Matushka Magdalena (Nekrasova) labors in the Orthodox Convent of the Protection of the Mother of God in Bussy-en-Othe, Burgundy (France). During the 1960s, a very difficult time for the Church in the Soviet Union, her family lived in Vologda, where they had settled after onerous years of trial and humiliation—exile in Kazakhstan, where they were sent after their return to the USSR from emigration. But their trials did not end in Vologda; the faithful are never left without them. Nevertheless, Matushka Magdalena has always cherished fond memories of Vologda.
In those days, all the regime’s efforts were aimed putting a swift end to the struggle with "religious superstition," Nikita Khruschev, I recall, promised to show within the next few years on television the last priest, or maybe it was even the last religious person in our country.
In 1962, I was working as an accountant at the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross in the town of Gryazovtsa. On that memorable day of March 21, I came home to Vologda where my family lived, and was getting ready to go to evening services at the cathedral. I had already left the house when I met Bishop Mstislav at the door. He was head of the Vologda diocese at the time. When he heard that I had come home for two days he began to forcefully persuade me to go the Central House of Culture, where that evening one anti-religious activist was supposed to be giving a talk. This was the former priest, Chertkov. I had no desire whatsoever to go there, especially since my spiritual father had advised me never to listen to or read all that anti-religious nonsense, which only sullies the soul. But the more I resisted the more decisively the bishop insisted that at least one of us needs to hear one of these presentations and know what methods they are using. Finally, I had to submit.
That evening there were several young people at our house, and one girl decided to go with me to that auditorium. For some reason we ended up in the director’s box seats, just opposite the rostrum on the stage with the microphone, which three men soon approached. I momentarily recognized the former priest among them, although he did not differ in appearance from the others, if you don’t count a certain unctuousness now apparently directed along different lines. A young man of thirty or so, he introduced himself as a graduate with honors from the Moscow Theological Academy, assuming an ironic tone (probably that made it easier for him). Of course, over the years I have forgotten most of what he said. I better remember my own state—pain, insult, helplessness, and guilt. The more he took command of the audience, evoking laughter by his blasphemous jokes, the more I felt a desperation and the clear awareness that my silence in the face of this is equivalent to betrayal. But any objection seemed absolutely impossible—not only because of my mother’s and the bishop’s stern admonishment not to "make any scenes", but mainly because I was completely incapable of saying anything. I remember well how during his talk I was mentally trying to argue against the all the falsehood of his words, but I couldn’t succeed! Aware that the people here did not have any understanding whatsoever of Christian teaching, the Gospels, or the saints, all of which this poor Chertkov was making sport, I was afraid that anything I say might come in handy to him, as all would see it as a mere display of fanaticism. Meanwhile the lecturer was getting ever more brazen, making fun of various episodes in the Gospels, trying to expose the whole "absurdity" of Orthodox belief, sacraments, and rites, and instigating outbursts of laughter from the public. All the while he was cynically assuring everyone that he himself sincerely believed all of this, but supposedly as time went on he understood the falseness of this faith and decided be truthful to himself and tell others…
Just the same, there were two subjects that he did not touch, but which I was fearfully expecting him to do. God be praised, he did not touch upon the sacrament of Communion or the Resurrection of Christ. I don’t know what stopped him—whether it was that barely perceptible iota of the fear of God hidden in his conscience (would that God granted it!) or the boundary line drawn by Soviet law "not to offend the sensibilities of the religious believers". In those years, while calling upon society to wage war by every possible means with the "opium" of religion, mocking everything the Russian people hold sacred, soviet ideology at the same time hypocritically proclaimed the need "not to offend the sensibilities of the religious believers."
