We are deep in the steppes of the Trans-Volga region at the border between Russia [Russia’s Saratov region.—Trans.] and Kazakhstan. The name of the bus stop—Krepost Uzen (“Uzen Fortress”)—takes us back to the era of Catherine II (1762—1796) and the historical novel The Captain’s Daughter by Alexander Pushkin. Though this fortress, erected in 1787 by the Empress’ decree to protect the Russian lands along the Volga from nomads of the steppes, was fortified much better than “the Belogorsk Fortress” from Pushkin’s novel. However, towards the end of the eighteenth century the fortress on the right bank of the River Bolshoy (or “Great”) Uzen lost its defensive function and merged with the neighboring village of Kurilovka. And it is Kurilovka that we are heading for.
Two villages one after the other stretch along the River Maly (or “Small”) Uzen over four miles long. The area is arid, the sun is mercilessly hot, and this summer has been very hard with no rain since April. The dry parched grass is crunching underfoot, the Maly Uzen is drying up, its banks are swampy, and herons are skimming over the green water noisily.
The Church of St. John the Baptist is in the very center of Kurilovka. Its parishioners’ main means of transportation is bicycles. In the church visitors are always shown a photograph of the church of Kurilovka before the Revolution. The church was originally dedicated to the Holy Trinity, since Kurilovka was formerly known as Novotroitsky sloboda (loosely meaning “a new free settlement of the Holy Trinity”). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the village grew and developed rapidly; by 1910 it had around 6,000 inhabitants, around twenty mills, two tanneries, several different schools, a post-office, a doctor, a paramedic and a midwife. According to the local district council’s website, today Kurilovka has a population of about 2,000, which is not bad for our days. There are many inhabited and well-kept houses, yet there are quite a few deserted ones too. Most local men travel to Moscow to make some money.
With all their problems and hardships, residents of Krepost Uzen, Kurilovka and the neighboring Dmitrievka love their land and believe in its future. That’s not a cliché—their love is confirmed by deeds. The church you can see on the image has been built, or, to be more exact, “grown”—step by step, brick after brick—over many years since 1996 by everyone together to a man, with each local person doing all he can and contributing as much as he can. Though the church is still unfinished, the team isn’t going to give up.
The main benefactor is Michael Andreyev. A native of Kurilovka, for twelve years he was Chairman of the Novouzensk Rural District Administration, and now he heads the Saratov regional branch of the “Waste Management” Joint-Stock Company. I was fortunate in finding Michael Vasilievich (who is always very busy) in his village on my visit. It was Priest Alexei Epifanov, rector of St. John the Baptist’s Church, who introduced us to each other.
—Michael Vasilievich, can you tell us how you began to build the church in Kurilovka?
—We just decided to do it and started building.
—We, the Andreyevs, decided at our family council, and the others joined us. We asked the district council to give us an old building, had our parish registered and commenced the construction. Most importantly, we already had the walls and the premises to celebrate services in. We drew up the plan for each particular year and tried to fulfil it.
—What funds did you use to build the church?
—Initially we used my own resources, but now farmers, businessmen and ordinary people chip in. We have more work to do, and we will surely carry it through.
The rector added that Galina Vasilievna, M. Andreyev’s sister, paid utility bills for the church and the rector’s house for fourteen years. Their father, Vasily Mikhailovich, is still one of their most active parishioners. Oleg Alekseyev, member of the Federation Council and representative of the Legislative Authority of the Saratov region, who was Kurilovka born and bred, is among the faithful friends and donors of the church in Kurilovka. The young parishioners receive presents on all the Church feasts from him, and adults received funds for construction materials. And Dmitry Dorofeyev, Chairman of the Assembly of Deputies of the Novouzensk district, who too grew up in Kurilovka, never denies help to his fellow-villagers. And the congregation has raised around 50,000 rubles [c. 700 US dollars.—Trans.] itself. The “Buy a Brick Campaign” has been especially effective—see a photo of the recently built church bell-tower.
True, you can take part in the construction not only by raising money. For example, Volodya [a diminutive form of the name Vladimir.—Trans.] Tarabrin, though he lives in Novouzensk, has travelled to Kurilovka for seven years running—for as long as Fr. Alexei, his father-confessor, has served here. A jack of all trades, he has made all the icon cases, benches, the panikhida table and many other things for the church. He is always at work—with except, of course, during services.
Another assistant of the rector is Pyotr Mikhailovich Petrov, or uncle Petya [a diminutive form of the name Pyotr / Peter.—Trans.], as he is called here. He is the church caretaker, bell-ringer and construction supplier. He is a livestock expert and an ex-supply manager of the local hospital. He is an indispensable man of the parish—whenever it emerges that there are no screws or steel beams in the church, all that is missing is always found in the experienced caretaker’s stash.
“When you travel to Dmitrievka tomorrow, look at our belfry there. It took us some days to make it,” Pyotr said with a smile.
