Russia’s North… There is a great history behind these words.
As you travel through the vast expanse of Russian North, you see a great many ancient Orthodox churches that were destroyed under the atheistic Soviet regime. These holy temples were used as clubs, libraries, storehouses, and then left derelict… And how many of them were burned down or dismantled!
Today, churches of the Arkhangelsk, Vologda and other northern regions of Russia must be restored as soon as possible. One of them is the Church of St. Lazarus of Bethany in the village of Medlesha of the Arkhangelsk region. It was here that the expedition “Heaven Is Calling” came this summer, organized by the project “Common Cause: Restoration of Wooden Churches in the Russian North”. The team of like-minded volunteers was headed by Priest Dimitry Nikolaev, and the work was carried out between June 5 and 19, 2017.
Fr. Dimitry Nikolaev graduated from St. Tihon’s Orthodox Institute of Humanities. In 2001 he was ordained a priest. Before his ordination, in his youth, Fr. Dimitry began to practice music, and this passion was turned into a profession—he proceeded to graduate in the Variety and Jazz Studies Department at the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music. But music then had to be postponed for fifteen years. It returned with the expeditions to Russian North: Fr. Dimitry created The Flying Machine band and he has composed music for movies.
“All expeditions are outstanding, each one in its own way,” Fr. Dimitry says. “And every new expedition is more difficult than the previous one. The tasks that we set ourselves are growing. We are not sure how far we may go. Sometimes it seems that it is impossible to get our plans implemented so soon. Perhaps we need to slacken our speed. But this work gives people an opportunity to change, to discover faith, to see Church life in a different light. To be a team is very important, we do together what we would never do separately. Each of us makes a personal contribution to our common cause and keeps the commandment by discovering and developing his talents. Thus our work is progressing!”
Now Father Dimitry and his wife Elena have six children, and older siblings take an active part in the expeditions (once the entire family came along). For many, this family has become a living example of how a team should work together for a good cause. Perhaps love for one’s motherland, people and God begins with this?
But let us return to Medlesha. The ancient church was all in ruin, its roof caved in, and there was a jungle of vegetation around it. The place was deserted, although it once teemed with people. Some residents moved away from the village and their houses are ruined. However, other people, guided by faith and love for God, with open hearts and great enthusiasm came here, wishing to labor for the restoration of the local church—this living piece of Holy Russia (Rus’). They realize that it may become a starting point for the spiritual rebirth of the whole Russian nation.
The team worked both in torrential rain and in hot weather. Through the joint efforts of the expedition’s participants and their leader, emergency and conservation work was carried out— bushes were removed in the area around the church, engineering constructions of the roof were installed, the entrance doors along with the porch were repaired, and so on. The altar, the table of oblation, and lecterns were prepared for the sanctuary, and icons were hung inside the church.
The expedition members worked day and night. They slept very little, sometimes it seemed that they were ready to drop with weariness, but the Lord strengthened them all.
Two weeks later, Medlesha was completely transformed. For the first time in several decades, two Divine Liturgies were celebrated there, and during the second Liturgy three people were baptized. About 100 people received Holy Communion. As they were standing in this half-ruined church during the service it seemed to them that their prayers went directly to heaven and reached the Throne of the Almighty.
Following the Sunday service the expedition members organized a traditional tea party with local residents.
On the 119th anniversary of the consecration of the church, a new cross was installed on its roof. Thus the team members have most probably become eyewitnesses and participants of the beginning of the resurrection of one little village in the north of Russia with one little church.
But it is important that we attract the attention not only of locals, but also of all citizens of our country to this burning issue—the need to restore churches in the Russian North. We must preserve the original appearance of our Holy Russia. The unity of a country, a people begins with the restoration of churches and the revival of church communities. Can we ever imagine Russia without her multitude of domes? The strength of our nation is its faith in God!
Those who so desire can do their bit for this noble cause by making a donation or participating in the work for the preservation and restoration of the churches of the north as members of the expeditions.
Below are the impressions of a number of volunteers about the recent expedition.
“It is all very simple; you just need to go to an expedition. We know from our own experience that you will be so amazed that the question, ‘Was it worth going there?’ will disappear automatically. More than that, it is very likely that you will change as well,” says Vladimir Tarakanov, Colonel of the Federal Fire Prevention Service of the Ministry of Emergency Situations in the Russian Federation. “This is what one man who was a born sceptic said after his return from one such expedition (I repeat his words verbatim): ‘I will never be the same!’ And these words speak for themselves. With the help of our benefactors (these are the people who raised funds and assisted us—a big ‘thank you’ to them for this from us, from the locals and, I think, from those who built this church in the nineteenth century and prayed in it until its closure) we all were together and worked for the common cause.”
Dmitry Lokhanov, who has participated in the expeditions for several years, adds:
“This story is not about church walls, it is about something irrational and at the same time extremely important for us and local villagers alike. Even if only one resident decides to be baptized or take Communion during our stay here, it means that our mission was successful.”
“Once a church is restored, the spiritual center of the area is restored as well; without it people look confused and lost. I love my country and want it to be strong. I am trying to do my best to support the common cause, to serve my neighbors, to set a good example. I want to go away from this comfortable environment and see an ideal life. The guys are building while girls are doing the domestic work,” says Olga Baramykova, a foreign economic activity manager.
Sergei Rudometkin, a construction project manager:
“This is my third expedition. I waited a whole year for this. Although I work in the construction industry, I don’t build anything with my own hands, to my regret. Only paper and more paper… And here, I have a chance to take a hammer, a saw and work with them. Carpentry is so nice—it was a real discovery for me. This is a perfectly balanced (both physically and mentally) kind of activity; I haven’t found anything better in my life! I have tried so many jobs: engineer, sales manager, furniture manufacturing manager, scriptwriter on TV, and so forth. But, in my opinion, carpentry is one of the best and most important occupations. It is truly a blessed work! Even our Lord Jesus Christ was a carpenter. This fact speaks for itself… I also came to understand that doing something for others out of altruism, not for yourself, gives you great joy. And it becomes clear what active love is like and why the Savior speaks of this kind of love in the two greatest commandments.”
“For me this expedition is an opportunity to communicate with people who are close to me spiritually and to participate in a good cause,” says Marina Odintsova. “Of course, it is also important to feel the romance of camp life; it is interesting to observe people’s way of life and derive inspiration from them.”
Priest Dimitry Nikolaev and the “Heaven Is Calling” team express their profound gratitude to all local residents for their hospitality and support, and to the young people for taking part in the cleaning of the territory around the church.
Every individual expedition is a new chapter in the book, “Common Cause: Restoration of Wooden Churches in the Russian North”, which Is being “written” at a specific time, by specific people and in specific places, chosen by God. People, united by one noble impulse (a good cause which is pleasing to God), become purer, are transformed and develop spiritually.
One day Heaven called upon Father Dimitry to undertake this project and later called upon his whole team. It is continuing to call all of us. We only need to listen to our hearts and souls in quietude, and more attentively… And to remember that faith without works is dead (see James 2:26).
Photographic coverage by Ekaterina Litvinenko
Translation by Dmitry Lapa