Freitag, 13. Dezember 2013

Father Arseny- 1893-1973 Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father

Translator’s Foreword
As you embark on reading this book, you will most likely find that its historical setting, the period of Stalin’s dictatorship in the Soviet Union, presents situations which are hard to understand or even believe.
My own father and a number of other family members in Russia were victims of Stalinist repression. Their accounts enrich my understanding of this period, which forms the backdrop for the extraordinary people and events described here. I therefore feel it important to set out a few details about the era which may help to explain some of the situations in the book, and to provide the context in which its characters find themselves.
The Stalin years (1924-1953) were particularly dark ones in the history of the Soviet Union, and at the time very little information about what was going on filtered out to the outside world. The term “Iron Curtain” described a system which effectively prevented the West from learning about the extent of the repression of thought and the extinction of human life. While most of us knew, for example, that labour camps existed, few could imagine how horribly cruel they were, nor how huge were the numbers incarcerated in them. It was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” that gave us one of our first glimpses into the conditions in a Soviet labor camp.
The Iron Curtain also kept most of us ignorant about the antireligious atmosphere which pervaded the Soviet Union. Recognising the important influence of religion, the authorities moved to counteract it, labelling it as “obscurantism” and “the opiate of the people”, claiming that it prevented human progress and enlightenment. The “fanatics” who persisted in openly expressing belief in God and sharing it with others were at risk of being labelled mentally ill, consigned to the inhumane conditions of mental hospitals, or sent to labor camps.
Sine the fall of the Soviet regime, it has been revealed that six hundred bishops, forty thousands priests, and one hundred twenty thousand monks and nuns were killed during this period. Many of these died in the harsh conditions of prison or labor camp; others were shot or buried alive. By the end of Stalin’s dictatorship, only some two hundred priests remained active in the Soviet Union. The scale of this martyrdom is unprecedented in the history of the Christian Church.
Those who attended church services were watched carefully; they often lost their jobs and other opportunities – their children could be refused entry to universities. People had to be secretive about their faith, even at home. Icons on display were dangerously visible proof of one’s faith. People who felt it important to have icons in their homes were forced to hide them, or keep them locked up or covered by curtains or secular works of art. Schoolchildren were encouraged to report to their teachers if someone was praying at home: they were told that by betraying their families, they were helping their country.
In addition, religious education of any kind at home, in church, or at school was strictlu forbidden, as was all religious literature. The ban on private prayer also meant that priests were not allowed to serve outside the few churches left open by the authorities, nor were they allowed to receive in their homes anyone who wanted to come for confession or simply to talk or pray. After the death of Stalin, this sort of persecution continued, though to a lesser extent, up until the fall of Communism in 1991.
Perhaps the strength of religious faith in Russia can be measured by the ferocity of the battle which the communist regime thought it worthwhile and necessary to put up against it.
Political persecution was especially fierce during Stalin’s time. Anyone who thought differently from the party line was considered an enemy of the people, and could be arrested and interned. People lived under the constant threat of “the knock at the door”. The knock heralded the abrupt appearance of the secret police, who usually came in the middle of the night to ensure that they would find the residents at home, befuddled with sleep. The search would begin. In would be painstakingly thorough and cruel, and spiked with humiliating personal insults. Having turned the apartment upside down, the police would arrest one or more members of the family living there. The others, quietly and in haste, would gather warm clothing and food for the one being taken away, bless him or her with the sign of the Cross, and say goodbye. Then would begin a wrenching new life of constant worry for the prisoner – husband, wife, son or daughter – whom they might never see again. (These are details I have gleaned from a number of relatives in Russia who went through this experience first-hand).
To build the case against someone who was considered a political enemy, the authorities often employed false witnesses, or denouncers. Because you could be betrayed by anyone, this ploy created an insidious suspicion of just about everyone you knew. Your own chilled can denounce you for praying at home. A friend could denounce you to protect himself or his family from arrest. Furthermore, the party line change so often that even communists who had comforted to certain ideology could suddenly find themselves exiled to prison or to same camp where they had consigned others.

