The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Relics of Empire: Orthodox Monasteries

Project Team: Jordan Bryant, Sonya Gupta, Olga Kiyan, Kelly O'Neill, Paul Vădan
Publication Date: 25 April 2024

What It Is

Dataset extracted from a list of monasteries across the Russian Empire published in 1817 by Pyotr Ioannikievich Selivanovskii. Vector data (points) with 512 features, 28 fields.

Temporal Coverage

1817; 900-1817; Romanov dynasty

Spatial Coverage

Belarus, China, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Russian Federation, Ukraine

About the Primary Source

The source for this dashboard is a single volume published in 1817 by Pyotr Ioannikievich Selivanovskii, one of the most famous typographers and book publishers of the 19th century.. It is called "A Description of the Monasteries of the Russian Empire with dates of establishment and class designation, church holidays and commemorations, and an appended list of all cathedral, monastic, and parish churches in the cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, with their dates of construction and associated holidays."

The 1817 volume was the 4th edition, and by 1834 the 8th edition had appeared: there was a massive appetite for information about Orthodox sites in 19th century Russia. It describes over 500 monasteries in historical and geographical detail. 

The Description is a typical object of its time. It is a gazetteer: a list of places with location information, organized alphabetically. The genre was all the rage in Europe and North America, a product of the Enlightenment project of collecting and systematizing information about the known world. Though a few brave souls attempted to compile universal geographical dictionaries, most early gazetteers focused on a single region or topic, such as archaeological sites, market towns, rivers, gardens, mines... or monasteries.

It is not perfectly accurate. It claims to cover the whole territory of the empire and in fact includes monasteries in modern day Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, and Russia as far east as Kamchatka. But the boundaries of the empire were constantly changing. In the late 18th century and early 19th century Catherine II and her successors conquered and annexed large portions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Cossack Hetmanate, the Crimean Khanate, Bessarabia, and Finland. They acquired portions of other Ottoman lands, as well as kingdoms and khanates of the Caucasus. Acquiring territory often meant acquiring monasteries. 

Historical Context

The digitized list dates to 1817, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and in the reign of Alexander I (1801-1825). Although a few monasteries were abolished or destroyed before or during the reign of Alexander, most survived to the end of the imperial period. After 1917 they were abandoned, repurposed, or destroyed by the secularization campaigns of the Communist regime, but many have been restored as working monasteries or protected historical sites. All of which is to say that the stories of these holy places extend well beyond the boundaries of the maps we have produced.

These were holy places: sites of pilgrimage and prayer. They were also microcosms of empire, complete with hierarchy, privilege and obligation, agriculture, industry, and trade. They were architectural monuments built by tsars and saints, supplied by farmers and traders. Some were a stone's throw from the imperial court, others were located on remote islands in the desolate north. Some were older than the Romanov dynasty.

Method Notes

Consult the codebook for notes about individual attributes.
Our workflow involved the transposition of information from the primary source (acquired as pdf of original printed text) into spreadsheet format, data cleaning, geocoding, translation and transliteration of toponyms where relevant, and editing. Monastery locations are given as coordinate pairs (WGS1984). We used the coordinates given by where available, else wikipedia. 

Usage Notes

Blank fields indicate lack of information. 
The dataset does not integrate historical information available in other sources: it records only what can be known based on the primary source cited above. A comprehensive study of 18th and 19th century Orthodox monasteries will require use of many additional sources.

Explore the dashboard

Access and download the data here.

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