“There is nothing brighter than a soul
that is vouchsafed to suffer for Christ.”
St. John Chrysostom
He decided to study the geography of the Kingdom of Heaven
Fr. Nestor (Nikolai Ivanovich Savchuk) was born on March 4, 1960 in the village of Popovka in the Cherson Province in southern Ukraine. His parents were simple, kind villagers. But, unfortunately, not being religious, they didn’t understand their son’s spiritual path. However, he had deeply religious older relatives who were even accounted worthy to attain the dignity of the clergy—his grandfather, Vyacheslav, served as a priest, and his great uncle, Svyatopolk, as a hierodeacon in the Pochaev Lavra.
There is a tradition that the Most Holy Theotokos herself appeared to Fr. Svyatopolk to prevent the closure of the Pochaev Monastery. It is clear that Nikolai grew up under special prayerful protection.
Once he was told that a church in the poor village of Yaski near Odessa had a roof full of holes and there was no one to fix it. Nikolai took an academic leave and went to repair it—he was a jack of all trades. The church also needed to be painted. The young man found an artist from Odessa—Sergei Igorevich Brudu, and he invited his friend from Moscow—Viktor Alexandrovich Saulkin. Thus the three men met and became friends, preserving their friendship until Fr. Nestor’s death. When the work was finished, Nikolai made a pivotal decision—he left the university and went to Pochaev.
He carried out his first obediences in Pochaev Monastery from 1985 to 1986. That time was extremely unfavorable for young people choosing the spiritual path. The punitive organs of the atheistic government made sure the Church didn’t have an influx of fresh vigor, and the faithful youth were persecuted and impeded. Nikolai went through all of this.
Then he had an obedience with Abbot Paphnuty, a man of hidden prayer life. Batiushka was already of a ripe old age, in retirement. Nikolai helped him as an altar server at the services in his home church. Fr. Paphnuty’s serving made a strong impression on him. He became Nikolai’s spiritual father and after some time introduced him to Vladyka Bartholomew (Gondarov), the Archbishop of Tashkent and Central Asia (1927-1988). The latter in turn entrusted him to another archpastor—Vladyka Ambrose (Schurov), the Bishop of Ivanovo and Kineshma (1930-2016).
In 1986, Nikolai arrived in Ivanovo and for several years he was in obedience to Vladyka Ambrose; he often traveled around to the churches of the Ivanovo Diocese, carrying out various assignments. Once he wound up in the village of Zharki, beautifully situated on the high bank of the Pazhik River. There, in Zharki, the youth felt a special grace, the special presence of the Queen of Heaven. He once said: “If I am ever ordained, I will ask to go to this church—there is such grace there.”
After that, Nikolai lived in Moscow with Viktor Saulkin for a while and prayed a lot, usually with prostrations (according to his friend, sometimes as many as 500).
Nikolai soon went to the Ivanovo Diocese again, to his beloved Zharki—a Russian village with a beautiful and dainty Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God and a wonderworking Kazan Icon. Two ascetics of God are buried there by the walls of the church—the fools-for-Christ Blessed Alexei and Mikhail who were tortured by the Chekhists. Zharki was endowed with the prophecies of the blessed ones: The priest who will stay in this village until death will be saved. And in the wild times of the late twentieth century, Fr. Nestor was the first priest to live in Zharki until his death.
Young, energetic, and strong, Nikolai did not rush off to cities, to large parishes, but loved the secluded village as if it were a desert. He labored there, doing different work—he fired ovens, cut wood, and even was a postman, so they say; so all the locals knew him well. According to Fr. Nestor, it was hard for him because he was seen as an outsider, and even from Odessa—almost like a con artist.1 But he overcame offenses this way: He would go to the cemetery and there, among the graves of the saints, he would weep and pray to the Theotokos, and again—to battle, in obedience.
Tonsure and ordination
He was an unmercenary, honest, sincere, open person. Vladyka Ambrose of Ivanovo became his spiritual father. Later, Nikolai was appointed as the warden of the church in Zharki. In October 1988, Bishop Ambrose ordained him as a deacon in the Resurrection Cathedral in the city of Shui. On May 31, 1989, he was tonsured to the mantia with the name Nestor in honor of the St. Nestor the Chronicler. On September 3, 1989, Hierodeacon Nestor was ordained as a hieromonk and was appointed to the Church of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in the village of Zharki. Thus his dream came true.
