Cross on the site of the Church blown up in 1961, and the new one built in 2001 (Balashikha, Moscow Distr., Russia)
“May 20. ...Early in the morning I head straight for the mountains. On the next slope over is a flock of sheep. The shepherd sits at the top of the hill. In front of him is a smoke-stained metal pitcher, standing in the middle of a hot little wormwood fire that is rapidly burning out (just enough fire to boil some water for tea). While he waits for the water to boil, he is twisting the dial of an old, beat-up Spidola transistor radio, one of the first models ever made.
On my way back in the evening along a nearby ridge I encounter the same flock. The same shepherd has spread a prayer rug right in the middle of the path (leaving me no way to detour around it) and is performing namaz.
I caught sight of him from far away. Against the background of the valley spreading below, the Monzhukly mountain range, the evening sky, and the Iranian horizon already turning blue in the distance, he was such a small figure, bent down on his knees in Muslim prayer. It was something very special to see a man at prayer in such surroundings.
That is how it is and how it should be: the whole world is his mosque. Like him, I do not go to church in particular because I am in my church every day and every hour. In the village on the Volga, in the Moscow metro, and here among these hills, on Muslim land.
The church is something special. I still have dim memories from my childhood, interspersed with indelible scenes: I am a small child, not yet old enough to go to school; there is snow on the street, and for some reason Mama and I have to leave home unusually early. We even had to get up earlier than usual to do this. The whole situation is strange. Mama is worried about something and does not humor me. She gathers me up as if we were going to work.
“Where are we going and what for?” I ask.
“Come on, Seryozha, let’s go, we’re being evacuated for a while.”
“What does it mean being evacuated?”
“It’s when you have to leave home, go to a special place, and wait there. But then we will come back home again.”
“But why do we have to do that?”
“Oh, … because they are going to blow up the church today.”
“But why are they going to do that?”
I have a better memory of the church. First of all, just because it had always been there, right next to our apartment building (I later learned that the church was built in 1894). Its sturdy dome always seemed to me to be the epitome of reliability, stability, and permanence. Its roundness was in pleasant contrast to the surrounding five-story apartment buildings, with their identical flat sides, hard angles, and faceless windows, as if in total disagreement with the reigning uniformity steadily encroaching upon it from all sides. The church did not exactly militantly oppose this uniformity, it just humbly disagreed with it.
But I remember this dome so well for another reason, because the memory of the moment when it exploded has stayed with me all my life.
We went out onto the still snowy street of suburban Balashikha (I think it was already spring) and immediately found ourselves in a stream of other residents from our apartment building who were also going earnestly and solemnly in the same direction. As always in those years, the crowd was a mass of gray, black, and dark blue, dressed all in the same thick woolen overcoats with the same black or brown fur collars. It seems strange, but I remember this very well.
Another thing I remember well is the unusual cordon of soldiers standing a few steps from each other at the edge of the street along which the flow of people was moving. The soldiers themselves were also unusual. Each of them had a small shovel in a case hanging from their belt, and what the soldiers were called was a new word for me: “sappers.”
We walked two blocks and came to a stop behind the backs of the soldiers, who were now standing much closer together, shoulder to shoulder. I noticed their identical quilted green jackets girded with leather belts and then looked at a monument to Lenin on a pedestal on the other side of the line of soldiers. This Lenin was not reaching out his hand, almost rising up on his toes, as the other Lenins usually did. He just stood wearily, like an ordinary man, with one hand stuck in his vest under his jacket.
About three hundred meters behind his back stood the enormous church, enduring and tranquil, with its rounded dome. Against the background of its silhouette Lenin looked quite small. In the crowd around us I often caught the word “temple.” That is what the church is, a temple.
And there we stand waiting behind the cordon of soldiers. Now they have to blow up the temple. No one is talking loudly, only in a kind of hushed half-whisper. I still cannot understand at all why they have to blow up the church. I try to ask Mama about this, but for some reason she does not explain but gloomily warns me, “Be quiet, Seryozha, and stand still.”
In front of the ranks of soldiers, in the enormous empty space surrounded by the cordon, several officers are scurrying about. They seem to be very concerned about something, rushing here and there, consulting with each other, giving some kind of orders. Somebody runs off and then comes running back. I wonder, what these officers are thinking? Are they nervous? After all, it is important work that they are doing.
Then all at once this hurrying around ceases. The officers stop giving orders, and they all turn to face the church. A hush falls over the crowd around us, and suddenly there is a loud explosion.
