“Aim higher! Higher!”

For the 30th anniversary of the death of Nun Elena (Kazimirchak-Polonskaya)

Great indeed are the achievements of faith—and how many more such spiritual heroes are there yet to be discovered in Holy Russia?

Nun Elena, born Elena Kazimirchak-Polonskaya, a great scholar, author of several astronomical discoveries, F. A. Bredikhin award winner, also known for her lectures about Alexander Nevsky, and an Orthodox missionary, reposed in the Lord on August 30, 1992. Her spiritual children share their memories of the eldress.

Her life was somewhat alike to that of the Holy Prince’s

Protodeacon Vladimir Vasilik:

Elena Polonskaya, Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Warsaw. 1934. Elena Polonskaya, Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Warsaw. 1934. I met Nun Elena (Elena Ivanovna Kazimirchak-Polonskaya) as a student in the fall of 1988, after I learned from my teachers at the Philology Department that she was giving lectures about Alexander Nevsky at the Leningrad Theological Academy. I happened to attend her fourth lecture, where Nun Elena spoke of the ecclesiastical efforts of the righteous prince, his death, veneration, and spiritual character. I was struck by her appearance, yet even more so, by her speech, so clean and clear, with pre-revolutionary accentuation, along with her extraordinary culture of thinking—an inimitable analytical mind, along with the ability to make broad and sound generalizations, as well as her wide-ranging historical erudition. Aside from that, she had something even more powerful—fierce conviction, great faith and deep insight into the spiritual world of St. Alexander Nevsky, as if she were talking about her contemporary. Indeed, as Nun Elena’s spiritual children later noted, her life was similar to that of the Holy Prince’s. It was similar in her conviction that “God is not in power, but in truth,” her personal choice between the West and the East when she returned to the Soviet Union, and in her boldness akin to the unstoppable courage of Alexander Nevsky during the Battle of the Neva. However, she possessed at the same time a sober and mature humility when facing the realities of life.

The lecture ended with a discussion in which Konstantin Ivanov, one of Gumilyov’s students who later tragically died fulfilling one of Metropolitan John’s1 assignments, gave a speech. He ventured to assume St. Alexander Nevsky’s involvement in the organization of the Tatar invasion in 1252. I couldn’t resist and offered a detailed statement of correction. It was noticed and approved by Nun Elena and her students, Alexander Nikolaevich Fedorov, specialist in the history of architecture and the future Archimandrite Alexander (Fedorov), and archaeologist Lev Nikolaevich Bolshakov (the future Archpriest Lev Bolshakov).

Her advice was marked by depth, knowledge of life and a particular spiritual insight

In her articles, Liudmila Alexandrovna Ilyunina described Nun Elena as an eldress. True, but her advice was characterized by depth, knowledge of life, and a particular spiritual insight. At times, though, the Lord would visit her in an entirely unexpected way. I will share an incident that had to do with me. To enter graduate school, I had to get a recommendation from an academic chair; but everyone was apprehensive of issuing one, since it automatically meant an obligation to hire me upon graduation. So, in May 1992, I was sitting at a meeting of the St. Sergius of Radonezh Society. Hieromonk Alexander (Fedorov) was presenting a report on church architecture. It is worth noting that Nun Elena greatly respected all the presenters in general, and Fr. Alexander in particular. Under no circumstances would she allow them to be interrupted. But then, she suddenly interjects right in the middle of Father Alexander’s talk: “Father Alexander, wait, before I forget. Valery Karpunin, our librarian, holds Ph.D. in Philosophy and heads the Philosophy Department at the Conservatory. So, he’s got no time to take care of our library. Please find a new librarian, and let Valery hand over his responsibilities.” She repeated it three times during the presentation. Some of us exchanged baffled looks: Nun Elena never held any particular rank in high esteem; everyone was equal to her, from a professor to a cleaning lady. Then finally, once she had said that for the third time, it dawned on me: “Dear me, Simple Simon—looking for mittens, when both are safely tucked under your belt!” During the break, I walked up to Valery and asked: “Valery, is it true you are the chair of Philosophy Department?” He responded: “There is a chair, but there is no Philosophy. What do you need?” I replied: “A recommendation for graduate school.” And I hear the surprising: “Hmm, well, stop by then. We’ll give you one.”

