On Sunday, November 14, 2021, Georgia (Shchukina), the Honorary Abbess of Gorny Convent, celebrated her ninetieth birthday. This year the thirtieth anniversary of her abbacy in the Holy Land was celebrated as well. How many pilgrims from Russia and the Orthodox world Abbess Georgia received here, consoling them with her affection, care, words of love, and the song that became famous in her performance: “O dear to my heart, longed for / Jerusalem, the Holiest City...”! But not everyone knows how painful and difficult her path has been. Today we asked Abbess Georgia to talk about her life and her choice of the monastic path.
Strength was definitely needed...
—I was born on November 14, 1931 in the city that was then called Leningrad. I was baptized with the name Valentina, which means “strong”. Strength was definitely needed... My childhood passed before the Great Patriotic War [World War II], and I hardly remember it, but I remember the terrible siege of Leningrad well...
We lived on the ground floor. There were no windows in the apartment—they had all been broken by the constant bombing. The window openings were covered with carpets and blankets. Once the Nazis bombed us very hard, so shells fell on our apartment block, and some soldiers from the roof threw them down. When we were sitting at the table, when suddenly the blanket on the window opening tore, and a shell flew under our table. Thank God, it didn’t explode. Everyone was ordered to keep a reserve of water or a bucket of sand at home. My father, who was still alive, immediately took the shell with large tongs and threw it into a water bucket.
The famine was awful. People cooked everything that was made of leather: belts, bags and even the soles of shoes. One day my mother’s friend called on us. Our ration cards were on the dresser—so she took them... Only the children’s card remained—it was for 125 grams of bread. After that my father died of hunger. When he was dying, my mother was so weak that she couldn’t even rise and come up to him. For ten days he lay in the hallway. The apartment building was all empty. All our neighbors were dead by that time, and there was no one to carry his body out...
My mother took to her bed, but the Lord gave me strength. I went for pieces of bread and other scarce foods, which were rationed. Once, when I went for bread and they weighed it, I wanted to take it off the scales, but someone snatched my bread. Others ran up to the one who had done this, and a fight started. I walked home in tears. Some military men were then accommodated in our basement. They constantly saw me walking to the store. Then one of them beckoned to me with his hand, asking what the matter was. I told him everything (may his memory be eternal!), and he gave me a piece of bread, which I brought home.
I would go to fetch water from the neighbors; others, even greatly weakened from hunger, had to go a long way—to the Neva. When my mother sent me to her sister Matryona to say that my father was dead, I walked almost all day long, although she lived not far from us. Aunt Motya [a diminutive form of the name Matryona.—Trans.], who later raised me, lived on her own and was childless. Her husband—the servant of God Sergei, my godfather—was a sailor and had died even earlier. She worked at F.F. Erisman Hospital for almost thirty years.
When I approached the hospital, I saw cars going one after another... I stepped aside, but as I turned the corner my gaze caught a square with “stacks” on it... I thought it was firewood, but it turned out that these were dead people! Cars collected them around the city, and there they were piled on top of each other. They lay for a long time in the frost. It was impossible to bury them at that time.
When I told aunt Motya about my father’s death, a car came to us, people in white coats entered the apartment block and carried out all our dead residents on a stretcher.
The Lord helped me through all this. Many people went crazy from hunger and misfortunes. No water, no light, no firewood—there was nothing left. It was a dead city.
We didn’t know another childhood
—How did the siege end?
—When the Road of Life was built, they began to evacuate the siege survivors along Lake Ladoga: first by car, then by train. I was frostbitten and already unconscious on the train. In Orekhovo-Zuyevo near Moscow, my mother took us—two “deceased”: Ninochka (my sister who was buried in a common grave) and me—to the morgue. And then I came back to life. I had frostbite: the toes on my right foot were amputated, and my hands were frostbitten, but the Lord kept me.
—The siege was over, but the war went on?
