Hieromonk Vasily (Burkov) is the abbot of Holy Dormition Svyatogorsk Monastery in the Pushkin Mountains. The monastery is widely known as the burial place of Alexander Pushkin (buried in the ancestral tomb of the Hannibals-Pushkins in 1837).
Fr. Vasily spoke with us about his path to monasticism and his spiritual mentors—the elders Archimandrite Kensorin (Fyodorov), Archimandrite Iliya (Nozdrin), and Archpriest Nikolai Guryanov.
It’s a mystery for me, because I was born in the midst of the soviet atheistic times when we weren’t told anything about God. I was born in Khabarovsk. Although there was one church, I didn’t go there, of course. I even remember one time in childhood, or maybe as a teenager, I walked past the church and saw fans in the windows, and I thought: “How strangely they believe in God… What do they need fans for?”
Then I wound up in Pskov. I had a friend who went to church sometimes, but not out of religious necessity, I don’t think, but just to light a candle before some important business—and one time I asked him how and why. He asked: “Are you baptized?” I didn’t even know if I was or not. I called home to my mother in Khabarovsk, and she told me I wasn’t. My friend said: “Let’s go get you baptized.” I said: “Alright, let’s go. Nothing too terrible will happen.” So there I was in Pskov—twenty-five years old—and I was baptized in an apartment. I didn’t have any particular emotional impressions.
But I remember the feeling—and now I understand that it was a feeling from God. I didn’t understand it then. When they put a cross on me and the cross was hanging on me, I felt joyful—some kind of quiet joy, and I felt like now I had a friend who would never betray me, never leave me. I really loved my cross. Although I was doing the same thing I did before that, everything in a commotion, and I remember that feeling, and I still recall it with gratitude. I realize that it came to me from God.
But then, by God’s providence, I had a situation where I was left completely alone. That is, I could go about my business, or not. And again, I believe God arranged it that way. I didn’t understand my condition at the time. My mind was racing, and I thought: Time’s running out—I have to do something great, ingenious, but I’m not doing anything. But my heart was calm and peaceful. I remember this state well. And one day I went to church—they were restoring the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky in Pskov at that time. Fr. Oleg Teor, the rector, was so colorful. It was something unusual for me then. I got interested in all of it and I started going to church, especially to help restore everything—we did it with our own hands. If it rained during the services, there would be a row of people, and a row of cups catching the drips; a row of people, a row of cups.
There was an upsurge in faith at that time; I think anyone could confirm this: The late 1980s to early 1990s saw a great religious upsurge in the entire country. I became a believer when Great Lent came—it was my first fast. I learned what I needed to do, how to fast, what not to do. And then when I met my first Pascha, I experienced such joy and happiness that I no longer needed any explanation whether God exists or not; I was already intoxicated. My first Pascha! It was 1990 or 1991. I think it was such a Paschal time for the entire country, like everyone was waking up. I remember it happening for myself, and my friends, and my acquaintances. It was a wave.
I felt the desire to pray. I didn’t know anything about it before. I remember moments when I was walking around the city thinking: “How I want to pray.” But I didn’t know any prayers then—well, the Lord’s Prayer, but not all of it. And you turn into the bushes somewhere and say the prayers you remember, and it’s so sweet, you just think: “Is every day really going to be like this; is such a joyful life coming?”
Where the Eleazarovsky Monastery1 is now, there were only ruins then. And nearby—literally within walking distance, 1,500 feet from the monastery—was the base of the biological department of the Pskov Pedagogical Institute. And my friend (a teacher in the bio department) found out about my desire and said: “Come”—it was winter then—“stay with me at the summer base in the forest.” So I went. I remember I took half a bag of flour with me. It was so nice there! I began to read what I could, like the Psalter. And then the frost suddenly hit, literally a few days later. It was so cold that I stole mattresses from every room in the house where I was staying to line the walls in my tiny room with them. There was a stove, but the wood was wet. I’m a city person: I took a look—they weren’t burning, barely smoldering. I was still walking around barefoot there, and I must have stepped on something, because my foot started to hurt. Some kind of abscess had formed. I thought: “I have to get back somehow.” I crawled to the bus stop like Maresyev.2 I returned to Pskov again. With that, my desert life came to an end.
