Pochaev Lavra of the Dormition of the Theotokos
Pochaev Lavra of the Dormition of the Theotokos (Ukrainian: Почаївська Свято-Успенська Лавра; Russian: Свято-Успенская Почаевская Лавра) has for centuries been the foremost spiritual and ideological center of the Orthodox Church in what is now Western Ukraine. The monastery is located on the top of a 195 foot (60-meter) hill in the town of Pochaev in Ternopil Oblast, 28 miles (18 km) southwest of Kremenets and 80 miles (50 km) north of Ternopil.
The first record of a monastery at Pochaev, in Volhynia, dates to 1527. Local tradition, however, claims the beginning of a monastery three centuries earlier, when several monks established a monastery during the Tatar invasions. According to this tradition, the Theotokos appeared to the monks in a column of fire and left her footprint in the rock upon which she stood. The rock and footprint became revered by the local people for the curative properties of the water that issued from it.
During the sixteenth century the monastery prospered. A stone cathedral was built, and the monastery hosted an annual fair. In 1597, the monastery expanded further through a gift of land by a noble lady, Anna Hojska (Goiskaya), She is also credited with the establishment of the famous printing press shop at the monastery that supplied Orthodox theological literature in Galicia and Volhynia.
She also gave the monastery a miracle working icon of the Theotokos traditionally known as ‘’Our Lady of Pochaev’’. This icon that helped to cure her brother from blindness had been given to Anna by a Bulgarian bishop who passed by.
During this period, the area was the setting of growing persecution of the Orthodox on the part of Roman Catholics and Uniates.
In 1604, the hieromonk Job withdrew himself as a hermit, in the caves of the monastery at Pochaev. Job was soft spoken, brief in words, with the Jesus prayer the only sound heard from his lips. Soon he was beloved by the brethren at Pochaev, and eventually was elected abbot. As abbot, Job introduced a strict discipline into the monastery life. Yet he set an example of doing much work at the monastery: planting trees, tending the garden, and improving the waterworks at the monastery. He was a vocal critic of the Union of Brest and actively defended Orthodoxy and the Orthodox faithful, against the persecutions of the time. With the monastery press, Job published works in defense of Orthodoxy against the Unia, including publications that he wrote.
Job was also confronted with attempts upon the monastery by the heirs of Anna over her bequests to it. In 1623, her grandson, Andrei, raided the monastery, taking the Our Lady of Pochaev icon. The icon was returned in 1641 after the court restored ownership of the icon to the monastery. In 1651, abbot Job died, to be soon glorified.
In 1675, the monastery was besieged by the Ottoman Turks. By tradition the army fled from the siege when they saw an apparition over it of the Theotokos accompanied by St Job and angels.
In 1720, the monastery fell into a decline after the Greek-Catholic Basilian Fathers took control. After 1759, the monastery prospered again, the result of an accident with a coach carrying Count Potosky near the monastery walls. Angered of the accident, the count attempted to shoot the coach driver, but failed. Attributing the failure to divine intercession, Potosky settled in Pochaev and lavish gifts upon the monastery. In 1773, Potosky, a Roman Catholic, petitioned the Pope of Rome to recognize the Pochaev icon as miraculous and to recognize St Job as a Roman Catholic saint. Only the icon was recognized. Upon his death in 1782, Count Potosky was interred in the Dormition Cathedral.
As the result of the Third Partition of Poland in 1795, Volhynia, with Pochaev, again became a part of the Russian empire. The monastery at Pochaev continued as a Greek Catholic institution, still using Latin in the religious schools at the monastery, although Polish was the common language in general use. Sentiment, however, grew for return of the monastery to the Orthodox Church. In 1823, Bishop Stephan of Volhynia petitioned the Emperor Alexander I for return of Pochaev Monastery to the Russian Orthodox Church. The request was denied. However in 1831, Nicholas I ordered the return of Pochaev to the Russian Church as a result of the support given by the Greek Catholics to the upraising in Poland and Lithuania in late 1830. The monastery was re-consecrated on October 10, 1831, ending 110 years of Greek Catholic control. The monks did not resist change of control and soon converted to Orthodoxy.
In 1833, the Pochaev monastery was accorded the status of a Lavra. During the latter part of the nineteenth century the monastery became a popular goal for Orthodox pilgrims from the Russian Empire and the Balkans.
As the monastery’s location was near Austrian ruled Galicia it became a symbol used in propagating pan-slavism in the area. During the early days of World War I when Russian forces occupied Galicia, thousands of Galicians journeyed as pilgrims to Pochaev, with many returning to Orthodoxy. As the Lavra, and Volhynia, became part of the front line between the Austrian and Russian forces, in 1915, the Lavra was looted by the Austrians. Then, after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, the Lavra was again looted. It was again looted after western Volhynia was transferred to Poland under the Peace of Riga signed between Poland and the Soviet Union on March 18, 1921.
During the Russian Civil War after World War I the renowned printing press of Pochaev was moved in 1923 by a group of the monks to safety at the new Monastery of St Job of Pochaev in Ladomirova, Czechoslovakia. Here the press remained and was used by the brotherhood until 1944 when the monastic Brotherhood of St Job moved it again, ultimately in 1946 to the Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York to escape the advancing Soviet army.
With Russia under control by the Bolsheviks and no longer under any possible ecclesiastical control by the Church of Russia, the monastery, in 1923, came under the oversight of the Church of Constantinople and became part of the Church of Poland. During the 1920s the monks of the Lavra were able to rebuild the monastery facilities that had been damaged in the 1910 decade. In 1929, a new wave of persecutions hit the Orthodox majority in Volhynia. This time it emanating from Warsaw and the Polish majority. The Lavra survived and in the process became the most visible center of Orthodoxy in the Polish Republic.
After Poland was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II, Pochaev Lavra returned to the Church of Russia. While the local population looked upon the annexation as a form of liberation from Polish rule, the Orthodox came under Soviet anti-religious policies, a position that was not as rigid as that in the early 1920s when thousands of clergy were tortured and persecuted. While the Soviets confiscated most of the material property of the Lavra, the great numbers of Orthodox pilgrims to the monastery mediated the Soviets actions against it.
On June 22, 1941, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and in the process occupied the Pochaev. While the monastery was not closed, the Nazis plundered what the Soviets had left behind. During the German occupation the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was formed, but the Lavra refused to become part of the German supported group, considering it schismatic. The Lavra was able to provide a refuge for the local population during the Nazi occupation.
With the end of the war, in a more tolerant period of Soviet control Pochaev Lavra was able to influence in the surrounding area the return of believers from Greek Catholicism. The Lavra was also able to maintain its existence with great difficulty under increased Soviet government pressure during the harsh Khrushchev times in late 1950s and early 1960s. These pressures increased and waned cyclically through the following decades, even after the fall of the Soviet Union. By the late 1970s the Lavra became the principal theological center of the Ukrainian exarchate of the Church of Russia. During early the 1980s, the frustration and anger of the local bolsheviks increased pressures on the Lavra, again making life difficult. These religious restrictions were relaxed in the late 1980s, and a theological school was established that became a seminary in 1991.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Pochaev entered an era of increased tension with the revival of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Autocephaleous Orthodox Church. But, again under the new politics the Lavra revived its historical position as the guardian of Orthodoxy in the Western Ukrainian areas.