—Yes, all of us, the siege survivors, were sent to the Kuban.1 Three months later, when I got better, I travelled to the Kavkazskaya stanitsa (a cossack village) in search of my mother. I found her and we lived together a little. Then trouble came again: the Germans appeared in the south! They offered to take everyone to Germany to work, and many were taken first as volunteers, but then as slaves. When our forces were advancing, the Nazis began to set fire to huts, shooting residents and setting up gallows. We—I, my mother, my cousin Lidochka and my grandmother, with whom we lived—escaped death by sitting in a cellar for ten days without showing ourselves. It was far off in the kitchen-garden, so the Nazis didn’t find us. Some partisans freed us, but another misfortune befell us: An epidemic of typhus broke out. My mother contracted it and died, and was buried outside the stanitsa.
The Lord sent me many more trials to go through... But it was war, everyone had their fill of troubles, and we took everything as quite natural... We didn’t know any other childhood. I also stayed at an orphanage, though not for long, thank God. Then, in 1944, I returned to Leningrad and lived with aunt Matryona, my mother’s sister. I got a job in a canteen close to the Finland Station in Leningrad. It was hard to work there because they demanded we give customers short weights so the director would get an excessive amount. Then, fortunately, I was employed by the Central Historical Archives. My only consolation was the Transfiguration Cathedral, situated not far from the previous job. I began to go there after work to pray...
“Take me, O Lord!”
—It is necessary to have a calling to monastic life. Someone wants to get married, while someone else wants to devote himself to the Lord. Here, in this world, everything is transitory, and you need to care about eternal life. Monastics have the rule with bows and obediences in the monastery—all the conditions for the salvation of one’s soul. As they say: some come to the convent to live, while others—to labor for their salvation. The former aren’t satisfied with anything: the food is “wrong”, the cell “doesn’t suit” them, the obedience is “wrong”, etc.: “I don’t know how to do that,” “I feel bad,” “it’s not my turn.” You can really hear that. No nun and no novice should speak like that. Such sisters didn’t come to the convent by vocation. And the one who knows why she came to the convent—for the salvation of her soul, for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and the future life—is pleased with everything regardless of whether she can or can’t, knows or doesn’t know how to do something, it’s her turn or not hers, no matter what cell or meal she has. She only knows the words: “Bless me! Pray for me!”, and runs to perform her obedience. Her soul is calm, her conscience is clear, and the Lord gives her consolation and prayer. “Yes, with the help of God,” as they say during the tonsure. And no complaints. These are definitely working for their salvation.
When I was still in the world, I loved priests’ sermons in church. And what priests we had then! Their words had a wholesome effect on one’s soul! Once on the feast of the Nativity a priest said that everyone gives something to the Lord Who is born on this day... “And what will we bring Him?” he asked. “O Lord, what can I bring Thee? I am such a sinner, I have nothing good. I want to love Thee and devote myself to Thee. Take me, O Lord,” I thought...
Whenever I came up to the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God or to St. Nicholas’ icon, I asked all the priests, “Pray, pray! I so much want to go to a convent!” And they answered me, “God’s will must be for it, one must know it and receive the blessing for monastic life.” “From whom should I receive a blessing?” I wondered. I listened to sermons, and everyone spoke about ascetics—how they dedicated their lives to God... And my desire to live in a convent became ever stronger. I had barely turned sixteen. Who would let me go, and who would accept someone like me?
My aunt didn’t want to listen to anything like that. She was very religious, but she kept saying, “I didn’t take you from the orphanage to let you go to a convent. First bury me, and then go wherever you want. Whether you want to get married or become a nun, may God’s will be done.”
“Go with God’s help!”
—At that time there were no longer any convents in Russia. Was it a special Providence of God that brought you to the convent?