Doctors looked at my foot. They said basically it wasn’t too bad, although I was thinking it was gangrene, that they’d have to cut it off.
Later, when I had recovered, a certain servant of God came to Pskov and said I should go to Optina, that it was a special monastery. I went there. This was during Great Lent. I spent a few days there. Actually, after one night I wanted to become a monk.
This would have been a building in the skete, now it’s the restored Church of St. Leo of Catania. But at that time, in 1993, it was a building for pilgrims. There were bunks there. And oh, the people! Because there was an upsurge of the faith in Russia then, they were lots of bearded men—engineers, directors, writers… And they were talking late into the night about icons, about Church art. It was a highly intellectual conversation. Then the conversation finished and everyone dispersed to their bunks, while I decided to read the Gospel. I opened it and started reading. And I experienced, I would say, an epiphany! To this day I can’t say what it was, and there’s no point in understanding what it was. But it was something very sweet, though very sober—absolutely no excitement. And when this feeling began to fade, I went to sleep. I had to get up early for obediences. But I couldn’t fall asleep; I had one desire, I clearly remember it: I wanted to be a monk, and nothing else.
At that time, the confessor at Optina was Elder Iliy, an elder of God. Everyone revered him. I waited for morning then I ran off to look for him. I found him and said: “Batiushka, bless me. I want to become a monk,” I said triumphantly. I thought he would answer, “Of course,” but he said: “I don’t know, you see for yourself…” I thought: “What a blessing!” He said something else, but I was left perplexed. My desire wasn’t diminished; it was as if unsinkable. But I wasn’t expecting that kind of blessing.
My mother was living in Khabarovsk then. I was already reading spiritual books, and they say that a parental blessing is important. I called my mother and said: “Mama, bless me, I’m going to a monastery.” She was taken aback: “Son, what?! They’re taking me in for surgery soon. I won’t make it, I’ll die! Don’t leave!” I thought: “Well, there’s another ‘blessing!’” My heart was peaceful and calm, but I doubted in my mind. I thought: “What’s going on? Neither the elder nor my mother gave their blessing.”
I returned to Pskov—I was living there then—and went to see the elder Fr. Nikolai on Zalit Island. He was the dearest person and spiritual authority for me then. I went to see him and said: “Batiushka, bless me. I want to become a monk.” I looked and saw him almost laughing: “You know, I don’t understand anything about it. I’m a white priest,3 not a monk. I don’t know about it.” The conversation ended, and I understood from his words that he was happy and said that it’s good. But he didn’t explicitly give me a blessing to go become a monk. And I had the impression that when I looked at him, he looked like God, that I was seeing God. He was elderly, ninety years old, but I had the feeling that he was like God. And this feeling was, on the one hand, so clear, and on the other hand, so subtle. In general, when I would go see him, I couldn’t get enough of it—I just kept looking. I would watch him, how he spoke. You could go see him and ask a question in those times. Later there was a large influx of people.
Fr. Nikolai has been gone for nearly twenty years, but the words he said to me, seemingly on some minor occasion, I especially remember when I don’t know what to do or how to act. I recall his words and everything becomes clear for me. The power of an elder’s words is expressed in this for me.
I started going to Optina to see the Optina fathers, the hieromonks, and they said: If you want to go to a monastery, live for a year, and if you don’t lose the desire, then we will bless you to go to a monastery somewhere. I remember it was April. I thought: “I’ll wait until next April… I can’t wait for them to bless me!”
