On a chilly yet beautiful Autumn morning I set off for Cambridge to hear Russian Orthodox dissident and gulag survivor, Alexander Ogorodnikov speak at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge for one of their community days. On this occasion hosted at Westminster College.
After a short prayer led by the Institute’s Chaplain, Fr. Alexander Tefft, and an introduction by Dr. David Frost, a softly spoken man, a bit nervous, got up to speak in a gentle but halting manner. This was Alexander Ogorodnikov. He spoke in Russian and is words were conveyed through a translator. These are my notes on his talk and heading and notes in square brackets mine alone.
“Today we are going to talk about the 20th Century a time of tribulation. St. John the Theologian said, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” This saying is applicable to our time and Christianity in general. The lesson that we should take away today is that we are should recognise God’s love, even when he appears not to be loving and forgiving – nevertheless we should recognise that he loves us.
As Tertullian once said, “Christians are made, not born”
A History of Religious Persecution
The 20th Century was a very difficult time and people started questioning Christianity as a whole. While in the 19th Century Europe was the cradle of Christianity, this no longer held true in the 20th Century. For example, we see fascism tried to substitute Christianity with its own religion. The Bolsheviks wanted to annihilate Christianity.
So after the Revolution the Bolsheviks declared a war on Christianity. It all started when Trotsky and Lunacharsky gave God the death sentence and decided that God should be shot and executed. This was taken quite seriously and was not just a joke, they really thought this should be done. [Alexander was referring to the “political tribunal for a trial of God” on 17/30 January 1923 in Moscow] . Their ultimate aim was to create a new man, Homo Sovieticus – The Soviet Man.
A great many clergy, priests, deacons, monks and nuns were killed by crucifixion, killing, shooting, drowning an all sorts of terrible ways. Monasteries were forcibly closed and desecrated. One of the things the Bolsheviks would do at this time was to bury people alive, priests, monks, nuns. Witnesses say that they could hear the singing of hymns and prayers – so much so it looked as if the earth was alive, it was moving and shifting simple from the amount of people buried alive.
Of course, this was not the first time Christians have been persecuted. We have Christian martyrs from the very beginning of Christianity, but this was quite different.
In the first 20 years of the 20th Century Russia gave up more martyrs than had ever been killed in the whole history of Christianity before that time. The Bolsheviks even laid down a deadline for exterminating Christianity and Christians in total. For example, they said that by 1935 the last Church will be closed and by 1936 the very word ‘God
The difference between these martyrs and the early Christian martyrs was that early Christian martyrs were persecuted and killed for their beliefs, because they believed in Christ. In Soviet times the martyrs were killed, persecuted and put in jail not as religious martyrs. These new martyrs and confessors were accused of political crimes or common crimes. They were treated as thieves and criminals, they were even denied the label of being seen as victims of religious persecution. They made people believe that they were common criminals, who did not have the right to be recognised as Christian martyrs.
While the persecutors called themselves atheist, in reality this war, this campaign was very religious. It was a religion. They were building a new cult of power. While it claimed to be rational it was irrational. It was a war against religion; its ultimate goal was to exterminate religion and everyone who believed in Christ.
This brought about a new term “Bezbozhniki” (Безбожники) which means the Godless. These were not just atheist, but anti-theist, God haters. This was their religion, that is, ardent belief against God. This word has some connotations in scripture [Hebrews 12:16]. They represented people who not only denied the existence of God, but people were fundamentalists who fanatically hated God and did everything they could against him. This was their new religion – fervent hatred for God.
Alexander referred to the Epistle of St. James and those who become the enemies of God [James 4:4]
They had their own religious rituals. They would take icons, holy books, religious artefacts, and take them in procession for public burnings in squares. People would bring these things to the open spaces for public burnings. This was more than just getting rid of holy icons. This would be their own festival where they would dance around it and celebrate. It was a ritual; a religious act.
The acts were not only opposed to icons and holy books as objects, but they were against the very power and energy of these icons, objects and holy books. They did everything in their power against it. In biblical terms we could call them possessed. It was a kind of satanic black mass.
They couldn’t come up with anything new, so they adopted the rituals of religion and inverted them, they turned them upside down and subverted them to their own aims.
They even established the cult of their own saints. For example the body of Lenin in the Kremlin was laid out and venerated like the relics of saints.
As an aside Alexander noted how there once was a problem with the plumbing at the Kremlin and the Lenin’s mausoleum was once inadvertently filled with sewage water, to which Patriarch Tikhon joked with the saying that “relics get what they deserved” – whereas real relics would get myrrh, whereas Lenin got what he got.