—Nothing happens in life without Divine Providence. Then I went to the St. Nicholas Church with the saint’s miracle-working icon. I always participated in singing akathists there. My voice and musical ear were discovered. The priests already knew me, and the girls who worked there knew that I had the desire to live in a convent. I asked everyone to pray that my aunt’s heart would soften. Once an altar girl told me that I ought to take Vladyka’s blessing. The future Patriarch Alexei I (Simansky) was then Metropolitan of Leningrad [till February 1945.—Trans.]. She took me to Vladyka by the hand because he was living in a house attached to the Naval St. Nicholas Cathedral. Vladyka Alexei asked me some questions and gave me his blessing for monastic life. I asked him to pray that the Lord would soften aunt Motya’s heart, “She doesn’t want to let me go...” “May the will of God be done!” said Vladyka and blessed me to go to the elder of high spiritual life who lived in Vyritsa [St. Seraphim of Vyritsa.—Trans.].
I went to Vyritsa, and there were so many people there! The elder was sick and didn’t receive visitors... His cell-attendant came out, the people handed her their notes, and then she told them the elder’s answers. She came up to me and asked, “Where is your note?” But I didn’t have any note... “I’m from Leningrad. And I have a very serious question.” A few minutes later she returned, took my hand and led me straight into Fr. Seraphim’s house. Those in the queue began to grumble: they had been waiting there for a long time, while I had just arrived...
I entered and saw Fr. Seraphim lying on his bed. He looked so much like St. Ambrose of Optina! There is a famous lithograph showing him lying on a pillow. I knelt down, weeping and unable to say anything... He said, “Well, my child.” And he himself began to ask me questions. I answered all his questions. I was afraid to even hint at a convent, thinking: “Such great ascetics lived in monasteries, but who am I?” Fr. Seraphim started asking me leading questions, and I couldn’t restrain myself anymore, “Father, I so want to go to a convent!” And he immediately encouraged me, “That is it! The Mother of God has chosen you, and you must live in a convent.” He pointed at a photograph on his wall, “This is your convent.” I peered through tears and saw, as if it were the sun, Pyukhtitsa Convent! And I heard with half an ear, “Let your aunt come to me, and I’ll talk to her!” He blessed me, “Go with God’s help. The Lord has chosen you. There is the will of God. It is pleasing to God and the Mother of God!”
“The Queen of Heaven Herself is the Mistress here”
—Mother Georgia, young people weren’t allowed to join monasteries at that time. Was it still a time of repression?
—Of course, people spoke about what was happening in the country, about the labor camps where people were dying for their faith. Aunt Motya’s friends would come to see her. I saw them weep because people in their families had been imprisoned, sent to the Solovki camp or even shot. But for me it faded into the background, as we had a lot of trouble anyway... From the age of fifteen I had longed for monastic life, and that was all.
—Did the authorities allow monastics to live in peace in monasteries and convents? Did they stop persecuting them?
—I can’t say that life of the sisters in Pyukhtitsa Convent was plain sailing. There were no workers and no help at that time. The sisters did everything themselves: They sawed, chopped firewood, mowed and hauled hay on horses. There were no cars, no tractors—there was nothing. There was a huge kneading trough in the bakery, and three of us kneaded. The same was in the prosphora bakery. Our hands turned red, as if from frost: so much dough had to be rolled out. In addition to all other obediences, we were obliged to stock up firewood in the bakery, in the prosphora bakery, in the church, in the abbess’ house, in the almshouse, and in the priest’s house. The nuns carried firewood themselves. Moreover, there was an order from the authorized representative for the sisters to prepare a quota of so many cubic meters of firewood annually to give to the State. Then Fr. Pimen [the future Patriarch Pimen.—Trans.] met with the authorized representative, asking him to relieve the Pyukhtitsa sisters from that duty. Fr. Pimen came to us and after the Liturgy and a prayer service he announced to the sisterhood, “Dear sisters, I have good news: May the mercy of God be with you! The Queen of Heaven Herself is the Mistress here. Thank the Queen of Heaven, the authorized representative has released you from these quotas.” That was a great miracle.
—Do you remember how you first came to Pyukhtitsa? By the way, later you were assigned to perform obedience in the Holy Land, and “Pyukhtitsa” is translated from Estonian as “holy place.”
