A Story of Countess Anna Orlova-Chesmenskaya and Her Illicit Affair

A Tale of Love and Death in an Old Monastery

September 17, 2011

A good tour guide, In addition to describing the historic and other facts about places on a tour they are guiding, will spice up their talks by including interesting myths and legends associated with the site in question.

I still remember as a child listening to a guide at Old Fort Niagara include a short story about a fight to the death between two seventeenth century French soldiers fighting over the love of an Indian maiden.

The loser was not only killed but decapitated by the winner and, to this day the ghost of the soldier can supposedly still be seen wandering the grounds at night looking for his head.

One doesn't forget tales like this as both the legendary tale and the place visited remain forever linked in one's mind.

Belfry over Main Entrance to Yuryev (St. George) Monastery outside of Veliky Novgorod, Russia
Belfry over Main Entrance to Yuryev (St. George) Monastery outside of Veliky Novgorod, Russia | Source

In a previous Hub, which I wrote and published from Veliky Novgorod, I described our visit to the nearby Yuryev (St. George) Monastery on Lake Ilman just outside of Velicky Novgorod.

While there was no admission fee to visit the monastery and no guides provided by the monastery, we didn't need a guide as we had my mother-in-law who in other places in the past has both taught history and worked as a tour guide.

She is passionate about history and has a wealth of stories to tell.

After touring the monastery, we relaxed by the lake while our two young nephews romped on the beach.

As we sat on a bench enjoying the view of Lake Ilman my mother-in-law began to tell us a tale about a tragic nineteenth century love affair that was rumored to have taken place at the monastery.

While she stressed that the tale she was relating was a legend, like all legends, there is some truth to the story.

After returning to the hotel that evening I did a quick search on the Internet and found a Russian WikiPedia article that confirmed that both Anna and Photius were real as was her father, Count Alexi Orlov.

Count Alexi Orlov was a naval officer and confident of Empress Catherine II.

As the legend claimed, Anna was the sole heir to her father's vast fortune. She appears to have never married and she left her fortune to the Russian Church with much of it directed toward the Yuryev Monastery.

The rest of the story my mother-in-law told is more than likely based upon rumor and speculation. However, true or not, here is the legend of the forbidden love affair between Countess Anna Aleksyeevna Orlova-Chesmenskaya and the Archimandrite Photius as told by my mother-in-law.

Cross Exaltation Cathedral inside Yuryev Monastery - Anna Orlova provided the money to build this church.
Cross Exaltation Cathedral inside Yuryev Monastery - Anna Orlova provided the money to build this church. | Source
Cross Exaltation Cathedral inside Yuryev (St George) Monastery near Veliky Novgorod, Russia
Cross Exaltation Cathedral inside Yuryev (St George) Monastery near Veliky Novgorod, Russia | Source

The Sad Life of Anna Aleksyeevna Orlova

Anna Aleksyeevna Orlova-Chesmenskaya (Russian spelling: А́нна Алексе́евна Орло́ва-Чесме́нская) was the only surviving child of Count Alexei Orlov, a famous naval officer and confident of the Empress Catherine II of Russia. Having lost her mother while still an infant, Anna was raised by her father and was very close to him.

Being somewhat overweight and plain looking, Anna had few suitors and spent a very lonely life with her father. To compensate for her loneliness she turned to religion becoming very spiritual devoting much time to prayer, meditation and church attendance.

As she was reaching maturity, her father developed a terminal cancer. During the last weeks of his life he suffered pain from the disease. The pain during these last weeks of the Count's life was such that it left him screaming in agony for hours at a time.

In an attempt to spare the household from having to hear the sounds of his screams of agony, he hired an orchestra to play outside his window.

The death of her beloved father drove Anna into a deep depression that caused the household staff to fear for her life. However, her deep religious faith enabled her to work her way through the sorrow of her loss and overcome her depression.

