From the moment it was founded, the Zilant Monastery of the Holy Dormition became a centre for the Orthodox community in Kazan. Little has changed over the centuries and the Monastery is first site of note that the traveller sees when entering Kazan.
The Monastery of the Dormition has stood atop Zilantova Mountain for many centuries. According to an ancient legend, the mountain was the dwelling place of the serpent, Zilant, later to be depicted on the city crest of Kazan. The Monastery was founded in 1552 by Ivan the Terrible on the site of the royal tent encampment and campaign church where Russian soldiers who died in the taking of Kazan were buried.
By the 17th century the site had developed into a unique architectural complex, resembling a miniature version of the Kremlin.
The monastery initially stood on the shores of the Kazanka River, but the regular spring floods not only cut off the monastery from the land, but also undermined the buildings. The decision was, therefore, taken to move the monastery to Zilantova Mountain. On the site of the first memorial church now stands the Memorial Church to Fallen Soldiers – a unique commemorative complex.
Zilantova Mountain proved to be a good choice, since all ships arriving in Kazan passed by the monastery and being close to the harbours, the site ensured additional revenue for the monastery. Ivan the Terrible and his then wife, Anastasiya Romanova, donated 400 roubles (a huge sum of money at the time) for the construction of the monastery.
The cathedral was built in the tradition of Pskov and Novgorod architecture, making it substantially different from the other 17th century churches. However, the overall architectural appearance of the monastery is distinguished by an vivid diversity of colour and styles. For example, the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary was constructed in early 17th century Russian Baroque style – distinguished by its luxuriant interior and the resplendent decoration of the façade. There are other buildings in the restrained Posad style, and early Moscow style. However, it is important to recall that all the monastery buildings were reconstructed at the beginning of the 21st century. The reason is quite simple – the arrival of Soviet power.
In 1918, the White Czechs arrived at Zilantova Mountain, and despite requests from the community, they installed machine gun emplacements from which they fired upon the approaching Red Army. Then the White Czechs left and removed machine gun emplacements, leaving the community to face the repercussions of the approaching revolutionary brigades. In August, 1918, convinced that the monks had been responsible for shooting at them, the Red Army troops ascended the mountain and shot the entire monastic fraternity as a demonstration to others. The only monk to survive was Father Joseph, a very old monk who collapsed before the rest of his brothers and the Bolsheviks left him for dead. Later, Joseph was to serve in the Monastery of St. John the Baptistand only recounted this terrible incident just before his death.
The monastery was abandoned, but at the beginning of the 1920’s an Orthodox community gathered here, taking care of its upkeep.
In 1928, at the order of the Central Committee of the Tatar Soviet Republic, the community was dispersed. The monastery was turned into a children’s camp, stores for the Ministry of the Interior and communal apartments.
In 1998, the territory was given back to the monastery, and it has now been restored as a convent. The process of restoring all the churches and buildings has now begun. The small territory now is home to two cathedrals, two churches and a bell tower over the gateway. The development started at the beginning of the 21st century, although the church buildings had also been refurbished at the end of the 19th century. For example, the Cathedral of the Dormition was restored in 1898 by Fyodor Malinovsky, the architect of the Kazan Governorate. He was experienced in working on religious buildings and designed the Burnaev Mosque.
The monastery possesses a copy of the icon of the Holy Virgin of Smolensk which blessed the armies of Ivan the Terrible. Modern-day visitors to the community can take part in group excursions, carefully study the entire monastery complex, and spend as much time as they like in the monastery library full of ancient folios.