St Panteleimon's Monastery, seen from the sea

Elder Ieronim and the Russians on Athos

by Nicholas Fennell

This excerpt is from Russ­ian Monks on Mount Athos: The Thou­sand Year His­to­ry of St Pan­telei­mon’s (pp. 35 – 38). Here, we are intro­duced to Monk Ioan­niky, who suc­ceed­ed Schema-hieromonk Pavel as the leader of the Russ­ian broth­er­hood of St Pan­telei­mon’s Monastery in 1840. At this time, the Russ­ian monks shared the monastery in a some­times tense arrange­ment with monks of Greek ori­gin and prac­tice, includ­ing the abbot.
All foot­notes have been omit­ted from this excerpt.

The abbot set about look­ing for some­one to replace Fr Pavel. Apart from Elder Arse­ny, the only Russ­ian Athonite con­sid­ered to be suit­able was one Monk Ioan­niky (Solo­mentsov), who, although only rel­a­tive­ly recent­ly set­tled on the Moun­tain, had already gained the rep­u­ta­tion of an exem­plary ascetic.

His father was a mer­chant. Those from mer­can­tile back­grounds were play­ing a vital part in estab­lish­ing a strong Russ­ian pres­ence in the Ortho­dox Near East, and even­tu­al­ly in increas­ing the sta­bil­i­ty and wealth of the Russ­ian Athonite hous­es. These kupt­sy / mer­chants were zeal­ous­ly char­i­ta­ble Ortho­dox pio­neers and builders. They formed the “pow­er­ful class of Russ­ian mer­chants and entre­pre­neur­ial fac­to­ry owners—the Russ­ian ‘busi­ness­men’ who were famous every­where for their hon­esty … and, above all, for their prayer­ful piety.”

Fr Ioan­niky (Solo­mentsov) was born in 1805 with the bap­tismal name of Ivan. His native town was Stary Oskol, whose cit­i­zens were zeal­ous­ly church-going. His fam­i­ly was well-to-do and extreme­ly pious. Ivan’s eldest broth­er became a monk and his sis­ter an abbess, in whose nun­nery their own moth­er was ton­sured to the Great Schema. Encour­aged by his grand­moth­er, Ivan became a pro­fi­cient church read­er at an ear­ly age. The whole fam­i­ly loved church services:

Often on feast days or Sun­days we’d all gath­er in the hall, light incense and the icon lamp, and start singing …. We would … sing to our hearts’ con­tent for three to four hours …. Dur­ing the vis­its of our aunts, who were nuns at Orlovsky Monastery, our house prac­ti­cal­ly became a church: … singing, read­ing, and prayers hap­pened every day.

By the age of six Ivan was serv­ing in the sanc­tu­ary and had become an expert cam­pa­nol­o­gist. He had longed to become a monk from the age of five. He was not allowed to for­get, how­ev­er, his fil­ial duty and his place in the Solo­mentsov firm. He per­suad­ed his sis­ter, who had as many as twen­ty suit­ors at the age of six­teen, to take the veil. Ivan’s father asked him to stay at home as com­pen­sa­tion for the loss of his daugh­ter. They hag­gled over the length of time Ivan was to remain at home, and set­tled for two years beyond his sister’s departure.

Ivan’s pro­longed stay was hard: “I suf­fered harsh tri­als and near­ly per­ished.” He refused to accept the wealthy brides his par­ents lined up for him and fought man­ful­ly against earth­ly temp­ta­tions. He spent a night on his knees under a pear tree, pray­ing for strength; in the morn­ing the dev­il­ish tor­ments left him, and he went to matins with a light heart, but the tree with­ered and died. All the while, he worked in his family’s tan­nery busi­ness. He sold their wares at local fairs and mar­kets with sin­gu­lar success.

At last he was free to go. In 1831 he set off with his broth­er in Christ, Niko­lay Gon­charov. They sought “a place suit­able for the ascetic life where they could find what they longed for: silence and ceno­bitic dis­ci­pline, away from the female sex, and an escape from ordi­na­tion to the priest­hood.” No suit­able monastery was found. In 1834 a friend advised them: “In Rus­sia you will find nowhere closed to the female sex. Such a place, and the only one in the Ortho­dox Church, is to be found sole­ly on the Holy Moun­tain of Athos.”7 The pair returned to Stary Oskol to obtain for­eign trav­el pass­ports. They left Rus­sia in 1835, but had to return home once they reached Con­stan­tino­ple, where the plague had bro­ken out. From Odessa they went to Voronezh to ven­er­ate the relics of St Mitro­fan. There they met a fool in Christ, who pre­dict­ed: “You, my broth­er Ivan, will arrive on Athos; you’ll set up your hive and will be let­ting swarms fly from it.” It was only in 1836, with a group of friends from Stary Oskol, that they reached the Holy Mountain.

Painted portrait of Elder Arseny, wearing his priestly stole and holding a scroll that reads, "I am Thine, save me."
Elder Ieron­im, spir­i­tu­al father to all Russ­ian Athos; on the Moun­tain from 1821; died in 1846.

Upon his arrival, Ivan chose as his spir­i­tu­al father Elder Arse­ny, who ton­sured him a monk with the name Ioan­niky. On his advice Monk Ioan­niky took on two novices and bought the Prophet Eli­jah Kel­lion / Her­mitage belong­ing to Stavroniki­ta Monastery. There he stayed in eremit­i­cal seclu­sion for four years. Monk Par­fe­ny (Ageev) joined them to work as a cook, bak­er, church read­er, and kanonar­chis / choir master.

