After the Mongols were finally evicted by Grand Prince Ivan III the Great from the woodlands of what is today central Russia, the Muscovites faced a new enemy from the west, the Lithuanians. In 1514, Grand Prince Vasili III, son of Ivan the Great, had carried the war to the Lithuanian frontiers and as he stood on the very walls of this important city, he vowed to God that if he and his men were allowed to take this strategic fortress, he would build a great and important convent in his capital.
As a result ground was broken on a new convent located at the Maiden Field. Built like a colorful fortress in the woods, Vasili called this new religious site “Novodevichy” or New Maiden Convent.
Over the years, Novodevichy would become an extremely important cloister, particularly during the reign of Peter the Great - this Tsar exiled both his ambitious half-sister and regent Sophia, and his overly conservative first wife Eudoxia within its walls. Upon his withdrawal from Moscow, Napoleon Bonaparte intended that the structure be destroyed, but Novodevichy’s nuns bravely prevented the Grande Armee’s engineers from setting off the charges that would have brought the convent down. In the Soviet period, the religious building was converted into both a branch of the State Historical Museum and private apartments, moves that prevented authorities from demolishing the original structure.
Tourists today still find plenty to see at Novodevichy. Beyond the five-golden-domed structure housing, the Our Lady of Smolensk icon, the central point of the original convent, there are a number of churches on the grounds: Transfiguration, Holy Virgin, St. Amvrosi, and the Refectory. A 72-meter-tall bell tower built by Sophia, Peter the Great’s sister, dominates the convent grounds even today, which are home to Russia’s most famous burial place, the Novodevichy Cemetery (the final resting place of leading Imperial, Communist, and post-Communist officials, principal cultural figures, and other leaders of Russian society since 1898).