“I go to church and will continue to do so!”

Archpriest Simeon Petrov, the oldest cleric of the Vyatka Diocese on WWII, the persecution of the Church, and faith in the Soviet era. Part 1

On October 31, 2023, the oldest cleric of the Vyatka Diocese, the mitered Archpriest Simeon Petrov, turned eighty-five. On the eve of his birthday, we talked with Fr. Simeon on his path to the faith, what trials he had to go through during the persecution of the Church, his path to the priesthood and the confession of the faith in different periods.

​Archpriest Simeon Petrov ​Archpriest Simeon Petrov     

Father Simeon, who were your parents? What was your path to the faith?

—My mother worked on a collective farm. I don’t remember my father—he was killed at the front near Stalingrad. From Vyatskiye Polyany [now a city in the Kirov region.—Trans.], my father and his friend were sent to different parts of the front. His friend returned from the front, but my father went missing. Since I was born in 1938, and my father went to war in 1941, I lost my father at the age of three.

Do you remember the war years?

—Only hunger and cold. Terrible. 40 degrees Celsius, there was a shortage of firewood, and we used to stoke the stove with straw. We had a two-story house: we lived downstairs and everyone tried to keep warm. We lived with my mother, brother and grandmother. My grandmother went blind, and our mother alone provided for the family: She worked on a collective farm, took care of the cows, and gave part of the milk yield to the State. At that time everyone had to do it. And I helped her with this from the age of five. But thank God, we had enough milk; thanks to this we survived. Extreme cold in winter did not spare anyone. I remember a terrible incident in the village: An old woman asked for alms, was given some money, went outside the village (there was no transport back then), slipped, fell, could not rise and froze to death. In the spring we used to eat rotten potatoes (the remainder of the seed potatoes). And, of course, we ate herb salads. We shredded orach (goose-foot), burdock leaves, dandelions soaked in water and glague to make salads and flavored them with thin sour cream when we had some. That’s how the war affected us. So those at the home front had a hard time too.

Where did you spend your childhood? Who introduced you to the Orthodox faith, and when?

—We lived in the village of Tsypya, then part of the Malmyzh district of the Kirov region; now it is in the Republic of Tatarstan. Then the churches were closed and there were no priests. Where could we get holy water for the feast of the Theophany from? I remember my mother pouring water through the cross and collecting it into a cup. Then she sprinkled the house and the children with it. She had such a strong faith. According to your faith be it unto you (Mt. 9:29), as the Savior said. It is gratifying to see how the church is being revived again in the village of Tsypya. I was baptized in the town of Malmyzh when I was about six. I remember it was a hot summer day.

My grandfather Sergei, grandmother Akilina, my mother and aunts passed on the faith in God to me in my childhood. My grandfather Sergei Pavlovich graduated from the Vyatka Theological College under Bishop Nicander. At the end of his studies the bishop presented my grandfather with a Gospel with his signature, which we keep at home. After graduation my grandfather taught the Law of God at a Sunday school and served as a reader; he read, sang, and led the choir. But the family was large, and so he also worked as a tailor, sewing clothes for people. He managed the household, kept a cow, a horse, sheep and chickens. But my grandfather’s serene life did not last long. Before the Revolution, when St. John of Kronstadt was staying in Vyatka not far from Urzhum, my grandfather asked him: “Bless me to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.” The saint replied, “Your Jerusalem is Solovki, and your Golgotha will be there.” I know all this from my aunt. It was long before my birth. There followed the Revolution and the Civil War... During collectivization my grandfather was arrested for speaking out against collective farms.

At that time they could concoct anything to fit Article 58: the Communist Party’s agenda was such that by 1939 they wanted to show that there was no faith in God in the Soviet Union. The result was the elimination of millions of believers. My grandfather was among them. At night they came to him, tied him up and said: “You’re arrested.” He was exiled to Solovki, to Anzer Island, from where he never returned.

Metropolitan Nikandr (Fenomenov) Metropolitan Nikandr (Fenomenov) This is how St. John of Kronstadt’s prediction came true. However, not only for my grandfather, but also for a host of his Christian compatriots. Bishop Nicander of Vyatka was transferred to Central Asia, where he was elevated to the rank of metropolitan, and was a member of the Holy Synod. Later by order of the godless authorities he was executed by a firing squad.

That day my uncle Ivan (my grandfather’s son) returned from work and heard the terrible news: “Your father was taken by the police.” Then he packed up his things and went to live further away from home, otherwise he could have shared the same sad fate with his father. My grandmother Akilina was left without a husband and without a home. Their family was dispossessed and kicked out of the house, and their horse and cow were taken away. The whole family received the stigma of “lishentsy” (“disenfranchised people”). Wherever they went, they were treated with contempt: “They’re enemies of the Soviet Government.” This is how not only my grandfather Sergei (who served as a reader at a village church), but also his whole family suffered for the faith. Soon my grandmother died from grief.

