An Orthodox priest is a miracle, but few lives have been so miraculous as Fr. Pyotr’s. Deacon Andrey Radkevich had the chance to interview this amazing man before he died in 2005.
Death of the Kremlin leader
Archpriest Pyotr Bakhtin Stalin died in 1953. The rehabilitation commissions were dispatched all over the concentration camp system, and when it was his prison’s turn, Pyotr Bakhtin was released early with a letter verifying his wrongful conviction.
Pyotr returned to the seminary, finished the courses, and graduated. His wish was to remain in the Lavra and take monastic vows. But the local authorities deemed it too dangerous a precedent for their atheist, anti-religious propaganda that a frontline officer and hero should become a monk.
Three days to get married
To enter the monastery, one had to register as a local resident at a local MGB office. Needless to say, he wasn’t allowed to get a local registration.
It meant he had only a few days to decide his fate.
His ordination to the deaconate was coming up in three days. Had he been ordained as an unmarried man, according to church canons he would never be able to get married.
Therefore, he had only three days. Unfortunately, he knew no girl he could marry.
The pilgrim’s house
One of the two-story buildings in the monastery was used as a pilgrim’s residence. Both men and women could stay there, including the young women who came to work in the monastery, helping the brethren in the kitchen, cooking, and washing floors. Fr. Pyotr was advised to take a look inside that house.
After saying a prayer, he went up to the second floor and found three girls there. He struck up a conversation with them. In the process, two of them left and one stayed. He proposed that they become friends in earnest.
It should be noted that she had just turned eighteen at the time, and he was thirty-eight, so there was a twenty-year gap between them.
At the post office. A surprise gift
They went for a walk in Sergiev Posad. When they passed the post office, he asked her, “Could you wait for me here, downstairs? I have to send a telegram.”
He entered the post office and wired the following message to his father-confessor in Karaganda: “Is it God’s will for me to get married?” He had in mind the girl waiting for him by the post office, who was still unaware of his grand plans…
The next day he received a reply: “Batiushka gives his blessing for you to get married.”
The happy bride still suspected nothing.
Pyotr stopped by the registry office and talked to the young female workers, explaining his ordeal.
Then he returned to his new friend and declared: “I would like to buy a very special present for you… But you would need to bring your passport as it is only given according to your legal name.”
He led her up to the registry office explaining, “This gift is handed out here.”
He took his chosen one’s passport and handed it along with his to the office workers. As soon as they disappeared into the back office, he let her try on a ring offered for sale right there.
He explained: “I want to make you a special present. Because you and I are friends in earnest.” While she tried on a ring, the workers brought their passports back, he showed the passport to her, and on one of its pages there is already a matrimonial status stamp. It meant she had just gotten married. “Here I am, your gift for life.”
His chosen one was so surprised that she started crying.
Well I am not sure, but what if she cried from happiness? On the other hand, judge for yourself: He is, think for a moment, twenty years older than her. He had been recently released from prison, a concentration camp, or some kind of detention facility. He assures her he was wrongfully convicted but who knows if it’s true. A felon. Such a lovely present!
A modern-day girl would probably turn around and hit him with full force, punch in the face, or break his nose, so to speak, “Here’s a gift from me for life!”
At the time though, young ladies were much more modest. So she resorted to tears.
Thirty or so years later, when she was asked, “How did you get married?” she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t really know how it had happened. Perhaps it was God’s will for me to get married.”
Three sons were born of this union, and all of them became priests.
To the boondocks
Fr. Pyotr shared that, in the Soviet times, if you were one of those easy-going priests not particularly interested in giving sermons, you could be assigned to a large cathedral church. But if he was a zealous preacher deeply involved in the life of his spiritual kin, one who served God with devotion, and known for his fiery sermons, he would be chased like a rabbit from one place to another and from one remote church to another, transferred from one forgotten place to another.
“So there I was,” he said, “having served near Pereslavl Zalessky, in the vicinity of Nizhny Novgorod, and finally penned up in these boondocks.”
