At first both Fr. Evgeny (Eugene) and Irina Smirnov were going to marry different people. But their chosen ones refused, fearing they would not live up to the high standards of family life that their would-be spouses, the Smirnovs, had set. It can be said that their meeting was arranged by the Lord. They didn’t lower their standards, and have succeeded in bringing up not only five of their own children but also three adopted children.
Archpriest Evgeny Smirnov. Aged forty. Rector of the Holy Trinity Church in the town of Slobodskoy of the Diocese of Vyatka in the Kirov region [a region in central Russia with its administrative center in the city of Kirov on the Vyatka River.—Trans.]. Dean of the Slobodskoy District of the Vyatka Diocese. Chairman of the Department for Religious Education and Catechization of the Vyatka Diocese.
Irina Smirnov. Aged thirty-nine. A choir director.
They have been married for nineteen years.
Alexandra, eighteen, a student of the Kirov Medical College;
Nicholai, sixteen, a ninth-grader of school no. 14 of the town of Slobodskoy;
Lyubov, thirteen, a seventh-grader of the same school;
Seraphim, ten, a fourth-grader;
Ilia, twenty-six, a private business owner;
Andrei, twenty-six, a machine operator at a woodworking enterprise;
Ivan, twenty-five, an employee of a cultural institution.
Fr. Evgeny speaks:
I am a priest’s son. I saw the way my parents lived, what kinds of problems they faced at their parish, and realized that the same awaited me. However, I did want to follow in my parents’ footsteps as they were always my role models, and I wanted to serve God and people.
The priestly ministry is a special ministry, so it was important to me that my future chosen wife should abide by the rules of Orthodox piety. I was looking for a young woman who was willing to bear the cross of a priest’s wife. When I first met Irina, I was a freshman at the Moscow theological academy, and she had just been admitted to a choir directors’ school. Before that I had dated another girl, but at some point she said to me: “I am afraid I can’t meet your expectations. I won’t manage.” I had already realized the same by that time and I let her go. But with Irina I immediately felt that we would be heart and soul to one another—and this is precisely what happened. I thank God for that.
After graduating from the Moscow Theological Academy I was sent to serve in the town of Slobodskoy. There I began to give spiritual care to a children’s home and got to know the children. Several teenagers attended my church regularly, confessed and took Communion… In time we decided to adopt them. The boys made a conscious choice. We didn’t come to the children’s home and say: “Give us this boy! We like him.” It happened spontaneously. The boys would come to services and helped me at church. Then they began to come to my place, and at some point it became clear that we would most probably never part. Seeing how much they were drawn to us, we couldn’t help but reciprocate their affection.
True, we faced difficulties. By that time we already had three very young children of our own. All of us had to get used to the new situation. Sometimes there were misunderstandings among us, but we tried not to worsen our relations. We went to church and prayed to God. The boys were from problem families, each of them had experienced some psychological trauma which affected their behavior. But I used to say to them: “You have parents: your dad and mom. Maybe they made a mistake and committed a sin—the Lord will judge them, but you should pray for them. Children should treat their parents with respect—this is what the Lord taught us to do. The time will come when you will become parents; then, please, don’t repeat their mistakes.” They would always call us “father” and “mother”.
As is the case with all large families, we do have financial problems. We solve most of our problems on our own. We have a private house, a small farm, and a kitchen garden. We acquired our first home using the “maternity capital” subsidies granted by our state. In other respects the state support of large families is insufficient, particularly in our region. Through generous people the Lord blessed us with a new and more spacious house in which we have lived ever since. While we don’t have rich parents or other relatives or any sources of permanent support, the Lord has been helping us through kind people and not only through them. I think every religious family with many children can tell such stories about how help from above is evident at some points. True, we never know when and how the Lord will help us, and that is why we don’t sit idly by.
Apart from a comprehensive school our children go to an art school and a music school; they help me at church and with housekeeping. My children are my helpers. They sing in the choir, help me in the altar, and ring the bells—in my time I used to help my parents in the same way. It is an essential educating factor when the whole family is engaged in a common cause. I don’t force my children to help me at church—they do it voluntarily, it was their own decision. I always thank them for this help. It is the same at home—if I put the children in charge of feeding the chickens and watering the kitchen garden, I know that it will be done.
The following situation inevitably arises in every Orthodox family sooner or later. One day the child wakes up and says: “I don’t want to go to church, I am sleepy.” This matter should be considered impartially. If he is really tired, if he has had an overload of school or other work, then he can be allowed to have enough sleep. But if he is lazy and he takes advantage of his parents’ kindness, this shouldn’t be tolerated. And my parents brought me up using the same principle: Whenever I got tired, they would never take me by the collar and drag me to church. At the same time, I understood that you mustn’t lie to God and that it is shameful to deceive your parents. But my soul longed for church. I have always loved church and Church services. I even got upset whenever I couldn’t go to church, especially on feast-days.
