Thirty years ago, on June 16, 1988, the Kiev Caves Lavra was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. That remarkable event was timed to coincide with the great anniversary in our history – the millennium of the Baptism of Russia (Rus’). On that day the first solemn Divine Liturgy was celebrated in the square near the Far Caves, which gathered a great multitude of clergy and the faithful. From that day on monastic life in the Lavra was revived. Archimandrite Avraamy (Kuyava), father-confessor of the Kiev Caves Lavra, shares his memories of the life in this monastery before its closure by the Soviet authorities.
Sixty-five years ago, Adam Kuyava, now Archimandrite Avraamy, came to the Lavra and was admitted to the monastery brotherhood. He performed his first obediences during the post-war period—one of the most difficult periods in the history of the Russian Church. Ravaged and seriously desecrated by the godless fanatics, the shrine was just beginning to return to life and rise from ruins after twenty years of desolation. But as a consolation to the faithful who had experienced unheard-of bloodshed, the divine grace acquired by the holy elders, abounded at the restored monastery. Fr. Avraamy saw the generation of the Kiev Caves elders who had been called to monastic life before the Revolution and who preserved the living tradition of spiritual continuity from ancient times. He absorbed their spirit, their zeal for God, their strength of faith, simplicity and Christian love. Along with all these virtues, love breathes in his words, as if reflecting that peaceful light of old in our days.
I served there until demobilization. We were forbidden to practice our faith in the army. Whenever soldiers went on a leave of absence, I hurried to the cathedral, to the church. I found a cathedral and attended a service there. On the following day the political supervisor called me “on the carpet” for an hour and a half. He started telling me off: “Who educated you?! What are your ideological views?” And so forth. I replied: “I am a believer. And all my family is religious. There were no atheists in our village before the Soviet Union.” “You may go now, but I will summon you later.” But from that day they began to treat me with respect, and when I was leaving the army they provided me with such a great testimonial that I could become a director immediately. It turned out that the officer believed in God and his wife was a church-goer.
There was also another, ancient church of red bricks in Gryaznov Street. I was asked: “Do you want to go to this church?” “Yes, I do,” I answered. So I was taken to this church on Sunday. I stood through the service in my military uniform. I wanted to take Communion very much, but I had nowhere to lay my cap with a red star badge. Suddenly a man standing beside me offered: “Let me hold your cap.” When I received Communion and returned to my place, the same man asked me: “Can you come to my place next Sunday?” “Of course, why not?” I answered.
And it turned out that a group of nuns would gather at his house; there was a lot of spiritual literature, and they would sing religious songs and Orthodox hymns. And I ended up in that spiritual oasis. They gave me a book on St. Seraphim of Sarovd, and I would read it while at the post. One day a lieutenant came in and stood by me without saying anything. It turned out that he believed in God too. As for Nikolai (the man who held my cap during the Sunday Liturgy on that day), we became close spiritual friends for many years. He was a little older than me and a war veteran, like me. At that time he already served at church as an acolyte.
I did not think about monastic life back then. I lived in a flat above the Dnieper. When I met Nikolai, he offered to me: “I know one elderly woman living nearby. I want to introduce you to her. Speak with her about lodging.” I agreed. On the following week I came, and he acquainted me with Theodosia—a little woman with a hunched back who loved monks and nuns so dearly! She was descended from a family of wealthy landowners and in the Soviet era worked as a domestic servant. The Soviet authorities would hunt for all rich people in order to “dispossess” them, but God miraculously protected Theodosia. The KGB knew about her descent, knew that she prayed, sang in the church and read the Psalter. They would track down any “enemies of Communism” permanently. Once she was summoned and asked: “Do you really read in the church?” “Yes, I do,” she replied. “Okay,” they said. So I stayed at Theodosia’s and worked as a tailor for some time before my move to Kiev.
By the mercy of God I joined the Kiev Caves Lavra in 1953. I came there in September, just before the feast of St. Theodosius of the Kiev Caves. I joined a group of our believers from Zaporozhye when they went on a pilgrimage to Kiev for the first time. It was my friend Nikolai (later Monk Nikon) who suggested that I go to this holy place. I remember that it took us three days to reach Kiev by a steam-engine train which moved very slowly and frequently stopped to pick up passengers. I arrived at the Lavra at the very time when the Vespers for the feast St. Theodosius was beginning!
