Fr. Andrei serves at the Holy Transfiguration Convent of Vyatka1 in Kirov. He invited me to talk in the convent’s garden after the Liturgy. The convent is being revived; if not long ago people came here to sunbathe, now people come here for prayer, meditation and important conversations. One of the subjects of our talk was how to acquaint people today with the podvig of the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church.
The Vyatichi, the Rurikids and the Romanovs
Saint Victor (Ostrovidov) The Transfiguration Convent, one of the oldest monastic communities in the northeast, was founded in 1624 under Tsar Michael Romanov. It is hardly surprising that it was once a disputed territory: both Novgorod and Moscow laid claim to it. If we add in the desire of the local people to be independent, along with constant disputes and confrontations with their neighbors, we get a picture of general disorder.
Under Grand Prince John III (1462—1505) the lands of Vyatka were ceded to Moscow. In my view, it was done in an interesting way: the prince took the high society and the best craftsmen from Vyatka to Moscow, and then sent his most faithful men in Moscow to Vyatka as its leaders, and not for some period of time but forever so no one could think, “Now I will spend a bit of time in the country and then I’ll get a promotion in the capital.” They understood that they were the prince’s people and not temporary proteges, so they strove to live and work here with the awareness that these lands would become if not their own homeland, then that of their children. And the convent was significant for Moscow: the young Tsar Michael Romanov gave an enormous donation for the Altar of St. Michael Maleinos at its church.
With time, the convent grew substantially in size, with novices coming not only from Vyatka and its surrounding area but also from Moscow and Velikiy Ustyug. By the mid-eighteenth century the Transfiguration Convent had become one of the largest communities in the Diocese of Vyatka and Perm. At the beginning of the twentieth century it had a comprehensive school, various workshops where girls developed professional skills, and a missionary school for girls (to refute the allegations that “monastics were benighted and uneducated”). The convent was closed in 1918 and destroyed in 1930[by the communists].
Vytka is one of a number of Russian cities that have been included in the “Imperial Route” project. It has some places connected with the Romanov Dynasty. Throughout their reign, the lands of Vyatka were associated with some events of their lives of the Romanovs. Even the nearby Alexander Garden in Kirov isn’t a provincial attempt to look like the capital, but a tribute to the memory of the Tsar:: Emperor Alexander I was here in 1825, though the garden was actually named after the Tsarevich (the Crown Prince)—the future Tsar-Liberator Alexander II. Some members of the Royal Family who had been sentenced to death by the Bolsheviks were held prisoner here.
If the cause is worthy, God will give you the strength
—Fr. Andrei, I see that special attention at the Transfiguration Convent is given to the veneration of the New Martyrs and Confessors. You keep the relics of St. Victor (Ostrovidov), who irritated the atheist authorities very much: he would never compromise with the Renovationists, calling them what they deserved to be called and as a result, provoking their hatred.
—As a bishop who had been exiled to the Solovetskie Islands, St. Victor disapproved of Metropolitan Sergei (Stragorodsky)’s compromises; however, he wasn’t a fanatic and took a range of opinions into consideration. To put it simply, he believed that the holders of different opinions lived in the same Church and were not divided. History has shown us that St. Victor was right.
He was appointed Bishop of Vyatka by Patriarch Tikhon in 1918 and served here for years, returning here after a series of exiles, struggling with the enemies’ desperate attempts to divide and destroy the Church. As we know, their methods varied: from open terror and intimidation to the activity of their agents and the creation of various sects.
—Why are St. Victor’s relics here, even though he died in the Komi labor camp?
—It’s very simple: this is the fulfilment of his spiritual testament. St. Victor said his wish was that at least his dead body would be carried through his beloved Vyatka (Kirov). The saint came home, as it were.
However, when the buildings of the Transfiguration Convent were returned to the Church in 2005, it resembled anything but a home—tramps and alcoholics would gather in the ruins of the church, have bonfires and drink… So there was life there, but it was not at all spiritual. It took a huge effort on the part of Abbess Sophia and her sisters to give the convent its present appearance. It is unimaginable just how much energy it took to restore its former glory, or even make it look decent. If the cause is worthy, God will give you the strength; I can’t explain it any other way.
Miracles happen at St. Victor’s shrine by the faith of supplicants and through his intercessions, and the convent keeps a record of them. People often come to pray here and it makes us happy. The saint is venerated not only in Kirov—pilgrims from all over Russia flock to us.
Do you see this icon of the Great-Martyr George the Victorious? It was donated by the saint’s devotees from Jordan. And this icon is a gift to the convent from Viktor Petrovich Savinykh, an astronaut from Kirov. This icon belonged to the great-grandfather of Priest Fyodor Konyukhov, a famous voyager. Fr. Fyodor gave it to Savinykh, and Viktor Petrovich donated it to the Russian segment of the space station. When elementary school students visit us, the first thing they ask about is space; and only then do they wonder who or what is depicted on the icon.