Later, one of the attackers, by the name of Andrei, who struck the first blow, came to him to ask forgiveness. He was eighteen then, and like most of the guys, he drank, smoked, and hung around. Fr. Nestor offered him to stay and live by the church with him, and he stayed. A year later, Batiushka took him to Fr. John (Krestiankin) at the Pskov Caves Monastery. Andrei completely changed, became a believer, a religious man, and later became a priest.
Hieromonk Nestor once confessed to his friend Viktor: “You know, I’m a sinful man, and the Lord granted me such great mercy that I became a hieromonk. I would like to repay the Lord for His mercy; I would like to suffer for the Lord.” He said this quite sincerely and simply. He also said he understands he was not worthy of a martyr’s crown, and added: “But, perhaps I will entreat the Mother of God…”
Over time, Batiushka became an experienced spiritual father, saw human infirmities, and knew how to help people overcome them and who to accommodate and how much. People reached out to him and started going to see him even from afar, from different cities—Odessa, Moscow, St. Petersburg. He led many to the faith and baptized them. The youth flocked to his church.
Fr. Nestor invited his friends Sergei and Viktor—iconographers. The church was restored and painted. Batiushka served in his parish fervently and reverently. He was a great man of prayer. He celebrated the services in full, such that the evening service lasted five hours. He imitated the fathers of the desert. He would lock his door from the outside then quietly sneak inside through the barn and jam the door from the inside. Thus he would spend a day or two in prayer in solitude.
Fr. Nestor especially honored the Mother of God. He constantly served molebens before the wonderworking Kazan Icon and anointed his parishioners with oil from the lampada in front of the icon, and pilgrims began to be healed!
Vera Alexandrovna Alova, Fr. Nestor’s closest disciple, recalls: “Once I had a very bad headache, but I was supposed to help Fr. Nestor that day. I barely made it home and told Batiushka I couldn’t go anywhere. He said: ‘Drink some tea and your headache will pass.’ I couldn’t even drink because of the pain. He bowed his head and looked at me closely, then would glance away, then look at me again silently. The pain began to subside and then completely disappeared. Then joy and strength came. I said in amazement: ‘Fr. Nestor, are you healing already?!’ He abruptly cut me off: ‘Keep quiet and don’t tell anyone about it.’ And Batiushka and I got a lot of things done that evening. That’s the kind of prayer he had, but Batiushka always tried to hide it. And this time too—he suggested one thing after another to conceal his prayer. But God arranged so I would see that he had the gift of healing.
“Batiushka fulfilled his cell rule without fail, no matter what. He really loved to read akathists, especially to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. If there was something important for the church coming up, Fr. Nestor would immediately read the akathist, and by his prayers a miracle would occur.
“We noticed that whatever Fr. Nestor asked from God, it happened. There were many such examples. At the same time, it was hard to get the necessities, and here he needed to restore such a large church. He went here and there, begging for bricks, cement, and nails. The church was restored literally by his blood. And I have to say that during the services, Batiushka always commemorated several hundred people by memory, without a commemoration book.”
Another parishioner living in Ivanovo, Galina Anatolievna Karavanova, testifies: “Once my daughter and I were sitting, and she said: ‘I wish Laponka would come right now.’ Children really loved Fr. Nestor and called him Laponka. I said to her: ‘How could he come here? He’s far away, in Zharki.’ She sat, lamenting. She spent the whole day in sorrow. Then, in the evening, there suddenly came a knock at the door. I thought: ‘It’s a neighbor.’ I opened the door and couldn’t believe my eyes: There stood Fr. Nestor! He was smiling and said: ‘Why did you call me?’ What joy there was then!
“Once Fr. Nestor cured my daughter from a distance. She was sick with a 104 fever. I was in Zharki, in church at Liturgy. My heart was broken; I wanted to immediately go see my daughter. But no matter how many times I pleaded, Fr. Nestor would not bless me. Finally he came out of the altar, came up to me and said: ‘Let’s go.’ We left the church, sat on a bench, and he said to me: ‘Your daughter will be fine. You don’t need to go right now, to leave the Liturgy.’ Then he grabbed his prayer rope and began to pray. A little while later he said: ‘She’s already a little better’… Then: ‘Her temperature has started to fall.’ I didn’t believe it because my daughter’s fevers always lasted a long time. But Batiushka continued: ‘She got up! She went outside.’ Unable to hold back, I said: ‘That’s not possible!’ And he said to me: ‘Take note of the time now, and when you get home, ask when it happened. Then you’ll know that I told you the truth.’ And when I got home, I found out that everything happened just like he said. My husband and neighbor were amazed at how quickly Sashenka recovered.”
