“Most of those who pleased God and were glorified died undeserved deaths,
and the first of them was Abel. God allowed it...,
loving and wishing to give him...
a crown for such an unjust death."
—St. John Chrysostom. Homilies on Statues
“I believe, I fear, I want to live wisely"
Twenty-eight years ago, on April 29, 1994, George Yefimchuk, a pilgrim from Tolyatti, was brutally murdered in Optina Monastery. The young man arrived in Optina in mid-March with the intention of spending Great Lent in the monastery, celebrating Pascha and, if God willed, to join the brethren. Did he know what rank the Lord had prepared for him to join?
And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled (Rev. 6:11).
These words spoken by someone were imprinted in the mournful heart of George’s father who arrived in Optina in late April 1994 to take his murdered son’s body: “What life did he live to become worthy of such holiness at such a young age?” It was noticed by our Orthodox people long ago: God does not take the old, but the prepared. When did the meek and obedient Yurashik, as his mother affectionately called him, prepare for martyrdom and after suffering become Martyr George?
George Yefimchuk was born in the city of Tolyatti on December 16, 1969, on the feast of the holy Confessor George, who then wasn’t yet canonized. His parents, Viktor Konstantinovich and Anna Illarionovna, wanted to name their son Konstantin, but for some reason they chose the name George. They were not religious, and tried, like many of our compatriots who do not have the promise in eternal life, to do their best so their children would not know need in this temporary life, for which they worked tirelessly.
Their children grew up obedient and studied diligently. Yury’s father collected a library, standing in lines at night for books after work. There was an atmosphere of respect for culture in the family. From childhood Yura [a diminutive form of the name Yury.—Trans.] was attracted by the beauty and harmony of the world. His mother recalls how as a very young boy Yurashik rejoiced at all living things: a green meadow in bloom brought him indescribable delight. Embracing with his little grateful being the whole of God’s creation available to him, he rolled on the grass, picked flowers, lovingly giving them to his mother. Later, while studying in elementary school, Yura himself went and passed the entrance exams to music school, and then told his mother that he would study music because not knowing musical literacy is “as shameful as not being able to read.” (It was in the Zhytomyr region of Ukraine, where the Yefimchuk family moved for four years—from 1979 till 1983. The River Sluch flowed near their house. Yura was fond of fishing—and what joy it was when he returned home with a catch of small fish! The boy liked to ride his bike, and sometimes he didn’t hold on. He also had a passion for photography.)
Musical talent, inherited from his mother, manifested itself in his love of classical music. A piano teacher, Sofya Alexandrovna, enrolled Yura in the Young Composer club. “I remember it was my birthday, and Yura said: ‘Listen, mother.’ I listened attentively. In the work that he was playing there was something definite and finished. I listened with rapture to a light, inspirational melody. When Yura finished, he said that he had composed it for me as a gift. Then I shed tears of joy,” Anna Illarionovna recalls. She too inherited love for music from her parents. She keeps in her heart the memories dear to her about how she and her son sang with two voices: “Oh, how beautifully he sang!” Carried away, Anna Illarionovna starts singing in a light, clear voice, but then, stammering, stops: “Yura gave it up and abandoned the guitar, which he had not parted with for years. Then he even asked us to sell it. Still unaware of his spiritual rebirth and fearing the changes going on in my son, I tried to dissuade him: ‘Sonny, why sell it? It’s a memory. You’ll resume playing...’ But he did not say anything in response.”
“Yura gave this up completely and immediately,” his father, Viktor Konstantinovich, confirms.
“Enlightened… is he who has come to know the innermost bitterness in the sweetness of the world.” Who and when began his enlightenment? Both parents believe that it all started with Yura’s friendship with Sasha Petrov, who is now Hieromonk Theoktist. Fr. Theoktist later told Yura’s parents that at school their son stood out by his modesty. Whenever he was offended, he did not seek revenge. It was seen in him even in early childhood: his parents recall how one day, when they were still living in Ukraine, a girl came to them and said that Yura was crying downstairs—he had been hit by a neighbor boy. The older sister defended Yura, but he himself, meek and patient, never complained.
Sasha Petrov, according to Anna Illarionovna’s reminiscences, was a handsome and talented boy. Following a mutual passion, he and Yura began to master the technique of martial arts. They went to exercise in the forest.
After graduating from an eight-year school Sasha went to Zagorsk (now Sergiyev Posad) and entered an art school. Soon he sent Yura a letter in which he wrote: “Yurik [an affectionate form of the name Yury.—Trans.]! Please don’t practice Eastern martial arts anymore. I met some believers here and learned that this is all a sin. I am sending you an icon of St. Mitrophan of Voronezh. Father Naum blessed it. Put it under your pillow and it will help you.”
