We continue to publish the materials of Spas TV program My Path To God, where Priest George Maximov interviews people who converted to Orthodoxy. The guest of today’s program is Sergei Vladimirovich Bednenko, Senior Lecturer of the University of Linguistics, a former atheist and an officer of military intelligence service.
Priest George Maximov: Hello! You are watching My Path To God. Today the guest of our program is Sergei Vladimirovich Bednenko, Senior Lecturer at the University of Linguistics. You were born and grew up at a time when most people in our country did not know anything about religion. You were in a similar situation, weren’t you?
Although I never had any negative feelings toward religion, I had absolutely no interest in it.
Sergei Bednenko: Yes, Father George, I grew up in an atheistic environment and never even thought about religion. Before the establishment of the Soviet regime, most of the churches in Western Ukraine where I grew up were Catholic and Uniate. These churches were the only religion-related things I saw when I was a child. We didn’t talk about religion at home. Even when we moved to a house in the outskirts of the city that was next to an Orthodox church, and children would come to us singing Christmas carols, my parents wouldn’t let them in. The kids drew a black cross over our door and stopped coming. Nevertheless, I have some childhood memories related to religion. I remember that if we ever walked into a church with my father, he would always make a donation. Once I asked him, “Why are you doing this? You don’t believe in all that.” He replied, “You know, if we don’t support it, this beauty they have here might cease to exist. All of this would be gone, and I would like it to last.” That was how this purely aesthetic approach to understanding religion was planted in me. That was probably why I never had any negative feelings toward religion. However, I had absolutely no interest in it.”
Priest George Maximov: When did you get the first cues that made you pay attention to religion?
Sergey Bednenko: It happened during my second long-term business trip overseas. I was already a military man, getting ready to become a professional intelligence officer. I was sent on this business trip to a capitalist country in Latin America to get used to living overseas and learn about capitalism. To become an intelligence officer, you need inner freedom and, of course, knowledge. I was preparing for this life very seriously, when I suddenly felt that, using professional jargon, someone was “tailing” me. Once I came home… just imagine me, a steadfast Communist, the builder of new life, coming home and finding some nuns sitting in our kitchen and talking about some strange things to my wife. I asked her, “Why did they come?” She said, “They promised to bring me the Bible in Russian.” I said, “What Bible? What are you taking about? How did they end up in our house?” She said, “I don’t know, they just rang the bell on the door and I let them in.” I thought that this did not happen by chance.
I should say that when you’re preparing for this type of employment, you must have a somewhat different mentality. You must pay attention to details and nuances and be able to make quick decisions in any situation. We even had a saying, “If you met a person once, it is a coincidence, if you met him twice, it is a dangerous coincidence, if you met him three times, it means that you’re being followed.” So when these nuns came to us again, I thought, “This is a dangerous coincidence.” The third encounter happened when I took a bus to go shopping and saw two nuns sitting in front of me. Naturally, they were Catholic, for I was still in that Latin American country. Looking at them, I thought, “The one on the right is middle-aged, maybe she belongs in a convent. Perhaps, she wasn’t successful and needed to make her ends meet and that was why she ended up in the convent. Or maybe she’s praying for her sins. That’s her own business. However, the other nun was young and I thought that she didn’t belong in the convent. She should have a family, give birth, you know, do the things women do, rather than hide in a nunnery.” Suddenly I asked myself, “Could it be that they over there in the nunnery can do something that we secular people can’t do?”
I understood that someone became interested in me, and I never felt this interest before.
Then a small dirty-faced girl walked into the bus and started singing sorrowful songs, asking for alms. At some point, she stopped singing and burst into tears. All passengers, who were mostly middle-aged people (I had a daughter the same age as that little girl) sort of froze and didn’t know what to do. While the nuns who didn’t have any children put aside their prayer books right away and waived the girl to come over. They put her on their knees. I thought, “Now they would give something to her. A candy or money.” But they didn’t have anything, they just petted her on her head and said something to her. Two minutes later the girl was smiling. The passengers also got over their confusion and gave the girl some money. When the girl got off the bus, I thought, “Indeed, there are things that they can do.” Through these encounters, I felt that someone was tailing me. I understood that someone became interested in me, and I never felt this interest before.