Earlier during his visit to the Lavra Nikolai had met Fr. Gerasim. So, when we arrived at the feast of St. Theodosius, he led me straight to the elder. Igumen Gerasim (secular name: Gregory Pavlovich Steshenko; 1878-1956) was then the brethren’s father-confessor. He hailed from Poltava province. In his young days he served in the royal army, and at the time of my arrival he was a very old man. He also helped as a “church shop assistant”. There stood a booth (like a police stand; now it is used by Cossacks) by the entrance to the Near Caves. Postcards with views of the Lavra, small icons, candles, incense, and crosses were sold there. There was also a box for submitting prayer lists inside the church. And nothing else—almost everything was forbidden. Tiny icon cards were sold to the faithful on the sly. But no large icons were offered at the church shop for sale (as is freely done today). With the exception of these small items, church people were not allowed to sell or do anything. There were serious frequent revisions. Having undergone so many horrors and trials, people had a lot of fear after the war. Some Christians were released from prisons, but some still languished. There were continuous persecutions.
Thus, Fr. Gerasim, who was to become my spiritual father, would sit in this booth, receive prayer lists and hear confessions before Communion. He was the father confessor and spiritual guide for two monastic communities—namely the Kiev Caves Lavra and the Holy Protection Convent. In addition, he heard the confessions of seminary students once a month. By the time of my arrival in Kiev I had decided to join the Lavra: services were celebrated there, there were priests and monks. When Nikolai and I came to Fr. Gerasim to ask for his blessing, he said: “Wait a little. When I finish, we will go to my cell to have a meal.” During the dinner I told him that I was going to become a monk and wondered if life at the Lavra was difficult. Fr. Gerasim answered me that it would be better to approach the father-superior, Fr. Nestor.
So Fr. Gerasim and I came to Fr. Nestor, who shortly after became a bishop. “Father-superior, please admit this young man to the monastery. He is a brilliant crafstman and can sew anything!” At that time I worked at a sewing workshop. The father-superior replied: “Fr. Gerasim, I know that you would never recommend a bad candidate for a monk. All right, may God bless you!” He was to be consecrated a bishop a week or two later, and it was time to prepare vestments for him. So it was me who sewed them—a sakkos, an omophorion and everything else. They were quite simple (not to be compared with brocade) and he was consecrated in these vestments. Eternal memory to this bishop! It is nearly half a century since his repose.
Fr. Melitius (Melety), the treasurer, gave me some money for my journey. But the money was only enough for the journey back, and I had no savings at all. I said at my work that I was going back home to Volhynia because my mother was ill. So I quit my job and came to the Lavra, where they received me in the most benevolent manner. And I remained at the monastery forever. The grace of God has been protecting us, the Lavra brethren, in all our ways. And it is such an inexpressible joy that the Lord has kept us even to this day! There is no greater lifestyle than monastic living!
Soon the Lord brought my friend Nikolai to the Lavra as well. We lived there together until its closure in 1961. Igumen Nikon (secular name: Nikolai Illarionovich Garkushenko; 1915-1986) became my spiritual father after Fr. Gerasim’s death. Afterwards he took his mother here as well. After the monastery’s closure they lived in Irpen near Kiev in a hut that he bequeathed to me. However, I didn’t need this gift and gave the property to someone who really needed it. Fr. Nikon is buried at the Zverinets Cemetery in Pechersk [a historic neighborhood in southeast Kiev].
In the early fifties there were about 100 monks at the monastery. Brethren from the Holy Trinity Monastery of St. Jonas and other neighboring monasteries moved here after the Lavra had been reopened during the war. All gathered at the Lavra, because the Soviet authorities did not allow the Church to open other monasteries. After the war, outstanding elders lived here and attracted many people. I saw St. Kuksha (Velichko), a famous spiritual father and man of prayer. Subsequently the elder was transferred to Pochaev but he would nevertheless come to see the venerable fathers at the Lavra after that. He spent his final years at the Dormition Monastery in Odessa, where he was buried.
Many believers flocked to Fr. Damian (Korneichuk) as well. He was a schema-monk and spiritual son of the Venerable Jonas of Kiev, and before the Lavra he had lived at the St. Jonas Monastery. The elder resided at the living quarters above the Near Caves; his cell was on the first floor. In summer he would receive people at the gallery, and throughout the rest of the year he would come out to a room adjacent to his cell to speak to parishioners. I remember it very well. Fr. Damian would stand by the icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God when it was brought down for the veneration. Two schema-monks would perform their obedience by this wonderworking icon, namely Fr. Damian and Fr. Parfeny (Parthenius). People would come up and venerate the icon with reverence.
Other fathers joined the Lavra soon after me: Fr. Isaias (Korovai), Fr. Theophil (Rossokha), Fr. Rufus (Rezvykh), and Fr. Mardarius (Danilov). Through the prayers of the Kiev Caves fathers all of us strengthened spiritually and gained experience in monastic life from the elders. Monks Rufus, Zachariah and Isaias were tonsured at St. Anthony’s Caves together with me. I was the fourth. The tonsure was usually performed at St. Anthony’s Church. The rite has not changed since then. But the Lavra has been transformed, and it is still being decorated and restored. We need repair work very much. The splendor of the church is a demonstration of your respect for the holy place. Then we were very poor, all the buildings were falling into decay, and we were under constant control.