My wife, her brother and our nephew outside wall of Yuryev (St George)  Monastery on shore of Lake Ilmen near Veliky Novgorod, Russia.
My wife, her brother and our nephew outside wall of Yuryev (St George) Monastery on shore of Lake Ilmen near Veliky Novgorod, Russia. | Source
Man fishing in Lake Ilmen outside walls of St George Monastery near Veliky Novgorod, Russia
Man fishing in Lake Ilmen outside walls of St George Monastery near Veliky Novgorod, Russia | Source

The Ordeal of Her Father's Death Strengthens Anna's Already Deep Faith

Recovering from her depression, Anna emerged from her ordeal with an even stronger religious faith.

Being both wealthy and deeply religious, Anna had, before her father's death, been generous in her donations to the Church and its charities.

As her father's sole living heir, Countess Anna Orlova inherited her father's immense fortune upon his death. While church officials had appreciated her generous donations of money in support of the works of the Church, while her father was alive, there was nothing special about her.

Prior to her father's death, Anna was simply a member of a wealthy family who was generous in her support of the Church. She was but one of many men and women who were members of wealthy families and gave generously to the Church.

However, upon her father's death, Anna became the sole owner of all of his vast wealth. Not only was she now a very wealthy woman in her own right, she was single and childless which meant she had no immediate famiily in line to inherit her wealth.

Orlov Cell Building (on left) inside Yuryev (St George) Monastery near Veliky Novgorod, Russia.
Orlov Cell Building (on left) inside Yuryev (St George) Monastery near Veliky Novgorod, Russia. | Source

Anna With Her Newly Inherited Wealth Attracts the Attention of Church Officials

High level Church officials quickly took an interest in this very devout and extremely wealthy heiress. Being single and without heirs herself, the church officials hoped to get her to leave her fortune to the church when she died.

To this end they assigned a young and ambitious priest named Photius to be her spiritual adviser. The slightly older Photius proved to be a perfect match for Anna's spiritual needs and a strong spiritual relationship developed.

As a gifted administrator and rising figure in the church, Photius was soon tapped to take over as the Archimandrite at the then financially struggling Yuryev (St. George) Monastery. This forced him to move from St. Petersburg to Veliky Novgorod where the monastery was located.

Photius Becomes Archimandrite of the Yuryev Monastery and Moves to Veliky Novgorod

Photius, however, did not abandon his duties as spiritual adviser to Anna and the two of them began traveling back and forth between St. Petersburg and Veliky Novgorod as they continued their spiritual relationship.

As time passed Anna's dependence upon Photius for her spiritual needs increased. Photius also became increasingly dependent upon Anna for the funds he needed to restore the Yuryev Monastery to its former glory.

In return for the spiritual guidance and support she received from Photius, Anna willingly began directing more of her already generous charitable giving to the Church to the Yuryev Monastery where Photius used it to pay the costs of his renovation and expansion of that monastery.

Map Showing St. Petersburg Where Anna Lived and the Yuryev Monastery Where Photius Served as Archimandrite

show route and directions
A markerSt Petersburg Russia -
St Petersburg, Russia
[get directions]

St. Petersburg, Russia where Anna Orlova lived at the time of her father's death.

B markerposelok Yur'evets, Novgorodskaya oblast, Russia -
poselok Yur'evets, Novgorodskaya oblast, Russia
[get directions]

Yuryev Monastery on the shores of Lake Ilman near Veliky Novgorod where Photius accepted the post of Archimandrite.

Anna Moves to Veliky Novgorod and Spritual Bond With Photius Becomes an Illicit Love Affair

As often happens when a man and a woman find themselves working closely together, the financial and spiritual relationship between Anna and Photius eventually turned into a sexual relationship as well.

Rumors of their affair began circulating in St. Petersburg and an air of scandal became attached to them when Anna decided to move from St. Petersburg to Veliky Novgorod where she built a home on land belonging to the Yuryev Monastery a short distance outside the walls of the monastery itself.