As for domestic work, you ought to have a sense of responsibility. If parents give their children a task, it is important. When I was a boy, my parents never assigned me a useless task. Each time, I realized why I was doing one or another job and saw the result. Now I am trying to train my children to be caring and responsible heads of their households in the future in the same way. True, housekeeping can be a physically challenging job, so you have to exert yourself. But we do it together, and it strengthens the bond between our family members.
Children shouldn’t be unsociable. Sometimes parents say: “Don’t have anything to do with those boys/girls or they may have a bad influence on you.” But our children are on friendly terms with all their peers, and our house is never empty—there’s always someone coming to see one of our children. Our house has nearly turned into a giant anthill, but I’m glad their friends come to our place and my children are not going no one knows where. It means they feel good here. The only thing I forbid my children to do is to listen to bawdy, vulgar songs that many youngsters are crazy about. But they aren’t interested in that type of music anyway and have become immune to bad influences of that kind. The music school cultivates good taste.
And it is important for children not to lose their heads because of their friends, not least when their friends lead them astray. I am convinced that we mustn’t break the Lord’s commandments and choose the path of sin to please our friends. It would be better to help someone who has left the straight and narrow to mend his ways. For this we must have the moral foundation which should necessarily be laid down in the family. And even if others don’t share our convictions and principles, if they have chosen the path of sin and are inviting us there, we shouldn’t despise them or break with them. As Christians we need to do all we can to help them get out of trouble. This is something we quite often talk about with our children—they see that their classmates and friends sometimes do wrong. And we decide together about how we as Christians are supposed to act in these situations.
When I have free time, we watch a wide range of movies with our children, discuss their content, and analyze the problem situations. It is normal, face-to-face communication with my children. Unfortunately, I rarely have spare time. My main problem is too much work. I work seven days a week—leaving early in the morning and coming home late in the evening. But the children are well aware where their father is and what he is busy with. I come home and recount how I have travelled across the diocese, what remote parishes I have visited, how a conference in Kirov went off and how we talked with the bishop. I share our parish problems and concerns with them. And the children help me at church and take part in events at deanery level. We have all come to love our town of Slobodskoy with all our hearts and we really feel at home here. Even if I am seldom at home, the children must feel all the time that I share life with them. After all, we are one family, and it is a priest’s family.
I was brought up at a convent from the age of ten. My brother died tragically, and my mother took me to Diveyevo Convent. We liked it at the convent and remained there. I had obediences in Diveyevo: I baked prosphora, sang and for a while even intended to become a nun. But when I was about fourteen, my views changed radically and I realized that I wanted a family. But I had nowhere to go and we had nothing left in the world. Abbess Sergia didn’t insist that I become a novice, although a podrasnik (monastic dress) had already been sewn for me. My awkward age was a tumultuous period for me: I had a lot of admirers… And then the mother-superior hid me in the skete. Mother Sergia’s decision was wise—she didn’t “send me into an exile” but gave me an important assignment. She said: “A church is to be opened in the skete, but it has no choir; you will make a good choir director, you know services very well, so please start a choir there. And we will see what to do next.” I, a teenager, was flattered by her invitation! So I came to the skete and found that it was situated over seven miles away from the nearest highway, so there was no way to escape! At first I felt miserable and wept there, but I had a job to tackle. The choir turned out not bad; we even released video-recordings of spiritual songs, and all the cassettes were sold out quickly.
It was there, at the skete, that my idea of marriage was formed completely. I read all that I could find in the skete library on family life. When I was still living in the convent, I was well in with priests’ families in Diveyevo and observed intently how they communicated with their spouses and children. Those impressions, and afterwards, the books, shaped the image of the family as quite patriarchal in my consciousness. I was particularly amazed by two books. The first one was the Holy Tsarina Alexandra’s correspondence. The second one was The Christian Virtue of Chastity and Purity by Germogen Shimansky—it opened my eyes to many aspects of family life, which the nuns couldn’t have told me about.
From the first years of my life at the convent I was on friendly terms with one young man and was going to marry him. But he went to Nizhny Novgorod for studied and changed very much over a few years. I may have changed too, although in a different way. When we met again I started talking excitedly about Shimansky’s book, but he became melancholy and said: “We are taught moral theology by this book. Who lives by these rules? One in a hundred.” I replied to him: “I want to be one in a hundred!” And when we met next time he said he wouldn’t be able to meet my requirements. So we parted.
That event “took the wind out of my sails”. I was nineteen. And I wanted to get married! The only alternative was the skete, and I saw no way out. The mother superior said to me: “Pray to God, and He will arrange everything.” And this is what happened to me. I went to pray at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra for ten days and took the entrance exam for the choir directors’ school there. And I passed! Post factum the abbess sent a reference and a letter of recommendation for me.
