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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.
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.
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.
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.
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
St. Petersburg, Russia where Anna Orlova lived at the time of her father's death.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Links to my other Veliky Novgorod Hubs
- Views of Monuments and Parks in Veliky Novgorod, Russia
Views of some of the monuments and parks in Veliky Novgorod, Russia.
- Statutes of Vladimir Lenin in Veliky Novgorod
Finding two statutes of Vladimir Lenin in modern day Veliky Novgorod, Russia
- A Few of the Historic Churches in Veliky Novgorod
A photo tour of the beautiful and historic churches in Veliky Novgorod, Russia. Veliky Novgorod is home to some of the oldest churches in Russia.
- A Cold Swim in a Sacred Spring
An account of a summer weekend in the Russian countryside with friends that culminated with a swim in a frigid spring.
- Visiting the 12th Century St George Monastery in Veliky Novgorod Russia
Visiting the beautiful and ancient St. George's Monastery in Veliky Novgorod, Russia
- War Memorials in Veliky Novgorod
Photos and information about a few of the many war memorials in Veliky Novgorod, Russia.
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.