Father Peter and Tolya

Excerpt from:
The Eye of the Whirlwind. Russian Identity and Soviet Nation-Building. Quests for Meaning in a Soviet Metropolis
See Table of Contents

©1987-2003 Finn Sivert Nielsen

"We live in hell, you live in heaven. But you're not living right, because you've forgotten about suffering."

Secondary modernization did not kill the Russian tradition. It is still a living force, and Tolya once gave me the opportunity to catch a glimpse of its roots. Tolya is an academic with a good job and a large apartment. He and his wife are Orthodox Christians. He is sociable, always rushing to and fro, to the frustration of some of his friends - and to the relief of others, who benefit heavily from his extensive network. He says he is "very active", and also, with a sigh, "frightfully undisciplined". A mutual acquaintance shook her head and called him a "big baby". But he is kind-hearted and unusually outspoken, and in the midst of all the suspicions and conspiracies of the Leningrad intelligenciya, he is a refreshingly candid and honest person to know. His generosity knows no bounds, and in taking me along on the trip I shall soon describe, he showed not only openness, but considerable courage. Had our errand been discovered by the wrong persons, it could very well have landed him in serious trouble.

What I liked above all in Tolya was his prostota. Before eating he would run through a prayer at breakneck speed, so I initially thought that it was a mere formality for him. But I soon realized my mistake. The speed of Tolya's recital was perhaps just another example of the "fast" behavior we have discussed above (see Chapter Three), and should, I think, be understood as an expression of his firm belief that God would hear him, no matter what voice he spoke in. This struck me on one occasion, when he continued after saying grace with another prayer, at the same breakneck speed, for two friends who had been sent to prison camp. He had himself once been interrogated by the KGB, and although he escaped punishment, there could be no doubt that he took the threat to his friends' lives very seriously.

Once he took me to visit a Christian physicist who worked as a stoker,(1) having lost his job at the Academy of Sciences. They talked about nothing but friends and acquaintances who had been fired, harassed by the police or sent to jail. Common sentences are four to five years of camps and years of exile. The atmosphere was heavy with fear and rumors. "They say Father Pavel was killed by the police..." "They say Shura works for the KGB..." But I always felt the Church must have another face, less fear-ridden and more wholesome. I had been told of the starcy, hermits who are so famous for their wisdom and godliness that pilgrims flock to them for all manner of practical advice.(2) Once, in the old days, merchants came to a starec and asked which road it would be profitable to take, left or right. The starec thought for many hours. The merchants got impatient and demanded an answer. "I cannot say," he explained. "God has not told me yet." So when Tolya invited me to a monastery outside Leningrad, I said yes. It is one of the few places where there is still an old starec alive (after 15 years in camps). "He never condemns," Tolya said. "He forgives everyone.... I once saw a starec," he continued dreamily. "There was light coming out of his eyes. Clear rays of light."

Our train passed through green, undulating Russian landscapes, about which the guide-book read: "There doesn't seem to be anything special [here] - open, scant fields, but they have both sadness and majesty. Here one feels very strongly the ties to the soil, which purifies a man and thereby strengthens him." There was something deeply and fatally Russian about it all. As Tolya said - pointing at a ruined tower: "The remains of Russia..." We stopped to go to service in a beautiful old church. Inside, it was suffocating: The congregation was old and feminine - wandering around and squabbling with more than usual indifference. Two young women stomped in on plateau-shoes, bought candles, and left. None in the store, apparently. A huge, tasteless ikonostas blocked off the sanctuary. According to Tolya, it separates heaven and earth. Here it seemed unbridgeable, as if to punish the Church for its sins.

Tolya protested against my misgivings: "That's how my wife felt too. We came to church and there was a possessed girl there. She screamed like an animal, and my wife wanted to leave. I told her to wait. After a while, a white priest appeared from behind the ikonostas. We couldn't understand it, for priests do not wear white, only metropolitan (archbishop), and there was no conceiveable reason why there would be a metropolitan in this unimportant, local church. Then the white priest vanished, and only the regular black one was left. 'There's your answer,' I told my wife. 'In the Church light and darkness are always together.'"