I had no money and there was no one to pay for my tuition, so I got a job as a waitress in the canteen of the Moscow Theological Academy. It was there that I met my future husband a few months later. When he first accompanied me to the house where I rented a room, we turned out to have so many things in common to talk about! When we approached the house, he said: “I used to live in this house when I first came to the Lavra.” I returned home really relieved, feeling that I had found my other half. Soon he asked: “Will you marry me?” Of course, I responded that I needed some time to think, while deep in my heart I understood that I would become his wife.
Family life certainly turned out not to be quite as I had expected it to be, judging by all the books. Before Fr. Evgeny finished his studies we lived in Sergiyev Posad. He served at two parishes in Moscow. I would take my children, and with a pram or a baby carrier I would go to his church in Moscow by a suburban train. I wanted to be close to him, to see the people he communicated with and to take Communion from the same Chalice with him. And when we moved to Slobodskoy, I realized that if the children and I just stayed at home then we would never see our father, so we would go to church at the first opportunity. And the children were willing to go to church too. I organized a Sunday school at once. My husband went to the children’s home—and I joined him.
I always wanted my husband to spend more time at home and devote more attention to the children. Sometimes I cried and was nervous. What did I do in such situations? I went to church. As soon as I had prayed at church, I felt relieved. Socializing with people also helped me. We shouldn’t withdraw into our shells. I tried not to complain, not to “wash our dirty linen in public”, but whenever I felt lonely in the evening I would take my children and go and see our friends. So I would relax, the children would have their fill of running, come home exhausted and go to bed themselves and I won’t need to persuade them. Besides, I found books by the Orthodox psychologists Irina Medvedeva and Tatiana Shishova extremely helpful and I would strongly recommend them to all parents. We women often misunderstand our husbands and children, and religious psychologists help us sort this problem out.
When the boys from the children’s home appeared in our house, I had no apprehensions—I had a shock. I was only twenty-five. Parents normally grow up with children, but then I got teenagers on my hands and instantly faced the problems of that awkward age. First we just allowed them to stay overnight because we were to rehearse our Nativity play at the Sunday school next day. Then they asked us to take them for a weekend. And later they would spend their holidays with us. I was thinking all the time about how to keep them busy because idleness causes a lot of trouble. That was my chief concern. Unlike younger children, you cannot tell teenagers to sit down and sculpt figures with play dough. So they would peel potatoes and we would tidy up the house together; first I would assign jobs to them and then they would come and say: “Mother, come and see our work!”—they had gotten used to this at their children’s home.
Once I decided to put the teenagers in charge of taking the younger children for a walk. Scarcely had they left home when a neighbor ran around to me and cried out: “You’re crazy! Why have you sent them to look after the younger ones?! They’ll kill them or lose them!” I began to panic, got dressed and was about to run out after them. But I stood on the doorstep and thought: “If I run after them now, they’ll understand that I don’t trust them, feel hurt, and then it’ll be hard for me to make up with them.” And I didn’t go. I stayed at home and prayed. And they returned from their walk very happy!
When the older children went back to the children’s home after their holidays, the younger ones would cry and ask them: “Will you come again?” Then the director of the home told us we should make a decision because the boys de facto lived with us but we had no official permission, so the inspection could find fault with us at any moment. So we started completing the formalities of a foster family. The people around me nagged at me day and night saying I was mad, that the adopted boys would rape our girls and stab us to death. In a word, I had to listen to a lot of nonsense…
True, we did have difficulties. But little by little everything was settled—sometimes by compromises, sometimes through our strictness. The guys are now adults and live separately, but they still do come to see us. They help us with the kitchen-garden, and we always meet up to celebrate feasts and birthdays. But I make it a condition that if they stay with us they must live by our rules. No walking around at night and no listening to obscene music. The whole family prays before going to bed—and they are to pray with us. Everybody goes to church on Sunday—and they are to go with us. Otherwise it will be difficult to explain to the younger children why they aren’t allowed to do the things that the older ones are.
The better part of our life is quite emotional, so we do not even have time to worry—all our worries come while we are in a hurry. My daughter Lyubov even asks me: “Everybody says that we are a united family. But where is our unity? Other families can meet up and go to a barbecue, while we have no time for parties—all our feasts take place at nighttime!” And she is right. We are so busy we have no time to sit down around the table on Christmas or Pascha—with our Sunday school activities, concerts etc. we always come home towards the evening. Early Christians would pray at night, while we have a meal at night! So I answer my daughter: “But look: Every Sunday we all stand together at church. Dad serves, Seraphim helps in the altar, and we all sing. This is genuine unity and that’s far more important than barbecues!” Unity in Christ never stops and never ends; our friendship, our love will be everlasting, and neither separation nor death can prevent this.