While both fell deeply in love with each other, Photius was troubled by the conflict between his priestly vows and his love for Anna.

In an attempt to atone for his violation of his priestly vows, Photius had a coffin constructed and spent one week a month laying in his coffin praying and meditating in the darkness of the closed coffin.

Home of Anna Orlova near Yuryev Monastery outside of Veliky Novgorod (Home is now Admin Bldg for Vitoslavlisty Outdoor Museum)
Home of Anna Orlova near Yuryev Monastery outside of Veliky Novgorod (Home is now Admin Bldg for Vitoslavlisty Outdoor Museum) | Source

Photius Takes Ill and Dies Leaving Anna Alone Once More

Eventually Photius developed cancer and died. This, of course, devastated Anna but her faith remained strong and she did not fall into a deep depression as she had upon the death of her father years before.

While obviously not condoning the rumored love affair between Anna and Photius, Church officials had choosen not to intervene and end it as the affair prevented Anna from meeting and marrying another, thereby creating a potential heir, or heirs if she had children as a result of the marriage.

Now, with the death of Photius, Church officials suddenly became concerned that Anna, who was not yet that old, might marry and produce heirs to her immense fortune.

Like it or not, the church had become dependent upon Anna's generosity with her fortune and could not afford to lose it.

In the minds of the Church officials, it would have been best if Anna had died soon as her estate was currently willed to the church. But wills can be changed and the church officials had to keep Anna from marrying and changing her will.

Layout of the Yuryev (St. George) Monastery many of whose buildings were restored thanks to the generous financial gifts from Countess Anna Orlova.
Layout of the Yuryev (St. George) Monastery many of whose buildings were restored thanks to the generous financial gifts from Countess Anna Orlova. | Source

Anna, Distraught Over the Death of Photius, Collapses and Dies in Church

Shortly after the death of Photius, Anna, who was still weak and distraught over his death, attended Mass in one of the churches in the monastery. Russian Orthodox churches don't have pews and the congregation stands throughout the Mass.

This Mass that Anna attended was long and Anna had to stand during the more than two hours the service lasted.

Toward the end of the Mass Anna suddenly collapsed and died. Whether the two hour Mass was too much for her body to bear given her weakened condition following the death of her lover or whether she was poisoned was left to speculation.

Anna was buried next to her beloved Photius and here the story would normally end. However, there is one more twist to this amazing legend.

Shore of Lake Ilmen outside Yuryev (St. George) Monastery near Veliky Novgorod, Russia where my Mother-in-Law told us the tragic story of Anna Aleksyeevna Orlova-Chesmenskaya
Shore of Lake Ilmen outside Yuryev (St. George) Monastery near Veliky Novgorod, Russia where my Mother-in-Law told us the tragic story of Anna Aleksyeevna Orlova-Chesmenskaya | Source

Under Cover of Darkness, Government Officials Secretly Open Graves of Anna and Phontius

The glory that Photius, with the help of Anna Orlova's money, had been able to restore to the Yuryev Monastery was relatively short lived.

Following the communist takeover in Russia a little more than a half century following Anna's death, the monastery, like other churches and monasteries in Russia was closed and abandoned.

Sometime after the monastery had been closed and abandoned, three communist officials, two from Moscow and one from Veliky Novgorod, visited the abandoned monastery and secretly dug up the graves of Photius and Anna.

When they opened Anna's coffin they were surprised to find Anna's bones scrambled as if her body had been contorted and crammed into the coffin.

Icon over Entrance to St. George (Yuryev) Monastery depicting St. George slaying a dragon.  Anna Alexeevna Orlova provided the funds for the 19th Century restoration of this monastrey.
Icon over Entrance to St. George (Yuryev) Monastery depicting St. George slaying a dragon. Anna Alexeevna Orlova provided the funds for the 19th Century restoration of this monastrey. | Source

Had Countess Anna Orlova Been Buried Alive?