A del­e­ga­tion of Russ­ian brethren was sent to Fr Ioan­niky entreat­ing him to come to St Pan­telei­mon Monastery, but he refused to leave his kel­lion. Next Elder Arse­ny was begged to come to St Panteleimon’s, but unsur­pris­ing­ly he also refused. The del­e­ga­tion again went to Fr Ioan­niky, but the young her­mit declined the invi­ta­tion: “Although I love your holy house for the strict­ness of its life, I can in no way agree to come and live with you. I have left Rus­sia so as to avoid being ordained. Fur­ther­more, I can­not endure your severe ceno­bitic rule on account of my ill health.”

In despair the Rus­sians asked the elder what to do. He advised them to fast and say spe­cial prayers for a week, and then return to him. At last Fr Arse­ny received them and joy­ful­ly pro­claimed: “It is God’s will that Fr Ioan­niky be in the Russ­ian monastery.”

Par­fe­ny (Ageev) recalls how Fr Ioanniky’s broth­er­hood was tak­en by surprise:

We … along with our [Fr] Ioan­niky, knew noth­ing [of this]. Sud­den­ly a note was deliv­ered to us from the [elder] request­ing that all three of us go to see him. We were amazed, for why should he sum­mon all three of us at once? When we arrived … he told us to go to the church; he put on his epi­tra­cheil­ion / stole, and began thus: “Fr Ioan­niky, the Lord bless­es you to enter the Russ­ian ceno­bitic monastery with your dis­ci­ples. Sell your kel­lion / hermitage.”

With char­ac­ter­is­tic emo­tion Ageev describes how all three burst into tears and fell to the ground beg­ging the elder to relent. Fr Ioan­niky protest­ed that he had left Rus­sia with the express inten­tion of avoid­ing ordination—for he knew that if he were to enter the monastery, he would become dukhovnik / spir­i­tu­al father to the Rus­sians and there­fore would have to become a priest. He also protest­ed that his health was too weak “to endure Greek food,” and that he had arrived on the Moun­tain “not to be in author­i­ty,” but to spend his life in eremit­i­cal seclusion.

The elder upbraid­ed Ioanniky:

All things are good at the right time: it is good to avoid ordi­na­tion, and good to accept it for the glo­ry of the God, should the Lord so choose. Just as it is evil to seek ordi­na­tion, so it is evil to resist God’s will. That you are weak in health, the Lord knows bet­ter than you …. He chose you; He will grant you health. As for what you say of wish­ing to con­quer your pas­sions in eremit­i­cal seclu­sion … one can achieve this [as a her­mit], pro­vid­ed that one lives accord­ing to God’s will. But in the ceno­bitic life one can both [con­quer the pas­sions] and [be one with God], for eremit­i­cal seclu­sion mere­ly dead­ens the pas­sions, where­as the ceno­bitic life destroys them entire­ly, bury­ing them in hum­ble obe­di­ence and the cut­ting off of one’s will …. For nowhere can one find true monas­tic life oth­er than in a ceno­bi­um. Fur­ther, you desire to save but two souls. Go and save twen­ty, and in time fifty. You must care for every­one. You must set up the Russ­ian house and through you it will gain glo­ry. Oppose God’s will no more.

Portrait of Elder and Spiritual Father Ieronim, seated next to a table with books, and holding a prayer rope.
Elder and Spir­i­tu­al Father Ieron­im, in charge of the Russ­ian broth­er­hood 1840; died in 1885.

For two weeks Fr Ioan­niky and his dis­ci­ples gave the chat­tels stored in his kel­lion away to the poor, who were fed by two cooks work­ing full time. A year’s sup­ply of flour, fish, oil, and wine was dis­trib­uted. Fr Ioanniky’s par­ty even­tu­al­ly left for the monastery on twelve mules, tak­ing with them his vest­ments, cloth­ing, and books. The future spir­i­tu­al father and leader of the Russ­ian broth­er­hood had come to the Holy Moun­tain a wealthy man. This was a far cry from rig­or­ous non-pos­ses­sion of his own spir­i­tu­al father, Elder Arse­ny; and unlike his pre­de­ces­sor, the hum­ble Pavel, he would prove to have a strong char­ac­ter and indomitable will.

Fr Ioan­niky (Solo­mentsov) and his dis­ci­ples were received with joy at St Pan­telei­mon Monastery on Octo­ber 20, 1840; a month lat­er he was ordained priest, and the fol­low­ing year he was ton­sured to the Great Schema with the name of Ieron­im. Thus, four years after his arrival on the Holy Moun­tain, unwill­ing­ly but in obe­di­ence to his elder, Priest Ieron­im of the Great Schema found him­self to be the spir­i­tu­al father and leader of a small but grow­ing Russ­ian broth­er­hood in the main­ly Greek St Pan­telei­mon monastery. There were eleven Rus­sians there in 1840, one hun­dred in 1859, and five hun­dred at Fr Ieronim’s death in 1885.


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Russ­ian Monks on Mount Athos:
The Thou­sand Year His­to­ry of St Panteleimon’s
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About the Author

Nicholas Fen­nell is the author of four books on Athonite Russ­ian his­to­ry and has been research­ing and vis­it­ing Mount Athos since the 1980s. He holds a MA in Mod­ern and Medi­ae­val Lan­guages from Trin­i­ty Col­lege Cam­bridge, where he was a Senior Schol­ar, and a PhD from Southamp­ton Uni­ver­si­ty. He is a mem­ber of the Friends of Mount Athos and of the Insti­tute of the Athonite Lega­cy in Ukraine.