Soviet labor camps had mixed populations: religious and political prisoners were interned together with criminals. This made for unbearably difficult circumstances for the “politicals” (ie., both religious and political prisoners), who were in constant physical danger from the criminal element.
“Special” labor camps, such as the one where we first meet Father Arseny, followed a stricter regime; these were for the worst criminals as well as for “incorrigible” politicals. In the horror and desolation of those places there were yet people who provided light, sanctity, and limitless love to all those around them. Father Arseny was one such person.
The Text
Piotr Andreyevich Streltzoff was an art historian, who on becoming a priest-monk, was given the name of Father Arseny. It appears from the text that he was born in the first decade of the twentieth century, was first arrested in 1933 and then again in 1939 for his activities as a priest, and survived in prison camps where he stayed until 1958. he died in 1973.
This book first appeared during communist rule in samizdat form (“self-published”). Even then the book circulated widely and nourished the spiritual lives of many. After the fall of communism when it could be published officially, it was reprinted twice (200,000 copies each time), the last time in 1994. Its success in Russia has been enormous.
The man who calls himself “the servant of God Alexander” compiled the book from accounts written by people who knew Father Arseny himself. One such man is a journalist, whose experience in documentation accounts for the clarity of detail in Part I. yet this book is not a biography; it is a spiritual encounter. It introduces us to a man whom we can love and respect, whose example can lead us throughout our life.

Vera Bouteneff
Synaxis of the Mother of God, 1997

The Patients

In the barracks Father Arseny was not alone; three other prisoners had stayed in that day. Two were seriously ill, while the third, a loafer named Fedka, had cut himself with an ax on purpose. Lying on his bunk bed, he would fall asleep, and suddenly awakening, would shout, “Keep the barracks warm! I am cold! If you don’t do your work I’ll slap you!” and then would immediately fall asleep.
The two ill prisoners were in very serious condition. They had not been sent to the prison camp hospital only because it was full. At about noon a medic stopped by, and looking at the patients from a distance, shouted to Father Arseny, “They will soon be dead, a lot of them are croaking these days. It’s cold!” He spoke not caring at all that the patients could hear him. And why should he care? Prisoners are supposed to die in this camp. Then he approached the third prisoner, the one who had hurt his hand, and who was moaning now to show off his pain. “Don’t you fool around,” he ordered. “Tomorrow you will go to work! If you don’t, you will be sent to solitary confinement where you will really ‘rest’!”
Every so often, Father Arseny would interrupt his work to go to the two very sick patients, help them however he could, talk to them, and pray for them. “Lord Jesus Christ! Help them: heal them, show them Your mercy. Let them live until they can go free!” he whispered again and again, arranging their hard mattresses or covering them. Sometimes he gave them water to drink, or the medication that the medic had thrown onto their beds. In camp, the primary medication was aspirin, which was suppose to cure all diseases.
To the one who was most sick Father Arseny gave a piece of bread, a quarter of his only daily ration. Having softened the bread with water, Father Arseny fed the patient, who opened his eyes, and, looking at Father Arseny, pushed his hand away. Father Arseny quietly said, “Eat, eat with the help of God.” The sick man swallowed the bread and said, “What do you want from me with your God! What do you hope to get from me? You hope I will die so can take my belongings. I have nothing, so don’t even try!” Father Arseny did not answer, carefully covered him, and approached the other patient to help him turn over before starting to clean the barracks again.
He decided not to hide the kindling given him by Graybeard and piled it right next to the stove. He thought, “Yesterday I tried to hide it, and see what happened: people poured water over it. Today God has helped me.”
The stoves were red-hot and Father Arseny was pleased that the workers would come home and would be able to rest a little in the warmth of the barracks. While he was thinking this, a supervisor walked in. he must have been in his early thirties, and he was always appeared cheerful and smiling, his name was Pupkov, but he was called “the Optimist” by all the prisoners.
“What do you think you’re doing Priest? You’re heating the barracks as if it was a sauna! You’re using state logs for the enemies of the people. I’ll show you!” He hit Father Arseny in the face, and left, still smiling. Wiping blood from his face, Father Arseny prayed, “Do not abandon me, do not leave me, a sinner. Have mercy on me.”

