Mochalny. An Island of Death and an Island of Life

Cross on Mochalny Island Cross on Mochalny Island     

There are many places in the world that are soaked in the blood of martyrs. As rivers flow, they reflect the Heavenly light of lakes, the water of which is stained with blood. Like the mythical Russian city of Kitezh, which plunged into the waters of Lake Svetloyar, the bottoms of these rivers and lakes hide the remains of the righteous people who suffered in the years of persecution. After the Revolution the clergy and laypeople who were unwanted by the authorities were often shot, and their bodies were dumped into the water or taken to unknown places and buried there. One of such sites of mass execution was Mochalny Island. It is called the “Nizhny Novgorod Golgotha” and the “island of death”. It is situated on the Bor [a town in the Nizhny Novgorod region.—Trans.] side of the Volga, opposite the Chkalov Stairs [the monumental flight of steps in the city of Nizhny Novgorod.—Trans.].

Every year many pilgrims flock here on the feast of the holy Martyrs Faith, Hope, Love and their mother Sophia (September 30). People come to this tragic place to pray for the repose of the souls of modern martyrs and honor their memory. By tradition the priest celebrates a prayer service and a memorial service, and then walks in a cross procession together with the pilgrims. A memorial cross was set up on the island in memory of the innocent victims by the efforts of parishioners of one church.

It is a truly amazing place, watered by the tears and prayers of several generations of the faithful. Feeling the special significance of this place, even pagans come here, trying to catch and understand something inexplicable for them. God willing, He will one day reveal Himself to them, as He revealed Himself in ancient times to St. Cyprian, a former sorcerer and magician, and now a great saint, whose help we seek in difficult moments of life.

Mochalny Island Mochalny Island     

Once upon a time, in the Russian Empire, Mochalny Island was called Rozhnov. Runaway convicts, vagabonds and thieves would hide on it—all those who were being searched for by the police. It was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the island was renamed Mochalny [meaning “of bast” in Russian.—Trans.]. Bast washcloth and bast matting were prepared here for the Nizhny Novgorod Fair.

In 1918, clergy, military men and representatives of the nobility, who were sentenced by the Bolsheviks to death, were brought here by steamer. Among those shot on Mochalny Island were Archimandrite Augustine (Pyatnitsky), the abbot of the monastery in the village of Oranki, and Bishop Lavrenty (Knyazev) of Balakhna, the abbot of the Pechersky Ascension Monastery in Nizhny Novgorod, who temporarily ruled the Nizhny Novgorod Diocese. Together with the clergy the head of the Nizhny Novgorod nobility Alexei Neidgardt was killed as well.

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But Mochalny Island hides another terrible secret. On October 7, 1949, the Finlandets (“Finn”) passenger boat sank between the island and the Chkalov Stairs, with over 200 people on board. It was impossible to find out the exact number of passengers, since in that tragic day many students decided to travel across the river without tickets as stowaways. A self-propelled cargo ship crashed into this small passenger boat. The Finlander immediately overturned, and the passengers, many of whom were trapped inside, found themselves in icy water. The temperature did not rise above zero that day. Snow slush and sludge formed on the river. Almost all of those who had even managed to swim as far as the bank died of hypothermia. Only a few passengers survived. Not a word was mentioned in the press about the tragedy—the Soviet authorities decided to conceal this catastrophe. Eyewitnesses called that passenger boat the “Nizhny Novgorod Titanic”. The clergy and parishioners of the churches of Bor still offer up prayers for their dead relatives and acquaintances here and for all those for whom there is no one to pray.

Old-timers call this place the “Island of Death”. Only God knows how many are buried in this sand, in the river. But now the island can also be called the “island of life”. The priests who were sentenced to be shot sang prayers and celebrated memorial services for themselves, knowing that they would not leave the island alive. They understood that they were doomed, but they were not afraid of death at the hands of executioners. Now, many years later, prayers are sung here again and memorial services are held.

And once, the Divine Liturgy was celebrated here. How many tears of joy were shed there by those who attended that amazing open-air service! People felt such grace and peace! Many believers from different churches have petitioned for a chapel to be built at this holy place. And how wonderful it would be to stand at the service, to pray at the church set up in honor of the New Martyrs of the Russian Church

But even without a church, prayer does not cease, and prayer services are performed on Mochalny Island. And those who were slain on this site invisibly pray for all of us; may the Lord have mercy on us by their prayers!

Marina Alexeyeva
Translation by Dmitry Lapa


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