This was the first time I understood that faith in God was powerful. Later my entire life proved that, but at that time it only made me think about it. Meanwhile, I continued my work. I was into Dale Carnegie’s social psychology. The main principle of this psychology is, “If you want somebody to be your friend, you have to pay attention to this person.” In other words, turn the attention from yourself to that person. I started implementing this principle and since I got some results, this inspired me. Later, I understood that this was still egotism but with a specific goal, for you were not doing this to help anybody, but to gain something for yourself. I didn’t understand it at that time since all I wanted was to gain something. As I did get some benefits, I gradually really got into this social psychology and started to enjoy it.
I started simply doing little things to help people whenever I could. Sometimes going to hospitals, sometimes helping people move… The more I did it, the more I felt that I was changing. At some point, I realized that those “cues” as you called them did not just happen by accident. I was about to turn 30 and had to make serious decisions about my future. So I did something that predetermined my future relationship with God. I stood up for one person who was overseas and it cost me my career. It was very difficult to do and I was drenched in sweat, understanding that the entire building I have been constructing for so long was about to come crashing down. I went against the management. The person I confronted was a friend of a government minister. Naturally, I was sent home and blacklisted, but inside I was happy, as I knew that nothing bad would happen to me. Indeed, when I returned home, they wouldn’t accept me in the intelligence academy, but I no longer needed that. I went on with my life.
Father George: During that trip, you understood that God exists. What happened afterwards?
Sergey Bednenko: When I returned home, my friend came to visit me. He was a military man to the marrow of his bones, and I was surprized when suddenly he gave me the Bible. Usually, when he came to visit me, he would bring one of two gifts. If he had money, he would bring a bottle of cognac, and if he didn’t have money, he’d bring a bottle of vodka. He never ever brought me anything else. So when he gave me the Bible, it felt very strange. I asked him, “Where did you get this? How did you even think about it?” He said, “You know, some missionaries just handed it to me at the airport. I didn’t want to throw it away, but I don’t really need it. Why should I keep it? I don’t have any books at home anyway. You, on the other hand, have a lot of books. Just put it somewhere on the bookshelf.”
I promised to God that I would change
I thought that this was no accident either and felt that the book was given to me so that I would read it. I couldn't pray then. I opened it at a random page and read the commandment Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor (Exodus 20:16). I remembered that once I slandered a man and he almost hung himself because of me. I had a strong emotional response to these words. I fell on my knees and cried through the night, repenting of my sin. From that moment on, I made a promise to myself that I would never do anything that contradicts elementary moral principles. I promised to God that I would change. That was the breaking point.
The second event occurred when I read about Christ in the Gospel. It really amazed me. I realized that I never saw anything like that in my life, even though I lived overseas for several years and travelled a lot in our country. I thought, “How He must love people, this crowd that was spitting on Him…” Just imagine a person who is idly nibbling sunflower seeds, watching you and thinking “Will he get off the cross or not?” How He must have sympathized with these people and loved them, to pray for them saying, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do (Luke, 23:34), even though He was in pain and was about to die. It turned me upside down. I thought that this was something out of this world, for I never saw anything like that on this Earth. For contrast, I’ll tell a story – When I came back to the Soviet Union, I asked God to show me influential people. Literally two months later, I was already employed in the government of Moscow, working with the senior management and as an interpreter for the Minister of Defence, but there I didn’t see anything like that either. I saw that they were regular people, susceptible to their passions, and they didn’t have any comparable power…
Only later I understood that I should be looking for power elsewhere. When I met some real Christians, true confessors of the faith who were imprisoned during the years of oppression against the Church, I understood that strength indeed was made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Imagine a girl quitting her studies and following a priest sentenced to 20 years of work camps in Siberia. She goes with him and stays there for the entire sentence, helping him with food and other things. He would have died there, if it weren’t for her. After his release or death, she follows another one and that’s how she lives her life. These are the true Christians. I was lucky to meet them and learn about Christianity from them. I wasn’t baptized for a long time, and only from them did I receive my baptism.
Father George: Did you come to Church and receive your baptism right after reading the Bible, or were you still searching for something?
I understood what the main difference between Orthodoxy and other religions was.
