The elder, who just celebrated his 85th birthday in 2017, almost never speaks about himself, but he made an exception for the sake of the feast. This is a story about Nativity in a long and arduous, but joyful life, through which shines the 2,000-year history of this truly central event in human life…
—Batushka Iliy, how did you used to celebrate the Nativity of Christ? Do you remember your first Nativity?
—Oh, I do remember actually. We would celebrate Nativity as a family before the war. My father was still alive. The churches were already closed then, but still, on Nativity, as on Pascha, there was always a special state of soul, and your mood was elevated. It’s a shame that we couldn’t go to church then… To thank God. So, we prayed.
Adults tried to celebrate the day of the feast one way or another. We, children, were always hungry in those times. So on the feasts—this was customary then—Mama would make sitniki—it’s a simple bread baked in the oven. We had a Russian oven in our cottage. Nothing can compare with the smell of a wood-heated Russian stove and freshly-baked bread!—no kind of fragrance, no matter how much those perfumes may cost. Nowadays, people don’t even know what they should indulge themselves in next. But in those times, bread on the table was great happiness!
We lived poorly then, but we had joy in our souls. Our dwelling was tiny. Before the war we wanted to build a better one—sometimes the adults had such thoughts. But what could be built in those days? Then there was dispossession, and then the war began, and my father was called to the front. He died there in 1942. Mama then raised us, four children, alone.
I also remember my grandfather, Ivan Semenovich, living with us before the war—he prayed a lot. He had an explosive character, but he restrained himself thanks to prayer. While the Pokrov Church in the neighboring village of Stanovoy Kolodez was still open, he served in the church as the warden, nd basically doing whatever necessary. He was a master of working with his hands. He could do it all. He made various barrels at home. He very carefully fit, planed, and sanded everything. He was skilled in metal works. Whoever needed some dish or equipment fixed would take it to my grandfather. He himself forged, tinplated, and soldered. He built sleighs. Later, during the war, we were saved by these sleighs when the Germans kicked us out of our hut.
They tore everyone out of their homes all over the village—apparently, they ransacked all the cottages so that the partisans couldn’t hide anywhere. For communicating with the partisans, they shot you right there on the spot. My neighbor still had a horse, and my grandfather had made the sleighs, and we all piled into them, with a few belongings, and drove off over the hills and far away. And it was winter, around Nativity. So, I remember such a Nativity. There was frost, but we were happy that we had a horse. But where to go—we didn’t know. Where would we find shelter? But the Germans kicked us out, so we left…
We rode through our village of Redkino (from 1969, Redkino was left as a street in the village of Stanovoi Kolodets, Orlov province.—Ed.), and then was Khotetovo—a large village, stretching for a mile-and-a-half. We were driving, and there were many wagons—and all of them without horses… People had probably already divided them up among the houses. The Germans had upset the whole region, and they stopped us here. It turns out, whoever had a horse was selected by the krauts—and they unharnessed our horse. What to do?
It was -35 degrees, -25 at best. It was already evening, then night came. We couldn’t find a place to spend the night. No matter where we poked our noses, everything was shut up. That’s that. What can you do? We moved at least the basic necessities from the sleighs to sleds, and walked on foot to the next village—Eropkino. But every house there was overcrowded. No one let us in.
—And 2,018 years ago, no one took the Lord in on Nativity night…
—There was only one old man who we could feel was being somewhat non-committal. Mama started to cry and beg. He took us in. I remember, we settled in on the floor, but I didn’t sleep. In the morning we fled to Yakovlevo, a further village, where our relatives, an uncle lived. We found out we could go there. We thought we would get ourselves there, but our relatives there were not afraid to come get us on horses. We stayed with them for about a month. This was the beginning of 1942.
—No, it was already closed. They drove us out of there, to Redkino—the church had already been re-opened under the Germans there at the end of 1941. Of course, the Germans were not Orthodox. They didn’t realize that our people had begun to pray, and the Lord had already helped them.
—Vladyka Joseph (Chernov) told Fr. Vladimir Divakov about how he returned from exile at the beginning of 1941, went to a Moscow church on the eve of Nativity, and there were only ten or fifteen people. The next day, on the feast of the Nativity of Christ itself, in the Elokhovosky Cathedral, the church was also half-empty. Then the war began, and people rushed to the churches… There were 2,500 people at Pascha in 1944 at the Church of the Resurrection on Bryusov Lane in Moscow!
—Yes, the Lord admonished the people. How else could it be? God saved Russia only by the prayers of those who returned to the Church. A godless country would have perished, but Holy Rus’ was preserved by the Heavenly powers. Our whole territory had already been divided earlier by Hitler.
—How did you survive the war then?