In the late 1940s, thanks to Aunt Elizaveta’s efforts, my relatives moved to the village of Tanabaevo, from where I and other children walked four miles to school in the village of Bolshoy Roy. When we were moving there, we stopped en route at the village of Adzhim, where Father Michael served at that time. By that time, he had already served a term in prison as an “enemy of the Soviet Government” and said that the overseers there had tortured him mercilessly. They would beat him so hard that sparks flew from his eyes, his ears and nose were bleeding and he was often unconscious. He would repeat, “God endured and told us to do the same.”

Aunt Anna (Anna, Elizaveta and Ekaterina were my mother’s sisters) took care of Father Michael. She often told us how he wept, recalling the past. The priest exhorted me: “Semyonushka [a diminutive form of the name Simeon.—Trans.], remember me when I die.” Father Michael showed me icons, explained what they depicted, how Christ suffered for us, and gave me a Gospel to read. After the church in the village of Adzhim had been closed, Aunt Anna was always in the church as a caretaker. No one disturbed her. There was a fertilizer warehouse in the church. She would say, “After I die, the church will be opened.” So it happened.

Aunt Ekaterina was very religious. She took us, the children, to the church of the village of Reshetniki for the feast of the Ascension of the Lord. There was a special choir there with male basses; icon lamps were burning and people gathered in the church—I remember it all. While I was standing, the priest’s wife from the choir came up to me and said: “Simeon, come with me.” I was scared and thought I had done something wrong. I asked: “Where will we go?” She took me to the choir and said: “Stand here, next to the icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov, on which the saint prays on a rock. Can you read?” I answered: “I can a little.”

“Do you know prayers? Will you go here?”

I confessed that I couldn’t sing or read in Church Slavonic. She answered, “You’ll learn.” From that moment on I went to school and to church. Every Sunday I hurried to the church in the village of Reshetniki. I used to ski there in the winter.

How did your teachers and classmates react to this?

—Soon the headmaster learned that I attended church. However, his wife and sister were church-goers as well. His granddaughter, with whom I studied, attended church too, so they did not forbid me to do it.

It was only once that they asked me before Pascha, “When will you stop going to church? They will all be closed soon—this is the past. You had better become a pioneer, a Komsomol member.” But two other boys—Sergei Pirogov and Sergei Vershinin—interceded for me, although they were Komsomol members. They said, “He did nothing wrong; he goes to school like everyone else. Why should you care that he goes to church?” So they supported me.

On the eve of Pascha, sending me to school, my mother gave me twenty kopecks and told me to buy a loaf of bread. After school the pioneer leader stood on my way and said, “When will you stop going to church?” offering me anti-Church lectures and booklets to read. I answered, “I go to church and will continue to do so!” It was already getting dusky. I was about ten and these were the post-war years. I thought: “I won’t see Pascha—now they’ll surround me from all sides…”

They asked me, “Will you go to church for Pascha?” I replied, “I will.” They argued, “You’ll be late anyway.”

We had an elderly teacher at school who was a deacon’s daughter. She was strict and neat. She was surprised at my firmness and noted later, “He’s so young, yet he stunned the pioneer leader with his answer!”

Then I ran out of the school and instead of going home with bread hurried towards the village where there was a church, hoping to have time to meet Pascha. After 100 yards a passing car stopped, which was a rare occurrence for that time. The driver was going to the village of Mankiner. “I have only twenty kopecks,” I said. “All right, I’ll give you a lift,” he replied and didn’t take the money. And then I walked to the village of Reshetniki. When asked where I was going, I said frankly, “To church—tomorrow is Pascha. Join me.” The driver answered, “Perhaps tomorrow.”

I ran into the church, where before the service old women had gathered in bast shoes and white headscarves. I had come without eating or drinking anything, threw off the bag, and the priest said, “Put on the sticharion and let’s walk in procession.” Together with the priest’s wife and other singers we sang the Paschal hymns. I remembered the exclamations “Christ is Risen” and singing with the priest in the altar for the rest of my life. After Matins the Liturgy was celebrated.

Then everybody had a meal and I hurried back home about five miles on foot through some fields and villages that no longer exist. I was thirsty, and suddenly from the grass, a spring of pure water gushed out from under the ground. That’s how the Lord comforts travelers! I ran home without bread. My mother and aunts had already cooked a Paschal lunch and they were happy to see me.