By the end of autumn, Fr. Kensorin came to the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky. I didn’t know him. There were services in the church every day then, and then trapeza. I was living at the church, and, you could say, at the services and at trapeza. Fr. Kensorin was also an unusual person, and he said to me: “And who are you, slave of God?” I said: “So-and-so.” “Are you married?” “No.” “So come to the monastery.” He grabbed me, blessed my head, and kissed me. I wasn’t used to that. It felt like some kind of brazenness. I later asked who he was. They said to me: “What, you don’t know? That’s Fr. Kensorin himself!” “Why did he act like that?” “He always acts like that.”
I told them about this the next time I went to Optina, and they told me: “Well, go there.” I said: “A year hasn’t even passed.” “No, no, no. Go.” In general, I returned happy that I was to go to a monastery. I gave away everything I had left and went to Svyatogorsk Monastery. I spent about a year there. Fr. Iliy would often stop by—he was friends with Fr. Kensorin. We knew that it was Iliy, the legendary elder. I was living with one other servant of God in a cell, and he said: “Let’s invite him here.” I answered that it was a bit awkward—he was such an elder. And he said: “Let’s invite him.” We went to see him and said: “Fr. Iliy, would you be able to come to our cell?” He said: “I’ll come. Where do you live?” “There.” We sat and waited, looking out the window: Would he really come? We lived on the second floor. He was coming up the creaky steps. My heart froze: Is he really coming to see us? Fr. Kensorin also lived on the second floor. And when we realized by the creaking of the stairs that Fr. Iliy was already on the second floor, we suddenly heard a banging. A door swung open and Fr. Kensorin said: “Hey, elder of God, come in here. Prophesy something for me!” He grabbed him, as he usually did, and brought him in. We sat and thought: “Oh, come on! He was coming to see us!” My cellmate said: “It’s important just that the Elder was coming to see us.” And as we were discussing it, I heard: “Through the prayers of the Holy Fathers…” Fr. Iliy was knocking.
We opened the door and he came in. I asked him: “Batiushka, why did I decide to be a monk after one night in Optina, and then I found you in the morning, but you said you didn’t know what I should do? Then I went to Pskov to see Fr. Nikolai, and he also said that he didn’t know, because he’s not a monk. Then I came to the monastery here, I live, I’m happy, and I can’t imagine what would have been had I not come here. Why didn’t you bless me then, and why did Fr. Nikolai give the same answer as you?” Fr. Iliy said: “Because it pleased God for you to choose yourself.” And this answer of the Elder, this blessing, is a guiding light for me in our difficult spiritual life.
In the 1990s, and even in the 2000s, the elders were accessible and you could get to see them—and we were taught that when something isn’t clear, it’s okay—we can go and ask the elders. So we would approach them with faith and ask. Then the years passed, and the elders became completely inaccessible: They died. And the Pskov elders were no more. I remember the time when there were elders. Even if there was few of them, we had them—Pskov, Fr. Nikolai on Zalit, Fr. Kirill and Fr. Naum in the Lavra, and there was Elder Pavel in Yaroslavl. There were elders, and we grew up under them. Even if we didn’t see them, we knew they existed. Now I say: “I saw Fr. John (Krestiankin),” and they say to me: “Wow! Tell me about it.” Now there’s another generation, for whom we are not elders, but we saw the elders. This, I think, is the importance of our Church life.
About Fr. Kensorin
We had an American, Luke. His story is very interesting. He graduated from an art academy then came here—our friends from the Academy brought him here. This was in the 1990s. He spent a week in the monastery (he was very different from our people in that he was so well-mannered and mature) and he wanted to stay, but we couldn’t get him Russian citizenship and he left for Athos. I corresponded with him for a long time then.