—We had only temporary housing then—how else? I remember my grandfather somehow got separated from us, and we again had to move from place to place—and then they wouldn’t allow him to come to us. There were German patrols all around. They would stop us: “Stop! Who goes there?” If you didn’t listen, they shot you. It was good if they gave you a warning shot, because they often didn't want to waste shooting a bullet into the air and simply shot you immediately. That's how they shot people then.
In the evening and at night we didn’t even have any source of light—they thought that lighting a fire would give a signal to the partisans. Of course, in my childhood we had no electricity. Now you light a lampada—that’s the best we had even in the easiest of times. Glory to God for all things!
There was famine during the war. When we returned to our previous residence, they had confiscated the garden. We had no other means for sustenance then. I also remember the Germans had a policy where they returned everything to the dispossessed. If their houses had been preserved, they settled them back in them—thus they tried to appease the people. But our house was already destroyed by the time we returned. Only a small add-on remained, and some people had already seized it. Grandpa asked the new proprietors to let us live in this shed; they let us in, and they didn’t bother us until spring: “You can live here for now.” But when spring arrived, they didn’t allow us to sow our garden.
—We survived. Somehow. By the grace of God. Glory to God! It was difficult, of course. Something was planted in some other place, but the potatoes froze in the ground then, and we didn’t manage to gather what we had planted by fall, because the Germans drove us from place to place again. Somehow, we survived. [Batushka took a long pause, recalling within himself exactly how they survived those times—O.O.]
There were seven of us in the family then: my grandfather, my grandmother, my mother, and the four of us children. My father was off at war. We didn’t immediately find out that he had died already in 1942. He died in a hospital in Vladikavkaz. I visit there.
—Was your grandmother a believer?
—Yes, Grandma Domna was a believer, of course. Things were hard for her; Grandpa was hot-tempered, and Grandma was constantly smoothing out rough situations. Grandpa Ivan Semenovich was somewhat myopic, and maybe that’s why he had such an inward-focused character: He didn’t care who or what they thought about him; he spoke the truth, and that was dangerous then. He died during the war, like my father, in 1942. My aunt in Belarus then took my grandmother, because there was a famine in our regions then after the war. My grandmother died there, and they buried her there. Of course, she wanted to return home, but she didn’t get the chance.
It was so hard for everyone then. Even before the war, when they had started driving all the people to collective farms, the hard workers were stripped of everything. They didn’t get a salary, they just took note that you worked that day. They had their passports taken from them—you couldn’t move anywhere. Only my aunt managed to scramble to Moscow, saving herself from such a crackdown. In the villages, the subsidiary farms had taxes imposed on them: From every chicken, if you managed to get any, you had to give so many eggs—and if she didn’t lay any? It was the same with every apple tree—and if there was a bad crop? From every bush—black currants, and so on. It was organized extortion. They even took straw in the villages to cover roofs—imagine, we didn’t even have any straw because we had to give it all to them. Who there is still praising this life under the Soviet authorities? They don’t even know anymore how we lived then. They saw only work. Us children didn’t have any time for games, and there wasn’t any time for holidays.
—So there was no caroling for Nativity then?
—Most of my contemporaries already didn’t even know about it. But in some believing families, where they particularly tried to preserve Church traditions, even with the closed churches, the memory of all of this remained. I don’t know if Barbara Vasilievna is still alive—she moved to the town of Livny at that time. I studied with her in school. She was from a very faithful family. They, the children of this family, would go around glorifying Christ: “Christ is born; glorify Him!” I also went around with them, singing and glorifying Christ.
—Your school was organized in the same Holy Protection Church where your grandfather was the warden before the revolution? Were your teachers believers?
—Yes, the classes were in the church… As the churches were in ruins, the new authorities were particularly active in schools. They tried to introduce and implement their ideology. I finished seven grades. We studied then according to seven-year plans, and in the best case, in cities somewhere—ten-year plans.
I remember that we, of course, also had believing teachers. Not everyone, but some. Our geography teacher was very faithful.
When I was in school, we had nothing: no textbooks or notebooks. I remember making ink from beets. The teachers also didn’t even have any workbooks. They presented everything from memory. I well remember our math teacher Ivan Alexeevich—he got all of my documents in order so I could go to technical school.
—Batushka, when you studied in the technical school in Serpukhov, did you go to church?
—Yes, there was a church right next to the school. There were three other churches in the surrounding area, although there were only services in two of them. The batushki there, in Serpukhov, were good preachers.
At the technical school, all of the teachers were believers—it’s just that they often could not express their faith. They hid it, so as not to lose their jobs. There was less ideological pressure on the teachers in technical schools than in elementary and high schools—the new authorities tried to corrupt children first of all.
Although they followed the youth. I remember one time a KGB agent called out to me: “You,” he said, “I know you’re going to church.”
—And how did you answer him?