Where had you studied and worked before your ordination?

—I lived in the village of Tanabaevo, went to school in the village of Bolshoy Roy, and went to church in the village of Reshetniki—always on foot. For four years I went every weekend to the Holy Trinity Church of the village of Reshetniki, where Father Ilia served, and learned to sing, read psalms, and did various types of work around the church. After I graduated from school (I was about fifteen at the time), the priest said: “You can read and sing—come to services and help me.” I went to labor in the church gladly. The church needed repairs; we chopped firewood—there was enough work. I began to labor there as a “housekeeper”, a reader and a singer—so days and nights flew by quickly. There was no refectory there as such. Old women would come to the service, bringing some milk and a round loaf from the Russian oven with them; so after the service in the morning I would refresh myself with these treats and work until night.

The church was old: there were frescoes on its walls, but all this required care and renovation. There were no powders or cleaning products, soap was in short supply, and there was no electricity. Old women would boil water in buckets, we would put household soap there and make a “soap solution”, cleaning the church interior with this soapy water. Batiushka and I would start cleaning up from the sanctuary. Since the Soviet Government had taken power, the village church had experienced years of desolation, so you can imagine how dirty everything was. In a week the church became clean. After that, carpenters and others came to work. The roof was leaking, there was no paint, no building materials. Then we had to make enormous efforts with the villagers to get some paint. The priest blessed me to go to the head of the ferry to buy paint—ships used to go through Reshetniki. Thank God, paint was delivered to us, work was in full swing again, and the church was painted. Firewood had to be gathered… Again, the problem was—where to get it? I got acquainted with the forester. Spruce, aspen, pine and birch were rafted down the Vyatka River: six meters each, tied together in tens. Amazingly, despite godless times in the post–war years, secular people responded to our requests—the firewood forest was transferred to us. Of course, the priest paid for it. There was no Druzhba (“Friendship”) chainsaw then, so we sawed and chopped manually. We worked with my relative, Hieromonk Nikolai (Ivanov) from dawn to dusk. Then we stocked in firewood for the church for three years.

Where did you get the candles, incense and utensils necessary for services?

—I would travel to Kirov. In the winter there were no ferry services there, so I travelled by bus and partly on foot. Once I was traveling back late, carrying candles for the church. I had to walk from Bolshoy Roy to Reshetniki in winter through fields and woods. It was getting dark, and suddenly I saw the silhouette of a dog in the dark in front of me! I looked closer—two eyes were glaring at me, and I understood that it was a wolf! I was scared stiff. Wolves would steal many animals in these villages. Overcoming my fear, I lit a bunch of candles that I was dragging on a sled, and I was standing rooted to the spot. The wolf stood for a while, then turned around and ran back into the forest. Such was my obedience of church caretaker.

What can you say about your years in the army? As a clergyman, did you experience prejudice from your colleagues and officers?

—I received a summons from the military enlistment office. Someone drove me to Urzhum—he said joining the army was a good thing. In the military enlistment office it turned out that someone had already filed a complaint against me. The secretary of the district Party committee went to the priest and said, “A young man works in your church against whom a complaint has been filed.” Batiushka and his wife were perplexed. “What complaint?” Apparently, one of the villagers had done it out of envy or on purpose. They said of me, “He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t break the laws, he works diligently, is highly disciplined and neat. If all young people were like him, we wouldn’t have to educate anyone.” The priest seated the secretary of the district committee at the table for a meal, and then the secretary asked him to sign a document stating, “He has not violated Soviet law.” So, I was drafted into the army without problems. I was sent to Vladivostok, where the training unit was located.

They assigned me to the aviation unit, where we learned the basics of car repair. There were many natives of Vyatka there, including the monitor of the training unit, so he would stand up for us. In general, although they were Komsomol members, the guys with whom I served did not pester me with ideological questions.

An Old Believer from the Malmyzh district named Yury served with us. We began to talk about the faith. One day a party worker called him and me and said, “They say you’re believers. It’s time to join the Komsomol, otherwise we will send you to the construction battalion.” At that very time there was a scandal in our unit. A Komsomol member went AWOL, and the next morning a woman came and reported that she had been raped by this soldier. When the question of joining the Komsomol arose again, we told the Deputy Commander for Political Affairs that we would never become like that Komsomol member, and they never bothered us again.

Yury and I stayed to serve in the aviation unit in the Far East. During the army years we became so close that we once drank a drink from the same cup, although the Old Believers do not give their dishes to anyone from another faith. It was a sign of special affection, acceptance and trust.

Part 2

Lada Bayeva
spoke with Archpriest Simeon Petrov
Translation by Dmitry Lapa



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