“Deacon Dimitry Goncharov has an extraordinary life,” Archbishop Job (Smakouz), Rector of the Pochaev Theological Seminary, told me the day before our meeting. “He immigrated with his family to Canada, worked on a truck in Toronto, felt very homesick and suffered a lot from despair. And he came to the Church in this state. At that time I served as the Administrator of the Patriarchal parishes of Canada. We met, and his life changed radically. Now he has deliberately travelled here to be ordained deacon within the walls of a great holy place—Pochaev Lavra. But he will tell you everything himself when you meet.”
And so we got acquainted.
Deacon Dimitry Goncharov and I were sitting in a room of the Pochaev Lavra guesthouse and drinking tea. When I asked him to share his story, he argued, smiling shly:
“My ordinary personality could hardly attract the attention of a journalist! And who am I to have my story published?”
“This story may be useful to those who left their motherland in search of a better life and ultimately found God and the purpose of life in the foreign land.”
“All right, I’ll do it only for this reason… Indeed my path to God ran over the ocean and many ordeals.”
Here is Deacon Dimitry’s story.
A hard choice
I grew up as an ordinary Soviet boy. I was born in Kiev, then our family lived in Czechoslovakia for a while (my father was a military man), and when I turned two we returned to Ukraine. My mother had a strong desire to come back to Lvov, the city of her childhood years, so we moved there when I was five. Thus I grew up in an ancient city of Western Ukraine.
It was there that I graduated from a specialist boarding school for sports, entered the Institute of Physical Education, and met my future wife Arina at its library. We married and soon were expecting our first baby. Just imagine: Ten days before the birth, in December 1998, my wife received documents to go abroad. Her sister had been living in Canada for a long time and was preparing the documents for all of us (including the parents and my wife) to emigrate there.
What should we do? After a family meeting we decided that Arina should fly to Toronto in the ninth month of pregnancy, which she did. And nine days after her arrival she gave birth to our daughter Alexandra! After settling down somehow, they tried to complete the formalities and send me an invitation. But the trouble was that the immigration bureau told Arina that the documents had been filled out for a young single lady with parents and not for a married woman with a baby, and no husband Dmitry was mentioned in them either.
I so much love my native Ukraine, and I love Lvov with its cobbled streets where I spent my childhood and youth, and I love our beautiful Kiev. And I never imagined my life somewhere at the world’s end, over the ocean, in a foreign country, among foreign people… But I also love my other half, so I had to choose. Of course, love for my wife prevailed…
While the documents were being formalized, it was like the famous poem by Samuel Marshak (1887–1964): “The lady checked her luggage: a sofa, a suitcase, a travel bag, a painting, a basket, a box, and a small little dog.” But over the journey the little dog grew into a big one. In the end we agreed with the Canadian authorities that my wife could send me an invitation on condition that she find me a job and provide me with financial support.
The first prayer and the first miracle of God in the forest near the border
Since Arina was still unable to fly back to Ukraine under the terms of the Canadian Immigration Bureau, our long-awaited meeting took place six months later in Warsaw. I flew to my beloved on the wings of love! To be more exact, I “flew” with my dad on his minibus. But it was easier said than done! In the 1990s the main road from Ukraine to Poland was choked with the vehicles of traders. They would often go to Poland with goods that were in great demand among Poles for resale: bed linen, Soviet electrical goods, toothpaste, secretively vodka, cigarettes, and gold, and many other things. As a result there were huge lines of cars at custom stations. Vans, cars and buses would stand in four rows on the highway four miles away from the frontier. Meanwhile, we had very few hours before our flight. I was in a suit, smart and fresh, going to meet my wife, but the road was simply blocked. The cars were bumper to bumper. What should we do?
And then dad resolved to make a detour around the traffic jam through a forest! We started on our way. Soon we saw a small stream that could be crossed over a wooden bridge. Barely had we driven onto it when it collapsed. Our vehicle slid down, with two front tires blowing out with a whistling noise, sinking into the wet sand. How horrible! We found ourselves in pitch darkness, three miles away from the highway, without the slightest hope of help!...