On the work of the grace of God in the modern world

Liudmila Ilyunina:

About the Work of God’s Grace in the Modern World—that’s how Nun Elena (Kazimirchak-Polonskaya) named her autobiographical book, whereas her publishers have rightly added, Notes of an Orthodox Missionary, as a subtitle and just as rightly included it in the “Twentieth Century Martyrs and Confessors” series. For all those who were fortunate enough to know Nun Elena, she was a guide to the world of profession of faith in Christ and a lifetime confession (not just the sometimes forced or unconscious confession of faith during the time of the revolution or war).

Nun Elena’s conscious, practically daily confession of faith, remembered by many who knew her, was accomplished through the action of God’s grace. But it was also a personal deed. We, her students and friends, who witnessed Nun Elena’s asceticism of the last ten or fifteen years of her earthly sojourn, knew that she was able to achieve this last feat only because her life in its entirety was spent in self-denial.

Elena Kazimirchak-Polonskaya in the year she defended her PhD in Astronomy (1967) Elena Kazimirchak-Polonskaya in the year she defended her PhD in Astronomy (1967) Elena Ivanovna Polonskaya was born in 1902 in Volyn. As early as in her childhood and adolescence, she exhibited remarkable intelligence, notably in certain areas of knowledge—she was very capable of mastering equally foreign languages and hard sciences. Her family wasn’t religious, and therefore it was due to “the work of the grace of God in the modern world” that the young Elena, as successful as she was in her scientific studies, with her good looks and material prosperity, came to be haunted by the question of the meaning of earthly existence. Failing to find the answer by way of rational knowledge, she was impulsively driven to appeal to Heaven and pray: “In the name of what did we receive life?” And that’s when she had a wondrous vision that predestined her future fate.

At the moment of spiritual distress, Elena was in a large park in the Polonsky family estate. Then, suddenly... everything around her was unspeakably transformed: the trees, bushes, flowers, water in a lake, and the clouds in the sky. At one stroke, she gained sight of the transfigured beauty of the earth and felt in it the answer she later expressed through the verses in Psalms: The heavens declare the glory of God, And the firmament proclaimeth the work of His hands” (Psalm 18:3) (she liked to repeat them when she spoke about her astronomical research).

At that moment of Divine epiphany in the Volyn park, she resolved that from now on, all of her scientific studies would be dedicated to finding an argument for the existence of God, through the all-wise arrangement of the universe.

At that moment of the Divine manifestation in the Volyn park, she resolved that from now on all scientific studies would be dedicated to finding an argument for the existence of God

Nun Elena had three professorships—probably the only such case in world history. She received a Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Warsaw, and also earned her Ph.D. in Mathematics and Physics, along with a Ph.D. in Astronomy while already residing in Russia. Therefore, her whole life was the fulfillment of the promise she gave to God in her youth, at the moment of that grace-filled revelation in the Volyn Park—to serve Him “with all her soul, with all her strength, and with all her mind.”

But we, those who personally knew Nun Elena, were most particularly confounded not by her scholarly intellect and scientific innovation (she made a great many astronomical discoveries that were acknowledged by the prestigious F. A. Bredikhin award; moreover a star was named after her), but her cordial generosity, worldly practicality, and amazing integrity. It was truly a miracle—despite the fact that Elena had spent her life working as theoretician in academia, she was nothing like a bookish armchair scientist. For the sake of compassion for her neighbor (or anyone far off), she was willing to abandon her beloved work, science, or research, capable of sacrificing even her own life.

She was like that from the days of her youth. When Elena Polonskaya was still studying at the University of Lvov, she abandoned the successful studies to save her family estate and returned to her native land. Still a very young woman, she was able, in a relatively short time, to put the neglected household in order, correctly doing the paperwork, saving the park and garden with relict species of trees and bushes from destruction, and its lake, with its uniquely pure water and prime fish. Somehow Elena managed to pay the bills—and the family estate, formed over the centuries, was saved.

It’s no coincidence that once the Soviets came to Volyn, the local peasants not only didn’t harm their landlady, but also pleaded with her not to abandon them.