These anti-theists took part in processions, instead of icons they bore banners with anti-religious slogans. They carried effigies of priests and monks that they would then go and burn. This was a dark charge, or black attack on heaven. It wasn’t just an attack of words, but took te form of physical actions – for example they would shake their fists at heaven.
This is something that never happened before something that people had never experienced before.
For our generation this situation was the reality we were born into. This was the new reality and for us it was normal.
In my time Khrushchev made a public declaration that there would be an interview with the last priest who would publicly denounce God.
It is easy to do something drastic, brave, on the spur of the moment, but now this anti-religious state became quite normalised. It is difficult to rebel against it especially when it is the only thing you have known. People did not know anything different rather than this anti-religious state of affairs. This had lasted for 74 years. Your children and your grandchildren would only know this particular reality. The people who could remember how it was before the revolution had all died by now.
My generation did not feel the need to rebel against the Church. It really seemed to be a few old ladies who were no threat and they would soon die out anyway. When they died the Church would die too. Our generation thought that these were the last days of religion, the last days of the Church.
Of course, there were bishops, but they were not in the real world, they were in some sort of isolation. They were living in a parallel universe. Their function was decorative. It was as though their status did not have any true meaning or any real value. The general view is that these bishops were merely kept to be wheeled out when people visited from the West, to give the impression that the Church existed but was ignored.
Had someone told Alexander at the time that he would become a Christian one day, he would not only be offended, but would probably have said something offensive back.
All that was foretold in the Bible became real in the 20th Century, where the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” [Tertullian] We all grew up on blood of martyrs
Our faith comes from hearing, but we had no chance to hear about our faith.
There were no books about faith. There were no people to talk too, and the old women in the Church refused to talk to us about faith, about Christianity, out of fear.
The Church at the time was silent.
Apostle Thomas would not believe unless he put his fingers in the wounds, yet “Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe”
That’s why it’s difficult to talk about one’s search for God. It was not only difficult it was time consuming. It would bring you into conflict even with members of your own family. People knew if you became a Christian you would have to be ready to be in constant confrontation with everyone. You would eventually be expelled from your place of work or study and even your circle of friends.
It was a huge challenge for those who converted. It was a calling to live with and by the truth and no longer to lie to themselves. Alexander became a Christian when he was a student at the Institute of Cinematography through watching “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew” by Passolini.
Struggle with Alexanders past of his education, his basic difficulty to understand what it means to be Christian.
On the one hand the Church was silent , helpless, ignored by the authorities
On the other hand the regime was totalitarianism. There were two different powers.
So it was very difficult to understand what it meant to be Church. There were services, liturgies, but once these were all over you would return to your normal life. Alexander knew this was a lie.
He was expelled from the Institute of Cinematography because he tried to make a film about young people’s religious search. The film was classified and banned.
They organised underground seminars about Christianity and what it means to be Christian. The first principle they had was that no-one should live a lie but live openly in truth. Ultimately, you either quit University or were expelled because it was true.
The main problem was how to learn about Christianity.
There were no spiritual fathers or spiritual leaders. However, God helped them and revealed to them how to be Christian. When Alexander entered Church and went to cross himself he felt that his arm was so heavy he could not lift it.
Finding the Church
Alexander eventually made his first pilgrimage Pskov-Pechory [Pskov-Caves] monastery, one of the few remaining monasteries in that period. It had survived because at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution it was in Estonia. The authorities had tried to close the monastery, but the brethren, all former soldiers, simply barricaded themselves in.
Alexander spent a night in the forest sleeping near the walls of the monastery. He woke up in the middle of the night because he felt disturbed and worried. He saw a young lady, wearing a long white, flowing dress walking towards him in the middle of the forest. He was worried about her. She started to come forward, while her garment moved in such a way that indicated walking – she did not actually appear to be on the ground. He could not see footsteps. Alexander was afraid and horrified by this vision. He fell to his knees and repeatedly made the sign of the cross over himself. Then he crossed the vision. The vision disintegrated in front of him, leaving an unpleasant smell and making a horrible sound. He was to smell that same smell again when priests exorcised people or places.
The next morning he went to Church for the liturgy and as he was crossing himself he felt a gaze upon him. The gaze was coming from the icon of the Holy Mandylion, the icon Made-without-hands. It was the first time that he realised that icons were not just paintings, but they had their own grace, warmth, energy. However, Alexander also felt a gaze from behind. It was a woman obviously gazing at him in a lustful manner. It was his first sense of temptation. Here was the loving, forgiving gaze from Christ on one side, and an unpleasant sexual look on the other. This icon of the Mandylion became his personal favourite icon. He would carry a version of it with him everywhere, except of course when he was imprisoned and in the Gulag.
