Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Tchaikovsky are buried. The compound includes an exhibition hall with temporary exhibits of "urban sculpture."
Church of the Annunciation
After this look at St. Petersburg's cultural legacy, return to the path and cross the bridge spanning the Monastyrka River. As you enter the monastery grounds, the Church of the Annunciation (Tserkov Blagovescheniya), greets you on your left. The red-and-white rectangular church was designed by Domenico Trezzini and built between 1717 and 1722. It now houses the Museum of City Sculpture (open daily 9:30–1 and 2–5), which contains models of St. Petersburg's architectural masterpieces as well as gravestones and other fine examples of memorial sculpture. Also in the church are several graves of 18th-century statesmen. The great soldier Generalissimo Alexander Suvorov, who led the Russian army to numerous victories during the Russo-Turkish War (1768–74), is buried here under a simple marble slab that he purportedly designed himself. It reads simply: "Here lies Suvorov." Opposite the church, a shop sells religious items and souvenirs.
Outside the church and continuing along the same path, you'll first pass a millennial monument celebrating 2,000 years of Christianity on your right, before reaching the monastery's main cathedral, the Trinity Cathedral (Troitsky Sobor). This was one of the few churches in St. Petersburg allowed to function during the Soviet era. Designed by Ivan Starov and completed at the end of the 18th century, it stands out among the monastery's predominantly baroque architecture for its monumental classical design. Services are held here daily, and the church is open to the public from 6 am until the end of the evening service around 8 pm. The magnificent interior, with its stunning gilded iconostasis, is worth a visit. The large central dome, adorned by frescoes designed by the great architect Quarenghi, seems to soar toward the heavens. The church houses the main relics of Alexander Nevsky.
St. Nicholas Cemetery
As you leave the church, walk down the steps and go through the gate on the right. A door on the left bears a simple inscription, written by hand: "Svezhy Khleb" (fresh bread). Here you can buy delicious bread baked on the premises. After the gate comes a courtyard and, at the back of the church, a gate to yet another burial ground: St. Nicholas Cemetery (Nikolskoye Kladbishche), opened in 1863 and one of the most prestigious burial grounds of the time; it's open daily 9–8 (until 7 in winter). In 1927 the cemetery was closed and the remains of prominent people buried here, including novelist Goncharov and composer Rubinstein, were transferred over the course of several years to the Volkovskoye Cemetery and the Necropolis of Masters of Arts. This movement went on until the 1940s, by which time valuable funeral monuments had been lost. As you reach the steps of the little yellow-and-white church in the center (which gave its name to the graveyard), turn right and walk to a derelict chapel of yellow brick, which has been turned into a makeshift monument to Nicholas II. Photocopies stand in for photographs of the Imperial family; pro-monarchy white, yellow, and black flags hang from the ceilings; and passionate adherents have added primitive frescoes to the scene. Nearby, in front of Trinity Cathedral, is yet another final resting place on the lavra's grounds—the Communist Burial Ground (Kommunisticheskaya Ploshchadka), where, starting in 1919, defenders of Petrograd, victims of the Kronshtadt rebellion, old Bolsheviks, and prominent scientists were buried. The last to receive that honor were people who took part in the siege of Leningrad.
Entrance to the monastery grounds is free, although you are asked to make a donation. You must purchase a ticket for the two cemeteries of the Necropolis of Masters of Arts and the museum, and (as with most Russian museums) it costs extra to take photos or use a video camera. There are ticket kiosks outside the two paying cemeteries, after the gate, and inside the Tikhvin Cemetery, on the right side.