—Well, you know. How can you answer a KGB? I started going to Moscow for church. My aunt lived here.
—The one who would take you to church in your childhood, and taught you prayers?
—Yes, her name was Natalia. She was very faithful. When they bombed Moscow, she wasn’t afraid at all, but stayed in church and prayed for everyone.
—What do you remember of Orthodox Moscow in those years?
—Moscow was completely different then!
I remember the servant of God Alexandra—she just wept over old Moscow, over its conciliarity, over the piety of the people. Another babushka I remember would constantly recall how they blew up Christ the Savior Cathedral, and her tears would also flow. They were such pure, faithful souls! They themselves knew life with God, how grace-filled and joyous it is, and they wished such a life for all, and wept, seeing how the people themselves were destroying the possibility for themselves of a peaceful life here on Earth, and of blessedness in eternity with Christ.
—This was before the war?
—Both before and after the war. Then and afterwards the repression of the people continued. Those whom the Soviets could not “re-educate,” they shot. They either corrupted the people with their godless ideology, or they killed them. How many were shot at the Butovo range, how many driven to their graves on Solovki... Before the war, I remember, especially many obscenities began. They manipulated the youth. The propaganda was hard at work. Although then, of course, there were still many tsarist, pre-revolutionary people left. Moscow was different; Russia was different!
—The Church of the Resurrection on Dormition Ravine—it’s the one on Bryusov Lane. My aunt lived near there. She was somewhat sick, but in general, she was very smart and hard-working; she labored a lot. She helped us live through the worst famine times. She was alone. She later wanted to sign over her housing to my name, but I asked her, “Why to me?”
—Which church did you find yourself in for your first Nativity service?
—There on Bryusov Lane. Although I moreso remember how in childhood we celebrated Nativity in Oryol, in the village. But I first went to the service in the capital. The choir at the church was very good then. There were even many famous singers singing on the kliros, and artists from the Bolshoi Theater. Basically, it was a church for the Moscow intelligentsia.
—Who was serving in the church then?
—I remember the rector was Fr. Vladimir Elkhovsky, although there were many priests serving there then, because the majority of churches in Moscow had already been destroyed or were closed. And then the Khrushchev persecutions began…
Khrushchev was just a thug, judging by his behavior. Is it really possible to allow such people into power? He announced on the governmental level the plan to show the last Orthodox priest on television. He wanted to finish off Orthodox Russia.
But the people already greatly valued the Church services then. They were drawn to church by them. My aunt was in church very often. I remember that she was constantly praying at the icon of the prophet of God Elisha, one of the ancient icons of the Church of the Resurrection, at the St. Nicholas altar on the left. You could always find her there, if you didn’t catch her at home.
—Fr. John Butkotkin. This was in Kamyshin, in Volgograd. After the technical institute, I was appointed to work at the cotton fabrics plant. He blessed me to study at Saratov Seminary. He wrote a recommendation for me. Then, when seminaries throughout the country were closing during the Khrushchev persecutions, they transferred me to Petrograd [Bautshka intentionally avoids pronouncing the Soviet name of the city on the Neva—O.O]. When I was studying there in Petrograd, Batushka was already serving in Borovichi, which isn’t far—near Nizhny Novgorod. I would go see him there. I especially loved to go for the feasts. I used to go and sit with him and talk the whole night. We prayed together.
In 2000, while I was in Optina Monastery, Batushka reposed in Samara, where he lived in his last years. He is buried there in the Iveron Convent.
—What do you remember of your studies in the seminary and then the academy?
—It was difficult then, of course. We started studying at one school, then they moved us from Saratov to Petrograd in 1961. Then they began closing seminaries throughout the country under Khrushchev. At first there were many of us Saratov seminarians; they recruited a large class. But just as we were beginning our studies, an anti-Church campaign began, and they were especially zealous about hindering young men from studying for the priesthood. They understood that they were transmitting to us the tsarist Church traditions. Our teachers, both in Saratov and in Petrograd, were still from old, pre-revolutionary times.
When we were studying in Petrograd, the authorities were constantly threatening to close the seminary. Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov), who was appointed to the see then, opposed the closing of the seminary in every way, and even opened a faculty of African Christian youth, as it was called then, inviting black people to study there. Khrushchev, they say, loved African-Americans. He loved them for some reason, but hated his own people… The past century was, of course, a misfortune for Russia.
—How did the Lord reveal Himself in those difficult times?
—He, of course, permitted our trials. Once the Communists took power, they were permitted for our people. They forgot God, therefore the Lord retreated; but He revealed Himself in the lives of believers. The Bolsheviks and Communists were trying to destroy the Church. A darkness surrounded us from all sides then. I remember how frightful it was. But we were taught prayers. I’ve known the “Our Father” since childhood. I prayed. I saw the help of God. The Lord lives. He did not allow them to destroy His Church. It is said that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church (Mt. 16:18).