There was an almshouse in the Far Caves where old simple monks spent the final years of their lives. Nadya [a diminutive form of the name Nadezhda], a stout and well-educated woman, served at the almshouse. She would distribute food among its inhabitants in a bucket. The refectory was located where Metropolitan Paul’s (the current father-superior’s) office now stands. The Church of St. Joachim (building no. 50) also belonged to the monastery, while all other buildings were given to workers. I also remember Hieromonk Anempodistus (Vasiliev) who was in charge of the Caves—he was very modest and a model monk. He used to tell us that in 1945 the Lavra had had no more than ten monks, because the authorities would try to catch monks and put them to prison. Though the patriarch asked the government not to touch the Church, it nevertheless was persecuted internally. And the Mother of God gathered up to 100 monks after my arrival. All of them were of the older generation, true elders and confessors of the faith. All of them (except for the youngest ones) had served prison terms for the faith. The Soviet authorities did not spare anybody—almost all priests and monks languished in prisons, some of them survived and some died there. The slogan of the Soviet anti-Christian propaganda was, “religious belief is harmful”.
There was barely enough room for the monks as most of the monastic buildings were occupied by secular people. Every monk was cooped up in a cramped cell with twenty brothers. In summer, pilgrims spent nights in the yard or slept by the walls with depictions of the “aerial toll-houses” at the entrance to the Near Caves, piles up like haystacks. Multitudes of pilgrims would come for the feasts of Sts. Anthony and Theodosius or the Dormition of the Holy Theotokos, and they would normally stay at the homes of local residents. Hospitality to strangers was widespread among the local believers, and there were no hotels at all.
According to custom, we would pray through the night. The square in front of the church (which is now under asphalt) would turn green with grass, with numerous pilgrims and parishioners sitting on it, and singing religious songs and Orthodox hymns. It seemed they knew absolutely all the hymns! Like in days of old, there were wandering blind men among them who sang various spiritual tales. It was not their habit to go to the city so they would stay on the Lavra’s territory. These people were of modest means, yet they preserved a firm faith and simplicity. Indeed there was poverty and there was love!
As we walked along the monastery, we heard beautiful men’s voices singing all the time. Many visited the Pochaev Lavra and other monasteries and trained themselves. As a result they sang so wonderfully, as if they were from heaven! Baritones, tenors… I could listen to them nonstop! They performed various pieces unceasingly. Our Lavra’s choir sang exceptionally, too. It was composed of experienced monks. Archimandrite Nikon (Belokobylsky) was a prominent lead singer in the Lavra. Every time my soul was thrilled with joy as soon as he started singing “Blessed is the man…” And now the churches are equipped with modern high-tech sound systems, microphones etc…
First I was an acolyte and later served as a sacristan for many years. Meanwhile many old monks died, and some were sent to Balta, Odessa and Pochaev, and eventually only a handful of monks remained here. The authorities were planning to close down the Kiev Caves Lavra. There was the patriarch’s summer house in Odessa with a cable road running straight to the sea. Everything was perfectly arranged there…
The period immediately following the end of the war was marked by the relaxation of restrictions against the Church. But it was not to last long. In general monks were persecuted, and many had not been released from prisons. Pochaev was not severely affected because it was far from the capital and close to the West, while the monasteries and convents near Kiev were closed down. That is why few young people displayed zeal for monastic life in that period; the restrictions and persecutions were constant, and people were afraid. When the authorities drove the Lavra monks away, they dispersed in different directions. Some travelled to the Caucasus, others went to Pochaev. Russia experienced the most savage persecutions. There the first blows of the Revolution fell most heavily on the Orthodox Church. Almost all churches were closed; the only functioning monastery was that of the Pskov Caves. I was there; it was also wonderful monastery.
In 1961, the authorities orchestrated a provocation with the view of closing the Lavra. In the guise of a press photographer a security officer was sent there, and he started taking photographs of the territory. Bishop Nestor told one of his monks: “Go and forbid them to photograph! They are ‘collecting compromising information’ about us!” Thus Fr. Paul, Fr. Igor and Fr. Rufus came up to this disguised security officer, seized him (so all his buttons came off) and led him to the exit. He immediately called the police, and when they police arrived he exclaimed: “These are bandits! They have beaten me up!” They were taken and arrested—Fr. Paul and Fr. Rufus were sentenced to five years in prison, and Fr. Igor was imprisoned for three years.
After the Lavra’s closure, by the grace of God I remained in Kiev and first worked as a stoker. A year later I got a job at an organization that grew flowers. When the persecutions abated, I served at Demievka [a former town and now a historic area on the territory of Kiev’s Goloseevsky District] and went to St. Vladimir’s Cathedral. Though I never served at the Holy Ascension Church at Demievka as a priest, I would serve the proskomedia during the Liturgy and read the intercession lists there. I visited the Lavra even after it had been closed. While the veneration of relics was prohibited, I somehow contrived to do it. The cast-iron floor was oiled to prevent people from kneeling on it. People were very disappointed, grieved and shed tears.
