A Pilgrimage from Pukhtitsa to Valaam with Mother Barbara

Fr. Oleg Vona, the rector of St. Nicholas Church in Tallinn, remembers with gratitude his first trip to Valaam, back in the Soviet era, when such trips were typically undertaken only as tourists. With gratitude—but also with disquiet—have we rid ourselves of the “tourist” perception of our sad spiritual reality?

Valaam by Vasily Zinchenko Valaam by Vasily Zinchenko     

One of the most important discoveries I made in the first days and weeks of my stay at Pukhtitsa Monastery—and in spite of the Soviet propaganda sown in those years that “only people who couldn’t achieve anything in ordinary life, that is, incompetent and good-for-nothings” went to monasteries—was that I met many multi-talented sisters in the monastery—both nuns and novices. And most of all, I would like to mention the abbess, Igumena Barbara (Trofimova). She was the first abbess I ever saw in my life, and thanks to her talks with me, then still a neophyte, I formed an idea of what an abbess should be. Later, meeting other abbesses, I couldn’t help comparing them with Mother Barbara, and I concluded that our Pukhtitsa Abbess Barbara could serve as a wonderful example to follow.

I will try to describe my first impressions: She was a little above average height, stately, a bit plump, but this only added to her gravitas. She was about fifty. Her face was round, white, and clean; her nose straight; her eyes large and gray; the beautifully sketched lines of her mouth sometimes showed an immaculate row of white teeth as she spoke. In dealing with people, she was attentive, even-keeled, not at all haughty, and benevolent to all. She spoke fluidly, her voice deep and velvety, of a pleasant timbre. In her gaze, her voice, and in her whole appearance, there was always the strong character of a person who was as if born to lead.

I quickly noticed that Mother ran the monastery with a smile: With a smile she listened to the sisters’ requests, with a smile she sent them out to their obediences, with a smile she would say: “May God help you, sisters!” when she found them at their labors. And if Mother stopped smiling, the sisters and the monastery clergy immediately understood that something was wrong and there was some serious reason why Mother was showing her displeasure this way. But as for trifles and the sisters’ minor faults, Abbess Barbara wouldn’t frown or let a sense of frustration steal the smile from her face.

During the services, Mother rarely prayed in the abbess’ stasidia across from the church’s patronal icon of the Dormition of the Mother of God—usually she sang with the sisters on the right kliros, which Mother Georgia (Schukina) was in charge of at that time. Mother Georgia was the head choir director, the treasurer, and the sister who was closest to the abbess. Here I should add that Mother had such a wonderful mezzo-soprano that I can say without any exaggeration that in her, the Russian opera stage lost perhaps one of its most outstanding performers. However, it’s impossible for me to imagine that Mother Barbara ever thought about a career as an opera singer before she entered the monastery. All of us who caught her in the prime of her voice were often fortunate enough to hear her beautiful singing in a trio at the monastery’s festal services. Besides her, the trio always included the choir director Mother Georgia and Mother Nina (Boitsova). I especially remember how this trio, perhaps the best in the history of the monastery, sang the Magnification for the feast of the Annunciation: “With the voice of the Archangel...” It really sounded like what the typikon calls for in such cases: “With sweetness.”

I once had the opportunity to note the special simplicity and accessibility in communicating with Mother Barbara, which was very important for me as a new clergyman, during an unforgettable pilgrimage to Valaam, which I would like to tell you about today.

Tourists and pilgrims

Mother Barbara Mother Barbara One day in very early summer 1980, when I was still had my diaconal ministry in Pukhtitsa, my wife and I received the pleasant news from the sisters who were Mother’s closest assistants that we were included in the monastery’s pilgrimage group to Valaam, and that we should get ready for the trip in the near future. This news so raised my spirits that while waiting for the day of our departure, I kept walking around the house singing several lines that I knew from the famous song about Valaam: “Oh, wondrous isle of Valaam! Divine hand of fate…”

The day of our departure arrived. After Liturgy, our pilgrimage group, led by Mother Barbara, stayed for the moleben for travelers being served by Fr. Germogen, and after a small meal, we set off on a bus for St. Petersburg. In the evening that same day, we boarded a tourist boat to reach Valaam the next morning.

In those years, there was no way to get to Valaam, even for a day, other than with tourists. Early that fine June morning, having come out on the deck and mingled with the tourists, we saw the shore of Nikonovskaya Bay, which spoke to us with all its ascetic appearance about its former main inhabitants—monks. Unlike tourists, we as pilgrims had our own program for visiting the island, which wasn’t coordinated with anyone.

No one was waiting for us on the island and we weren’t promised anything, but I must say, everything turned out as good as possible for us. First of all, we went to the St. Nicholas Skete, as the closest to the pier on the one hand, and fascinating for its architecture on the other.

A hermit icon restorationist

As we entered the Church of St. Nicholas at the skete of the same name, we were pleasantly surprised to see wooden scaffolding there and evidence of the restoration of the iconography. Admiring the well-preserved ancient iconography and approving of the work of the unknown restorers, we were so engrossed that we didn’t notice a young man approaching us.

