The Feofaniya clan New investigation reveals how a Moscow monastery’s mother superior built a family business empire
Home to the relics of St. Matrona of Moscow, the Russian capital’s Pokrovsky (Intercession) Monastery is a popular pilgrimage site visited by thousands of people every day. Since the 1990s, this monastery has been run by Mother Superior Feofaniya, who came under fire this summer when investigative journalists uncovered that she had been driving around in a pricy Mercedes-Benz sedan since 2016. Now, a new investigation from “Open Media” has revealed that Feofaniya’s family is a major beneficiary of the cult of St. Matrona, earning money off of icons, church utensils, and souvenirs supplied to monastery gift shops. What’s more, Feofaniya herself was directly involved in popularizing the cult of St. Matrona, turning the Pokrovsky Monastery into the Russian Orthodox Church’s wealthiest convent.
Mother Superior Feofaniya, whose legal name is Olga Miskina, became the abbess of the Pokrovsky Monastery in 1995, when she was 30 years old. The monastery was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church less than a year beforehand and nearly all of its property was occupied by tenants. During the years that followed, however, Feofaniya managed to evict everyone living there and resume the monastery’s religious activities in full.
According to Open Media, to raise funds for the restoration of the monastery, it needed its own saint to attract pilgrims. Therefore, in the late 1990s, Feofaniya began seeking the canonization of Blessed Elder of Moscow Matrona Nikonova: the abbess reported to Patriarch Alexey II that prayers to Matrona had helped her in the restoration of the monastery.
According to the Pokrovsky Monastery’s website, Matrona Dmitrievna Nikonova was born into a peasant family in the village of Sebino (located in the Tula Governorate of the Russian Empire) in 1881. Despite being blind from birth due to her empty eye sockets, she allegedly revealed a gift for predicting the future and healing the sick, even as a child. She lost the use of her legs at around 17 years old, but continued to perform miracles and became well-known throughout the country. After the 1917 revolution, she went into hiding from the Soviet regime — nevertheless, Joseph Stalin came to her for advice in 1941. Matrona died in 1952. According to Open Media, the only primary source of information about Matrona’s life is a book by her fellow villager Zinaida Zhdanova, published in 1993. The book is titled, The Legend of the Life of the Blessed Eldress Matrona.
Though in 1997 the Russian Orthodox Church’s Synodal Commission for Canonization didn’t find grounds for canonizing Matrona, her remains were transferred to the Pokrovsky Monastery a year later and a year after that she received the status of a locally revered Moscow saint. Matrona was finally canonized after a second appeal in 2004. After that, Open Media explains, Feofaniya did everything she could to inform as many Orthodox believers as possible about the cult of St. Matrona: at the request of the Pokrovsky Monastery, they started producing audio materials and films about the miracles St. Matrona performed, as well as books about her life, including ones for children.
Over time, Matrona became one of the most venerated saints in Russia — thousands of pilgrims began coming to the Pokrovsky Monastery to worship her remains every day and as a result, it became the Russian Orthodox Church’s richest convent. “The relic business is a big business. And most importantly, no one can count it, how many donations there are, how much they actually receive, and how much they transfer to the Patriarchate officially isn’t announced anywhere,” a dignitary from the Russian Orthodox Church told Open Media. In 2020, Protodeacon Andrey Kuraev estimated the Pokrovsky Monastery’s monthly income at half a million dollars.
Against the backdrop of its financial success, the monastery began to acquire an increasing amount of property, Open Media recalls. In particular, Feofaniya built a five-star hotel near the convent (complete with a swimming pool), as well as a fitness center and a bath complex. And the monastery has tried repeatedly to take over property from Tagansky Park, which was established in the 1930s on the site of a former monastery cemetery.
Aside from donations, a significant portion of the monastery’s income comes from the sale of souvenirs — in addition to church literature and utensils, church gift shops also sell secular goods under the “Pokrovsky Monastery” brand, such as chocolates and anti-cellulite soaps. Open Media revealed that the bulk of these products are manufactured in workshops in the cities Yaroslavl and Sergiev Posad that belong to Feofaniya’s brothers Pavel and Arkady Miskin. Members of the mother superior’s family also own several high-end cottages, stores, and hotel complexes near the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Sergiev Posad.
In the summer of 2020, Open Media uncovered that Feofaniya owned a Mercedes-Benz S-class — a luxury vehicle she purchased for 9.5 million rubles in 2016 (about $125,500 by today’s exchange rate). The story attracted widespread attention after the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, gave her his “blessing” to sell the car and donate the money to charity. She did just that and now drives a Mercedes GLA, an SUV with a starting price of about 2.8 million rubles ($36,700).
Open Media’s sources in church circles call Feofaniya the most powerful and richest woman in the Russian Orthodox Church. “But this is still the Orthodox Church, so the influence of a woman in it is measured not by her ability to say something loudly, but by her ability to achieve what she wants. The Patriarch blesses any of Feofaniya’s undertakings, and they’re increasingly related to ‘business’ development — he allowed her to build a hotel at the monastery, create her own agricultural holding, and, in fact, gave her entire family the opportunity to make money off the cult of Matrona,” one source explains.
Translation by Eilish Hart