Fedka the loafer sat up and said, “The dirty pig, he hit you hard on the snout, and all for fun! He doesn’t even know what he did it for!” In an hour’s time the Optimist came back and shouted, “Inspection time, all of you get up!” Fedka jumped down from his bunk bed, and Father Arseny stood at attention with a broom in his hands.
“Who else is here?” shouted the supervisor, in spite of the fact that he already had asked this question the same morning and knew perfectly well who was there. “Two very sick ones and one who will go to the work tomorrow!” he continued, walking along the corridor between the beds. He saw the two patients and understood that they could not get up, but just for show, he started shouting. He did not dare come near though: who knows, perhaps they were contagious?
“You’d better watch out, Priest, and see that everything’s in order! They’ll call you for questioning. You’ll have to answer for everything.” And, mumbling obscenities, he left.
The day was coming to an end. Darkness came first, and the prisoners were soon to return. They always came frozen, tired, angry, and weakened, and when they reached their bunks, they nearly fainted onto them. With the return of the workers, the barracks filled with cold, dampness, and a generally restless and unpleasant atmosphere.
Half an hour after their return, they were taken to eat. Mealtime was for many prisoners a time of suffering: the criminals would grab away political prisoners’ food and beat those who tried to stop them. Those who were weak and could not defend themselves were deprived of food.
There were more political prisoners than common criminals, but the thieves and murders had much power over the weaker zeks. Every day many zeks were deprived of their meager food ration. This brought indescribable suffering. Tired, hungry and constantly shivering of cold, the prisoners thought of nothing but of food, dreaming of full meals to make themselves happy.
The meals they did get were pitiful. The portions were minute, nearly rancid, and, for some unknown reason, smelled of kerosene. All of this was designed to kill them slowly.
Father Arseny was often deprived of meals, but he never complained. If his meal was taken, he would just return to the barracks, lie down on his bunk and pray. At first his head would spin, he would shiver from cold and hunger, his thoughts cloudy. Still, he would recite the matins service and the Akathist (the church service in praise and honour of a saint; the word comes from the Greek “Akathistos” meaning “not sitting”, during this service the faithful stand), to Saint Nicholas and to Saint Arseny, and he would commemorate his spiritual children and all the departed he had kept in his memory. After praying in this way all night, he felt new strength in the morning, as if he had eaten and slept.
Father Arseny had many spiritual children outside and inside the camp, and his soul suffered for each of them. When he had been in regular camps, he was able to get letters from them, but since he was in the death camp, this was not possible. His spiritual children thought that Father Arseny had died. They inquired about him and always got the same answer. “If he was sent to the ‘special camp’ he is not on record anywhere.”
Now it was dark. The columns of prisoners entered the camp zone, one after the other, and poured into the different barracks. In Father Arseny’s barracks, people walked in angry and tired, but as they entered into the warmth they were comforted. Today nobody beat up Father Arseny and nobody took his bread.
The two sick men received only half their ration and Father Arseny hid a little piece of fish for them in his clothing. Later Father Arseny started feeding the two patients. He heated up some water with pine needles, mixed it with aspirin and gave some to both men. He divided the bread and the fish between them.
Five days later, the two sick prisoners started feeling a little better. They would probably live, but they could not yet get up. Father Arseny cared for them at night and, when he had time, during the day. He also gave them part of his ration.
Father Arseny did not know who the patients were. They had come to his barracks from another camp and had been very sick when they arrived. They accepted the care of Father Arseny with no enthusiasm, but they could not survive without him. They said nothing about themselves, and Father Arseny asked nothing. He had seen many people like these two patients and he had cared for them all. When they left, he seldom heard of them again.
One of the sick man told him that his name was Sazikov, Ivan Alexandrovich. Father Arseny prayed quietly while he was helping him. Sazikov noticed it and mumbled, “You’re praying, eh, Priest?! You pray to get forgivness of your sins and this is why you help us! You’re afraid of God! Why’s that? Have you ever seen Him?”
Father Arseny looked at Sazikov with surprise. “How could I not have seen Him? He is here among us and unites you and me!”
“What are you saying Pop? God is in this barracks?” he laughed.