The advice and instructions of his friend fell on the good soil of his heart, which gradually kindled with love for the Orthodox faith. Yura followed his young mentor. But he also had a protector in Heaven—his maternal great-grandfather Moses (Moisei) Prokopovich. Anna Illarionovna related that even during the years of persecution for the faith he lived according to God’s commandments, trying to pass on his way of life to his children and grandchildren: “My grandfather did not recognize the Soviet authorities. He was persecuted and in the 1930s was imprisoned for his faith. But he had such hope in the Lord that, while in his cell, he announced: “I will be released one of these days. The Lord is interceding for me.” Soon he was indeed released, but even then he did not join the collective farm and told everyone: “It is satan who has come to power. I will never serve him—I will serve the One God.” His faith was so strong that there were cases of healing through his prayers.
Moses Prokopovich, Yury Yefimchuk's great-grandfather Moses Prokopovich lived till a ripe old age. White-haired, with a bushy beard, he did not part with the Bible, knew it almost by heart and often cited examples from the Scriptures, warning against the errors of his children, who ingenuously rushed to the promised distant bright future. Once his grandson Nikolai proclaimed during a festive family meal: “Grandpa, you are a brake on communism!” Moses Prokopovich silently overturned a bowl of cottage cheese on Nikolai’s head. “Grandpa! Why have you ruined my suit?” Nikolai flared up. “So that you won’t speak obscenities anymore,” Moses Prokopovich briefly explained, leaving the feast.
“Maybe Yura took after his great-grandfather,” Anna Illarionovna suggests, trying to understand the eagerness with which Yura followed his friend to comprehend the basics of Orthodoxy. Arriving in Tolyatti for holidays, Sasha would bring spiritual literature and sermons, and together with Yura, sometimes at night, they copied the texts on a typewriter. Fearing for their son and frightened by his hobbies they did not understand, Yura’s parents tried to hinder their secret activities. “We were ignorant,” Viktor Konstantinovich laments, recalling his fears. Anna Illarionovna remembered a dream she had the night before Yura’s departure for Optina in the summer of 1993. She dreamed about a man standing in the hallway, holding an open book over his head. Its pages were written in clear, ornate Old Slavonic script. The stranger—tall and with blond, slightly reddish hair—said, “Do not accuse your son of anything. He is innocent.” “Seeing how Yura moved ever further away from usual life, we suspected him—it’s scary to remember—almost of taking drugs,” Anna Illarionovna explains. “Forgive us, dear son! May you rest in peace.”
Meanwhile, Yura finished school, entered the Polytechnic Institute (the Department of Electrical Engineering), but his interests, judging by his diaries, were far from electrical engineering. The young man’s subtle artistic nature demanded something completely different. With a pencil in his hand he reread Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov—Russian literature that in its peak inclined towards the humiliated and offended. Yury’s diary is replete with extracts from foreign thinkers: La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, Montaigne—he looked for like-minded people among minds known for their attention to every movement of the heart. “Don’t abandon your choice, don’t play games and don’t pose,” Yury determined his line of behavior. On March 12, 1989, he was baptized together with his father. “Chance leads some to faith,” Viktor Konstantinovich notes. “But for Yura this process gradually, gradually developed from childhood.” Yury tried to convert not only his parents to God and the Orthodox faith, but also those close to him in spirit.
Yura stayed at Optina with Sasha Petrov, who at that time was a novice of the monastery, and returned from there radiant, confirmed in his growing faith, and inspired by love for Orthodox shrines. He sought to share The love, faith and hope that filled his heart, like a treasure, with all his relatives, friends and, first of all, his dear parents.
“We must die for this world”
Was his transition from worldly life to Christian life serene and painless? It could only seem so from the outside. “In order to go to another world, one must die to this world,” reads an entry in Yura’s diary that sheds light on the sometimes painful state of his soul. At this time, he left the institute and worked in a training center as an electrician, where he made friends with Sergei P-ov, who wrote in his memoirs about Yura: “He was always cheerful, always smiling.” But here is a draft of Yura’s letter to Archimandrite John (Krestiankin), dating to the same period:
“A man of twenty-three is turning to you with prayer... In 1989 I was baptized ... I visited Optina Monastery, the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, St. Daniel’s Monastery, venerated the relics of Sts. Seraphim of Sarov, Sergius of Radonezh and Ambrose of Optina.
“I currently work as an electrician. I feel the hardening of my mind and heart… the death of my soul… I am embarrassed by my sinfulness and stupidity… I don’t want to be and die an evil person. Help me!!!”