Many people insulted Batiushka, but Fr. Nestor would say that every offense, every insult is a gift from above. He was entirely wrapped up in prayer, but it was hidden from the eyes of strangers.
Hieromonk Nestor possessed a sensitive, warm heart that called him to where there were pain and moans, where his help as a good pastor was needed most of all. Thus, in the autumn of 1992, he went with some friends on a missionary-peacekeeping trip to Abkhazia. The Georgian-Abkhazian war was going on in the Caucasian mountains at that time, but that didn’t stop Fr. Nestor. He was a true warrior for Christ, a Russian knight.
He once said of himself:
I am a risk taker. In my childhood, for example, I even had a nickname—“the astronaut.” We had to jump from some height and everyone was afraid, but I went first. To be honest I generally like to take risks. Christianity is a risk… The path is narrow—that is, the path along which you can go to salvation is very narrow. There are so many collateral things that attach themselves to you! But you risk it! God forbid you should fall into some heresy or that you wind up in prelest.2 People will tell you: “You’re in prelest!” and you’ll say: “No!” You think you’re in the truth, that you live the truth, but in fact, it’s prelest. It’s a risk, a great risk. To be saved is a great risk.
Finding himself in the epicenter of the war, in the very midst of the hostilities, Batiushka baptized people (sometimes even in the river), crowned young people in marriage (right there in the mountain meadow), buried the dead, and comforted and led many to faith. He often preached among the Cossacks and soldiers. When near death, questions have a completely different character. People didn’t reach out for him but ran directly to him. Batiushka exhorted the much-suffering mothers, sisters, and wives of murdered soldiers: “Only don’t curse anyone! Ask God for help! Ask God to forgive your sins and that He would arrange everything.”
On the feast of the Elevation of the Cross of the Lord, September 27, Fr. Nestor and his companions erected a cross on the top of Mt. Abago, almost on the border of Russia.
Returning from Abkhazia, Fr. Nestor asked to be sent there as a missionary. But Elder John (Krestiankin) did not bless it, answering him in a letter: “What kind of mother leaves her children and goes to strangers?” and he stayed in Zharki.
Batiushka was tireless in preaching the faith of Christ. By his own initiative, Fr. Nestor organized Orthodox bookstores at railway stations, agreeing with all the bosses who gave permission for such an undertaking. He bought the books himself and delivered them to the stations! Passengers could buy spiritual literature, so precious at that time.
And in church, Batiushka offered a penetrating, touching, and fervent word. His sermons were deeply imprinted in the souls of pilgrims. Many radically changed their lives thanks to Batiushka’s guidance.
He was young, but wisdom and discernment dwelt in him, and also joy. For his zealous service for the good of the Russian Church, Hieromonk Nestor was awarded the golden pectoral cross.
“What a Wondrous Death for Monks!—Death for Christ”
Three monks were killed on Pascha night at Optina Monastery in 1993: Hieromonk Vasily (Roslyakov), Monk Therapont (Pushkarev), and Trophim (Tatarnikov). Having learned about them, Fr. Nestor said: “What a wondrous death for monks!—death for Christ. It’s the Lord’s mercy.” He prayed to the Lord and the Optina New Martyrs that he could also suffer for the name of Christ.
Serious persecutions began against Batiushka. Instead of help, which he greatly needed, several of his spiritual children rebelled against him. The Lord allowed the church to be robbed more than once. A gang was at work in the village churches, stealing icons and selling them for big money abroad. Ancient icons were stolen from Fr. Nestor in March 1993. Batiushka said: “My heart boiled when I saw the desecrated church.” The thieves were caught and arrested by great effort on the part of Fr. Nestor. Batiushka ran several miles through the wet snow in the surrounding fields and forests trying to find the bandits. The icons were returned. Fr. Nestor established a 24-hour watch and midnight cross procession.
That summer, they tried to kill Batiushka, but he miraculously managed to escape. He was attacked by bandits with weapons one evening—they broke into his house, but Fr. Nestor jumped out the window, seriously injuring himself. He ran all the way to Kostyaevo, called the cops, and the gang was caught again, but the icons weren’t returned.
In the autumn-winter period of 1993 there was another murder attempt, but Father again fled, escaping from the hands of the killers, again jumping out the window. He ran to his parishioners barefoot through the snow with a bloody hand. The bandits roamed around Fr. Nestor like wolves.
Hieromonk Nestor was killed on the night of December 30 to 31, 1993. A driver took Batiushka on a snowmobile to the church in Zharki. The killers were already waiting for him there, most likely in his cell.
