This is how I picture the village in my memory. My father and I were walking in a dull winter morning over a track rutted by a machine in the middle of the street, with houses gliding by us out of the mist. The village’s name was Boyarovka [a small village in the Bashmakovo district of Russia’s Penza region.—Trans.]. It was an ordinary village with a school, a village council, and a bridge over a tiny, shallow river that in winter was frozen to the bottom. An unnamed street with old, dilapidated houses that sunk into the ground. There was light in the windows of inhabited dwellings, with smoke gaily flowing through the chimneys. Deserted buildings, abandoned by their owners, were gloomily looking askance at the strangers with the “sockets” of their black, blank windowless openings. They neither welcomed any guests nor waited for their former dwellers.
Nearly at the end of the street, on a small hillock, stood a tiny house, almost two by two meters, with a little kitchen garden. There was a one-meter-thick layer of snow on its low, sloping slate roof. The gate of the picket fence had been dug out by someone, and a narrow beaten path led to the house. My father and I came up to the door, and father knocked. A woman from the village council had warned us: “Knock, but don’t leave. Wait. Granny Katya [a diminutive form of the name Ekaterina.—Trans.] doesn’t open immediately.” Clearly, the owner was 105 years old and, as we imagined, she couldn’t move quickly. So we waited…
At length the door opened slightly. It seemed not to have been bolted at all. In the doorway we saw a small, fragile figure in a brown shapeless dress that reached to the ground. The old lady wore an old-fashioned white bonnet with a broad brim. A faint voice, like the wind rustling, invited us in: “Come in.” We followed the hostess into her hut. She moved at a normal pace, not slowly. There were a stove, a bed, a table, three chairs and a stool (all of them small) in her diminutive room with its ceiling just above our heads. There was a small Stalin-era circular electric one-hotplate cooker with an open heating coil on the stool in the middle of the room. Some mushrooms were boiling in a cast-iron pot in the cooker.
The wall opposite the door was covered with icons from top to bottom. There were a few more icons, along with numerous old, faded, brown photographs in wooden frames on the adjoining wall. In my childhood in our village it was a custom to hang photographs of the heads of the house, ancestors and relatives in the place of honor.
I grew up with icons and love them very much. Though I am no expert, I have some knowledge of them. On the face of it, the old lady had no “valuable” icons. Wooden icons (work of local icon-daubers) had been “restored” more than once so amateurishly that you would have never guessed what had been depicted on the original images. And there were Stagnation-era handmade crude pieces of work in boxes: black-and-white picture-drawings, painted with aniline dye and decorated with foil and artificial flowers.
Granny Katya gestured us towards the chairs. Dad and I seated ourselves by the table opposite the window, while the hostess sat down on her small chair on one side. The brim of her bonnet was so big that it covered half of her face, and her eyes were hidden completely. The old lady was so small and fragile that she seemed ethereal. It was unclear whether there was any point in asking her about anything, whether she would understand what she was asked about and would be able to reply. Dad asked her several questions. Granny Katya answered in a low voice and in one word.
“Granny, what year were you born?”
“In such-and-such a year.”
“And where did you work?”
I was about to ask the following question, but dad forestalled me:
“Granny Katya, they say you are very religious.”
She lifted her head and was instantly transformed. An intelligent, penetrating and serene look. And her voice became ringing and young:
“Yes, I am. And what about you? Are you religious? Do you believe in God?” she said, addressing my father.
“I am not sure,” he confessed honestly.
“And what about you, sonny?” she asked me.
“Yes, I am!”
“This is who I’ve waited for this day! My darling!” the old lady exclaimed joyfully. She extended her arm and touched my head:
“As I was reading the Psalter this morning, I saw that I would have a guest today. Sometimes, when I read the Psalter, I kind of foresee some events. I thought that Katya from the village council would probably call on me. She visits me occasionally. But she is not religious, while my guest would be religious… Sonny, do you know any prayers—for example, ‘Our Father’?”
“I do, granny Katya.”
“My darling! And ‘O Theotokos and Virgin, Rejoice’?”
“You are a clear head! And the Creed?”
Granny Katya wanted to half-rise, but I forestalled her, stood up and came up to her. The old lady put her palms on my elbows:
“Sonny! My treasure! This is who I waited for so much!”
The only woman in the world who would be as happy to see me as granny Katya was my own grandmother. I stooped down and gently touched her bonnet with my lips. Everything was swimming before my eyes because of the tears that had rushed unexpectedly…
Thus, undeservedly, without pilgrimages to any faraway convents, without petitions, prayers and fasting, the Lord blessed me with the joy of seeing a holy woman in my life—granny Katya.