I got out of the car, wet to the waist, and darted along by the forest like mad. On the way I stumbled on a guard box with a Pole inside it and started frantically hammering on the window, calling for help. The Pole either took me for a lunatic or just got scared: he took his gun out and waved it in front of me to drive me away… I ran towards the highway again, rushing to the cars one after another. Many drivers were willing to help and take us in tow, but on hearing they would have to go to the forest they refused. I could understand them: in the dead of night a panic-stricken guy appeared in wet trousers out of thin air, while their cars were full of goods. But at last I saw some guys on a BMW no. 7 with Kiev numbers, and they agreed to drive to the forest! But even that didn’t help: we tried to push our minibus out of the stream for half an hour by laying logs under it—and all for nothing! Just imagine: some guys in patent-leather shoes and spick and span suits, waist-deep in water, were trying to push the car out of the stream, but without a bit of progress! “We’re sorry, brother,” they said, and I understood they were going to leave.
And then, moving aside, I cried out to God for the first time in my life: “Lord, help!” And you won’t believe: a couple of minutes later a very similar minibus came out of the darkness on the same forest road! It “evacuated” us, the tires were replaced, and we arrived at the airport almost in time to meet Arina and little Alexandra there!
It’s a pity I didn’t realize back then that the Lord is always close to us, that we should always know and remember His presence, and never trust in our strength.
In a foreign country. Childhood memories
—Was it frightening to leave your motherland?
—At the time, it wasn’t frightening. The choice had been made. Actually, I wanted to see and learn what life on the American continent was like. The idea of Western life was formed on the basis of American action movies that were flooding our country; and we were naturally attracted to that life. I hoped to look at that life, earn some money and fly back home. I was a young and “wild” (this is how I expressed my status to Canadians due to my poor English) man of twenty-two. Did I believe in God? I did, I would even drop in at church from time to time, but I didn’t know what real prayer is like. I was unaware of the most important thing, namely how to build my relationship with God. I didn’t know that a believer is expected to abide by spiritual laws conscientiously, just as a professional driver (and I became such in Canada) is supposed to observe the Highway Code perfectly… But at the same time I sinned without any scruples, sincerely believing that I loved God, He loved me and forgave everything to me… I bore such moral distortion in myself! Earlier, in my childhood, when I was still not susceptible to passions and sinful weaknesses, I was an obedient boy who loved nature, loved all living creatures, because this is how my mom brought me up. For example, I remember making the sign of the cross over the moon.
—Over the moon?
—Right. I believed you should make the sign of the cross over everything you like. Obviously, it was because my mom would often make the sign of the cross over me. And she loved me. Therefore, you should do it with everything you love—it was a child’s logic… And I would cross the moon when I admired it… I was always inclined to help others; for example, I would clean the schoolyard and prune the trees in it. In the eighth grade some of our girls began to smoke. I explained to them that one day they would become mothers and they shouldn’t imitate boys. Being a well-built and sporty guy, I would fight with classmates who picked each other’s pockets in the coatroom. But my noble causes vanished into thin air after I had been humbled twice: First someone asked to “try on” my sneakers and didn’t give them back; and then someone pulled off my jacket in the street when I was walking home from the swimming pool. I was awfully ashamed. And then I decided that the only way to defend myself was to do the same. I smoked a little to prove to everybody that I was not a “good boy”, though I indulged in sports and dreamed of taking part in the Olympics. Little by little, I think I became like the guys I despised. As you know, teenagers often yield to herd instinct in order not to be outsiders. This happens because moral and spiritual principles were not inculcated in them. When people have no understanding of sin, not least the sins that are “innocent” by outward appearance or aren’t even considered as sins among non-religious youngsters. For example, smoking, drinking alcohol, and casual treatment of the fair sex with all the ensuing consequences.
Although, I had a memorable meeting with one priest. In Lvov I would sometimes drop in at St. George’s Church (then the only Orthodox parish in the city), where Fr. Andrei Tkachev served…
—Were you acquainted with Fr. Andrei back then?
—Yes, I was. I am still in touch with him. Many knew him in Lvov, though he was very young. Parishioners loved him dearly and many wanted to confess their sins to him. Sometimes I saw him home and he would invite me for tea. I would gladly agree as I was curious to see the life of a priest. I still remember the words he said during our wedding—and it was he who married Arina and me in church. He said that now we were one whole and that it was vital to live for the other person and be able to sacrifice ourselves. Those words imprinted themselves on my mind and on my soul.