A lot depends on the narrator. For example, if you tell them that the words “cosmos” and “cosmetics” have the same root, the children will at first look at you in confusion; but when they learn that the common route means “beauty,” they begin to wonder why our world is (ideally) beautiful and what makes man and the universe truly beautiful.
People from all over the world seek St. Victor’s intercessions. Pieces of his relics can be found in churches across the globe, even in Morocco. They say that St. Victor helped a priest in Rabat (where there is an Orthodox church) get through a difficult situation. But as I have said, there are plenty of such examples. The more people study the life of St. Victor, the more often and sincerely they seek his help. This is most likely the case with all the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, whom they [the Bolsheviks—Trans.] wanted to trample underfoot into the earth, erasing even the vestiges of any memory of them; but it turns out that it is impossible to forget them, like the roots of a mighty tree that pierce through concrete or asphalt.
—You can’t help but recall the Parable of the Mustard Seed.
—And here’s a cross brought from the Butovo Firing Range. It is made of a tree that grew there on the site of mass executions. Because the terrible word “Vyatlag” [a large network of forced labor camps in the Kirov region.—Trans.] is known to everybody.
Thousands of innocent people from all over Russia and the former USSR suffered here, so a symbolic and spiritual link with the other Gulag islands is evident. This is a spiritual kinship, because the New Martyr Vladimir (Ambartsumov), the grandfather of Archpriest Kirill Kaleda who serves in Butovo, was ordained as a priest by St. Victor (Ostrovidov) in the Vyatka region. And some priests from Vyatka were among those executed by firing squad in Butovo. Of these priests, the Agafonnikov brothers are best known. One of them, Archpriest Nikolai, served at our convent. Then they were forced to move to Moscow, where they served and eventually were shot in 1937.
St. Athanasius (Sakharov) was imprisoned in Vyatka as well. We want to put a memorial plaque on the site of the prison where he was incarcerated. According to our research, over 100 canonized New Martyrs suffered for Christ in the Vyatka region. You must admit, that’s an impressive list! Now a list for the Synaxis of the Saints of Vyatka is underway, so we continue our work of studying documents, searching for testimonies, memories of eyewitnesses and relatives, etc.
A kind-hearted disagreement
—I may be mistaken, but sometimes I get the impression that local people tend to keep their distance, and that they don’t really care about the saints of their lands, thinking, “Let those ‘churchy’ people get involved with these matters, we’ve got enough problems of our own!” As you understand, I don’t mean only Kirov residents.
—I don’t agree! It makes us happy that our work attracts the attention of local residents: hundreds of grateful people come to our convent, bringing documents, letters and things from that period, eager to find out as much information about their relatives and fellow-citizens as possible. Currently the Transfiguration Convent has nine nuns and a handful of novices, and they wouldn’t be able to work with the large amount of materials, documents and letters related to the New Martyrs and Confessors but for the help of locals. People come all the time—some bringing us information, and others inquiring about it. So no, this cause is a common one.
—Do people perceive the podvig of the New Martyrs and Confessors as “the lore of ages long gone by, in hoary antiquity compounded”2? Do they say, roughly speaking, “Yes, these were great deeds, but they have little to do with the present. What impact can or should the podvig of one saint or another who suffered in the 1920s or 1930s have on my life, when I am living about 100 or 50 years later?”
—You know, when problems arise in the Church or in the world nowadays, who, other than the New Martyrs—almost our contemporaries—can give us an example of a Christian attitude toward our trials?
Now people are literally panicking because of the pandemic and the quarantine, suffering both physically and mentally, mostly due to the suspense, uncertainty and fear. But let’s look back at the 1920s, when St. Victor (Ostrovidov) had to endure mockery, derision and open persecutions for his calls to rely not only on medicine (imperfect as it was) but also on strong prayers and care for others. Then there was an epidemic then too—typhus was raging, and Bishop Victor of Urzhum dared to call on people to pray more and sprinkle their homes with holy water. I think the reaction of the Soviet authorities was clear, “Bigots!” and so forth. This all was on top of divisions within the Russian Church: the appearance of the “Living Church” and other schismatic groups. So if we look back carefully at the relatively recent past, we’ll see that there were problems more serious than the current debates over mask-wearing. We’ll also see an example of good Christian opposition to it. And the awareness of what happened not so long ago (after all, some old newspapers have survived) in my view, will help us and give us strength.
—You’ve mentioned schisms and divisions. I’m not speaking of direct, obvious schismatics who aimed to destroy the Church—everything is clear with them. I actually wanted to ask you whether different opinions on certain political, economic or other issues can be a good reason to sever communion?