It would be fair to say that everybody in this parish is a key figure. This old lady in a white headscarf and a black polka-dotted dress is Anna Mikhailovna Zizevskaya; she is responsible for tidying up and keeping the church. The acolyte Yury Petrovich Basov is one of the first parishioners of Kurilovka. And the singer Anna Yefremova brought her two children to the church choir—Vasilisa (an eighth-grader) and the eleven-year-old Stepan. Now Vasilisa is the heart of the choir.
—How did you and your brother learn to sing?
—We repeated after our mom. She always sings some church hymns when she is busy with household chores. This is how we have learned the whole Liturgy, troparia and kontakia.
Vasilisa wants as many of her peers as possible to go to church and learn church singing. And, though only a handful of them wish to sing in the choir, the parish Sunday school functions and there is no shortage of pupils. Galina Alekseevna Galtsova, an accountant by trade, runs it. She sees her task as ensuring that children don’t get bored during lessons. Everything is put to good use: animated cartoons, handicrafts, cooking lessons and performances for holidays to make their loved ones happy. The school year ends with quiz games on the material learned and a ramble in the countryside with the priest. However, this year because of the pandemic the outing had to be cancelled, and even the communication with kids was online through a social media group (but what matters is that it hasn’t stopped).
Ex-rector of the Kurilovka parish, Priest Andrei Reshetnikov, left fond memories of himself. Now Fr. Alexei Yepifanov carries on his work and mission, which is not limited to church-building activity.
Everything is closely interrelated. Interestingly, local parishioners have a mindset that is different from that in the big city churches. You can attend a city cathedral for twenty years on end without thinking of who has paid for the repair, where the new bells have come from, who has provided furniture for the Sunday school, who has gathered the choir, etc. You, a layman, could care less about this; and the rector doesn’t usually share such problems with you. But in such villages as Kurilovka the attitudes are very different. Its people are conscious that what they don’t do themselves won’t be done for them by someone else. And the rector, in turn, fully relies on his parishioners. This factor unites the community, making it a genuine closely-knit family. You feel warm as soon as you enter St. John the Baptist’s Church. Lyubov Nikitichna Porokhova, or aunt Lyuba, as locals call her, is an amazingly serene, pure and kind-hearted person. She regards the rector and his wife as her own children and their son Sasha (a diminutive form of the name Alexander.—Trans.] as her grandson. This is despite the fact that she was very devoted the previous rector, Fr. Andrei Reshetnikov, and attended his funeral with tears. But she seems to accept every faithful person into her heart and says that the Church makes us a family. In the difficult life of a rural priest and chronic stress due to financial and other issues, you often don’t know what is more important: money for bricks, or the steel beams for the belfry, or several fresh cucumbers from aunt Lyuba’s beloved greenhouse. Heartfelt support in this remote steppes region is extremely important.
The attitude of your ruling hierarch is very essential too. It is not for nothing that they say that relations between a bishop and a priest should be those of a father and a son, not a boss and a subordinate. The care of Bishop Pachomius of Nikolaevka and Pokrovka for his diocese’s remote areas and their priests can truly be called fatherly. The Yepifanovs know this by experience. It is unlikely that they would have managed to put the neglected house in Kurilovka in order without his help. And the faithful of neighboring Dmitrievka (where the rector and I headed for after the Vigil) always wait for Bishop Pakhomy as if he were a member of their own family.
It is a miracle that the Church of Greatmartyr Demetrius of Thessaloniki in the tiny hamlet of Dmitrievka has appeared and functions. This miracle became possible thanks to two elderly women—Nina Ivanovna and Valentina Ivanovna. Just imagine: Nina Ivanovna Tsyplakova once worked at the Presidential Administration! Born in village Obliv near Dmitrievka, she lived in the capital for thirty years… and then decided to return to her native steppes. And now she laughs when she sees my confusion:
—Everybody is astonished, but I think that “there is no place like home.” I returned in 2009, and in 2010 we started building a church here. It wasn’t until age fifty that I converted to the faith. My son was the first in our family to get baptized and start attending church, and I joined him. I took the faith so sincerely that I wanted Dmitrievka to have its own church. Fr. Andrei Reshetnikov encouraged me. The first service was celebrated at the village hall: people gathered, thanked us and some of them said they wanted to be baptized. Next we were given a wing of the hospital that had previously accommodated a maternity department1.
The church in Dmitrievka is neat and beautiful, without the bitter squalor that we see in little converted rural churches.
—Nina Ivanovna, where did the funds come from?
—My son supports us; he makes decent money in Moscow. Friends, colleagues in Moscow, fellow-villagers who live in different cities but visit their native villages—some donate 3,000 rubles [just over forty-two US dollars.—Trans.], some contribute 5,000 or 10,000 rubles [between seventy and 140 US dollars.—Trans.]. This is how we raise money with the help of God. We have bought bells, assembled a belfry, and are now drying beams for the bells as they got wet through on the way.