Son Seryozha (1937-1048) Son Seryozha (1937-1048) We find amazing examples of Nun Elena’s self-sacrifice in her war memoirs. She literally saved the lives of many fellow astronomers amid the Gestapo raids and house-to-house searches. As she was trying to find her sick mother, she volunteered to come to one of the Polish concentration camps and then managed to miraculously (with the help of a camp doctor) leave it afterwards. Helping other people, Elena constantly risked losing her only son Seryozhenka, because while she was out wandering—and each trip could easily become her last—she would leave her five-year-old child alone for several days.

We (those of us who first heard these recollections from Elena instead of from a book) were always astounded by one example of a miraculous deliverance from certain death. During the Polish uprising in Warsaw, she was arrested and led away to face a firing squad. The muzzles of five rifles were already aimed at her from point-blank range. That’s when, as she later recalled, she “cried out to God, and He gave her His word.” She spoke to the soldiers, who had “God is with us” emblazoned on their buckles, like she would speak to Christians, and reminded them that their children, mothers, wives, and sisters are waiting for them at their homes. And, not one of them fired a shot! They yelled, “Run!” And so they delivered her back to her son—ho she would soon lose, when they lived in Soviet Russia...

She was arrested and was led to be executed. The muzzles of five rifles were already aimed at her from point-blank range

This pain never left Nun Elena to the end of her days. Her work desk had a portrait of a handsome boy on a bicycle, and a sign on the photograph of a young martyr on the wall said: “Seryozhenka in the coffin.”

Why and what for did Elena Ivanovna return to Russia? Some attributed it to the typical naivety of an immigrant: the Soviets made an offer to anyone interested in returning to his homeland, and, driven by nostalgia, the Russian people plunged straight into the depths of the Gulag. But Elena Ivanovna was not naïve, she always had ideals and was driven by the highest aims. As she involuntarily found herself living abroad—following the Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Volyn became a part of Poland—she always empathized with her homeland that was taken captive. But above all things, she suffered from the fact that the younger generation there were robbed of their faith and were instead inculcated to believe a barbarous atheistic view of God’s world.

She decided to go to Russia to do “underground religious work”, and received the blessing from her confessor, Archpriest Sergei Bulgakov. To those who would say that this was the height of naivety we will answer that she succeeded! For decades she held classes for young people at her home, and many of her former students became priests or monks. The nun continued her home seminars, even though she had firsthand knowledge of punitive agencies’ hatred for dissenters (she was arrested in 1952). This was a testimony to the loftiness of her spirit—those who passed through the Gulag or came into contact with its bloodthirsty breath through the fate of their relatives or friends would be generally extremely careful to stay under the radar of the hard-fisted “secret services.” Nun Elena was bold (it was also her catchphrase: “A man must be bold in prayer, and he must be bold in life”).

“A man must be bold in prayer, and he must be bold in life”

And it was despite the devastating trials that befell her: Her husband went missing during the war; her son later died (suffering a lingering death from an infectious disease that resulted in blindness); at the time when Elena Ivanovna endured prison abuse, her mother died; prison tortures took away her health (her medical records cited thirteen chronic conditions); for many years, Elena Ivanovna wandered without a permanent home, she changed jobs... We can say she walked the earth following in Job’s footsteps. Just like him, against all the odds, she glorified God! Just like him, she suffered (especially in her last years) from a lack of understanding and loneliness.

Following retirement, Elena Ivanovna took monastic vows—and, at the age of seventy, she left her work at the Institute for Theoretical Astronomy of the Academy of Sciences to make an enormous translation at the request of the St. Petersburg Theological Academy.

At tonsure, with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Alexiy, Elena Ivanovna Kazimirchak-Polonskaya retained her former name, hence confirming that her life had already prepared her for the “heavenly rank”—and, in fact, she has long been “a nun living in the world.”

The heaviest of crosses she had to carry—being misunderstood and lonely, and this time in the rank of a nun, became apparent already during the first year following her tonsure. Her newly-appointed father confessor, formerly unacquainted with her, and the elderly nun from the simple folk who stood at her tonsure, insisted on her giving up her academic studies, lectures (that she gave to students of the theological schools), writing articles and studying with young people at home, but instead devote herself exclusively to fasting and prayer. As a result of these bans and the ensuing nervous breakdown that followed, Elena Ivanovna went completely blind.

