The Peryn Skete of the Nativity of the Theotokos stands at the point where the Volkhov River flows out of Lake Ilmen.
Prince Vladimir, baptised Rus in 988 in Kiev. Eight years before that (when he was still a pagan himself) he reformed the hierarchy of Russian pagan gods and made Perun the main god, ordering to build a kapishche (a place of worship consisting of a pagan temple and idols of pagan gods), or temple, near Lake Ilmen.
The Peryn Skete stands on the site of the former Perun Kapishche, dedicated to the god of thunder and lightning. According to the historical documents dated 980, an enormous idol carved out of a whole oak log was the central part of the pre-Christian temple.
In 989, Bishop Joachim of Korsun baptised Veliky Novgorod. The temple was destroyed and the wooden Perun statue thrown into the Volkhov. The idol was replaced with a cross.
Bishop Joachim of Korsun also built a wooden church of the Nativity of the Theotokos (presumably, in 995). The church lasted around 200 years although there are hardly any records of it. It was around the same time that a monastery was founded. It was first mentioned in the chronicles in 1386 among the monasteries burnt down by Novgorodians when the army of Prince Dmitry Donskoy of Moscow was approaching the city.
The stone church of the Nativity of the Theotokos dates back to the 1230s. The building we know today was made using the technique of the pre-Mongol era: limestone and thin bricks (plinthiform bricks) were fixed on lime mortar mixed with crushed brick.
The cross topping the church is a dome cross with a crescent. Its shape is typical for the pre-Mongol era and refers to a “blooming cross” or “a grapevine cross” (“I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener” (The Gospel of John 15:1). The crescent below the cross is therefore a symbolic grapevine; it has no relation to Muslim symbols but has numerous Christian interpretations.
In 1528, a wooden refectory and the Trinity Church (the second church on the island) were built at the Peryn Monastery. During the Swedish occupation in 1611–1617, the monastery was burnt down and ransacked. The Trinity Church was listed in the 1615 cadastre but was no longer mentioned in 1617: “The cathedral at the Monastery of the Nativity of the Theotokos has been ravaged. The monastic cells and the fence are gone. The only monk living there is Maxim the elder. The only church property in his possession is a blessing cross and five books.” To protect the abandoned monastery, the tsar issued an order in 1634 to affiliate it with Yuriev Monastery.
In 1764, Catherine the Great’s government conducted a church property reform. Church land became state property and more than half of monasteries were shut down. Out of 953 Russian monasteries, 224 continued to receive state support. They were divided into three categories and received an allowance from the Treasury. Another 161 monasteries were left to their own devices. The number of monks was reduced from 12,444 to 5,105. The church lost more than two-thirds of its income overnight. The Peryn Monastery ceased to exist and the church became a parish. All structures but the church itself were demolished and transferred to St George’s (Yuriev) Monastery.
The Peryn Monastery was eventually restored and Yuriev Monastery gained prosperity, thanks to prominent Archimandrite Photius Spassky (1792-1838). When he was still a hieromonk in St Petersburg, Photius spoke out against mysticism that became common among the educated. This philosophy was based on the belief that one can directly communicate with God bypassing the church with its rituals and ordinances, regardless of one's actual faith. For speaking out, Photius was transferred to Novgorod in 1821. In 1822, he was appointed the archimandrite of Yuriev Monastery and remained one until his passing. Thanks to the generous funds of his spiritual daughter, Countess Anna Orlova-Chesmenskaya, the monastery began to thrive again. (The influence of mysticism followers weakened after their protector, Minister of Spiritual Affairs Prince Alexander Golitsyn, was removed from the post. The philosophy was forgotten for long in 1825 after the enthronement of Emperor Nicholas I, who was deeply religious.
At the request of Archimandrite Photius, the Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos once again became affiliated with Yuriev Monastery. The church’s outer and interior walls underwent thorough renovation and were painted with fresh frescos. A spacious annex was added on the western side. A new floor was installed and a dome was built. The renovated church was consecrated in 1828 and a skete was established. Hieromonk Anikita (secular name Prince Sergei Shirinsky-Shikhmatov) was the skete’s first superior. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, the skete was expanded with a red-brick monks’ building, small buildings for the superior and the archimandrite, two utility buildings, a fence around the monastery and a church belfry on two stone pillars with six small bells.
All skete residents strictly followed the rules of old monasteries. Women were allowed on the grounds only one day a year, on the Feast of the Nativity celebrated on 21 September (8 September according to the Julian Calendar). These days, “skete” means a small monastery with particularly strict rules, mainly isolated from the outside world. Sketes were often created at bigger monasteries for secluded prayer and ascetic practices chosen by some brothers. The term “skete” is a reference to the Scetis valley in Egypt near Alexandria, where thousands of monks saved their souls between the 4th and the 7th centuries.
In August 1919, the Regional Congress of the Soviets issued a decision to close the monasteries in the Novgorod Province. (The last remaining monasteries in the Soviet Union were eliminated on the night of 18 February 1932 but emerged again along with the territories incorporated in 1940 (the Baltics, Western Ukraine and Western Belarus) and started to reopen during the war on the occupied territory and after the war.) The Peryn Skete was looted and closed. There is no record of how the structures were used in the 1920s but during the 1930s, the island was used by a fishery. The southwestern utility building, the belfry and the fence were demolished, the bricks used to build an ice storage. The church was used as a warehouse.
During the war in 1941-1945, Volkhov was part of the frontline. The skete was on the occupied territory but without a permanent camp (Germany’s allies, Spanish troops, were based 2 km away at Yuriev Monastery). According to existing accounts, the occupation troops forced Russian women to cut down enormous pine trees planted by monks back during Archimandrite Photius’s times, for firewood.
After the war, a branch of the Novgorod Fish Factory was based on the island, to be replaced by a hotel in the 1960s. A dam was built between the mainland and the island; cabins were set up between pine trees. The ice storage was turned into a boathouse with a dance floor on the rooftop. The centuries-old monastery became a place for entertainment, with a wooden statue of Perun installed for the sake of historical feel.
Archaeologists studied the Peryn Hill even before the war (including the archaeological excavations by the Novgorod Museum in 1933) but no findings were published. In 1951–1952, Artemiy Artsikhovsky conducted excavations with a team of archaeologists who discovered traces of a pagan kapishche.
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