He turned out to be one of the restorationists, who, as we learned during the conversation, specifically came from St. Petersburg from time to time to save the old icons.

As it turned out, Alexander, the restorationist, had been to Pukhtitsa Monastery, so he was particularly disposed to speak with us not just about St. Nicholas Skete, but about the fate of Valaam in general. During the conversation, Mother Barbara and Fr. Germogen showed their deep knowledge of the monastery’s history, making the conversation livelier; but at the same time, it increased the risk of disrupting some of our pilgrimage plans. Finally, Mother Barbara, gently interrupting the conversation, said that we had a picnic now according to the schedule and invited everyone to continue the conversation at the meal. We sat down for the picnic right there on the lawn near the church, with a beautiful view of the lake.

During the conversation, the restorationist Alexander told us that he and several of his friends and associates—St. Petersburg restorationists—by their own initiative, without receiving any financial assistance from anyone, come here in their free time and work. “These are podvizhniki!” we exclaimed practically with one voice as we left St. Nicholas Skete. But we were especially struck when we found out that Alexander had worked alone at Valaam all winter. His other friends either had no chance to come or were forced to leave the island, unable to endure the difficult conditions there.

Having refreshed ourselves, we headed for the road leading to what was once the main church of the monastery—Holy Transfiguration Cathedral.

A burden of one’s own choice is not felt

We went out onto the road, and having conferred a bit, we decided to start walking in the hope that we might get a ride with some passing transportation. I have to say that the weakest link in our pilgrimage “chain” was Mother Joasapha, an elderly nun, clearly overweight and with sore legs. Our walking trip might very well end soon after it began, and everyone would understand why. But we hadn’t gone more than a few hundred feet when we heard the unmistakable rattle of a Belarus brand tractor behind us. After we saw that the tractor had a trailer, we lined up along the road and waved warmly to the tractor driver, hinting that we would be grateful fellow travelers if he would take us in his trailer. It didn’t take long to convince the young tractor driver, and to our joy, he quickly stopped right in the middle of the road, apparently aware that the transportation that came down this road could be counted on your fingers, whicht meant we wouldn’t have to worry about the tractor getting in anybody’s way.

However, our joy vanished as quickly as it had appeared. We were bewildered by the large wheels and high sides of the wooden trailer—an impregnable fortress for a good half of our small pilgrimage group of nine people. Fr. Germogen interrupted the general bewilderment. He walked up to Mother Barbara and, squinting in my direction, started trying to convince her of something. Then, for some reason, everyone’s eyes turned to me. Then Fr. Germogen came over to me and said I should help the sisters get into the back of the tractor, and without explaining what I was to do, led me right up to the front wheel of the trailer. Having realized what I had to do, I bent my back like a step and stood in place. Just then, someone’s foot landed on my back, and a few seconds later, that foot, having safely left my spine, successfully landed in the trailer, to a general cheer.

I tried not to look who would be stepping on me next, thinking that a dispassionate attitude to the feet that were visiting my back would save me from vain thoughts. But suddenly I was seized with an irresistible desire to find out which side of my back Mother Joasapha was standing on—undoubtedly, as I thought, the main test of my back’s durability. I squinted off to the right and saw her imposing figure looming over me. I felt some grumbling growing somewhere in the depths of my soul: Why did they leave the biggest burden for last?! But the heavy foot of Mother Joasapha stopped my rebellious impulse. As if to uproot all my unhumble thoughts at once, Mother Joasapha pressed painfully on the vertebrae at the base of my neck, and the next second, a new cheer from the trailer let me know that my torment was over. Just then, some spiteful voice penetrating me from somewhere from without told me that I wouldn’t be able to straighten out. But then another, reassuring voice inside assured me that as long as I labored out of obedience, not my own will, nothing would hurt me. Indeed, the next moment, with a sigh of relief, I easily stood upright, and as nimbly as I could, climbed into the trailer.

The tractor took off and our trailer bounced on the dirt, forcing us to grab onto the sides and one another to somehow maintain our balance, sitting on the floor of the trailer. That’s how we got to the Transfiguration Church. Getting out of the trailer was much easier than getting in, as the tractor driver took pity on us and got a small wooden ladder from somewhere, so the sisters could get out without using my back.

The humility of the saints

Holy relics of Sts. Sergius and Herman Holy relics of Sts. Sergius and Herman     

Thus, we arrived at the main goal of our pilgrimage—Transfiguration Cathedral. There, concealed within the cathedral, was the main treasure of Valaam—the holy relics of Sts. Sergius and Herman—which is what we came for. The cathedral windows were boarded up, making the cathedral look like a blind man deprived of his sight by some act of an evil will.

There was a large padlock on the doors to the cathedral and there was nothing for us to do but try to find someone who would agree to let us in. The person who held the key to the cathedral turned out to be an elderly woman, who was inappropriately dressed for the weather in her quilted jacket. It seemed that from our clothes and general appearance, she easily guessed who she was dealing with, and without further ado, let us into the cathedral.