His last place of service was not far from the village of Taldom.
To get to his church, he had to walk from his home to the Sergiev Posad railway station. Then he waited for a commuter train, to spend another one and a half hours on it to Moscow. After that, he had to ride the metro to the Savelovsky railway station. From there he boarded a train to Taldom that ran three times a day. It took a few hours by train to get there. Once he arrived, he had to wait for a bus that rode three times a day to the village where he served. All in all, a man no longer young had to make a one-way trip that lasted eight hours.
Even for the young and fit it isn’t such an easy thing to travel for eight hours straight. The commute around Moscow, taking one and a half to three hours, can tire you out. But he traveled for a full eight! You can fly from Moscow to Vladivostok in eight hours.
The rural parish
I asked Father Pyotr, “Batiushka, you haven’t yet told me anything about your current parish in the countryside.”
He says, “What is there to talk about? Just another parish, nothing special.”
But as it turns out, he was shot a few times while there.
I think to myself: My goodness, “nothing special!”
How did it happen?
Years before in Soviet times, the churches had to have special parish committees called, “The Committee of Twenty.” It was made of twenty active parishioners of the church. Moreover, the parish rector wasn’t at its head. A church steward was.
It so happened that Father Pyotr discovered, or exposed, one of the members of that committee as a KGB spy.
While someone else in his place would possibly keep it to himself, fearing dealings with the secret services or the government, he was a frontline officer and wasn’t easily intimidated. So once he found out about it, he immediately expelled her from the church.
The next day, someone knocked at his door. It was evening, dark outside, and someone loudly pounded on the door of his country house, demanding, “Batiushka, open the doors!”
He replied: “No, I won’t.” He looked outside and saw five huge guys, or in his own words, hooligans.
They forced one door open, then another, but the third one turned out to be rock-solid.
Father Pyotr decided to come to the window and see who is messing around and breaking his doors. He turns on the lights in the kitchen, clings to the window, and then, “Kaboom!”—a shot is fired (!) and a bullet whizzes by his head. Father Pyotr leaned against the wall next to the window so he couldn’t be seen from outside and no one could get him from the window. But then, from the opposite window came: “Kaboom!,” “Kaboom!,” “Kaboom!” All the bullets circled his head like a halo.
As he found out later, they used buckshot that couldn’t be bought in a regular hunting supplies store at the time. It was distributed exclusively to high-ranking party bosses for hunting, or to KGB agents like the ones he encountered. I think it would have been nearly impossible to shoot a gun loaded with buckshot so that it evenly circles a man’s head. It is unlikely that they only wanted to intimidate him; it is more likely that he was saved by Divine Providence. Either his guardian Angel or God Himself diverted the bullets, just like in his war stories, when the bullets and shrapnel piping around no longer had you cowering. You just kept moving forward on the battlefield, while all you thought was, “I’ll be killed anyway…”
The number of bullets and shells mankind had in store for him was unimaginable, but as they say, “If God is with us, then who can be against us?”
Not one of those bullets ever hit him.
A second KGB spy
After a while, Father Pyotr Bakhtin discovered another spy, a woman embedded in their church community. Without hesitation, he acted just as swiftly: He expelled her from the parish, forbidding her to attend the church services. This agent took a different approach. She heard somehow that if someone is commemorated in church as dead twelve different times, he will eventually get sick and die, or his health will be ruined.
She purchased twelve funeral services for Fr. Pyotr in twelve different churches.
If God protects your life, anything that comes will be like water off a duck’s back.
That agent, on the other hand, was diagnosed with cancer and came to see Fr. Pyotr not long before her death, to confess her guilt.
He even took pity on her. “How much does a funeral service cost? At twelve churches? What a fortune you have spent on me!”
Even then, no harm was done to Fr. Pyotr.
A spacious house
There was another striking story in Fr. Pyotr’s life when he purchased a large house with a big plot of land in Sergiev Posad for next to nothing.