Sergey Bednenko: Of course, this did not happen right away, Father George. Following the common secular logic, I decided, “I’ll take Christianity later, it is close and won’t go anywhere.” Just like the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Muscovites rarely go there thinking that they will always have time go there some other time. That was what I was thinking. In my search, I went through everything, including Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, and even spent two years in Vissarion’s sect.1 As you see, this was not a quick journey. I understood what the main difference between Orthodoxy and other religions was. As the apostle Paul said, And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power… Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him… But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:4, 12, 14, 16). I understood why people often wander about and don’t find their path to God straightaway. This happens because they behave as “natural” people rather than spiritual. A spiritual foundation is formed over a long period of time, and people do not understand it right away. Our minds are affected by our sins as if by some kind of dark force. I think it was Seraphim of Sarov who said, “People think that they live by their own will only. It is not so. There several wills that guide a person at the same time. One is a divine will, which guides this person to eternal life, the other is a satanic will, which leads to the person’s eternal demise, and the third will is our own will, which because of our sins is usually closer to the satanic will than to the divine will. That is why our purpose is to defy the satanic will and make all efforts to steer toward the divine will”.
This teaching has existed in the Orthodox Church since ancient times. St. Antony the Great expressed it as early as in the fourth century. When I came across these words, I realized why this spirit of Christ was upheld specifically in Orthodoxy. It is because we rely upon a different reality—the one that you first need to develop in yourself. As St. Seraphim used to say, “Acquire the spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved.” Without it, you cannot save even yourself, let alone the others. All those gurus, teachers, sects and other religions don’t have this spirit because they don’t have Christ.
Father George: Some might argue that they speak of spirituality too. Especially in India, there is so much spirituality and so much lofty rhetoric about love or understanding the world, etc. How did you come to the conclusion that all of this does not rise above the level of a “natural man”?
Sergei Bednenko: I once wondered if another salvation was possible, other than through your own thoughts and your own ideology. I found the words describing the Savior in the Bible, in the book of the Prophet Isaiah, who lived about 750 years before Christ: For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness… Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:2,4-6). Only Christianity has this. However, to understand it we must draw upon the Gospel and the works of the Holy Fathers. If we draw only upon ourselves and our own minds, then more often than not we end up in a sect or in another religion.
Father George: The words of the Prophet Isaiah you quoted are found in the Qumran Cave Scrolls dated 200 years BC. So this prophecy is proven true even from a textological standpoint. Indeed, such a description of the Savior cannot be found in any other religion. None of the great variety of Hinduist gurus present themselves like that. They present themselves quite differently. But you mentioned Vissarion’s sect. Why did you join it? Its leader, our contemporary, a former policeman, calls himself Christ. Didn’t this bother you?
Sergei Bednenko: It more than bothered me and at first I thought that he was crazy. When somebody calls himself Christ, he is either a megalomaniac or a crook. That was what I thought. So I decided that it would be curious to observe this as an onlooker. So I came there not as his worshipper, but as a person who wanted to see everything up-close and understand what was going on. I got stuck there for two years. I saw everything from the very beginning, including Vissarion’s first arrival to Moscow and all of his subsequent tours. We went on tours ourselves too. Vissarion’s sect had an expertly developed food strategy. The diet was very moderate and protein-free. People here simply lost their own will, let alone the divine will that St. Seraphim spoke of. They fully accepted whatever they were told in the sect. I remember that I already understood everything and wanted to quit, but couldn’t do it. I just felt that I must go there. I cried, but I still went there. I remember it very well. I was sitting on the fence for a long time, helping them in some ways and objecting to other things.
Finally, God arranged for a situation that helped me to make up my mind. One old lady who was a member of Vissarion’s sect sold her apartment and donated the money to the sect. Shortly after that, Vissarion’s assistant called me and said, “Listen, we have a good idea. We are going to the Mediterranean and need an interpreter. You know languages and have a foreign passport. Come with us. We’ll cover all your expenses.” I said, “Where did you get the money? This trip is very expensive.” He answered, “You know, one sister sold her apartment and gave us the money.” They wanted to spend that money on a nice trip to Europe. I refused, of course. I said that no good would come of it. They’d be lucky to come back alive, for God doesn’t forgive such things. Anyway, I quit the sect after that.
Father George: What brought people to that sect? What was Vissarion’s attraction?