Father Arseny looked at him and said quietly, “Yes, I see His presence. I see that your soul is black with sin, but there is room in it for light. Light will come to you Sazikov, light and your Saint, Saint Serafim of Sarov will not abandon you.”
Sazikov’s face distorted, he trembled and whispered with hatred, “I’ll kill you silly priest, I’ll kill you – I don’t know how you know things. I hate the way you think.”
Father Arseny turned around and walked away repeating, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” While he was doing his work he prayed the Akathist, his rule of prayer, vespers, matins, and all the other prayers a priest must pray.
The second patient was one who was in the camp for a simple reason: he had to be removed from his position of authority so that someone else could take his place. His story was the same as that of so many. He had been part of the October Revolution in 1917, he had known Lenin, he had commanded a brigade in 1920, he had had an important position in the secret police, he had worked for the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) and now he had been sent to die in a ‘special’ death camp.
Some men were killed for things they had said, others for their faith, and then there were those like the second sick man: a communist-idealist who had happened to get in someone’s way, and was therefore put away. All of them were sooner or later to die in this camp.
One of those removed from power was Alexander Pavlovich Avsenkov. As soon as he had heard this name Father Arseny remembered him. Avsenikov had often appeared in the newspapers, and he was the one who had signed Father Arseny’s sentence. This was when Father Arseny had been sentenced to be shot for antirevolutionary activity. Later his punishment had been commuted to fifteen years in camp. Father Arseny remembered the name well.
Avsenikov was middle-aged. He looked forty of fifty, but life in camp had left a heavy imprint on him. Hunger, exhausting work, beatings, all these paled next to the awareness that only months ago he had sent others here, believing each time that he was ridding the state of the “enemy of the people”. His stay in the camp had made him realize the enormity of his mistake. He realised that he had sent tens, hundreds of thousands innocent people to their death. From his high position he had lost touch with the truth. He believed interrogation reports and flattery of his subordinates; listening to absurd government orders he had lost contact with living human beings and life itself.
He suffered constantly, but could change nothing about what he had done. His feeling of spiritual emptiness and loss tore him apart. He was quiet, kind, and shared all he owned; he was afraid neither of the administration nor of the criminals. He was frightened when he was angry, but did not lose his head; he tried to protect the innocent and for this he often had to spend time in the punishment cell.
Avsenksov was attached to Father Arseny: he loved him for his generosity of heart and his warmth. He often told him, “You have a soul, Father Arseny.” (Within the barracks most people did call him Father Arseny). “You have a soul, I can see that, but I am a true communist, while you serve your God; you are a priest. We have different points of view. In theory, I should be fighting ideologically with you.”
Father Arseny just smiled and answered, “Hey, dear friend. Why would you want to fight? You fought as much as you could and where did your ideology get you? It took you to this camp, which swallowed you! As far as I am concerned I had my faith in Christ out there in freedom and I have it here within myself. God is the same everywhere and helps everyone! I trust and believe that He will help you too!”
And once Father Arseny said, “We have known each other for a long time. God brought us together a long time ago, and planned our meeting in this camp.”
“What are you saying? How could I have known you?”
“Oh, yes, you know me, Alexander Pavlovich. In 1933 when communism was trying to eradicate religion, hundreds of thousands of believers were exiled, hundreds of churches were closed and this is when, for the first time, I was sent away to camp on your instructions. In 1939, I was in your jurisdiction again. I wrote an article. As soon as it was published, you arrested me again and convicted me to be shot. But, thank you, - you commuted the sentence to exile in camp. Since then I have been living in various camps and all along I’ve been expecting to see you. So finally we meet!

“Please don’t think that I am trying to accuse you. All this is the will of God, and my own life is just a drop in the ocean. Of course you cannot remember me. Among the tens of thousands you saw, how could you remember me? God alone knows everyone and everything. The fate of people is in His hands.”

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