When he was living here, I told him a story about those times. A monk from Danilov [Monastery, in Moscow] came to Optina. This was in our times. People would go around in Optina all worn out, in patches, mantias full of holes. But this Danilovs monk had a gold chain on his glasses with wet silk. And he said: “You Optina monks are all tattered, with holes, because you are venerable monks. But we Danilov monks are princely monks, so we have to have gold chains.” I told Luke the American this story. A day or two later, he said to me with a bit of an accent: “I understood everything.” “You understood what?” “We have Blessed Timothy, so everyone in the monastery is blessed,4 only three are normal.” I asked: “And who is normal?” He said: “This one, and this one, and this one,” naming three people. I went to Fr. Kensorin. We ran to him—it was a joy just to go see him, but now I had a question for him. He was usually lying in his bed. Sometimes he would look out from one end of the blanket, sometimes from another… He was a fool-for-Christ. I said: “Batiushka, Luke said that everyone in the monastery is blessed, while only three are normal.” “And who is normal?” he asked. I named one, and he said: “Oh yeah?! He went crazy a long time ago, and don’t even think twice about it!”
That’s how we lived. God gave us such a batiushka. Although he wasn’t the first abbot. The first was the departed Fr. Sergei. He came in 1992. I never met him. He was here for a little more than a year, then Fr. Kensorin came. My first years in the monastery were connected with him. I’ve seen a lot of different people in the world—weird people, and all sorts, but I definitely never saw anyone like him. That’s the kind of man Fr. Kensorin was, so naturally, we clung to him.
He was run down by everything, being the abbot, having to run everything. And he wanted to leave this obedience.
One time we were going to Zalit Island, through Pskov, so we stopped by to see Fr. Germogen in Pskov. He’s reposed now. He was named Tikhon in the schema. He was an elder of Snetogorsk Convent. Fr. Kensorin said: “Ask Fr. Germogen if I have cancer. It’s time for me to go. I feel like I have cancer. I’m sick here.” And out of obedience, I asked Fr. Germogen: “Batiushka, bless! Fr. Kensorin is asking if he has cancer.” And unlike Fr. Kensorin, Fr. Germogen was calm. He was silent for a while, then said: “Tell him he has the river sort. No need to be afraid.” I went back to Fr. Kensorin: “Batiushka says you have the river sort.”5
I consider it a great mercy of God towards me that I saw and even lived for a while with those who preserved and bore this monastic tradition. Perhaps they didn’t teach me much or didn’t say anything, but just the fact that they were there was a blessing for me. Now I thank God more and more that I saw them and lived with them.
On reading spiritual books
I think this is necessary, because praying is one thing, and reading another. Reading is a must! When I had just arrived at the monastery, they told me there were three foundational monastic books: Abba Dorotheos, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, and Unseen Warfare— and you have to read them in a round. And we did read them, thank God. You can’t make it without them. It’s very important to sink your mind into the reading. And it’s not even that you’ll learn something new, but that when you read, you will be in the spirit of someone who writes in the spirit of God. The Greek Elder Aimilianos had a teaching: The Holy Fathers were as if encoding God in their writings; you don’t see Him, but when you read, He is revealed for you and you begin to feel and experience Him. This is very important in our times.
The desire of the youth
The director Andrei Tarkovsky was once asked: “What advice would you give to young aspiring filmmakers?” And he said: “First of all, I would advise them not to separate their profession from their life. As you live, that’s how you shoot films.” And I would advise not to divide life into religious and secular. You are walking before God at all times. And even dreary days are full if they are spent in God. It is important not to divide life into work, vacation, and going to church.
I think that anyone who approaches God will be drawn into the life of God, without changing his work or place of residence. On the contrary, your life will become interesting for you then, even when your initial youthful enthusiasm and energy have passed. I think that we, living in these difficult times, have to seek this out.
I remember when I first came to the monastery, there was a magazine called “Russian House.” Vladyka Tikhon was often published there. There was an interview with some big entrepreneur, a rich man who had come to faith. He said: “You know, I have a lot to do, and sometimes I just want to sleep. Sunday comes—a day when I can catch up on sleep. But I understand that you have to go to Liturgy on Sunday and take Communion. When the alarm goes off on Sunday morning, I really don’t want to get up, but if I get up anyways and go to church and take Communion, then I get enough strength to make it to the next Sunday. That’s why I always respond positively to the alarm clock now; I choose not to just sleep, although it seems necessary.”