Modern monks are different from old monks, who were more spiritual and physically stronger. As St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) and other holy fathers said, the elders of those times possessed enormous physical and spiritual strength, and therefore they performed ascetic labors, had the gift of unceasing prayer and so on. But now people in the world are weaker; and monks don’t appear out of nowhere—they come from the world. The world is weak, so monks are weak too; this is how the spirit is weakening. More than that, today there is no strict discipline and obedience, as it was before. Formerly monks could not take a step without a blessing.
I was born in 1926 and am now ninety-two. All the representatives of my generation are dead; the most recent death was that of Archpriest Mefody (Methodius) Finkevich, a prominent preacher. He graduated from the Moscow Theological Academy, then served at St. Vladimir’s Cathedral and after that served as rector of the church in Demievka for many years.
What can I say about the traditions of the Lavra’s elders? There have been no elders for a long time! The spirit was very different in my days. Today many things are declining, including spiritual things. Formerly there were simplicity and love, and so there were elders. Today everything is changing and there are innovations in all spheres. Those times won’t come back. The decline began even when some of the Optina Elders were still alive… So can we talk about any elders today? The elders supported people. Formerly life was simple, but now everyone wants to make life easier and more comfortable. And people believe all of this. But we ought to put these things to the test to see whether or not we need to change our ways.
At the Lavra we see things as clearly as if it were heaven. And the Lord reveals the trials that await us to His chosen ones. When Elder Damian died, Elder Polichronius (Dubrovsky) was sent here in his stead; he supported people and they flocked to him. Polichronius (later Schema-Archimandrite Prokhor) was a true servant of God (he reposed at Pochaev) and he used to share what he had heard from the elders with me. They prophesied that there would be a war, which would end; that the Lavra would be closed and later opened again.
There was a blind man who used to keep guard at the gate leading to the bishop’s office. He became accustomed to the Lavra in spite of his blindness, and his obedience was to act as a guard holding a stick. He possessed the gifts of discernment and clairvoyance. He had a perfect memory and used to tell us many things. Thus, he predicted that the Lavra would be revived. There was a boiler room below and a Moldavian worked there. There was no gas at that time, so we first used firewood and then charcoal for heating. Once when I was walking past the boiler house on one Church feast day, this Moldavian said to me: “Father, imagine what I have seen! A yard completely overrun by cats! It must be an evil omen!” And the Lavra was already being encroached upon—the monks were told to move to Pochaev, Odessa or Balta.
Galina Lukinichna, another true servant of God who lived in a semi-basement of the Far Caves, was content and even received believers, once told me what she had seen in a prophetic dream. She entered the church and saw female choristers with a playing portable gramophone in the choir where priests used to stand. “In terror I proceeded and saw Bishop Nestor sitting with his back to the altar. Father, what does it mean? It must be an evil presentiment!” she said. And indeed a year later the Lavra was closed down under this bishop. It had been a sign from heaven warning us about the tragic events. The atheists’ main goal was to destroy the Church and scatter the faithful, church-going people.
France or some other European country has recently decided that there is no God, that religion is irrelevant and faith is pointless. As the saying goes, if our neighbor’s house is on fire we must be on the alert. Two countries—the USA and Russia—are two poles apart; all other countries are looking at them and choosing whether they are with America or with Russia.
May we repent, may we stay close to the Church until it is too late. We must repent whenever we can, for we don’t know when our final hour will come. The sooner we begin the better, for in then we will have time for preparation.
Some of the faithful will stay close to God. But it will be extremely difficult, as all these documents and innovations restrict Christians in many ways. We should beware! Everything was written in the Gospels and the Revelation and all these prophecies are being gradually fulfilled. The enemy is setting traps for Christians to ensnare them for his kingdom. The apostle wrote that there would come the most terrible days when Christians would be declared enemies. May we avoid these trials with the help of God, for it was written that very hard, grievous times will set in. For satan will become furious when Christians refuse to recognize his authority and reject his seal; for this he will fiercely persecute them.
There is a prophecy dating back to pre-revolutionary times. According to it, during the reign of antichrist the Lord will take the great church of the Lavra up into heaven. The whole Church is precious to the Mother of God, but the Lavra is very special. But the church means people, so they will ascend to heaven. These will be the people who will remain faithful and free from the influence of the state which will urge them to comply with the antichrist’s orders. Christ will take the worthiest of the people who won’t obey satan. May the Mother of God find us worthy of Her mercy! Let us hurry and repent until it is too late! Otherwise we will be rejected by the Lord and feel terribly ashamed. May God save us!