He returned to Moscow and the next day he went to Church again. The Liturgy was being given by a Bishop, a Metropolitan. Alexander was so moved that he was crying. When they started to give people Holy Communion Alexander was drawn by some inexplicable power to the Holy Chalice. At the time he didn’t know that he should have confession first according to the Russian custom. As he approached the chalice he felt that the bishop not only gazed into his eyes, but into the very depths of his heart. He felt that this bishop knew everything about his life. This bishop knew his very soul. Later he learnt that this was in fact Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh.
This was his first experience of someone who would know and understand how to read his whole life. In this way he gradually came to know hidden sacred Russia.
Elders of the Church
The Elders or Startsii were the real power in the Church ??? They were more respected than other parts of the Church. The influence of the Startsii was immense in the Church. The Russian people would listen to their bishops but follow the Elders.
Alexander learnt about Elder Tavrion who lived in a hermitage (poustinia) near Riga. People came to him from all over the USSR to gain an answer to their problems. They didn’t need to see him individually, usually they found an answer through the sermons he gave.
Alexander wanted to know more about this person of Christ ???. So he took the train from Moscow to Riga, leaving quite early in the morning and arriving in time for the Liturgy.
However, while still in Moscow he was warned against seeing this Elder. He was told that he was dangerous. He was warned off him because he advocated frequent communion. Alexander was fascinated by the way he celebrated the Liturgy, it was joyful and radiant. He usually gave a sincere and heartfelt sermon. In this sermon he gave a few words on “how to pray” and spoke about the technique of prayer, Alexander felt that this addressed him, as he had gone there with that question in mind.
The service was over, Alexander felt his business there was over, his question was answered Alexander prepared to leave. However, Elder Tavrion called him over to the altar, he prayed a brief prayer and then made a prostration towards Alexander. Alexander was shocked but Elder Tavrion protested – “No, that’s what needs to be done.” When the Elder got back on his feet he gave Alexander an envelope containing a large sum of money. Alexander refused, but the Elder insisted, “Giving is a virtue”.
Then he went to the Pskov-Caves monastery for his first confession with Fr. Adrian. Even into his 90s this monk was robust and lively. He had become a monk because he personally came to know St. John of Kronstadt. The time for this first confession was quite late at night. Alexander lost track of time completely and while he confessed Fr. Adrian shed tears. Fr. Adrian did not ask questions just listened while Alexander spoke from his heart and told him his whole life. When confession was over Alexander slowly realised it was already morning, but despite staying up for most of the night he did not feel in the least tired. In fact, e felt full of energy and refreshed, he had been given a new lease of life, born again anew.
Everybody in the monastery, both monks and novices, suggested that his next confession should be with Fr. John Krestiankin.
Krestiankin had also been a prisoner and starets. He has since passed away but became well-known in the Soviet era. Fr. John Krestiankin became his spiritual father. He gave a wonderful leadership. Fr. John never refused him anything and nothing was prohibited. In his presence felt immersed in a lake of love always comforted. Alexander later realised that everything was brought about through Father John’s prayers.
Of course, the problem was that they were continually watched by the Soviet authorities.
At the Pskov-Pechory monastery Abbot Alypy sadly died (1975), and certain Gabriel was appointed by the authorities. The new abbot started to destroy all the heritage of the former abbot. He isolated the elders from the people, he expelled the strongest and most capable monks from the monastery. Until now the monastery had enjoyed great respect and was popular with ordinary people, it was Gabriel’s mission to destroy this. Alexander then went on to detail this Abbot’s immoral life. Going off to restaurants in Tallin with his entiurage and spending lots of money, being involved in drunken orgies and general debauchery. Gabriel was there until 1988 when he was made a bishop and moved on.
Alexander was amongst those who wrote letters to the Synod about his behaviour. There was even sacrilege in services held by him, but nothing was done. This was basically because the KGB wanted to destroy the popularity and the respect of the monastery.
This abbot expelled more than 70 of the most capable and strongest monks. Monks cells were bugged and this abbot would physically beat monks and pilgrims alike.
This meant that following Alexander’s release from the Gulag he could not get to see Fr. John Krestiankin because he was held at the monastery in isolation. He and his friends scaled the walls like thieves in the night to reach Fr. John.
Alexander explained that he simply related this to show that even within one Church there were those who did everything for Christ and at the same those who did everything against Him.
[To be continued with stories of miracles and God’s presence in the Gulag]