Pandemics emerge in the world regularly—every ten to fifty years. There has been no end to them throughout our history. Reading about countless pandemics in the chronicles, you can’t but marvel how our much-suffering nation has survived all of them, how it hasn’t died out, how Russian people continued to have children, develop crafts, build churches, win battles; and how Russia expanded so rapidly.
Epidemics of the past centuries
The first pestilence that was mentioned in the chronicles took place in Rus’ in 1092. Having swept through Polotsk [in what is now Belarus.—Trans.], it spread to Kiev. Interpreted by people and reflected in the chronicles in their own way, the epidemic brought great turmoil. This is what Laurentian Chronicle (Codex) says:
“A most curious wonder has manifested itself in Polotsk: The heavy stamping of feet was heard at night, something was moaning in the streets, demons that looked like people were rushing about. Whoever came out to see what's going on would get imperceptibly stricken with the plague by the demons, and would die from this, so no one ventured out of their dwellings.”
As we see, many stayed at home, hoping to protect themselves from the plague. The chronicle reflects a spiritual interpretation of the epidemic:
“This has happened because of our sins, for our iniquities and wrongs have increased. It has been sent by God Who is thus telling us to repent and refrain from sin, envy and other evil, diabolical acts.”
The epidemics of olden times were severe and merciless. According to the Novgorod First Chronicle, in 1128 a plague struck the lands of Novgorod. “People ate the leaves of linden trees and the bark of birch trees...” Corpses lay everywhere, so people couldn’t go outside due to the stench. We first read in the chronicles that special servants were hired to bury the bodies of the epidemic victims outside cities and towns.
But the fourteenth century saw a true catastrophe—the Black Death, believed to be bubonic plague.
Marvelous is Divine providence! Breaking out in about 1320 by the Chinese-Mongolian border, the Black Death like a fire in a dry forest spread across the globe while sparing Russia for a relatively long time. Central Asia and the Golden Horde, the Middle East and Constantinople, Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean, the whole of Europe and England, Scandinavia, and Ireland were like a little mouse in the paws of a cunning cat. The pandemic had been travelling across the world for thirty years, only circumscribing Russia but not affecting it. All the countries in the east, the south, the west, and the north had succumbed, while Rus’ alone in the center held out. And it was not until 1352 that the Black Death delivered a blow to Rus’.
The epidemic broke out in Pskov. The terrified Pskovians appealed to holy Archbishop Vasily of Novgorod for help. Earlier they had repeatedly bothered him by their disobedience, but now the hierarch immediately showed them sympathy in their trouble. Arriving in Pskov, he served in three churches, walked around the city in procession and did all in his power to console the local residents. The archbishop was infected and sadly died on his way back. In the meantime, the merciless plague was raging in Novgorod.
Wiping out entire cities and villages, the epidemic spared neither crying babies nor desperate parents. Smolensk, Chernigov, Suzdal, Kiev… According to the Nikon Chronicle, in Glukhov and Beloozersk, “nobody has survived—all the people have died.”
There is no precise information on how the epidemic struck Moscow. But it is known that Prince Simeon the “Proud” of Moscow (c. 1316—1353) died at that time. Before that he had mourned his two young sons who had been killed by “an unknown disease.” His younger brother, Andrei of Serpukhov, died too. It was also at that time that holy Metropolitan Theognostus of Kiev and All Rus’ died.
The plague would recede and recur again. But there were other pestilences during the intervals. Sometimes the chronicles portrayed terrible scenes: fields were full of crops, but there was no one to harvest them—people themselves had become an abundant “harvest” of death.
The fifteenth century saw a smallpox epidemic. And louse-borne typhus raged through the sixteenth century.
Plague revealed itself again as a tiny flame in a Moscow home in August 1654 and developed into a powerful fire. Neither doctors nor the state authorities were able to save the capital from the pestilence. The Tsar and his army were in Smolensk: it was during a Russian-Polish War. Patriarch Nikon barely had time to evacuate the Tsarina and the royal children.
Prince Pronski, who then served as the Tsar’s Deputy (namestnik) in Moscow, wrote to Tsar Alexei in his petition:
“In Moscow and its suburbs only a small number of people are left now, and none of the six military regiments are operational: many men are sick, others have fled, so there is no one to man the guard posts. They bury the dead without priests; and within the city and in the suburbs many corpses lie in the streets, and are dragged about by dogs…”
There was no one to guard the city gate or even the inmates in prisons. Prince Pronski died, and soon his deputy died too. According to the chronicles and eyewitnesses’ evidence, archimandrites and abbots, monks and nuns, priests, deacons and lesser clergy died in large numbers. Trade was discontinued, all public services ceased. Plundering began. According to Paul of Aleppo: “Moscow, which had been teeming with people, became deserted… Dogs and pigs ate human corpses and became rabid, so nobody ventured to walk alone.”