My strength is made perfect in weakness—everyone who witnessed Nun Elena’s daily exploits during the final years of her life was convinced of this spiritual law. Not only did she continue working as a scholar writing articles and giving lectures (she had a blessing to do this work a decade ago from the metropolitan and also the rector of the theological schools). She also continued, now legally, her meetings with people. She brought people together and officially formed the community of St. Sergius of Radonezh, worked with doctors of the Orthodox hospital of Blessed St. Xenia about to be opened, arranged assistance (by efforts of the community) for the lonely and ailing elderly people, and continued to care for her adopted daughter.

The more time goes by since the death of Nun Elena—she reposed in the Lord on August 30, 1992—the more it becomes obvious that we lived next to a saint and confessor of Christ. We often had no real understanding of her boldness, while some even reproached her for lack of humility... But it has now become clear that Elena Ivanovna was at a fundamentally different spiritual age than most people around her—she was already an eldress, while others expected spiritual infancy from her. She had long partaken of solid food, but to those who were nurslings themselves, it all seemed like some “wrong arrangement,” or even pride.

She was already an eldress, but it was spiritual infancy that was required of her

“Responsibility” was Nun Elena’s favorite word and she never grew tired of repeating that a Christian should be responsible: for his words, deeds, actions, and even his thoughts. And, then, in the end, this responsible and mature attitude toward life will evolve into serving God. For Matushka, Holy Righteous Prince Alexander Nevsky exemplified an ideal of such service.

She dedicated to him one of her most inspired articles that was at first read as a lecture to students of the Theological Academy. Nearly fifteen years have passed since then, but even today, any time we remember Nun Elena with other priests, they typically say: “Yes, I heard her lecture about Alexander Nevsky; it was a new, living word.”

She was granted such depth of insight of the righteous prince’s exploit because, to some extent, she followed him in his footsteps. She spent most of her life among Catholics, and, through Catholicism (the Vatican strongly encourages scientific studies in our days), she could have found vast opportunities, whereas a scholarly nun of global standing would have surely become widely known and famous there. But Elena Ivanovna chose to “bow down before the khan” and went to the Soviet Union, took an exam in Marxism-Leninism before the post-graduate entry exams, worked in a Soviet university, had to have a talk with the “The First Department” regarding her foreign colleagues, etc., etc.

Nun Elena reading a lecture at the Leningrad Theological Academy. 1988. Nun Elena reading a lecture at the Leningrad Theological Academy. 1988. This is how Nun Elena understood humility. No “downcast eyes, headdress and fake humility,” but instead the acceptance of existing life conditions and the circumstances that God sets before us—always acting wisely and responsibly, according to a given situation (to keep silent or speak when necessary; fight a battle or play up to if necessary).

Even in a pre-death delirium, Elena Ivanovna kept talking about St. Alexander Nevsky (or was she speaking to him?). Till her last breath, she waged battle against physical infirmity (she was practically crippled during the last year of her life) yet, at the same time, she remained just as attentive to other people. As her last will and testament for us, she left these words, “Aim higher! Higher!” She kept repeating them during the last hours of her earthly life.

Her grave is on a high mountain near Pulkovo Observatory in St. Petersburg. It always feels good to be there, in a small “astronomical cemetery”—special silence elevates the soul above triviality of life, over the cars buzzing at the foot of the hill, huge boxes of new plants and supermarkets, and a huge metropolis spreading all over the valley. It is good to come here “in a difficult moment of life,” to feel how peace gradually fills your heart in an invisible stream, passions grow quiet, and silence teaches you without a word that there is height and depth in life—that’s why “in the end things will mend, and only the truth will remain.”

So, over the years, the truth about Nun Elena (Kazimirchak-Polonskaya) begins to shine through to an increasing number of people. She is now revered not only by those who knew her, but also by many readers of her books—and to many of them, they truly became the missionary word and revelation about the way “the grace of God works in the modern world.”

The book leads man to “aim higher, higher!”

Translation by Liubov Ambrose



1 Metropolitan John (Snychev) of blessed memory, then metropolitan of Leningrad, and much beloved and respected by the Russian people.

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