—In 1949, I arrived in Pyukhtitsa, and Abbess Raphaela (Migacheva), with whom we had once met in Leningrad, made me her cell-attendant. Then, in the first years of my residence in the convent, God vouchsafed me to communicate closely with the future Patriarch Pimen (Izvekov). He was an archimandrite, the abbot of the Pskov Caves Monastery and assistant to the abbess of Pyukhtitsa Convent. He often visited Pyukhtitsa and performed tonsures. He would send his car for the nuns to spend several days at the Pskov Caves shrines, venerate the saints’ relics in the caves, and sing the services. We took the wonderworking Pyukhtitsa Icon and went with the singers. Of course, we confessed and received Communion in the Pskov Caves Monastery. What wonderful elders lived there! St. Simeon (Zhelnin), the young Fr. John (Krestiankin), and others. We were so happy and grateful!
“Do you want to be a servant in the house of the Mother of God?”
—What stuck in your memory from life in Pyukhtitsa Convent?
—In Pyukhtitsa I found some old nuns—those who had been the first to come to Holy Mountain2 with the blessing of Fr. John of Kronstadt. I lived in a cell together with Nun Arkadia, who came from Kronstadt—a spiritual daughter of St. John of Kronstadt. Her parents’ home was rather close to the house where Fr. John’s apartment was located. So even this holy ascetic would come to their place, and they would visit him. And with his blessing she came to Pyukhtitsa Convent as a young girl.
There was also Nun Iraida, the senior prosphora baker, who joined the convent at the age of fourteen. She would say that the Most Holy Theotokos had chosen her and sent her to the convent.
—Did she have a vision?
—One day she and her parents came to the Vigil of the feast of the Dormition. She was only thirteen or fourteen. In the evening there was the Vigil, and then there was general confession. Vladyka came from Revel (now Tallin) and in the morning he was going to celebrate the Liturgy on the mountain where only a chapel stood. After confession, they put her to sleep on a cart, on top of the hay. And she saw a dream... Suddenly, a beautiful Lady with extraordinary eyes appeared before her. She approached and looked at the girl so affectionately, saying, “Daughter Irina, do you want to be My servant and live in My house?” Nun Iraida’s secular name was Irina. and she answered, “Yes, I want to!”—”Then come, live and serve.” The nun recalled, “And the beautiful Lady came even closer to me. She put Her hand on my head. I felt such bliss! And I can’t express it in words! She instantly became invisible. It was the Theotokos...”
The continuity of Optina Monastery’s spiritual tradition
—How did you end up at the Convent of St. Mary Magdalene Equal-to-the-Apostles in Vilnius?
—Then Valya—the future Abbess Barbara (Trofimova) of Pyukhtitsa—came to us in Pyukhtitsa. She was going to enter the convent in Vilnius, but her sister tricked her by writing her a letter, allegedly from Abbess Nina (Batasheva), so Valya didn’t go there, but came to us. We became bosom friends and soul mates with her! Once, when we were on vacation in Vilnius, everything became clear. We moved to the old Abbess Nina there to gain monastic experience. In her youth Abbess Nina was a spiritual daughter of Elder Ambrose (Grenkov) of Optina. So we spent twelve years at the convent with her.
—Mother, forgive me for asking you all about difficulties. You tell about everything so positively! But did Khrushchev’s persecutions affect you?
—Yes, indeed. Under Khrushchev they began to close monasteries. Our convent in Vilnius was closed, and we found refuge in the Holy Spirit Monastery for men. Since I was a choir-director, I ran the choir there. We alternated with the brethren: they sang one day, we sang the next, and on the great feasts and Sundays our choir even sang together with the bishop’s. In the cave church lay the relics of the martyrs of Vilnius, which for over 550 years have remained incorrupt, like those of St. Spyridon or St. Alexander of Svir. I sewed slippers for the martyrs of Vilnius and embroidered them. The slippers were blessed on their relics and distributed as a blessing to the faithful. So, we didn’t lose heart even during Khrushchev’s persecutions.