First they tortured Fr. Nestor. The torturers ripped, cut up, and stabbed his body with special instruments, draining out all his blood. This is direct evidence of the ritual nature of the murder. The priest’s beautiful face was horribly disfigured—his face was beaten with glass and his hair was pulled out. His entire cell was covered with blood—the walls and the crucifix and even the ceiling were covered in blood! Then they laid Batiushka before the crucifix… Fr. Nestor was thirty-three then. Then it was remembered what he said: “My age will be short—from thirty to forty years.” That means he knew…
The murder suspect couldn’t tell how everything happened. It was obvious that he took the blame for somebody else. The authorities showed their unwillingness to investigate and mitigated the charge to alleged murder—he got only four years in prison, as for manslaughter.
Fr. Nestor was buried on the fifth day—there was not even the slightest smell of decay coming from the coffin. People came from various cities to bid farewell to Batiushka. The church had not seen such a confluence of pilgrims since Tsarist Russia times.
The unacquisitve Fr. Nestor left hardly any things behind in his death. They even had to bury him in someone else’s shoes because his were too old and worn.
His grave is located behind the altar of the church that he consecrated in the last years of his life.
His ninth day fell on January 8, the Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos—Batiushka had implored the Queen of Heaven for a crown of martyrdom! Heaven gained a new inhabitant and we gained a new intercessor!
Death in Christ is the essence of life
“You can kill but you cannot defeat a priest of God holding onto the Gospel and preserving the commandments of Christ” (St. Cyprian of Carthage).
Victory was on Fr. Nestor’s side—a priest who gave his life for Orthodoxy. Terrible is the lot of those who dared to raise a hand against the priest, who do not recognize and belittled his podvig.
“The one who rises up against a priest does not humiliate a man, but God and Jesus Christ, the firstborn and only High Priest of the Father” (Hieromartyr Ignatius the God-Bearer).
The murder of a priest is a sacrilege. Priests who died at their post at the hands of tormentors have been especially venerated among Christians from time immemorial. St. Gregory the Theologian says that in general, “all martyrs should be honored, and all the rest are honored lower than their podvig.” “There is nothing brighter than a soul that is vouchsafed to suffer for Christ,” writes St. John Chrysostom. And, as if protecting the New Martyrs from the reproaches of their contemporaries who doubt their sanctity because of the infirmities known to them, he admonishes them:
“As those baptized with water, so those who endure martyrdom are washed with their own blood.”
St. Isaac the Syrian says that, “not only those who accepted death for faith in Christ are martyrs, but also those who die for keeping the commandments of Christ.”
“Martyrdom,” translated from the Greek, means “witness.” It is a witness that death in Christ is the essence of life. The first Christians aspired to the martyric arena in order to confess Christianity, but our contemporary martyrs more often bear their podvig in the daily observance of the commandments of Christ, for which they are killed by those who hate God. Both of them, having accepted torture, are resurrected with Christ. Death becomes a triumph of life.
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Tertullian). From deep antiquity, all Orthodox church altars stand on the relics of the holy martyrs. Vladyka Ambrose blessed to preserve Fr. Nestor’s cassock, crimson with his blood, under the altar of his church.
Fr. Nestor’s skufia [monastic cap] is kept in Moscow, and sometimes it exudes a wonderful fragrance…
After Viktor Saulkin spoke on Radio Radonezh about the life of Fr. Nestor, reports about his posthumous miracles began to come in.
One monk, having known Fr. Nestor during his lifetime, fell into negligence and began to drink. Fr. Nestor appeared to him and looked at him so threateningly that he immediately abandoned the destructive passion and mended his ways.
Once one blind woman confessed to Batiushka but didn’t know what he looked like. After death, he appeared to her in a dream and she described his appearance absolutely perfectly!
Another woman, a spiritual child of Fr. Nestor, was digging a garden, but exhausted, she pleaded: “Fr. Nestor, help!” Suddenly she heard Batiushka’s voice behind her: “Can I help you?” She turned around: There stood an unknown man. But he addressed her with the same words with which Batiushka himself would inquire while he was still alive: “Can I help you?”
Hieromonk Nestor (Savchuk) is honored in Platina, California, in the Monastery of St. Herman of Alaska, under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Hieromartyr Nestor is venerated there as their special Heavenly patron.
They’ve painted his icon, and there they already address him with the words: “Hieromartyr Nestor, pray to God for us!”
And in his homeland, Fr. Nestor’s glorification is still awaiting its hour…