Sergei Bednenko: People were attracted to the sect because the idea itself was good and understandable to people with the Soviet upbringing. The idea of unity, cooperation, joint household… Basically, sects promote socialism with a religious underpinning. This warm-heartedness was what attracted people. On the other hand, the sect used some brainwashing tactics that easily got to people who were searching for solutions. Thirdly, and most importantly, people make conjectures and make up things that do not really exist. Also, there were, so to say, lecherous practices in Vissarion’s sect. For example, they believed that if you liked somebody’s wife, you should tell her about it and if she doesn’t mind having an affair with you, you both should tell her husband about it. Seeing your honesty, he should allow you to spend some time together with his wife. This is very serious. People who have any relatives in this sect should seriously think about it for it is not some kind of temporary craziness, it is the death of their soul and body, too.
Father George: Some people believe that they can join a sect and then quit and continue living as they did before. Maybe some people manage to do that, but my experience and observations demonstrate that the more time a person spends in a sect, the more difficult it is for such person to rehabilitate after quitting. It is not easy. For some people rehabilitation continues all their remaining lives. How did you finally decide to choose the Orthodox Church?
Father George: I think that on that road you found not only the things to regret?
Sergei Bednenko: The happiness of the journey to Christ is definitely the greatest joy. You know, I saw many aesthetically beautiful things. I saw high mountains, seas and oceans, good food and all other things that people find attractive in their youth. However, the happiness of being a part of the Church cannot be compared to anything. This is the life in Christ, when you are always talking to God, knowing that whenever you do anything, someone is always there for you. Human society does not have it. It happens very rarely. Maybe only in the Christian environment. Because such life is not possible without Christ. This is what I realized. I saw so many miracles in my life…
Father George: Can you tell us about them?
I looked through the eyes of a person who doesn’t want to believe but cannot help but see that the miracles are real.
Sergei Bednenko: I saw people who were cured from cancer… Or Ivan, the drug addict we saved in one of the northern monasteries. He has a family and a child now. He became an absolutely normal person. He was beaten up and left to die, so his sister ran to us, asking to hold a prayer service for him so that he wouldn’t die that night. Or Masha, whose father was dying from heart decease. She was praying all night long and the operation was performed the next day. Then the doctor came to us. We were drinking tea with him and I asked him, “How did the operation go?” He said, “I can’t understand it. I am an average surgeon. I only do typical operations. They don’t let me do heart operations often so I am not good at doing them. However, this time I felt as if an entire crew was working with me. Someone was helping and telling me what to do. When I started doing something wrong, my hands wouldn’t go there as if someone was controlling them.” In the end, the patient was saved, even though they said that his chances of survival were about 5 percent. There were many cases like that. It is absurd when some people say that the miracles are invented by the Church to attract non-believers. I saw all that from an unbiased point of view. I looked through the eyes of a person who doesn’t want to believe but cannot help but see that the miracles are real.
Father George: I remember that 17 or 18 years ago you and I were at a service in church and you brought your relative who unexpectedly witnessed a miracle. It was a typical service in a typical Moscow church, but God singled her out of the few parishioners to show the miracle. When the priest came out with the cross, she saw the light coming out of that cross. I remember her amazement when she told everybody, including myself, about this. She kept saying, “I am a sane person, I am a school principal…”
Sergei Bednenko: She was a physicist and a mathematician…
Father George: It was a shock for her. She never expected to see anything like that.
Sergei Bednenko: Well, that was something… Aunt Rimma, my wife’s aunt, came to that church with a specific purpose. She had to move from Crimea to Moscow, but couldn’t make any headway. I told her, “Nothing will happen unless you attend a church service. Everything is resolved at the service. That’s why we should go to the liturgy and then talk to the priest to get his blessing and ask for advice.” So she went to the service. She wasn’t even paying much attention, but it was the first time she ever attended a service and stood there from the beginning to the end. When she approached the priest and he gave her the cross to kiss (I was standing right behind her), some force pushed her away from the cross and I practically had to catch her. I asked her, “What happened?” She said, “You know, I saw the cross and a flash of light somehow struck me in the eyes and everything was filled with light. I really saw this. This is not some mysticism or my fantasy. I am a reasonable person, a physicist, and mathematician, a school principal, so I am miles away from all these things. I don’t want to make anything up, but this was something that I saw with my own eyes and it really touched me.” She told this to everyone. Then we went to the Church of the Renewal of the Church of Resurrection in Brusov Lane and prayed by the miracle-working icon of St. Spyridon of Tremithus. Shortly after that, her apartment problem was resolved. It is a miracle too, I think.
Father George: Thank God for giving us such evidence of His care for us. Thank you very much for your story.