—Let’s return to Saint Victor. Though he and his supporters had views on contacts between the Church and the atheist State (which appeared on the ruins of the Empire) that were diametrically opposed to those of some hierarchs, they never believed that their opponents had “fallen away,” that they were “pagans and publicans.”
True, there were arguments, and very serious ones at that, but there were no anathemas or anything like that. We should also take into consideration the efforts to undermine the Church undertaken by the “people’s” government, with numerous provocateurs, lies and a lot of outright slander. The bishops were unable to discuss current affairs together because they were scattered across forced exiles and prisons. Let’s recall the attempts of Tuchkov3 and his agents to set the Church hierarchy at loggerheads. You know, it’s possible to divide any class (even a very united one) and create hostility among its members using the methods of those “comrades.” However, the “comrades” failed to understand that they were dealing with the Church of Christ and not with a mere human organization. Despite their different opinions, the opponents were united in Christ. If St. Victor held some views that were different from those of Metropolitan Sergei (Stragorodsky), it doesn’t mean that the opponents considered each other to be outside the Church.
—How can we distinguish between different opinions and fanaticism?
—It seems that in the case of fanaticism we deal with those who live not in Christ but in the antichrist. Look, these people who fight against Individual Taxpayer Identification numbers, biometric passports, etc. don’t say a word or express a single thought about Christ and His love. And if you dare to disagree with them in any aspect or criticize their ideas, they’ll accuse you of being an “apostate” and so on.
Diversity of opinions is another matter: polemics is necessary when we need to find the path to truth. There is room for the awareness of your imperfection here; if you haven’t the capability, possibility and strength to share your opponent’s views, it doesn’t mean that that’s the case with other people too. Metropolitan Kirill of Kazan, who disagreed with Metropolitan Sergei (Stragorodsky), blessed his flock to attend the churches that remained open where Metropolitan Sergei was commemorated at the Liturgy.
I feel we haven’t comprehended the podvig of the New Martyrs and Confessors and haven’t learned a lesson from it yet. True, we have begun to feel our relation in a bodily sense: most of us have a relative who suffered during the Bolshevik persecutions and terror, but I don't think there is any spiritual closeness to Christ’s martyrs, at least now. We have plenty of work ahead of us.
By the way, do you know why many icons in our church hang very low? It’s especially for children so they can examine the images of the saints people pray to, understand them and become interested in their lives. There are saints from different ages here: St. Panteleimon, St. Luke of Simferopol and even Sts. Joachim and Anna. This is a sort of “bridge” across the centuries—a person can see that it is possible to serve God, live by Him and for Him in all ages. And understand that Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). St. Nicholas the Wonderworker lived so many centuries ago, and here is St. Victor, a recent saint who lived locally! We help them understand that Christianity is not tales and legends, but the call and the opportunity to live with God in reality. Our ancestors did it, we can do it too.
By the way, you asked what Kirov residents think about the Church, our work on the restoration of the memory of the New Martyrs, our needs, whether they are indifferent or not. I feel that they are not indifferent—that is natural for people. Here are the graves of some merchants who deemed it their duty and honor to help their neighbor and the Church, these were benefactors of in olden times. It is largely thanks to their support that a distinctive Vyatka architectural style of churches was formed—if we look at an aesthetic (and not spiritual) aspect. And our parishioners today, we are convinced, are not non-participating observers—these are people who are really concerned about the Church. They have an interest in the life of the Church and a need to be part of it. As Abbess Sophia says, “The church is like a family album—everybody is your relative.” I’m not exaggerating, in most cases it is really so.
“Why bother stirring up the past?”
—Fr. Andrei, when it comes to the New Martyrs and Confessors, is there any opposition to the study of their lives and deeds? Does anyone ask, “Why bother stirring up the past?” Many people today think, “This is part of our history; true, there were ‘excesses’ here and there, but in general everything was fine, so there is no point in asking such awkward questions that don’t agree with the rosy picture of our great Soviet past!”
—Oh, attitudes towards history change just like the pendulum swings. If, in the nineties, the general opinion was that everything in the USSR was doom and gloom, now some seem willing to compose akathists to the Soviet era. I think we haven’t yet drawn the right conclusions, haven’t examined our past properly and haven’t turned the “Soviet page” completely. It’s not lustrations4 that we need—we just should make an objective view of things: One thing happened and another thing happened. This one, in our opinion, was good, but those things blatantly contradicted the Gospel.
An enormous amount of work is being done by the “Russia—My History” parks and the Butovo Firing Range Memorial Center, and I want as many people as possible to be acquainted with their results. A sensible view of history won’t harm anyone. Otherwise what we get is a petty, laughable and, frankly, very harmful attempt at the “reconstruction of history.”
Some dream of an “iron hand” and “Stalin-era order,” but want to live like in the late Brezhnev era at the same time. One the one hand, older people’s nostalgia for “youth drove us on a saber campaign,”5 and on the other hand, the illusory realm of the “bright future” among the fantasy generation is laughable.