What is important for me personally now? That I was able to see Fr. Nikolai and Fr. John (Krestiankin) and others. I understand now that this is not my fortune, but our common fortune. Our blessing is that we are all one family: Fr. Nikolai, and Fr. John, and everyone who is out there somewhere, seemingly on the periphery of some events. But as St. Silouan the Athonite says: “The closer to God, the more you realize that all of Adam is in you, all of humanity.” And I share this joy, that we have such relatives.
An appearance of Alexander Pushkin
Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin It is God’s mercy that we came to a monastery where the icon of the Mother of God appeared. And the Mother of God herself, when she appeared to Timothy in the sixteenth century—and there was no one else then—said: “It pleases my Son and me that the grace of God will come here and you will partake of it.” And the fact that Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin is buried here is also a great comfort for me personally, and for all the brothers, I think.
When I remember Pushkin, I remember my happy childhood. We all grew up on Pushkin. I hardly thought about it in childhood, but now I understand that this is a component of our happiness—that we speak Pushkin’s language, that we have “Green Oak by the Sea,” his imagery, his stories, and his Pushkinesque words.
There was one episode in the soviet years: In the 1960s, Archpriest Alexander Vetelev was teaching at the Moscow Seminary and Academy. He was a well-known priest; everyone really loved him. One day he returned home from church; maybe he had some tea and dozed off, and then a man came to him and said: “Hello, Batiushka. Do you recognize me?” “No, I don’t,” he said. “I am Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin.” He looked and saw that it really was Pushkin. And he said: “Alexander Sergeevich, what a joy!” And he said: “Batiushka, do you know why I came? I came to say that everyone reads my poems here on Earth, everyone glorifies me, but no one prays for me. Pray for me, please!” And he disappeared.
We live on the land where his grave is. Of course, the judgment of God is a mystery, but I want more of a comforting hope, an unsinkable hope, because he also was a man of God.
Metropolitan Benjamin (Fedchenkov) was in America before World War II, during the centenary of the death of Pushkin in 1937. The Russian diaspora there asked him to serve a panikhida and say a word about Pushkin. He writes in his journal that at first he didn’t know what to do, because he believed Pushkin was a stranger to the Church, and to say and sing some banal praises—Pushkin doesn’t need that now, as he didn’t like it during his life. Then on the eve of his anniversary, everyone gathered at someone’s apartment to watch the broadcast from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. There was a show dedicated to the centenary of Pushkin’s death. And as Vladyka later recalled, they read some of his poems—poorly read, but one of Pushkin’s works sunk in—the words from “What is My Name to You?” And, writes Vladyka, when he left the apartment, he had the desire to meet Pushkin in his heart. Therefore, on the evening before the Liturgy with the panikhida, he sat down to read Pushkin.
It’s very interesting to read what Metropolitan Benjamin experienced, what he felt. At three in the morning he realized that he needed to pray. He got up and said: “Lord, have mercy on him, a sinner!” And when he said it, he thought: And who am I to judge him, whether he is a sinner or not?! And he said: “Lord, have mercy on us both,” and he immediately felt good in his heart. When he went to church to serve the Liturgy, he felt love for Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin. He took out a particle for the servant of God Alexander, for the handmaiden of God Natalia, his wife, and he couldn’t read the litany for the departed due to his tears. He had to stop to calm down. And when the Liturgy ended, he felt that he truly loved Pushkin.
Then, after the Liturgy and the panikhida, there was a banquet, during which the presenters sang songs and read some verses, and Metropolitan Benjamin had the feeling that Pushkin was leaving. And when some parodist came out and started doing a parody of something, “I realized,” writes Vladyka Benjamin, “that Pushkin was definitely not there.” And he slowly left the hall.
When I read this recollection, I think something similar happened with me. I wanted to meet Pushkin in my heart. So, of course, Pushkin belongs to all of us.