—St. Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia says we must turn to God, and the Lord Himself will resolve all of the problems of His faithful children. He gives an analogy: When a small child sees some ravenous beast, he doesn’t hurry to get in a fight with him, but he immediately reaches out his hand to his father: “Pa-pa!”
—Yes, we must pray! Fr. John (Krestiankin) would also say, “Apostasy moves along the earth, and do not attempt to stop it with your infirm hand. Beware of it, and the Lord will give you strength and power and fortitude to live in and by God. This alone is salvation.” We have only to pray to God, for the Lord Himself is able to do everything necessary for us.
—How do you experience the Nativity of Christ in your soul?
—In church, with prayer and Communion. The Lord gives us all of Himself in the Mystery of the Eucharist. He is our Nativity; Christ is our Pascha. The main thing is where the will of man himself is directed: What do you yourself desire? Are you looking to be born for the spiritual world? The Lord knocks at every soul. He calls us to the Church. He wants to save us. He gives us everything not just for this life, but more importantly, for eternal life. He even sends us weaknesses so we would contemplate what awaits us in the future age. If you get sick—it’s a reminder for you: pray, prepare for Communion. Sometimes we’re so busy that it’s like we don’t believe in God. But then we get sick and we immediately remember Him! That’s how it always is when we have some troubles, or a war suddenly starts—the people stream into the churches.
With God, it’s not scary. The Lord helps.
—What are your brightest memories connected with the feast of the Nativity of Christ?
—The festal atmosphere itself always gladdens the soul. When a man is with the Lord, then everything within him glorifies God. The king's daughter is all glorious within (Ps. 44:14). St. Athanasius the Great explains that the conversation here is about piety, that is, the decoration of the interior, spiritual Church. The service itself is, by the way, experienced differently in childhood and in adulthood. Even the troparion is perceived quite differently in childhood. It’s different now.
—How can we reveal the meaning of the Nativity of Christ to children?
—For them, of course, the external grandeur is important. It is good for the feast to be celebratory. It’s important to explain to them the history of the feast. How they empathize with the Mother of God, that there was no place for her with her Divine Son! The scene itself touches them, if a manger scene is set up with great love. Make a manger, place the sheep, the cows. This is encouraging for children. They very vividly imagine the appearance of the angels, the long trek of the magi, and the joy of the shepherds who also came to worship the Christ Child. Gifts should also be given to the children, of course; then they will bring their own gifts and vows to the Lord. Their lives will be attuned to God from an early age.
All of this joy was hidden from our generation. When I entered the Pskov Caves Monastery, I had the obedience of giving tours for four years. I showed people the caves. Teachers with children often came to the monastery during these Nativity days when schools had a break. Some of them would pounce on me: “Just don’t tell them anything about faith!” But, on the other hand, others said, “Tell them, please, more about God and about the Church.” You could see the difference in the children! It’s immediately obvious whether they have a believing teacher or not. There was a setup in school then that the children should know nothing about the Church. What destruction of their souls it was!
I was serving in parishes in the Pskov region then. There, besides the one monastery, the only one left open in Russia, there were about eighty active churches. They would send us monks to serve there. When I would go visit Fr. John Bukotkin while I was in the Petrograd Seminary, I thought at first there would be especially many churches in Nizhny Novgorod. The ground there is sanctified by the ascetic labors of saints such as St. Seraphim of Sarov; Diveyevo is there—the fourth lot of the Most Holy Theotokos. But there were only a dozen open churches in all ! The commissioner acted so villainously there. They closed all the churches in a row. In the Pskov region the commissioner loved antiquity, so he didn’t touch the churches. And Vladyka John (Razumov) managed to get along with him. Therefore, there were a lot of churches there in the Pskov region.
—How did you celebrate Nativity in the Pskov Caves Monastery?
—Glory to God. Metropolitan Nikodom (Rotov) had already ordained me, so I entered the monastery as a hieromonk already. Therefore, they often sent me somewhere on Nativity—I would serve somewhere in the villages, in parishes, so the people would have the feast there too. It was good there. And what churches we had there in the monastery! Dormition, Archangel Michael, the Meeting of the Lord… [Batushka again returned to his beloved places mentally. His face became very joyous and happy.—O. O.]
—And how did you celebrate Nativity on Mt. Athos?
—Each monastery in its own way. Of course, a special festal All-Night Vigil was always served, and then the festal Liturgy. We didn’t have a very long service at St. Panteleimon’s Monastery, even on Great Feasts. In the Great Lavra, the service could last for ten hours.
—How do you, monks, greet one another on the Nativity of Christ?
—Everyone shares his joyous mood and it multiplies. The Lord give us all grace: both monastics and laymen. Share your joy.