Granny Katya’s story
“Nobody taught me how to read. I don’t remember anyone showing me the letters. I didn’t go to school. I learned to read by the Psalter from the age of five, and I have read the Psalter my entire life. The Gospel, the Acts and the Epistles—I don’t remember a single day when I didn’t read them. I went to church from infancy…”
Granny Katya had kept all the fasts for as long as she remembered, to put it mildly. In reality fasting for her was as natural as breathing. Offering her non-fasting food on a Wednesday or a Friday would be tantamount to suggesting that I steal a car. No matter if it were a Ferrari or a Lada car, at risk or safely—I wouldn’t take it as a gift. And granny Katya abstained from meat all her life.
“I have lived in this house my whole life. I only once left for a month when my neighbor, may God rest his soul, set it on fire,” she proceeded, making the sign of the cross.
“Why did he do it?” I wondered.
“I was a church-goer, and he disliked religious people. But people helped me repair the damages to my house, and I came back… I was very sickly from childhood. I was sick all the time due to my bad lungs. Although I couldn’t work in the collective farm, I learned to sew with a sewing machine very well and worked as a seamstress. So I sewed from home to earn my bread. I didn’t take anything for my work except food. I can’t hold money in my hands. As soon as I would touch money, the enemy would beat me. And I would feel bad for several days after that…”
My dad wondered:
“What enemy?... Oh, yes, I see…”
She went on:
“I don’t need money at all. What shall I buy with it? I am never hungry; I still grow something in my kitchen-garden and that’s sufficient for me. I have always sewed clothes for myself. As for money, I would always send my salary and, later, pension to the Peace Foundation. I put in applications, requesting them to transfer money each time immediately so that I could avoid touching it. At that time you couldn’t transfer money to churches without becoming an enemy. But later it became possible to send money for the construction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and churches elsewhere…
“I loved church very much; I attended all services and never skipped them. When our church was closed, we went to the church in Lipovka [the Church of the Kazan icon in Lipovka, a large village in the Bashmakovo district of the Penza region.—Trans.] which was never closed. And now priests visit me from time to time. Our village still has no church, so priests from Lipovka, Bashmakovo, the neighboring district and even the Tambov region come here to perform funeral services and other services of need. They all know me and call on every time to give me Communion. I commune several times a year.
“I remember the Revolution very well. I was grown-up by that time. People rejoiced as they walked through the village, carrying red flags and shouting: ‘Land and freedom!’ But I was uneasy and had a foreboding that a terrible tragedy would happen. I wanted to say ‘Land and freedom!’ too, but the words stuck in my throat and I couldn’t do it. I shed floods of tears…
“We, believers, took the Tsar’s and his family’s execution very hard. People spread rumors that it was not the case, that they were supposedly alive. Soon after the Revolution anti-Church persecutions began. Our church was closed and our priest arrested in the 1930s.”
Granny Katya got up from the table and came up to the photographs on the wall. She pointed at a general picture of several clerics in vestments.
“This is Bishop Benedict of Tambov in the center. He was arrested and executed by a firing squad. This priest served in the neighboring village and then died in the camps. I knew this priest, too… All the clerics depicted on this picture were arrested and perished. Only our Fr. Trophim survived—here he is. And here is a photo of him alone.”
Fr. Trophim had the face of an intellectual: a high forehead, a clear outline of the lips. He wore old-fashioned spectacles with round glasses. He had striking eyes: wide open, intelligent and at the same time naïve, like those of a child. His look was that of a defenseless yet fearless person. Granny Katya had exactly the same eyes.
“Fr. Trophim and his wife were arrested. He was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in the camps and served thirteen years. His wife was also sentenced and languished in labor camps. They had a daughter, a Komsomol member, who renounced her parents and thus was not bothered. She was so active and would always perform in the club…
“I can’t recollect what year it was. It was November, when a spell of cold weather came early. It was the eve of the feast of the Kazan icon. Darkness fell. Since I had some flour in store, I made batter for pancakes for the feast. Instead of sugar I stewed some beetroots in the cast-iron pot. Suddenly someone knocked at my window. And a voice said: ‘Granny Katya, please open.’ My goodness! Fr. Trophim was standing on the threshold and shivering with cold. He was in a light autumn overcoat, wooden soled shoes, and with a small suitcase in his hands.
‘Granny Katya, will you let me in?’
“He looked thin and pale…
‘Granny Katya, may I stay with you for a while?’
“So Fr. Trophim stayed with me. But the authorities wouldn’t leave him alone. He was constantly invited somewhere: to perform Baptisms, Church weddings, funerals, etc. All of this was done in secret: Fr. Trophim would leave and come back at night. However, you can’t hide an eel in a sack: he was repeatedly reported to the authorities, and inspectors pestered us. A chief would arrive, come in and say:
‘Comrade priest! We’ve received information against you. At such-and-such a date you performed Baptism in a neighboring village, and at such-and-such a date you performed Holy Unction over a sick person in such-and-such a place. Is that true?’