For some reason I remember that the sound of the explosion and the image of it were imprinted separately in my memory. This surprised me even back then when it happened. How could this be? An explosion is an explosion. So it should make a loud noise.
But that was not what I experienced. For some reason the noise that I heard was not very loud, sort of muffled, as if the explosion was in a hurry, furtively concealing itself, and the sound sank quickly into the thick spring air.
Then the whole dome, together with part of the walls supporting it, seemed to rise up slightly and hesitate for a split second against the sky, like a rocket being launched hesitates before it proudly and resolutely hurls itself into outer space. And then the whole enormous dome suddenly dissolved into a cloud of red brick dust.
And then I was surprised again: on the outside the church was not red, and it could not be seen that it was made of red brick. But when it exploded, it suddenly burst into a blood-red shower of pulverized brick.
I have no memory at all about how all the people standing around me reacted. I was probably too engrossed in what was unfolding in front of my eyes.
The blood-red cloud continued to settle in heavy, thick puffs behind the monument to Lenin, while he stood there as wearily as ever, not even flinching from the unexpected explosion behind his back. And I thought, maybe the explosion was not unexpected for him? Maybe Lenin knew?
When did this happen? Nineteen sixty or sixty-one? I was five or six years old.
Ever since then (since the morning of the explosion) I have shied away from church, both as a building and as a concentration of labor and faith. I have no doubt that church is a sacred place. It’s just that I am not drawn to worship there.
For it is written: “when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
I do not feel the need for an intermediary. I buy fish in the market through intermediaries. But someone else’s views are of no use for me in my personal relationship with … (you know Who). Because if I were to consent to having an intermediary in this relationship, then I would have to make sure that that the intermediary is trustworthy, and that is not easy to do. I do not dispute that among preachers there are some holy ones, and I respect stoics. But they can be found among the shepherds of Turkmenistan or among the engineers of Moscow as well. Such people are as uncommon among preachers as they are among engineers.
Maybe there is something I do not understand. And besides, I am not baptized. But nevertheless the most important thing is clear to me.
The most important thing is that the shepherd and I are essentially the same. And even more so for the One who, it is true, may be watching over the shepherd and me from above, or from everywhere, or from within ourselves. We are alike in that each of us initially has an equal chance. And each of us is judged by the same standard criteria in the book of life. We are like two privates shoulder to shoulder: we each think our own thoughts, in different languages, but we march together in the same ranks.
Many believe that originally everyone had the same faith. We will remember this yet. Because the insanity cannot go on forever. Categories such as “believers/nonbelievers, orthodox/protestants” are artificial. Even Genghis Khan, the “savage and tyrant,” made it all clear and simple in his Code of Law: if you blasphemed someone else’s religion, then off with your head.
What is God for anyway? For support and reconciliation. When there is feuding over God, it is from the devil. Then it is better to wonder, as someone once asked me, “Baptists—who are they? Orthodox protestants?”
Thirty-seven years after the sapper morning and fifteen years after my first encounter with Bonelli’s eagle, I had been working continuously for two years in the USA (Portland, Oregon). One morning I felt a catastrophic decline in the level of “Russian spirit” in my blood and understood that I had to embark on a journey through Rus’ in order to breath the air of my native land and restore the level of its spirit within me. To do this, for some reason I set off first to Alaska, which I had always imagined and felt to be an enormous piece of Russian land.
After examining a grizzly bear track on a remote bank of the Russian River, I walked out on a dead spruce trunk overhanging the rapid blue-green currents flowing smoothly by and sat down. Dangling my feet, I analyzed the already familiar feeling that Alaska is undoubtedly still Russian land, and the legendary Russian spirit has been preserved in it. Because, of course, I feel quite different here than in other places on the North American continent, distinctly perceiving the same elusive and ineffable something that comes everywhere from the land itself, from the mountains, rivers, trees, and other “real estate.” Many people say it is a special energy akin to their soul. Maybe so; I don’t know.
As a sat there, a trite thought crossed my mind, not for the first time. The sale of Alaska was an even bigger mistake than the Great October Socialist Revolution. If we had not lost Alaska, Soviet border guards would be peacefully drinking vodka with their Canadian colleagues. Rumors of this would quickly reach the American Border Patrol, and they would envy the Canadians, visit them more often, and get to know Soviet border guards, since neighbors always wears it a path to visit each other. There would be no cold war, and the whole world would be different today. It is easy for politicians to belligerently confront an abstract “potential enemy.” But when the same potential enemy is sitting across the table from you and carries on a conversation with you for a couple of hours in an unfamiliar language, but everyone understands everything, that is an entirely different matter.