The Tsar sent 600 streltsy soldiers to guard the gate, but they all died; then he sent the same number of them twice, but again all of them died.
And here the very important question of the ways to fight pandemics arose. Whether we like it or not, after centuries of very deplorable experience humanity chose the only more or less stable method—quarantine.
In the Middle Ages the main rule of fighting the plague was the motto: “Run as far, long and fast as you can.” People were encouraged to run from the infected area as far as possible, as quickly as possible, and stay far away from the epicenter for as long as possible. But if someone didn’t observe this rule quickly enough, this method was conducive to the spread of epidemics. That is why stricter regulations were adopted.
It was not in Russia that quarantine was first imposed. This practice appeared in Venice in 1348. This is how special stations where guests from epidemic-stricken districts were kept under quarantine were initially called. They stayed in lockdown for forty days—hence the origin of the term “quarantine”: from Italian “quarantena”, “quaranta giorini”, meaning “forty days”.
Large-scale pestilences presupposed serious restrictions. During the plague in Frankfurt in 1666 the following decree was issued:
“Citizens living in infected houses are required to refrain from visiting public markets and churches… Pastors who visit infected houses are prohibited from contacting healthy people.”
This is what took place in Europe. But what about Russia?
Since epidemics are part of divine providence, people would above all turn to God. Processions with holy icons around affected areas were organized, petitions and penitential prayers were offered up. Also the unique tradition of building “obydenny” churches in one day is worth mentioning. It existed from the fourteenth till the eighteenth century. Town or village residents would start building them all together before dawn and finish before sunset, after which they would pray in them for the cessation of the epidemic.
Thus people would unite in repentance and prayer, in a common cause, seeking special help from God.
But there were also natural measures. By the fourteenth century Russian people were well aware that many diseases, such as plague, were contagious and incurable. That is why the cities where the epidemics developed were fully locked down. Guard posts and cordons were put everywhere to prevent runaways from leaving the city. In 1387, a plague broke out in Smolensk. Five people managed to leave the city and it was locked down. Lockdown entailed inconveniences. Non-infected residents had to stay with the infected. And “blocked” cities and towns ran out of food.
Some decrees that we find in the chronicles were extremely strict. The Novgorod Second Chronicle recounts how plague engulfed the city in 1572:
“They put posts in the streets, and soldiers to guard them. If anyone in a street would die of plague, all houses on it had to be locked down, and people there fed through the windows. The priests were forbidden from hearing confessions of people stricken with plague; any priest doing so without notifying the authorities was to be burned together with the sick.”
Priests who heard confessions were regarded as potential carriers of infection from the sick to the healthy. To confess infected people priests had to get special permission from the boyars. In a word, there were precedents of severe restrictions.
However, the plague that broke out in Moscow in 1654 was accompanied by chaos. There were reports of how some priests after performing funeral services over plague victims came back home, got sick and died. On August 27, from the Holy Trinity Monastery the Tsarina and children sent a copy of icons of the Kazan of the Mother of God and of St. Sergius of Radonezh to Moscow “to avert the Lord’s righteous wrath.” After that communication with the capital halted.
At the guard posts the order was given to drive everybody back mercilessly, to catch and execute all who might try to pass along secret ways. But people tried to flee from Moscow by hook or by crook. Plague was brought to other cities.
It was believed that Moscow alone lost half of its inhabitants to the epidemic (for example, only twenty-six monks of the 208-strong brotherhood of Chudov Monastery survived). The remaining hotbeds of disease caused another outbreak of the epidemic in 1656. Patriarch Nikon addressed everybody with a special order: to fast, repent of their sins, take Communion and implore God to stop the epidemic. This time the epidemic didn’t affect Moscow.
Spiritual labors and natural methods of treatment—these are the two wings of overcoming pandemics. Priests pray, doctors treat, while patients obey both—it would be desirable to observe this ideal during any pandemic.
Prayer and fasting are close to the hearts of Orthodox people. The same can be said of cross processions and the erection of churches and chapels in one day for the cessation of plagues. However, natural precautionary measures weren’t always understood properly. Lockdowns, guard posts, and bans always entail inconveniences. And where there is inconvenience, there is discontent regardless of the type and degree of ban. Any prohibition is accompanied by discontent. And discontent is manifested in rumors and speculation. The latter can lead to the most unexpected consequences.