From the very beginning of the lecture I was fervently praying to God to help me say what was needed. After all, it seemed to me that He Himself had promised to do so in just such situations! But time went on and I could not think of anything to say. God helped me through Chertkov himself: once the ovation had simmered down following his final words, he offered to take questions, in writing or aloud. Thank God I happened to have a piece of paper and a pen with me! "I think," wrote I, "that even unbelievers are repulsed at how you so shamefully slander the voiceless Church, knowing quite well that it is deprived of the right to defend itself in any way. After boasting that you graduated from the Academy with honors, you detestably lied, distorting the meaning of the Holy Scriptures…" I filled a notebook page and ended by telling him that his talk was extremely offensive to believers, and signed it, "A religious believer." Because the director’s box was only a few steps away from the stage, I handed it to him personally. He began glibly answering all the questions given him (rather primitive ones). My page ended up among the last, and he was incautious enough to read it aloud. It immediately evoked a tumultuous response from the audience, which I took at first to be approval, which made me feel better. Chertkov tried to deal with this slap in the face and said:
"I am very glad that there is at least one of you here who is a believer. Otherwise, what point is there in talking only to unbelievers? However, I understand that this person does not want to give his or her last name, and therefore I will address my answer to the entire audience."
Just then I jumped up and said that I have no intention of hiding. This time I correctly understood the new, indignant hum from the crowd… Chertkov was momentarily taken aback. Apparently he was not expecting such audacity from a young, for all appearances worldly girl.Then, unexpectedly for both of us, a verbal wrestling match ensued. Restraining his sense of injury, he asked me to show him where he had distorted the words of the Holy Scripture.
"Asserting that the Bible is full of contradiction," I replied, "you facetiously cite as an example two phrases: "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," and "If someone should strike you on your right cheek, turn to him your left that he may strike it also."
"Well, aren’t they both found in the same book?" he interrupted me.
"You know very well to whom the first phrase was directed, and how many centuries later Christ commanded--this time in the Gospels--that there must be a different relationship between people. Having graduated with honors from the theological academy you are well acquainted with information that people here do not have an inkling of, and you take advantage of that!"
"Nevertheless," he objected, "I told the truth, and both of these sayings can be found in one and the same book."
Then he asked me to say specifically where he mocked the Gospels.
"What unabashed laughter there was when you talked about the resurrection of Lazarus!"
"Well, it was not me laughing, but the audience!"
"Of course, because you presented it that way!"
"They were right to send your kind to prison!"
"There they are—the enemies!"
"We know how to talk to the likes of you!"
Their ire grew quickly; they were pressing ever closer to me, and someone waived his fist near my face. The situation became critical when suddenly and unexpectedly Chertkov himself appeared. The crowd parted, and my ideological opponent courteously offered to continue our discussion, if I wished, in the director’s office. (Later I learned that the main body of listeners consisted of agitators sent from the local factories, businesses, schools, and so on in order to gain practical experience in anti-religious propaganda.) Thus, we entered a spacious office with a dozen of the most active militant atheists rushing to squeeze in after us, and Chertkov invited me to sit at the director’s table opposite him. He began by expressing his compassion for me, such a young girl who was ruining her life. Happy that the conversation was taking on a softer and more open character, I also sincerely expressed my sympathy over the catastrophe that he had brought on himself. He of course was very surprised at my words. I explained them by saying that after all, he had once met face to face with the Truth, Who he now so virulently denies, and that he will indeed see the One he had denied when leaving this life—and how terrible it will be then!
I would like to say here that after this, our "dispute" went on in a completely different tone—calm, sincere, and even with a hint of respect on his part; in any case, that is how I remember it, and later events would confirm this. He himself did not say much, but I continued to express my pain at seeing a living example of a man who had renounced his priesthood. I assured him that he of course never did truly believe in God. I am now ashamed to recall how primitive my arguments were, but I spoke very ardently and sincerely. For some reason I gave him examples from physics and mathematics. I remember how I compared the spiritual level of his audience of that day with savages laughing at someone’s insistence that it is not the sun that revolves around the earth, but the other way around. Alright, I said, it looks laughable to the savages, but how could he allow himself to take advantage of that? At one point he reminded me that he is not alone, and not the first to leave the Church—before him was the famous priest Alexander Osipov.
"Oh," I said, "that is so true. You were not the first, and neither was Osipov!"
"What do you mean? Wasn’t Darmansky later than Osipov?"
"I am not talking about Darmansky!"
"Then about whom?" Duluman? But he was later!"
"I am not talking about him either!"
The presence of those now silent listeners behind my back inhibited me, and I switched to a half-whisper. Chertkov did not back down.
"No, who was first? Tell me!"