At precisely that moment, an idea that had been lurking in the back of my mind for some time suddenly crystallized. I understood that, in spite of the abundant grace of my surroundings, there was not enough Russian spirit here for me, and I must go without delay to my real home, Russia. And I absolutely must be baptized there.
I flew to Moscow and pulled out all the stops in my effort to absorb enough Russian spirit to get me through my next prolonged absence.
I went to a conservation conference in Smolensk, which is a very Russian city.
I relaxed on the porch of a vacant, falling-down little house in the village of Ksty in a remote corner of Smolensk national park. I had bought this house just before I left to go abroad and had never spent a single day in it. Fifty meters from the house, on a green hill with ancient linden trees, there is a burial mound in which retreating Napoleonic soldiers were buried in 1812. And two hundred meters in the other direction is a stream where beavers have been gnawing the trees.
Then I went to see some relatives in a village in Bryansk region.
Then I conducted a field biology class for freshmen at the field geography station in Tarusa.
Then I went back home again to Balashikha and, while taking care of various business in Moscow and the surrounding area, I began to look into churches, trying to decide which would be the best place for the sacrament I intended to receive.
The baptism procedure in all of these places was thoroughly uninspiring, consistently reminiscent of the Soviet wedding palaces. The mass production of Christians differed little from the mass production of happy couples. As a result, I decided to put off such an important undertaking, concluding that it would be ridiculous to bother with it.
So, instead of the intended baptism, I went to Vologda with two friends of mine who work in television. Sashka Shumin is a producer, and Kolya Kartov is a cameraman. Sashka is refined, like a young prince, always calm, and goes to the sauna with his friends on Wednesdays. Kolya is always smiling, obsessed with filming, rushing about like a mountain sheep with his unwieldy Betacam, regardless of fatigue, the weather, or any other obstacles.
We left from the Yaroslavl train station in Moscow in the evening. I jumped up at four in the morning and went out into the corridor of the sleeping car. Standing there at the window, I watched the dawn approaching and overtaking our train. The scenery so familiar to a Russian railroad passenger gradually appeared like a developing photo: desolate whistle-stops, deserted, dirty stations, kilometer posts, fences, wells, forests, fields, hedgerows.
At the Privolzh’e station the Volga was smooth and calm; at Filino there was a yellow tank near the platform, neglected and overgrown with weeds, marked with the barely readable word “Honey”; at Kochenyatino rooks had landed in spruce trees beside the tracks. And then came a depressingly black station house, seemingly constructed of cross ties and already partially falling down. On the sagging porch of the house hung a faded tricolor Russian flag, and an elderly woman stood in a dingy bathrobe. She looked dead tired, and it was still morning (maybe she had worked the night shift?). What station would this be? Some Pogorel’e (Charred Town) or Pogost (Graveyard)? No, it turned out to be Prichistoe (Immaculate). The stations often have peculiar names coinciding (or contradicting) with events or conditions that took place in that particular place.
The guys shot a lot of video of various things in Vologda. Unique wooden architecture spanning the style of six centuries (at times on adjacent streets), which is disappearing literally before one’s eye—sometimes burned-down homes are not even cleared away for a long time, leaving even the center of the city blackened by ruins. Local craftsmen who make wonderful toys out of birch bark (and do not hesitate to sell them for next to nothing on the street, trying to somehow at least make ends meet). The museum of Vologda lacework, with fabulous exhibits. A children’s dance ensemble. And much more.
And then one day all of our planned filming was cancelled because of rain. We were sitting in the hotel trying to think of something to film that did not depend on the weather, when Yura, the journalist who was our host in Vologda, called and suggested that we go to film the Spaso-Prilutsky Monastery.
“That sounds good. What’s there?” Sashka asked. “What can we shoot that’s out of the ordinary? Something with a story line.”
“What do you mean, guys?” Yura responded. “It’s Prilutsky. The monastery was established in the fourteenth century.”
We got into the four-wheel drive vehicle that came to get us and rode through the pouring rain to the Spaso-Prilutsky Monastery.
The ancient monastery wall, the towers standing silently around the perimeter; the motionless, silent bells in the bell tower inside the monastery’s courtyard; the heavy, dark sky; the rain—all of this created a hard-working, informal, down-to-earth feeling, paradoxically framing the unseen radiance of holiness emanating from the whole place, and a perception of something important and real. Of selfless devotion to the faith, that’s what.
