St Catherine’s Monastery, Sukhanovo
Text and photos Ian Mitchell
Three miles south of the MKAD lies the quiet hamlet of Sukhanovo. It used to be part of the vast estate of the same name, which was owned by the famous Volkonsky family. It grew up around St Catherine’s Monastery, founded in 1658. It is still a Monastery, having been lavishly restored in recent years. The uninformed visitor would never know that this place used to be the most feared prison in the whole Soviet Gulag system.
In 1936 Genrikh Yagoda was replaced as head of the Soviet Secret police by Nikolai Yezhov, popularly known as the bloodthirsty dwarf. It was he who, when out walking in the grounds of Sukhanovo, spotted the monastery and thought it would make an ideal prison.
In those days St Catherine’s was surrounded by fields and therefore far from prying eyes, yet it was close enough to Moscow to be easily reachable for an evening’s torturing, which was what both he and his successor, Lavrenti Beria, used to like to do after a hard day’s arrest-warrant signing in the Lubyanka. So common did this practice become in the 1940s, that the prison became known popularly as “Beria’s dacha”.
Yezhov supervised the Great Purge in 1937, but was soon on the other side of the wire himself as an inmate of what was by then known as Sukhanovka. In the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn says it was “the most terrible prison the NKVD had”.
Yezhov was only 5 foot tall, but he used to threaten his victims by making a strangling gesture and saying, “I may be small but I have hands of steel, because they are the hands of Stalin.” After he was incarcerated in the underground cellars of Sukhanovka, he pleaded with his interrogator, “Shoot me, if you like, but do not make me suffer agonies.”
When he was finally taken away to be shot, in February 1940—in a building in Varsonofevski Lane, not far from Kuznetsky Most metro station—he collapsed completely. His legs gave way and he had to be dragged screaming, crying and hiccupping uncontrollably to the execution room, with its sloping floor (to ease the task of washing the blood away) and wall of pine logs (to absorb the bullets).
Today, St Catherine’s Monastery echoes to the sound of the Orthodox liturgy, rather than the wet slap of rubber rods on blood-drenched bodies. The old interrogation block now contains expensively modernised “cells”, as they are called without any sense of irony, for the monks. Everything inside is warm and clean. The refectory has beautifully painted Biblical scenes on all the walls (see below).
The only evidence of the monastery’s hideous past is a cross and memorial stone in the gardens and, if you look further, outside the walls a pair of crumbling, two-storey buildings which used to house the prison guards (see below).
The restoration task was enormous. But teams of volunteers, funded generously by the church, have undone the damage of the locust years. It is hard to believe that the place was as smart as this even in 1918 when it ceased to be a monastery (the church was used until 1931).
There are lots of excellent photographs showing all stages of the reconstruction work in the lavishly-illustrated book which visitors can buy for a mere 170 roubles in the kiosk on site. It describes the whole history of the monastery from its foundation in 1658 to 2002 when the memorial to the Stalinist repression was unveiled.
The only way to get to Sukhanovo is to drive. Turn south off the MKAD at the 27 km Junction, and take the minor road towards Leninsky, heading specifically for Rastorguyevo (Ðàñòîðãóåâî), which is a railway station. Once there,. frankly, the best thing is to ask. It is only 3 kms away, but extremely complicated. The village is Sukhanovo (Ñóõàíîâî) and the Åêàòåðèíèíñêèé Ìîíàñòûðü is more or less in the middle.