Riots for… piety’s sake
In 1771, the Plague Riot broke out in Moscow (the last plague epidemic in Europe). People distrusted doctors and hospitals, believing that no patients put in quarantine survived. Apart from this, a factory worker came forward who claimed that he had seen the Theotokos in a dream. According to his “revelation”, the city had been punished because no one had held prayer services in front of the wonderworking Bogolyubovo icon of the Mother of God at St. Barbara’s Gate for thirty years, and that the Lord had initially planned to rain stones on the city.
A ladder was illegally placed against the icon. There were crowds of people around. Archbishop Ambrose (Zertis-Kamensky) of Moscow wanted to remove the ladder, ban mass gatherings of people and seal up the donation box in front of the icon so as to avoid the spread of the disease. These measures were interpreted as a war against God. A mob took Donskoy Monastery by storm, dragged the archbishop out and beat him to death.
The spontaneous disorder developed into riots. The rebels attacked the monasteries that were used for quarantine and beat doctors. Daniel Samoilovich (1744—1805), an distinguished doctor and one of the founders of epidemiology in Russia, narrowly escaped death. He had volunteered to come to Moscow and combat the epidemic and ran plague hospitals there. Severely beaten by the rebels, he survived only because he assured the mob that he was not a doctor but a mere medical assistant.
By the way, the murdered Archbishop Ambrose instructed clergy to exhort parishioners to keep a fast, and after two days of preparation confess their sins and take Communion. But it was he who also proposed some new measures: to hear people’s confessions without personal contact—through a door or a window, while standing a little way off. He ordered that plague victims be buried the day they died without being carried to church, and for clergy to perform funeral services for them without their presence. He was against mass gatherings of people for worship. And he wasn’t forgiven for those innovations.
Wherever basic precautionary measures were taken, it seemed to people there was some conspiracy by the higher-ups, a struggle against God and something anti-Church.
Cholera pandemics began from 1817 on and reached Russia in 1830. Soon the Cholera Riots broke out. It was rumored that people were deliberately poisoned in quarantine, that doctors and the higher-ups were spreading poison over the roads, poisoning bread and water. Unbelievably, in order to save the central cholera hospital in St. Petersburg from devastation not only were troops brought into the city but also Emperor Nicholas I himself had to address the rioting mob with a speech.
Injections and vaccines
Unfortunately, even now we have to hear the most absurd versions from some—for example, that doctors allegedly contaminate priests and monks when they test them. Such people claim that the Public Health Ministry wants “to put our clergy out of action” in this way. This is how they interpret the mass infection of our clergy and monastics.
In some sense, this situation can be compared to what happened in Africa. During outbreaks of Ebola fever in the Congo, medics gave injections to the population. But some extremist groups believe that “people in white gowns have come to massacre the natives with their injections.” They put forward their arguments because some residents indeed die after injections. As a result, extremists attacked medical centers. The cases of assaults are innumerable.
In the nineteenth century, St. Innocent (Veniaminov) of Moscow preached to the peoples who inhabited Alaska and the surrounding islands. The Aleutians gladly embraced the faith of Christ, while their neighbors, the Tlingit people, turned out to be aggressive and suspicious. It was virtually impossible to preach the Gospel to them. But a smallpox epidemic broke out on the island, so the Tlingits began to die in large numbers, while the Russians and Aleutians who had been vaccinated remained safe and sound. Then the Tlingits agreed to accept help from Russians, were inoculated, and the epidemic receded. After that they no longer viewed Russians as their enemies and gradually converted to Orthodoxy. Later St. Innocent taught them to inoculate themselves against smallpox.
We live in a unique time when you may choose whether to be inoculated or not. This is because the major pandemics that once tormented mankind have receded. Parents are free to choose inoculation for their children. But situations have be different.
In 1959, the renowned Soviet artist Alexei Kokorekin (1906—1959; the author of the propaganda posters, “For the Motherland”, “This will Happen to the Fascist Beast”, etc.), contracted smallpox in India. Incidentally, natural smallpox is one of the most contagious infections; there is no remedy for it and humanity has survived to this day only because it has a death rate of about forty percent. Kokorekin was admitted to the Botkin City Hospital in Moscow with a diagnosis of the “flu”. Soon he died; and all the other patients in his ward, along with the doctors, a furnace stoker who walked past his ward down the corridor, and a boy from a ward on another floor (the infection had spread through the ventilation system) were contaminated.