Without planning to do so, we all fell silent upon passing through the monastery gate. Kolka, Sashka, and Yura inconspicuously made the sign of the cross, and of course I paid attention to this.
We were greeted by a young monk with clearly Mongol facial features. He was wearing boots that had seen better days, a frayed cassock with a dirty cord belt, and a simple, black monk’s hood. He led us across the courtyard to the doors of the church then went inside to announce our arrival.
Every detail of the surroundings struck me by its unobtrusive genuineness and the incredible labor that went into all of this. The walls, which were laid up in 1371 by the miracle-worker Dmitry Prilutsky, who came to Vologda from the Pereyaslavl-Zalessky Monastery; the towers covered with shingles grayed by time; the firewood stacked for the winter in arched recesses in the monastery walls; the elegant, sturdy bell tower and the cupola of the church inside the perimeter of the walls. The grass had not been cut in some places, and a horse grazed untethered.
The monastery’s abbot came out to meet us, and I was surprised how young he was. He looked to be about 25—younger than any of us. Without any deference to the television crew, he unceremoniously questioned us about the details of the program and the purposes of filming in the monastery. He agreed to be interviewed, but in response to the question whether we could videotape inside he said in a calm, flat voice that it would be better not to do so. The interview could be recorded here, under the arches outside the sanctuary. But the monastery itself looks no less picturesque on the outside than inside. “There is no need for such an obvious intrusion of the mundane upon the brothers.”
When we had filmed a little bit, he told us off camera that every year they receive several hundred, if not a thousand or more, requests from all over the country to be accepted into the monastery and become a monk. But only a few make it through the trial period, and some years no one at all. Now the monastery has only 19 monks.
We finished filming, said goodbye, and headed to the exit, when it suddenly dawned on me, “This is it! This is the place!” Already on the way out, I ran back and caught up with the priest. Apologizing and hesitating under his stern look, I asked my question (would he baptize me here?).
“Why do you suddenly have the urge to be baptized?”
“It’s not just an urge, much less sudden. But this is the right place, I just can’t leave it.”
He questioned me thoroughly and deliberately, wanting to know who I was, where I came from, and what I do. And even things that did not seem to have anything to do with my request.
He looked at me long and hard, making no effort to conceal his severity, in spite of our obvious difference in age. I was becoming more and more embarrassed.
“We generally do not baptize laymen here. We very rarely baptize anyone. But I will baptize you. Come back tomorrow morning at eleven. Do you have a cross and a baptismal robe?
Back in my hotel room I had a brand new white T-shirt, still in the unopened package, that I had specially purchased in Portland before my trip. But I had no cross because I did not want to buy just any one. I was looking for one like I imagined when I first heard the phrase “baptismal cross.” I have no idea why I wanted precisely such a cross; I don’t even remember where or when I first saw one (I must have seen one somewhere; I could not have thought it up myself).
“I don’t have a cross, but I’ve got a robe,” I answered.
The abbot turned to the monk who was always at his side, like a silent shadow. “Vladimir, open the store for him. Let him see what we have.” Then he turned back to me and, just nodding his head in response to my thank you and goodbye, departed up the stairs.
The monk came over to me and, with his eyes cast down, quietly said, “Come with me. I will open our store for you.”
We went deeper and deeper under successive arches until finally he took a big key out of the folds of his cassock and unlocked a wooden door made of thick boards, with enormous hinges across its whole width. It opened into a small, windowless room with one glass display case.
“The thing is, I have just one cross. It’s the only one left, so you have no choice.” He took a box with a black lining out of the case and set it in front of me. There, among several small women’s crosses was a single man’s cross. In every detail it was exactly what I had imagined since the moment when I decided to be baptized.
I should mention that up to this point in my life I had already had numerous implausible experiences leading me to believe that God does, in fact, exist. And some of them had been far more impressive. So I was not surprised; I was just glad. I quickly got out some money, purchased the cross and a small chain to wear it on. I laid a considerable sum on the counter, significantly more than the cost of the cross.
“For the monastery” I said.
“Thank you,” Vladimir replied with calm, restrained gratitude.
We were there the next day at eleven (the other guys looked strange without their usual camera equipment, like they didn’t know what to do). Sashka and Kolya asked permission to witness the ceremony, first from me, at the hotel the night before, and then at the monastery from the abbot himself, who said yes.