Much was hidden by the “divine shyness of suffering”, but pain of the soul, seeing itself in the light of Christian conscience, is inevitable: “And reading my life with disgust, / I tremble and curse, / And bitterly complain, and bitterly shed tears...”
The torment of recovery of spiritual sight was so unbearable that Yura went to hospital, trying with the help of a doctor to get rid of his difficult mental state. This is what those in the prosecutor’s office would later use as an excuse to pass off the deliberate atrocity that happened as a suicide. How can worldly consciousness with its vulgar rationality come to know the pain of the heart that is being born for new life and the torments of spiritual growth? “If it becomes ever harder for you, you are on the right track,” Yura wrote in his diary. “It was really hard for him to live,” his mother confirms. “The world did not understand him; neither did we [his parents]. Our life seemed to him devoid of meaning.”
He did not part with a large plaster cross given to him by Sasha Petrov, which he wore on his chest under his shirt, along with the Gospel. “Son, it’s heavy,” his mother would tell him. “Mom, it’s easier for me with it,” Yura reassured her.
While working at a training center, Yury attended the Holy Transfiguration Church, which was then under construction. He was happy to do any task and came to love Priest Valery Marchenko. With delight Yura told his parents about the church parishioners in whom he found people close in spirit. One day, as he was walking through the church courtyard, some young man gave him an icon of the Mother of God, “the Enlightener of the Minds”. Yura returned home and said cheerfully that now his mind would be enlightened. From the memoirs of Sergei P-ov: “Yura could always win people’s hearts with their bright side. Once we were driving with him to work, and our conversation turned to religion. Yura said that every Christian should know the Psalter and began to read a psalm loudly, ignoring fellow-passengers looking at him...”
One by one, Yura abandoned worldly habits. Like scabs, they “fell off” him. In his rapid ascent he entered such dense layers of the spiritual atmosphere where everything superfluous, empty, superficial and everything that interfered with the transformation of his soul was burned. Yura became the godfather of Diana, Sergei P-ov’s girlfriend. Diana, in Holy Baptism Daria, wished to be baptized in order to abide by Christian precepts.
From his father’s reminiscences: “He [Yura] especially came to love an icon of the Holy Trinity. I brought this icon from my parents, and he prayed before it on his knees. He liked to read the Psalter aloud. He asked me to remove everything superfluous from his room: the carpet hanging on the wall, the guitar... As if he were preparing a cell for himself. I told him, ‘If the carpet is removed, it will be cold for you leaning against the wall.’ He asked so meekly and humbly and never demanded. If you disagreed with him, he no longer insisted.”
But what Yury was firm about was integrating his parents into Church life. He persuaded them to have a church wedding—as if he knew that he would go forever. And, worrying for his father and mother, he helped them establish themselves in the faith, introducing them into the mainstream of Christian life, adopting them to the Heavenly Father, sowing seeds in their souls that would sprout into eternity.
Yura brought an icon lamp from Zagorsk, which often burned in front of his icons. In his holy corner he kept icons of the Savior, “Not Made by Hands”, the holy Martyrs Faith, Hope, Love and their mother Sophia, Sts. Sergius of Radonezh and John of Kronstadt. His favorite was an icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, “the Search of the Lost”. When he was leaving for the last time, he left it to his parents, although he had never parted with it before.
From his mother’s reminiscences: “We got married in church in Fedorovka. We agreed with Father Vladimir, and one Sunday he married us. During the ceremony I cried with joy. It seemed that the whole heaven saw how we were being married. Our son rejoiced, looking at us. As Father Theoktist told us later, ‘George built your house—the home of your faith’. Our apartment was blessed on the feast of All the Saints who shone forth in the Russian land.”
Before leaving for Optina, Yura taught his mother: “Mom, whenever you go outside, pray and say, turning to the left: ‘I renounce you, satan, your pride and service to you’; And then turn to the right and say: ‘I am united to Thee, O Christ. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’ And never go out without saying this prayer.” “I have been doing this since then,” Anna Illarionovna concludes.
Yura taught his parents to answer this way whenever they were asked about the faith: “I believe in the One Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” He showed them where it is written about in the Gospel, which, as the entire Bible, he asked them to read constantly. He said that in the evening before going to bed they should ask each other forgiveness.
In the first week of Great Lent, which our pious forefathers called Clean Week, the dawn of abstinence, Yura took a leave of absence and departed for Optina. His parents blessed him with the Icon of the Savior, “Not Made by Hands”, and on March 16, 1994, he left. In the blessed Optina, in this “oasis of Heaven on sinful earth,” as one of its visitors called the monastery, Lenten weeks flowed one after another. The devout pilgrim entered “the honorable period of the Holy forty days as if into a quiet haven”, leaving behind the cares of worldly sailing—as it turned out, forever.
To be continued...