A crisis that lasted nine years
And a new page—Canada—began! I didn’t think I was moving there forever. When I got the invitation, I thought I would just seize the opportunity to go there, look at their life, live for a while, earn some money and come back home. But in reality life took a very different turn. I came, looked around, and Toronto amazed me by its scale! It seemed as if this modern city with its skyscrapers would crush me…
I did a little bit of travelling around this huge megalopolis and its surroundings and observed the way of life of its residents… And I realized that I didn’t want to live there and didn’t like anything there at all. I didn’t know the language, and I didn’t have any friends or acquaintances there. Everything seemed alien—alien houses, alien people, an alien sky, alien air, and an alien sun… And my home, my friends and my beloved parents remained far away over the ocean…
Now you can find a whole bunch of Russian shops and newspapers in Toronto; there are whole Toronto neighborhoods settled by Russians or Ukrainians; and it is possible for you to find friends and a job here. And you can go to church there. But back in 1998, the situation was far more regrettable. For example, in order to take a driving test you had to find a particular person and pay him so that he could show you where and how it could be done. And you had to adjust to every situation, pay for everything, while I had barely any money…
One day I met one Russian near a small shop and asked him to help me get a job. Thus I ended up at a filling station where I was paid six dollars per hour—that is, thirty-six dollars per day and $800 per month, whereas housing cost $1000, plus parking, insurance, food, phone bills, etc… Conditions showed me that I couldn’t survive there! I quickly spent up all I had with me. It was an extremely hard time. I tried to find friends and understand whether or not I wanted to live in that country. All my thoughts and my strength were devoted to the search for money in order to survive!
I learned from newspapers that computer specialists and drivers were in huge demand. First I began to attend computer courses but soon realized that it was not to my taste… In the end I took driving tests and began to work as a truck driver. In Canada this job is called for and enables you to live modestly yet quite well. That is a rather good start for someone who is sober-minded and conscious of his purpose for going there. But my story was very different. I wanted to have everything and straightaway! I wanted to live like the heroes of the popular movie “Convoy”, who would rush about in American long-haul trucks along highways. That fervor for travelling and entertainment—winning every time and everywhere, having fun in bars and being able to earn a lot of money. I was nervous: I wasn’t satisfied with anything and disliked everything. There were frequent quarrels in our home due to my black mood. I hated everything around me: I liked neither the people nor their lifestyle. This is what I was like at that time, and everything around me seemed unbearable. I tried my best to understand whether or not I wanted to stay there. And it became clear to me that above all I wanted to return to my native Ukraine!
The inner struggle and the struggle for survival took nine years. At length I called my parents and said that I was ready to live in Ukraine, even if in poverty. And over those years my parents had wanted to come to Canada so that we could live together. I understood from our conversation that they were geared up to come and live in Canada. And it also turned out that my spouse didn’t share my desire to return to Ukraine and wasn’t going anywhere. Arina is a very sober-minded person, unlike me.
So I was confronted with the dilemma: “If I leave, I will be a traitor who has deserted his wife and two children; if I stay, I will continue to live in the nightmare I am sick and tired of.” No one seemed to understand my torments, while I was choking from the routine that required daily painstaking work. I became friends with a neighbor who was born in Odessa; and in the evening over a glass of beer we would feel nostalgic for the past and philosophize on what we could have become if we had remained in Ukraine instead of immigrating to a foreign land.
Depression was tightening its grip over my soul. Ultimately I reached a state where I didn’t want to live anymore! I was seething with anger; everything annoyed and oppressed me at home, and I only felt comfortable in my neighbor’s company. We indulged ourselves in memories, drinking and smoking a little and playing cards…
I spent many years in this state of uncertainty and emptiness until I asked myself the following question while sitting in my vault: “Well, shall we live a little more?” And I answered myself: “No!” I began to feel miserable, lonely and it was sickening to see myself. And I was ashamed because my children were growing and I was so shallow that I couldn’t give them anything…
And, as had been the case in the forest, I fell on my knees and cried out to God: “Lord, help! I am dying!” My dear wife bore everything, knowing how much I suffered. And when I came to the kitchen after prayer, she suddenly said: “There is an excellent coach, Vladimir Vasiliev, in Toronto, who teaches martial arts. He is a very deep and religious man; many Canadians have converted to Orthodoxy thanks to him.”
Red Pascha. Regeneration
And I came to him. Our conversation was rather short and he gave me the book, Red Pascha by Nina Pavlova, to read. I am sure it is known to many Orthodox—it is about the martyrdom of three monks of Optina Monastery, who were brutally murdered by a Satanist on Easter Sunday, 1993. This book astounded me and transformed my soul! Then Vladimir gave me the book by Archpriest Seraphim Slobodskoy, The Law of God, along with a book on the Liturgy by Fr. Alexander Schmemann. I sensed as if some glimmer of light was struggling towards my withered soul.