It was no longer possible not to answer, and so I said in a full whisper, looking him straight in the eye, "Judas!"
I will never forget those minutes. He jerked so hard that he knocked over something on the table. I myself became terrified at such a direct hit. The discussion was obviously over. Some meaningless phrases followed, and Chertkov offered to continue our discussion by correspondence. He wrote his address down and gave it to me. At that moment I was sure that I would be arrested before I could even return home. What would be the use of giving him my address? Nevertheless, I wrote it down and gave it to him, and we began to part. Our young zealots also disappeared, and Chertkov helped me find my coat and conducted me to the door. I clearly remember the biting frost outside and the bright stars. Finally, after shivering and not meeting up with anyone, I decided go home, sensing a scandal ahead. And so it was. When all reasonable time frames for my return had run out my parents called the House of Culture. They were told that the lecture had been wrapped up, and the film scheduled afterwards was cancelled. Later we learned that Chertkov was called out of Vologda province.
It’s true our family did get a little chuckle from one young lady who worked in the diocesan administration; she spoke ecstatically about how "a handsome former ‘pope’ [derisive word for priest] gave a talk, and he spoke so well, but then some idiot came and spoiled it all." This phrase became part of our family history. However, I still don’t know why I was not arrested, especially since articles were appearing of late in Vologda newspapers about "a certain family, come from a capitalistic country, that is corrupting soviet youth." In those years, such articles usually preceded an arrest. Perhaps I was helped by the fact that I had gone to Georgia a couple of months at my mother’s insistence and with the blessing of my spiritual father, in order to try and obtain an apartment for our family for having suffered from the Stalinist repressions. But I was forbidden to return to Vologda province, and in order to continue working in the Church I had to move to Estonia.
* * *
This kind woman told me that before her father became a priest—during Soviet times—he was a reader in one of the churches in Riga, and that in the same church there was another reader: Chertkov. How did that happen? Chertkov himself told Fr. Seraphim about this, and what he left out was filled in by older parishioners.
It turns out that when the wave of Khruschev persecutions had subsided, the authorities waved their hands at those "sincerely erring, but finally seeing the light" wretches who had travelled all over the country with their atheistic lectures (and how frighteningly some of them died—God forbid!) as at useless old rags, no longer needed. A strange young man then began frequenting the churches of Riga. He didn’t look sickly—not at all; just tormented. During the Liturgy he would stand by the wall of the narthex, not crossing himself--only weeping. When the Cherubic Hymn would begin, when the priest reads the secret prayer about his own unworthiness, this young man would literally begin to shake, and leave the church in tears. This went on for a some time. Then, as the Fr. Seraphim told his daughter, this man came to see the archbishop of the Riga and told him his name: yes, it was Chertkov. He told his story and… repented. He asked to have his priesthood restored. The archbishop informed Patriarch Alexiy (Simansky) about it, and received from him the following reply: Since that man publicly renounced his faith and denied Christ, he therefore must publicly repent. Here we have to think about whether it would have been possible for Chertkov to repent publicly, for purely technical reasons: he could hardly have had such an opportunity, and the government would hardly have responded to his initiative and provide him with a way to do it. In any case, Chertkov did not become a priest; however, it is worth hoping that he dedicated the rest of his life to sincere service to Christ and His Church as a reader. Indeed, readers were very needed at the time!
They say that this church reader died in the early 1990s and is buried in the Riga cemetery. May he be granted the Kingdom of Heaven!
For all these long years this story remained somehow unfinished for me. Sad, tragic, puzzling, but unfinished. On the one hand, I saw with my own eyes an apostate Christian, but on the other hand, I also saw Christ’s great mercy toward a repentant man.
Chertkov could easily have sent me and my entire family to prison or exile; it would have only been necessary to place the right document on the right table at the right time. He did not do this. During his meeting with the atheist activists he did not allow himself to mock the sacrament of Communion; that means that there was something that allowed him to call out to Christ, to reach out to Him, and Christ Himself because of this could take his hand and pull him out. It means that after half a century I could read a living Gospel story about the salvation of Peter from the depths of the Sea of Galilee, about the repentance of Peter! The ways of the Lord are beyond our understanding, but how wonderful they are! Of course, I pray for that man.