Apparently Anna had not died when she collapsed in the church but had simply collapsed into a coma making her appear dead. Following her burial she must have come out of the coma and then died struggling to get out of her, already buried coffin.

The officials quickly gathered the bones of both Photius and Anna and reburied them. While the officials had attempted to do this in secret, they were seen by an old woman who was passing in the distance and observed them without being seen herself.

How the old woman was able to see Anna's contorted bones in the coffin from a great distance only serves to make this legend even harder to believe.

A Footnote To This Legend

While the tale above makes for a great story, I have so far found only one reference concerning a possible sexual affair between Countess Anna Orlova and that was in the one Russian WikiPedia article (ru.Wikipedia.org) that I found when, after returning to the hotel that evening, I attempted some quick research on the Internet.

Being in Russia and researching a Russian topic, Google assumed that I was Russian and limited my search results to sites written in Russian. Not knowing Russian, I had to rely on the Google translate feature (a great tool but the translations are mediocre) to be able to read the material.

In addition to this, I had to deal with a relatively slow connection, the small screen and other limitations of the Netbook I was traveling with and the fact that I had to leave my wife and go to the lobby of the hotel to access the Internet.

There was also a time constraint as I was on vacation and wanted to spend time touring with my wife and not sitting in front of a computer working.

The Russian WikiPedia site did include a couple of sentences mentioning that rumors circulated in St. Petersburg about a supposed sexual affair between Anna and Phontius.

The article acknowledged Anna's loss of her mother at a very young age, her close relationship with her father, her inheriting great wealth upon her father's death and her spirituality.

According to the article, and picture accompanying it, Anna was not overweight and unattractive. She also seemed to have had active social life and a number of suitors when she reached adulthood.

Finally, according to this article, Photius died in 1838 and Anna in 1848 a decade later which makes it difficult to believe that she still weak and distraught over his death when she died.

Since returning home I have done a few searches on her which returned English language (in English her name translates a number of different ways - Anna Orlova, Anna Orlov, Anna Orloff) references and information about her.

What little I have learned so far indicates that both she and her father (who, among other things seems to have played a big role in the murder of Czar Peter III, an act that resulted in Catherine II ascending the throne as Empress of Russia and Count Orlov becoming a favorite at her court) led rather interesting and full lives. Look for a future Hub on the real life of Anna Orlova.

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Comments 11 comments

Laura in Denver profile image

Laura in Denver 5 years ago from Aurora

Super interesting story! Thanks. One does have to do substantial research before publishing non-fiction and use one of these despised attorneys. -L-


Raoul F. Middelamnn 5 years ago

I read the story with great interested, in particular as I expressed in my book "Our Own World History" (1999) the suspicion that my great-grandfather Nicholas Orlov was an illegitimate grandchild of Anna Alexeyevna Orlov, based my thorough study of the descendants of the famous Orlov brothers, and on Nicholas' daughter's experiences in St. Petersburg in 1906-7 while staying with A. B. Neidhardt and family


Chuck profile image

Chuck 5 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

JamaGeneee - I am not Russian but my wife is from there and here family still lives there in Veliky Novgorod. The main purpose of our visit was to visit her family in Veliky Novgorod. We also took the opportunity to tour many of the old churches and monasteries (which have been re-opened and, in some cases re-built following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This particular story was told by my mother-in-law as we relaxed by the lake after touring the St. George Monastery.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Targeting rich single women with no heirs to get their money and lands has been a practice of the prevailing Church in every country, not just Russia, for hundreds of years. The burnings at the stake of such women in Europe in the Middle Ages is one such example. All that was necessary to seal their fate was label them "witches". Obviously, the Russian Church didn't have to do that, but since you didn't say, I'm guessing the result was the same. They got Anna's fortune and property.

Chuck, I have to ask. Do you have Russian ancestors, or were you simply curious to see it?