‘Yes, it is. You see, I am a priest and have no right to refuse.’
‘Do you want to return to labor camps?’
‘Do as you know best.’
“And the chief would make a bit of a noise as a warning and then get down to business:
‘Alright, I can ignore the complaint. Granny, do you have butter, eggs, meat? Give me whatever you have.’
“But where could I get all of this from? At times I would borrow food from my neighbors… Once two district council officials came. On that day I had no butter, no eggs, nothing valuable.... I was cooking potatoes in the cast-iron pot, standing by the cooker and listening to their dialogue. They were putting the squeeze on Fr. Trophim:
‘Produce your documents. Give us your passport. Come with us.’
“I exploded with anger and came out with an oven fork in my hands:
‘Who are you? Have you shown your papers? Fr. Trophim, who have you given your passport to? Maybe they are robbers! There’s the door—go away, dear guests! Good-bye!’
“They rose and began to laugh. The elder one said:
‘We’ll take your passport. Father, you’ll come to the district executive committee and we’ll speak there.’
“I stood in their way and said:
‘Give the document back to the priest immediately or you won’t leave!’
‘What will you do to us, old crone? Are you going to beat us with that oven fork?’
‘No, I’m not! But when you are walking along the street now, I will be following you, calling for help at the top of my voice! You’ll be ashamed in front of people and give the passport back.’
“They both burst out laughing. The elder one said:
‘Let’s go, Ivan. You’ll never come to terms with this harridan! Give him the passport.’
“Fr. Trophim was an artist. He used to say that his trade helped him survive in labor camps. He made banners, painted portraits of wardens, their wives and children. When they gave him something to eat (say, a loaf of bread), he would take it to his barracks where the inmates would divide it into equal parts with a thread…
“Sometimes they brought him icons to restore secretly. At that time people didn’t place icons in their holy corners. After the Revolution icons were destroyed and thrown into the fire. In schools they were used to board up windows and make desks. Few people possessed icons after the Revolution, and those who did have icons didn’t keep them in conspicuous places. Some icons presented a sorry sight: they were hacked to pieces, ragged and charred. Frustrated to the point of tears, Fr. Trophim would take an icon and say: ‘My dearest! What they have done to you!… But it doesn’t matter; we will repair you and you will be good as new!’ In the evening he would curtain off the windows, light a kerosene lamp, take his paints, and sit at the table:
‘Granny Katya, have a sleep whilst I work.’
“The next morning he would show me the result. I looked and couldn’t believe that it was the very icon I had seen the day before: it was better than a brand-new one!
“Fr. Trophim also made carpets on spiritual themes. People would pray before them: they were afraid to keep icons in conspicuous places but could hang carpets on the walls. For example, a shepherd with a flock of sheep were depicted on the carpet—it was clear to everybody that they symbolized Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. Or a woman with a baby in her arms by a brook symbolized the Theotokos… Now I don’t have any icons or carpets made by Fr. Trophim. I gave away all that I had. People liked them and made requests… Let them pray if they like…
“Right after his arrival Fr. Trophim started sending letters and going through various channels. He eventually found his wife and brought her here. She had been released before him—they both lived with me. However, Fr. Trophim didn’t live long—he returned from the camps, his health ruined, and he coughed all the time. He died about three years later, and his wife passed away soon after him.”
But granny Katya was destined to live an extremely long life…
The sinful heart weeps at the sight of holiness
At first I didn’t intend to go to Boyarovka. Father offered me the day before:
“Valera [a diminutive form of the name Valery.—Trans.], one of these days we are going to Boyarovka on behalf of the editorial board… Would you like to join us?”
“What may I want there?”
“They say there is a 105-year-old woman there who is very religious and can reputedly cure diseases.”
Frankly speaking, I wanted to refuse at once. Firstly, I had already seen some old ladies living in villages which had no church. You can cast a stone at me, but as a rule they are the keepers of the wildest pagan superstitions: They read the Psalter “for the repose of the departed” garbling the words; attend funeral wakes and “send off” the souls on the fortieth day; and do many other odd things. When a priest comes to such villages, they try to avoid him or enter into an argument with him. As for their “healing” practices, they are creepy. You can cast another stone at me. But curiosity got the better of me, so I came there…
We talked with granny Katya for a long time. She didn’t tell us anything else about herself, and we mostly talked about faith. She was speaking, while I was listening and marveling; I marveled at the speaker rather than at what I heard. Such good grammar and literary speech, such deep knowledge of and insight into the Scriptures, and such clear interpretations would not have sounded surprising on the lips of a professor of theology. But a woman who had never attended any school was sitting in front of me.