I was baptized within the old, icon-covered walls, under the low, vaulted ceiling, in a ceremony that lasted an hour and a half altogether. And then I was invited to share a meal with the brothers (Kolya and Sashka were not included).
I quietly followed the abbot across the monastery courtyard under the heavy arches of another low building and found myself in a spacious refectory with long plank tables. Dinner had already begun. All twelve monks sat at one table, and at another table were ten more people, but without cassocks. The abbot sat down at the table where the monks were eating and motioned for me to sit at the other table.
I sat down with the laymen who work with the monks at the monastery. They were all dressed very humbly. No, not even humbly. They looked absently ascetic, that’s what. Everything was gray or black, noticeably or completely worn out. They had already finished their main course, but when I got there someone immediately came up and set an old, dented aluminum bowl of cabbage soup in front of me, along with an equally beaten-up plate with thick slices of black bread.
I sat there eating, literally immersed in this whole world that I could not have even imagined just the day before, having trouble reconciling my own jangling feelings with any rational perception of my surroundings.
The main course was potatoes boiled together with fish. Despite my intoxication with these emotions that I had never before felt, the clumps of potato and fish were hard to swallow, and I impassively noted how unpalatable the food was. I could see that my tablemates ate this mush with a grateful appetite, but I had to immediately wash down each bite with some of the compote that someone had placed in front of me as a precaution.
I cannot describe how thankful I felt for everything—including the meal—thankful for the place itself, and thankful to the people, strangers to me, who were living a life incomprehensible to me. Any attempt to do so would seem cloying and ostentatious. But this feeling of gratitude for the brief acceptance of me, an outsider, a secular, worldly man, into a world of genuine, arduous grace, on such a significant day, was utterly sincere and truly overwhelming. I can say that much, at least, without any lofty language. The feeling is still with me. And by the way, my gratitude was not only and not so much for the holy place and the people there as for the much greater One behind it all. You know Who I mean.
After the meal I said goodbye to my tablemates, who all vigorously crossed themselves with gratitude when they finished eating. I also said goodbye to the monks, but I was unable to bid farewell to the abbot himself. He had finished eating earlier and nodded to me, sternly and amiably, as he left the refectory. A little later I caught sight of him through a window, hurrying toward a waiting car with some official. Apparently, you can’t get away from secular matters these days when such is your fate, especially if you bear responsibility for the faith.
Sashka and Kolya were waiting for me at the gate. They met me without laughter or any wisecracks. We got into the car that came to pick us up and went back to the hotel. Then all of sudden a long-forgotten song popped into my head: “I will we-ear a ring of i-iron, ti-ighten my be-elt and go to the e-east.”
Three years later (already forty years after the morning of the explosion), while walking along the streets of Balashikha on a hot July day I nodded, as was my custom, to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who stood, even more dispirited and tired, in the same place and in the same pose, across from a row of cooperative kiosks. But as I passed the monument this time I saw something that I had never seen before.
In the city park, alongside the old building in which we once lived, on the site of the church that had been blown up, there stood a wooden cross. Reading the inscription on the plaque attached to it, I learned that what had been here was the church of the Blessed Saint Prince Alexander Nevsky, one of the most venerated heroes of Russian history.
The simple wooden cross looks far less pompous that the new entrance and automatic gate of the private bank next door, in what used to be a kindergarten in the courtyard of our old apartment building.
The simple wooden cross is a symbol of Faith, a symbol—that lofty language or not—you cannot prevail with explosions, or the smothering facelessness of totalitarian uniformity, or self-satisfied wealth.
But who knows, maybe our new bankers were the ones who put up this cross. And maybe they even intend to build a new church here?
Three years later, a new, beautiful and majestic church with the same name of the Blessed Saint Prince Alexander Nevsky was constructed on the same place where original church was destroyed forty-three years ago. Whenever I come home from the USA, I go there to light a candle for all my loved ones, Balashikha, Portland, Russia, the USA, Turkmenistan, and the whole world.
“Click-click” goes the pedometer. I am walking over hills illuminated by the setting sun, not yet knowing anything about the Spaso-Prilutsky Monastery or the new church in Balashikha. I am simply returning home from my day of observations, just walking along, coming closer and closer to the shepherd bowing deeply as he prays.
When I come alongside, I am compelled to greet him. In response, he nods to me without speaking, astonishing me with the spirituality and understanding of his facial expression, and the refined elegance of the simple nod by which he acknowledges me. Does Something really and truly come over him while he prays?”