Valentina Ivanovna Kovyneva, a native of Dmitrievka, is ex-principal of a village school and now she teaches at the Sunday school here:
—My husband, our children and I tried to settle in Volgograd and elsewhere, but it turned out that I can’t live without these steppes, without my fellow-villagers and village children. Everything is close to my heart here and I do what I can do.
Dmitrievka will soon be 200 year old; before the Revolution it had the Church of the Kazan icon of the Holy Theotokos, but nothing remains of it. At present Dmitrievka is home to a little more than 700 inhabitants.
On the way from one parish to the other Fr. Alexei called a farmer and agreed on skim milk that is given to piglets. Then his wife Victoria called and informed him that two ducklings had hatched in the incubator. He instructed her what to do with the “newborns.” A rural priest can’t survive without a farm.
Twenty years ago, the nineteen-year-old Victoria came to the Church of the icon, “The Healer of Sorrows”, in Saratov in the hope of finding help and consolation in a tough situation. And a guy who sang in its choir spotted her and she paid attention to him too. At that time she hadn’t yet been integrated into Church life and didn’t really realize that her chosen one was a seminarian and going to become a priest, which meant that she would have a special responsibility before her husband, people and the Church. She simply fell in love with him… This was followed by a period of numerous temptations, but their feelings stood the test of time. The Yepifanovs have lived in Kurilovka for seven years now. And Fr. Alexei has achieved quite a lot: He completed the church’s brick facade, built the bell-tower, and preserved the community by inspiring them with love. You see this when he talks with people even about everyday things—after all, in the village they have common problems. But how did he convert to the faith and choose to become a priest?
—I had a religious grandmother who feared for my sister and me, because we were growing up without a father and in the early “crazy 1990s.” She prayed much for us and our mother. And I think her prayers were answered; I remember when my mother took me to the Holy Trinity Cathedral2 for the first time: it was incredibly beautiful. I had a friend Ilia who was a permanent church-goer—I joined him and developed a deep affection for church services. And during the Vigil of the feast of Pentecost Fr. Vasily Strelkov, rector of St. Seraphim’s Church in Saratov, first invited me into the altar. I entered it, and it was like being in heaven… I sensed Divine grace so keenly. And I have been in the altar ever since.
The same year after the ninth grade at school I entered a technical college. At the same time a seminary opened in Saratov. And I told mom that I would chuck my studies at college and become a seminarian. Mother ran to Fr. Vasily in tears. Fr. Vasily told me: “Son, don’t hurry! First acquire a secular profession. Welders are fine, and the Church needs them.”3 I obeyed him and completed my studies at college.
—And Fr. Vasily’s words proved to be true?
—Sure. And I am not just a welder—I am a production engineer at a welder’s. We were taught how to organize production engineering, and these skills proved extremely useful during the construction of our church.
On receiving a technical diploma, Alexei hastened “at breakneck speed” to enter seminary. After studying for the first term he received his call-up papers: it turned out that the seminary didn’t provide exclusion from military service.
—I studied at the Civil Defense Forces of the Ministry for Emergency Situations. First it was a training unit in Chelyabinsk, and then I was sent to Voronezh—to St. Mitrophanes (Mitrofan) of Voronezh. Everybody knew that I believed in God and the commanders were very kindly disposed to me; so I could often go on leave—to the Holy Protection Cathedral, to St. Mitrophanes’ relics, and pray to him there all the time (I always venerated this saint, even before then). One day an old woman came up to me and offered me some money (a fairly small amount), saying: “Take this. I have a grandson serving in the north.” Then another granny came up and slipped a ten-ruble note into my hands, and she was followed by another one. That money was enough for me to get a meal and I was very moved.
According to Fr. Alexei, many nice people served in the Emergencies Ministry Forces, though he had to face the dark side of army life as well. He saw what happens to people who live without God, and it strengthened his desire to become a priest.
—Of course, I had my doubts and asked myself whether or not I was worthy of serving in the altar. But then I read in the Holy Fathers that once you have made the decision to become a pastor, you must pursue it without doubts or hesitation.
In order to meet my future wife I read the Canon to the Holy Theotokos for a year—that is, 365 times—and did find her!
Archbishop Alexander (Timofeyev; 1941—2003) of Saratov and Volsk took seminarians who had served in the army very seriously. He ordained me a deacon when I was still a seminarian, and after I had graduated from it in 2001 I was ordained a priest. I am indebted to my granny for her prayers.
—Why do you greet everybody in a low voice with the words, “Christ Is Risen!” as you cense in the church, and people respond, “In Truth He Is Risen!”? After all, the Paschal season ended many days ago.
—We all love St. Seraphim of Sarov who greeted everybody with the same words regardless of the season. Do we celebrate the triumph over death only in the Paschal season?
The steppes on the left bank of the Volga in the Saratov region suffer from an arid and critical climate. This makes the living water (cf. Jn. 4:14) much more precious. Through people’s labors, there are springs in the steppes.