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If we are to believe tradition, the first monastery was founded as early as the beginning of the 11th century under the rule of Yaroslav the Wise. By the 12th century, according to surviving documents, Novgorod was already surrounded by a tight circle of larger and smaller cloisters. The southern suburbs numbered more than ten such communities.
Less populated cloisters as, for example, the Petrovsky Convent, founded by inhabitants of Lukinskaya Street at the close of the 12th century, possessed neither great holdings nor large estates and supported themselves "by gathering fruits of the land, hay-making and alms". Larger ones, such as the Yuriev Monastery or the Spasso-Preobrazhensky Khutyn Monastery were under the patronage of higher authorities, i.e. of princes, boyar families and Novgorodian bishops. The well-known Charter of Mstislav, issued to the Yuriev Monastery and many other legal deeds give us evidence of the existence of broad estates, a large-scale household and many villages owned by the monastery.
Medieval monasteries acted as outposts of the city. They bore the brunt of the first vicious strikes of enemy invaders, and many a time were subjected to complete devastation or burnt to the ground. Especially grave damage was done in 1386 during the offensive of the Muscovite prince Dmitry Donskoy and in 1611 during the Swedish invasion.
Many remarkable objects of iconography, artistic jewelry and gold embroidery, as well as numerous books were made within the walls of the Novgorodian monasteries and nunneries.
Most of the monasteries were closed down in the 18th century in the days of Catherine the Great. Monastic temples were used only as parochial or graveyard churches. Very few of the most significant and ancient cloisters could still play any role in the religious life of Novgorod and Russia in general.
After the October Revolution of 1917 all monasteries in the city and outskirts ceased their operation. Their premises were converted to accommodate labor camps, hospitals, old people's homes, hostels, etc.
The devastation caused by the artillery fire and bombing of the Second World War was horrifying. Movie makers used the ruins of the Khutyn and the Vyazhishche monasteries as natural stage sets to shoot films for twenty years after the war had ended. Colossal efforts by Novgorodian restorers in bringing monastery complexes back to life, were a complete success -- now almost all of them have the air of tranquil prosperity.
Reforms of the perestroika period altered state policy in respect to the Russian Orthodox Church. Some of the most venerable cloisters were given new life. At the present time there are three operating monasteries in the vicinity of Novgorod (the Vyazhishche Monastery, the Khutyn Monastery, the Yuriev Monastery with a hermitage) as well as monks' dwellings, and the fourth working monastery (the Iversky monastery) closer to Valdai Hills.
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