About thirty years before he settled there, the former homeowners had hired a stove-maker. An elderly stove-maker built a stove, doing what was agreed upon, but the homeowner lied and didn’t pay him. The old man took offense and said: “Okay. You will move in, but you won’t be able to live in this house.” He was anything but simple, that old man, as he knew witchcraft and cast a spell on them. Sure enough, the house was “miraculously” taken over by the evil spirits. They heard someone walking, but no one could see anyone. The doors and windows magically opened on their own. In the middle of the night, a blanket could be pulled off the sleeping master of the house, with someone trying to strangle him. It is easy enough to share a nightmare story, but quite a different thing to live in a place where such blood-curdling stories come true before your very eyes.
Interestingly, Pushkin wrote about such things in his diaries. In his time, there was one of those “haunted” homes in the town where he lived. When a priest was invited to conduct a prayer service, everyone gathered there witnessed how, even in the presence of a priest reciting prayers, the tables and chairs went rocking on their own…
As for our heroes, the first homeowners couldn’t stay there anymore and moved away, selling the house cheaply just to get rid of it. The next owners couldn’t stay long either, lowering the price even further, and then again and again until Fr. Pyotr bought this house at a dirt-cheap price. Its price was already at a giveaway level.
At the same time, he was forewarned: “You can enter the house, but you won’t live there.”
He responded: “We’ll see.” On the first day, he served a water blessing prayer service, and blessed the house along with the land. He says, “We have been living here for thirty years now, and have had no trouble whatsoever.
How hard it is to live without faith! Those people, like blind pups, go nosing everywhere without any clue as to what they should do in such a situation.
They lost both the property and large sums of money because of it.
But then came someone who knew what to do, and in half an hour—or however long it takes to serve a water blessing prayer service and sprinkle the house with the holy water—took care of the problem that had caused others to lose both their property and money!
A birthday party
One day, my friends invited me to their son’s eighteenth birthday party. Present were his friends, along with the host’s young nephew. Even if he couldn’t be called a “New Russian”1 per se, he earned a hefty salary most of us couldn’t even dream about. Not without reason does the New Testament tell us how hard it is for a rich man to enter heaven. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
Without over-analyzing the reasons for this, it seems that most probably, pride is one of them—for pride is typically associated with wealth. The fact is that a rich man needs neither his Heavenly Protector nor guardian angel, and has everything he ever wanted. He has the freedom to travel, and chooses what to eat and where to live. Why else would he need any Protector or guardian? Why does he need God? Then again, he has a penchant for pride and arrogance.
Whatever the case may be, this particular nephew made nothing of the spiritual life.
The hosts, however, were concerned about him because they understood how life can be extinguished in a blink of an eye at any age. Should their nephew, an atheist, ever leave this world in such a state, he’d find nothing good in the afterlife. That’s why they asked me to share a spiritually edifying story to act on him—one that would make him reflect on the unseen, spiritual realm.
After I shared the story about the house blessing and how Father Pyotr bought a large “haunted” house with a great plot of land for a song, their nephew remained quiet for sometime as if contemplating what he’d just heard.
I was thinking to myself: Good grief! Even he was shaken by this story and it has compelled him to ponder and reflect.
Then, when it was clear that he had resurfaced from his musings and joined in the general conversation, he uttered the following statement: “Imagine what a fortune you could make if you buy up all those haunted properties on the cheap, bless them, and flip them at a premium!”
We are left to marvel at how the brain of modern man operates, when even the unseen and spiritual realm is viewed as a way to pull the maximum material profit.
Mitred Archpriest Pyotr Bakhtin of the Moscow Diocese departed to the Lord in 2005. He didn’t live three months to witness the sixtieth Victory Day. Archbishop Gregory of Mozhaisk presided at his funeral service, which was held in the St. Elias Church in Sergiev Posad, with Fr. Pyotr’s three sons, priests Alexander, Sergiy, and Alexiy concelebrating. The choir of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra sang the responses. The ceremonial gun crew fired a salvo of three blanks at Sergiev Posad’s Old Cemetery, paying a tribute of honor to a soldier of the Great Patriotic War.