As for the lack of a translation tool when you accessed the internet in Russia to research Anna and her story, I once used this lack to play a practical joke on one of my daughters and her part-Russian father. While we were married, he and his brothers would have short conversations in the Russian they'd learned from their grandmother and step-gf, both born and raised in Vladivostok but who escaped the Revolution to San Francisco. I also knew they could speak but not READ Russian.

Before the Soviet Union collapsed, Dau and I had despaired of ever being able to trace her roots there. After the collapse and Russian websites came online, but before translation tools were available, I came across a site with gorgeous photos of a equally gorgeous church in Vladivostok I knew Dau and ex would be thrilled to see. Here's where the practical joke comes in - in the email with the URL I "forgot" to mention all of the text on the site was in Cyrillic! Needless to say they were NOT amused, but I still chuckle thinking about it. ;D


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

What a wonderfully sad, tragic story. I was fascinated. I was happy to see in your footnote that the likely hood of it being true is slim.


Robin profile image

Robin 5 years ago from San Francisco

Your Hubs are always full of interesting information, Chuck, and this one lives up to the rest! Even if the tale isn't true, it still amazes me what others will do for money, even the church.


TajSingh 5 years ago from United Kingdom

This is a very interesting but sad tale.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 5 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

FloraBreenRobison - in answer to your first question, Anna Orlova appears to have provided financial support during her lifetime to Russian Orthodox Churches and Monasteries all over Russia. One U.S. National Parks Service posting on the Internet even indicates that she contributed to the building of or restoration of St. Micheal's Church in Sitka, Alaska (Alaska at that time belonged to Russia).

Some sources I have seen indicated that when she died about half of her fortune went to the Yuryev (St George) Monastery in Veliky Novgorod and the remainder to other churches and monasteries. Her father had left her vast estates which contained some 30,000 serfs working these lands. Anna appears to have supported efforts to educate serfs on her lands and in her will seems to have stipulated that the serfs on her lands were to be freed from being bound to her lands. This occurred over a decade before Czar Alexander II abolished serfdom in Russia in 1861.

As to your reference to Nicholas and Alexandria, I read the book by that title by Robert K. Massie when I was in college. I read his more recent book, "The Romanovs - The Final Chapter" in which he describes the search, finding and identification of the remains Czar Nicholas and his family. They seemed to have collected enough remains (and identified as the Czar and his family using DNA tests) to verify that the whole family was killed. Also, DNA testing was done, after her death, on the woman who ended up living in Virginia and seemed to have the strongest possibility of being the supposed surviving daughter of Czar Nicholas and the results showed that she was not related to the royal family of Russia.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 5 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Cardisa - thanks for your comment. As I said in the Hub, my Mother-in-Law stressed when she told the story that much of it was probably legend. Since returning home, I have done a little research on Anna and from what I have found so far she comes across as very spiritual and devout like she is in my Mother-in-Law's tale, however, she also appears to have been active in the outside world as well.

She supposedly had a number of suitors courting her, she traveled around Russia and Western Europe, was well connected with both the royal court in St. Petersburg as well as with influential people throughout Russia and was active in things like the movement to emancipate serfs, promoting education, etc.

One article I found seemed to imply that at one point (and this may have been how they first met) Photius needed her help to protect him during some religious disputes involving other sects within the Church and the Masons. The dispute spread to the political arena and Anna appears to have used her political connections at the royal court to intervene on behalf of Photius.


FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 5 years ago

Did Anna leave all of her money to the Church that had wanted her to leave them money, or did she spread it out among more than one church?

I'm not familiar with this story at all. Whenever I hear about Russian nobility or monarchy and legends, I am always reminded of Nicholas and Alexandria and the insistence of some people that their daughter survived.


Cardisa profile image

Cardisa 5 years ago from Jamaica

A very intriguing tale. The church seems very greedy indeed, and to plot to keep Anna from marry so they could get her money was evil. I once read a Russian based novel called "In the Name of the Father" where the church was the main instigator in having Russian officials and other persons assassinated. It was an intriguing story too, but the Russians are serious people especially the church....don't mess with them!

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