Although the neglected exterior of the cathedral let us know that the state of the interior was no better, what we saw still exceeded our expectations. At the spot where we believed the relics of Sts. Sergius and Herman were, there was a wine and vodka storage area made of a disorderly heap of boxes of wine and vodka. As we got closer, we were relieved to find that the storage wasn’t on the exact spot where the relics of the holy founders of the monastery rested, but a bit off to the side. But in a wondrous manner, amidst this desolation, we nevertheless felt that the sacred site remained sacred, just as before.

The mold on the wall, the boarded-up windows, and the cigarette butts on the floor evoked a sense of admiration in us before the church and the holy ascetics who silently endured abuse as though they were consciously sharing this fate with Christ. From this feeling, or other feelings related to it, Mother Barbara and the sisters began to sniffle, as if everyone got a runny nose from the damp and the cold at the same time, and, pulling handkerchiefs from their pockets, they started first drying their tears and then their noses. Fr. Germogen took the sniffles as a sign that it was time to start praying, and he sang the troparion to the saints, which the sisters immediately took up. Fr. Germogen also had a prayer to Sts. Sergius and Herman prepared, which he read after the troparion, and then all of us, knowing the order of the moleben, began to enthusiastically sing the magnification: “We bless you, O our venerable Fathers Sergius and Herman…”

The woman in the buttoned-up jacket had been standing off to the side, silently watching us. Probably, she was the manager of this wine and vodka storage, which means she was financially responsible and had no right to entrust her goods to other people. And since she was elderly and living among people, many of whom were eager to get to her goods, she had enough experience not to trust even very respectable-looking people: If she left them alone with the bottles, they might take a bottle or two with them, without even a pang of conscience.

As we headed for the door after the moleben, the woman let us pass, and it seemed to me she was examining the tall figure of Fr. Germogen particularly closely in his long, open black mantle over his cassock, as if trying to figure out how many bottles he could discreetly take from her storage under these clothes. Of course, that’s just how it seemed to me—I had no way of knowing what this woman was really thinking. Perhaps our visit aroused good feelings in her, especially after Mother Barbara asked her warm-heartedly about life on the island and about her family; then, expressing sympathy for her family’s difficult financial situation, Mother handed her an envelope, which the woman at first shyly refused, but then gratefully accepted, inviting her to come again. The woman told us where we could hire a motorboat to get to the sketes, which, as we thought, were impossible to reach by land.

Forgotten saints and humiliated heroes

Visiting the ruined sketes was cause for the sisters to start sniffling and take out their handkerchiefs again. At the sketes, we went from one monastic grave to another, singing litiyas. These monastic cemeteries were as desolate as the nearby churches, but we were far from despondent—as if in spite of what we had seen, faith had been born in us that life in these sketes would one day be revived.

When we reached Nikonovskaya Bay, we noticed about a dozen cripples begging tourists to buy their handicrafts—mainly figures of Valaam churches, more or less successfully painted or burned into a piece of plywood. We had heard before that there was a home on the island for crippled veterans. Out of compassion for them, many of whom probably had a heroic military past, we purchased several crafts and were pleased to note that many other tourists were doing the same.

Standing on the deck of the ship, I was thinking that what we had seen on the island eloquently testified to the fact that Soviet society, which aspired to a “bright future,” wasn’t on the way there, neither with the cripples nor with the monastics. By their appearance, the cripples couldn’t help but confess that there was, is, and will be suffering in this world and that this contradicted the idea of a bright future. The monastics were even worse: ideological opponents who proclaim some bright future of their own, calling it the Kingdom of God. In short, a society [such as the soviet one] that doesn’t need either group will try to isolate them both.

Pilgrims or tourists?

The ship’s horn interrupted my thoughts and I went to my cabin. Happiness reigned on the ship. “Strange,” I thought. “Can it really be that besides our group, all these tourists are indifferent to seeing churches in such a sad state?” It never occurred to me that they had long been accustomed to seeing churches in even worse condition everywhere in their country. And besides, a lot of tourists came to Valaam not for the holy sites, but to admire the nature, enjoy the beautiful views, and if possible (and it wasn’t for everyone then), take a few more pictures as a keepsake; and they were happy it all worked out for them. The churches were just part of the landscape for them, even if a very attractive part, but nothing more. Or maybe I wasn’t right about them after all, or not completely right? I really wanted to have this hope at that time.

Exactly ten years ago, after the repose of Schema-Abbess Barbara, I was able to release a mini album in collaboration with the children’s choir of St. Petersburg radio and television, with the chant, “He is Risen!”, dedicated to Mother Barbara, who was the first to hear this tune way back in 1979.

Here is the song:

(MP3 файл. Продолжительность3:42 мин. Размер 8.9 Mb

Archpriest Oleg Vrona
Translation by Jesse Dominick



Julia5/19/2021 7:51 pm
Воистину Воскресе! Thank you for an interesting article and lovely song.
damjan5/18/2021 9:14 pm
Angels singing to an angel/nun.....Vaistinu Voskrese!
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