—If it weren’t so sad…
—But we aren’t sad. We have a lot of work to do. We have a very good collaboration with the Butovo Memorial Center. I am amazed by the way their work with the younger generation is arranged! How can you gain children’s interest by telling them about the New Martyrs and Confessors? How can you narrate without cursing the torturers, informers, etc.? How do they manage to show the Paschal aspect of suffering for Christ? I really respect and admire them for this. They help the youngest children get the idea of those times through the popular children’s fairy tale poem, The Monster Cockroach [by the famous children’s author Kornei Chukovsky (1882—1969); some suppose that its prototype was Stalin himself.—Trans.].
I think that in stories about the New Martyrs, the emphasis should be put on the joy of life and death for Christ. I have heard the following accusations: “You are setting some people against others,” etc. We do nothing of the sort! Our task is to show why people chose suffering and even death, why they rejected those Soviet closed (“members-only”) retail establishments, additional rations, etc. in order to be with Christ. Then you understand the Apostle Paul’s words better: For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21).
In the time of the New Martyrs people seem to have understood that the light and joy that were characteristic of the first Christians hadn’t disappeared. Our holy, distant ancestors broke all the stale stereotypes of a “normal life”, preferring Christ above all things. Likewise, our holy grandparents proved that the same serene Light still shines today—this is the main lesson we must learn from them. We should repeat this lesson over and over again because it is not only about overcoming external circumstances but also about the victory over our “old man,” it is about getting over your own fear, self-love, cowardice and other sins.
In addition, we know very little about the legacy of our New Martyrs—here I don’t mean spirituality, but about the culture and science. Many of them were scholars, artists, writers, architects of genius. Do we know this heritage of theirs well enough? This can be a separate message to those individuals who still believe the Church to be a “hotbed of all that’s anti-scientific and uncivilized.” Look how today’s “liberals” and bygone Bolsheviks interestingly enough share identical stereotypes about the Church! One would think that their views ought to be opposite, but they turn out to be “old friends!” Though not very good ones.
—Fr. Andrei, I daresay that we know our New Martyrs and Confessors very little, let alone their cultural and scholarly heritage. Yes, they have been canonized and, thank God, the canonizations continue, but I wouldn’t say that most of us feel our spiritual kinship. Am I right?
—I’m afraid you are. There are quite a few priests, mostly young ones, who grew up without New Martyrs. And if they wonder who they are, why they are saints, what is our connection to them, then they heard, “You can read their Lives if you like.”—“Where can I find them?”—“Well, you’ll find them somewhere. Sorry, I’m busy.” Very few people can replace the old researchers who would study the archives, literally rummaging through tons of papers and earth to bring the truth of the saints of recent times to others. We should admit that. There are such people, but they are few and far between. Now we are at the beginning of a new stage of understanding of our link with the New Martyrs. For this we need to publish their memoirs, letters and meditations, and recount their Lives in a new manner—as examples of the service of very talented and sincere people! It’s the way we try to teach the students of our theological school. There is even a small course on the history of the Vyatka Diocese, intended to get future priests to fall in love with the history and the holy places of our land. We hope that our work is not in vain.
—Do many people want to become priests now?
—Not really. Very few young people choose the priesthood. And there are advantages of that.
—It’s very simple: It’s a kind of quality selection. To become a priest is to provoke disapproval or even ostracism among other young people. They have been thoroughly brainwashed and the priesthood isn’t popular. It was only earlier that crowds of enthusiastic “psychics” would run to the Vyatka Theological Seminary, asking us to teach them new “super-extrasensory skills.” Back then we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when we denied them admission. And now, if somebody applies for admission, he must have weighed all the pros and cons, understanding that he will have to say goodbye to some of his friends and most of his acquaintances because they feel he is alien to them. If he has consciously decided to make this sacrifice, I am sure we have something to talk with him about.
—That’s how it is everywhere now, in all spheres. Do you think that the situation is any different in factories, banks or newspapers? A typical generation gap. It doesn’t feel good, but the situation isn’t tragic—there are always conscientious, upright people concerned about their service and their neighbors. Advanced or mature age isn’t always a sign of piety.
—Yes, for some, forty isn’t enough.
—In any case, it must be said that the heightened euphoria for the Church has passed, and the time for very serious, painstaking work and service has come. Today, if a young man sincerely wants to become a priest and not “a performer of services of need for your voluntary donations,” he will inevitably become a merciful servant to his neighbors. And this applies to all ages, though.
—So, if we see such an attitude towards priests in society today, one could think that now they better understand the situation the New Martyrs and Confessors once found themselves in?
—Yes, we should believe and hope that they will know our saints better and bring other people closer to them and therefore, to Christ.