It took three weeks to identify the disease. And it was then that Moscow was cut off from all air, road and railway communication. In a matter of several days, 10 million Muscovites were put under quarantine. It was found that forty-five residents had been infected, and three of them sadly died. In less than a week almost 10 million residents of Moscow and the Moscow region were vaccinated. The doctors were assisted by anyone who had anything to do with health care, including medical students. Absolutely everybody was inoculated without further ado, without any discussion. Old and young, dying and guests—everybody was vaccinated without any debates on the benefits or harm of immunization. Whether it was right or wrong, we managed to prevent a large-scale epidemic.
We are not abandoned by God
Controversy, confusion and fears are natural for unstable times. Apprehension, questions and attempts to find out the source of the current epidemic are understandable. But Divine providence reigns over our broken world that wallows in sin and vice. But does God allow pandemics to destroy humanity?
We ask: “Where is the way to salvation from sorrows?” But what if our sorrows themselves are the path to salvation?
Sorrows are the path on which God saves us from something worse. And time spent in quarantine (even when we are unable to go to church) may be of great benefit to our souls provided that we devote this time to God and our neighbors. Perhaps we have been given a brilliant opportunity to give ourselves up to those closest to us, learn to establish real bonds with them, while putting aside all concerns and fears that we were infected through mailing lists and “exposure”. Happiness is not in text messages or internet-“revelations”; it is in pure hearts, fervent prayers to the living God, the joy of communicating with those whom God united us with.
In the twenty-first century, the Lord is revealing the insecurity and illusoriness of this world to us. It’s impossible to create Paradise on earth. Once we have overcome one or another disease, a new one is sure to appear. This is because scientific and technological advances are not all-powerful. As a matter of fact, this progress is but a mere attempt to foster an illusion of immortality under the tyranny of death. Can mortal beings create something immortal here? Civilization is a construction of comfort, built from the debris of destroyed paradisal life. Allowing pandemics, the Lord enables us to see the truth that there is no paradisal happiness on earth, and all we have here is struggle.
But trials come and go, while the Church will remain. Guided by the Holy Spirit, it will go through the centuries right to our very meeting with Christ, Who will come down from heaven to take His people with Him.
Did the pandemics from the fourteenth century stay in our memory? The Black Death was wiping out entire towns, but at the same time a glimmer of the spiritual revival of Rus’ was glowing in the then quiet and obscure monastery of St. Sergius of Radonezh. The images of holy Metropolitans Peter and Alexis of Moscow and the gathering of lands around Moscow are before us, as well as the image of holy Right-Believing Prince Dimitry Donskoy and the victory at Kulikovo Field.
Do we keep in our memory the nineteenth century cholera epidemic? What we have before our mind’s eye is the image of St. Seraphim of Sarov, who acquired the spirit of peace and a thousand souls around him were saved; of Sts. Ignatius (Brianchaninov), Theophan the Recluse, Philaret of Moscow and a host of holy Optina Elders.
By the way, at that time the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was also in lockdown at his beloved Boldino [the former mansion of the Pushkin family in the south of what is now the Novgorod region; today Boldino village has the State Literary Memorial and the Museum-Reserve dedicated to Russia’s foremost poet.—Trans.], writing his literary masterpieces. Pandemics are no more than the background against which major events in history take place. Likewise, there are illnesses in the life of each one of us, but there are more important things to which we dedicate our energy.
Every epoch has its own saints, men of genius and heroes. But there are also trials that we have to go through. Some give way to despair because they don’t trust God, others behave carelessly because of excessive self-confidence.
I deem it necessary to mention one story associated with St. Paisios the Athonite and pilgrims who visited him. One day a man came to him but didn’t have time to ask him his question because of the crowds of visitors. Before saying good-bye to his guests in the evening, the elder told the man to go to sleep at the monastery and the next morning he would be received first. But he took the liberty of spending the night right beside the elder’s kaliva. It was there that he saw a snake, but decided that God would preserve his life through St. Paisios’s prayers. Indeed the snake didn’t touch him. But in the morning St. Paisios came out of his cell and rebuked the man, saying that while the Lord keeps all of us we shouldn’t justify our carelessness by excessive hope in God’s help.
God has given us arms, legs and a head on our shoulders so that we can take natural precautions. True, it should be admitted that in the personal life of St. Paisios the Athonite, the grace of God prevailed over nature. The elder tried to avoid civilization with all its inventions and was guided by the Holy Spirit his entire life. Meanwhile, we must admit that our way of life and spiritual level are very, very far from those of St. Paisios. Therefore, we should by no means ignore natural precautionary measures.
May God give us discernment, the spirit of patience, love, and forgiveness! Coronavirus will pass, but will we keep unity after it? Or will we divide people into “friends” and “enemies”, “the brave” and “cowards”, “the faithful” and “traitors”? Preserving love, integrity and forgiving each other—this is a far more important spiritual task of our time.