As for healing, granny Katya explained everything simply:
“It was not me who healed. If the Apostle Paul calls himself ‘one born out of due time’, ‘the least of the apostles’ and ‘I don’t deserve to be called an apostle’ (cf. 1 Cor. 15:8-9), then who are we? It is God Who cures. Sometimes, when people asked earnestly, I would read an ordinary prayer for the sick from the prayer-book and put this copper cross onto the sore spot. But once the sick person got better, the enemy beat me black and blue for several days. As long as I was young enough, I bore that; but when I grew old, it was more than I could stand. So I stopped healing.
“As for the cross, I unearthed it in my kitchen-garden. Can you see ‘1812’ engraved on its reverse side? A priest told me that it must have been a cross given as an award in commemoration of the Patriotic War of 1812. I believe the Theotokos rewarded me for my faith in this way.”
Everything was swimming before my eyes several times during the conversation. I was afraid to look at my dad—he went up to the door, turned his back on us and wept silently. And we were weeping not because of granny Katya’s story… When I had first come to church for confession, I had wept in a similar way. I was embarrassed in front of people, covered my face with my hands and couldn’t pull myself together.
I was looking at the old woman, and, though late, it came home to me who I was talking to. It was neither in a book nor in the Lives of the saints but in reality: I saw a person in front of me who had not eaten meat or touched money for 100 years, who had daily read the Psalter, the Holy Scriptures, prayer rules, the New Testament (which she probably knew by heart) for 100 years… Though she was physically defenseless, it was impossible to frighten her with anything; she was even not afraid of death for many years. You couldn’t offend her, even if you were to try—she simply wouldn’t have taken any offense. “My neighbor, may God rest his soul, set my house on fire.” The truth is not that granny Katya was small but that I am a pigmy.
I kept mum throughout my journey back in our jolty UAZ [a Russian off-road vehicle, named after the Ulyanovsk Automobile Manufacturer which manufactures this type of cars.—Trans.]. I wanted neither to speak about anything nor to listen to anybody. I felt as if once I opened my mouth and uttered a single word, the reverence and tender emotion my soul was filled with would vanish. I pretended that I was sleeping. I was thinking.
We are unable to appreciate and keep what we have. We strive to live “like all the other civilized countries” without valuing the most precious treasures God has blessed us with: Holy Rus’, the Orthodox faith, and the Church. If you open the Old Testament, you will see that everything is written about us in it. We, too, want to drive luxury cars (chariots); build skyscrapers (palaces); live in luxury apartments with all conveniences (instead of tents/peasant huts); advance sciences (astrology); enjoy good food and sleep on soft beds, as the neighboring peoples do. But who is listening to the prophets that proclaim: Man shall not live by bread alone (Mt. 4:4); seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness (Mt. 6:33)? In truth, A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country (Mt. 13:57).
I never visited granny Katya again: she died two years later at the age of 107; it appeared I had been “too busy” for two years. A friend of mine who was born in Boyarovka told me that a multitude of people had gathered in the small village to attend granny Katya’s funeral; locals were surprised to see so many bishops and priests in shining embroidered vestments arriving to pay their last tribute to her. Those who were found worthy to know her knew what kind of person she was. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not (Jn. 1:11).
People are dying, and the era is slipping away. Though, from another perspective, everything is fine: churches are open, and people (both young and old) pray in them. But the trouble is that we are another generation which hasn’t known war, starvation, privation, and hasn’t experienced persecutions for the faith. We can select and order icons online and go on pilgrimages by coach comfortably. But our modern old ladies who attend church services are different from their counterparts who went to church in those terrible years, putting their jobs, freedom and lives at risk, and saved our temples from closure. These are former Komsomol members of the 1960s and 1970s. I am a former October Child, Young Pioneer and Komsomol member as well. Outwardly, we are like parishioners from that era; our old ladies wear headscarves and men wear beards. But are we genuine Christians? How do we know?
True Christians, tested by sorrows and tried by fire (like purified gold), they are dying out, while we come to our senses when it is too late. We live as if we had three lives lying ahead of us: “We will have time to go there and meet with someone later on.” But at the next moment we can neither meet nor talk…
Oh, if only I were less businesslike and less fussy! If only I were more thoughtful of righteous people that God has sent me in my life. If only I had had time to get to them, be near them, listen to them, just sit at the teachers’ feet, looking up into their eyes from below. My life would have been a different thing…
About the author
Valery Seryakov was born on February 27, 1963, in the then village of Bashmakovo [now an urban-type settlement.—Trans.] of the Penza region. He worked as a reporter of the Bashmakovo district newspaper, as a staff reporter in the Penzenskaya Pravda and Penza News newspapers. He graduated with honors from V.P. Goriachkin Moscow State Agroengineering University. A regular contributor to the Sura literary magazine of Penza, the Povolzhye interregional magazine, the Selskaya Zhizn (“Rural Life”), Sovetskaya Rossiya (“Soviet Russia”) and AiF (Argumenty I Fakty) newspapers, and various web-portals.