And then the Lord sent me a job where I was able to earn substantial income. By that time I had acquired a private Kenward long-haul truck and transported solar oil. Do you know the nature of a fallen man? The Lord stretches him a hand and helps him, but a man of passions like me forgets this immediately. I wholeheartedly devoted myself to mammon instead of thanking God. My monthly earnings reached $15,000. We bought a house on credit. At the same time, I continued reading spiritual books, beginning with the Bible. As I read, I shed floods of tears, realizing that my way of life couldn’t be called Christian, that “God waits long, but hits hard” (as a Russian proverb says), that everything might come to an end at some point. And I came to an Orthodox church! The first thing I promised God was to give up smoking. And indeed I never smoked again.
Arina and I began to read the morning and evening prayers and attend the house of God. I recall my first confession. Under the priest’s epitrachelion I almost wailed my eyes out. It was like some “abscess” in my soul “burst”, and I shed floods of tears. After confession I had the feeling as if I were weightless, as if the world around me were different: clear, pure and wonderful; and people seemed so beautiful and kind. I wanted to love everybody!...
“I can’t just give a dollar to God and go to the Liturgy only on Sundays!”
Our family began to attend services at Christ the Savior Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Toronto. Externally, it is quite unremarkable, according to my judgment of architecture as a layman. But when I first got inside, it seemed as if I were in heaven! Absolutely everything stunned me!
The cathedral rector, Fr. Sergei, formerly taught at St. Petersburg Theological Academy. He advised me to watch the movie, “The Priest”, by the film director Vladimir Khotinenko.
And I watched it. When I saw the way its main character, the priest (brilliantly played by the actor Sergei Makovetsky), lives, I realized I wanted to be like him… I decided I wanted to live for God and even die for Him, if needed…
Then I got to the novel The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky and read how its main character, Alyosha Karamazov, didn’t wish to give two rubles to God and only go to the Liturgy once a week on Sundays—he desired to give himself to God fully. Neither did I: I didn’t want to give a dollar to God and only go to the Liturgy on Sundays…
I viewed priests as angelic beings. As though my emaciated soul said to me: “These people serve Christ as His faithful servants, conduct the sacraments and prayers; they are the bearers of the grace of God! Oh, I wish I could become like them!” In order to learn more about the faith I wanted to serve if only as a reader or an acolyte, or a simple church guard. But in church, surrounded by Divine grace!
Having found Fr. Andrei Tkachev’s phone number, I called him and informed him about my ideas concerning this. I wondered if I had any chance of getting a theological education and being vouchsafed ordination? Or these were just fantasies? Fr. Andrei remembered me, though it had been a long time since our previous meeting. He was silent for a while; there was a pause. Obviously, the priest was praying. And then he replied: “A desire for the priesthood is not a sin, but it’s a very high level. If you’ve made such a decision, you should learn to be up to it.” And he suggested that I appeal to Bishop Job (Smakouz), who then served as the Administrator of the Patriarchal parishes in Canada. I called him and he invited me.
I’d better not weary you with more talk, I will just say that it took me eight years to realize my plans. First my wife Arina didn’t understand me and didn’t share my aim of becoming a cleric. She said she had married a sportsman, not a priest. And this is what I answered word for word: “You married a pagan; and now you live with a sinner who has repented.” I prayed earnestly until at last I felt that my wife had understood me and agreed with my choice. And she even approved of it.
And then everything developed very swiftly.
I called Archbishop Irenei (Rochon) of Ottawa and Canada, head of the Archbishopric of Canada, and asked for a meeting. And some time later he blessed me to go to Ukraine, the Pochaev Theological Seminary, to take a correspondence course and be ordained a deacon. He provided me with references and contacted Bishop Job, who had been rector of the Pochaev Seminary for over a year after serving in Canada for eleven years. And here I am in front of you, the newly-created Deacon Dimitry Goncharov…
We talked for a long time after this interview. Fr. Dimitry told me that he had passed the latest examinations at the Seminary and that after Great Lent he would fly back to the family he missed in Toronto—to his beloved wife Arina and their dear daughters—Alexandra, Daria, Maria, and Anastasia. And he will serve as a deacon at the Christ the Savior Cathedral, working workdays in his beloved truck.
“It’s true happiness—to serve God and people! And I walked towards it for so long!”