We were to spend the night with a friend of Tolya's - Father Peter. Peter lives with his wife and a retarded daughter in a big house with a garden. He had bought the house himself, tripled its size, built a septic-tank and even an orangery. All the work (6-7 years of it) had been done by himself - with, as I later learned, one leg amputated at the knee. It was unprofessional and mostly unfinished, but clean, orderly (in that particular disorderly Russian manner) and very comfortable. It was strange and rather shocking to browse through his books, for a priest can own books openly which others must hide away. Their living-standard was above average, since priests are paid by the Church, not the state. The Church collects money from its congregation for salaries and upkeep of buildings, and in a large congregation the sums may be considerable. But churches may not assist each other, and charities are forbidden.

This duality was emphasized in stories I later heard. The former namestnik (administrative head) of the monastery was a strong, self-willed man, completely loyal to the church. Visitors were allowed to come and stay, and religious life developed freely. The monastery is rich, and spent money on bribes to the police. The namestnik befriended a KGB-boss who protected the Church. Then he was replaced. The monastery nominated its own candidate, but received a telegram from Patriarch Pimen, ordering them to elect one Aleksis. Protests were ignored. Later, one of the monks had spoken to Pimen, who inquired how Aleksis was. "You're a fine one to ask," the monk answered. "You sent him." But Pimen knew nothing and had not even seen the telegram. "He's a puppet of the KGB," Tolya said. "But it makes no difference. The Church lives the inner life. Anyone can believe what he wants, no matter what Pimen says." Aleksis abolished the old freedom, his lackeys beat up loyal monks and drove ten of them out of the monastery. I was told that he keeps two big, expensive cars - a black Volga, driven by his chauffeur, and a white one he drives himself. In town he has two luxury suites in the best hotel at his disposal for foreign guests. Once a general arrived at the hotel. There were no free rooms, so he was given one of Aleksis's suites. That day the namestnik himself came. He was enraged, and threw the general out on his ear.(3) "He's bought by the KGB, that's clear," Tolya said. "That just goes to show," said Peter, "how independent the bureaucratic institutions are in this country."(4)


Father Peter looked young and strong, and bore himself with dignity. Behind a mane of black hair and the unshaven beard of a priest, his features were sharply cut, his eyes piercing. He greeted us with a wide, almost childish smile and conversed carelessly about his work and our trip. Then he noticed that the flowers on the table had lost some petals. He had combed the district for flowers to brighten his Church for Easter, and was displeased that he had not found nice ones. One of his retarded daughter's duties was to water them every morning - she must have forgotten. His anger was sharp and immediate. His daughter was terrified. Both she and her mother insisted that all had been done according to his directions. He did not give in: You must soak the pots, he told his wife coldly. Finally he felt the earth, and it was quite drenched. His temper evaporated as suddenly as it had appeared. He smiled and laughed at himself.

He was an overwhelming personality. Light, self-ironic humor. Disarming friendliness and joy in life. The wrath of a Biblical Patriarch. I have never felt so strongly the light of real holiness from any person. But behind this I sensed a vast, sleeping power and watchfulness - something hardly ever used, which would spring to life, it seemed, at any moment he chose. He gave the impression that he could choose to be whatever he wanted - that he was the master of his feelings, not their slave. This in itself was frightening. No law binds such a man, only his will. And how do you know where his will may lead him? It made him seem secretive, impersonal, an unknown quality. This was an absolutist of another caliber altogether.

He spoke to peasants as confidently as to intellectuals. Indeed, there was much of the peasant in him, slow, massive, like a locomotive - hard to get rolling, harder to stop. In discussions he would react slowly, think things through, let us have our say, then make some devastating remark which brought all objections to the ground. He listened when others spoke, but if their interests were irrelevant to him, he would continue where he left off when they finished. He seemed rooted in the soil, utterly concrete. This gave him a joy in simple tasks: his house, his church, his work. For he was also an animist, and all his work bore the improvised, pragmatic stamp of the autodidact. He sat for hours telling jokes, some (one might think) quite unfitting for a priest. Though he affirmed that he loved life, I felt somehow that he did not take his own life very seriously, that he could snap his fingers and leave it if need be, without looking back. And beneath it all - this cunning, almost evil strength. As a peasant watching the weather, asking himself "what will it do this time?", Peter seemed to watch society and people.

Narrow wrinkles spread from the corners of his eyes, stretching out straight, then falling abruptly. They were there when he laughed, when he concentrated, squinting, and (I sensed) when in great pain. The eyes were full of pain, in spite of their gaiety. He was peasant, patriarch and martyr - an elemental force of authority and autonomy - absolutist and animist - totally opposed to all that is subjective.


"You see, it's like this: In the Soviet Union there's no un-employment, but there's a constant labor shortage. There's a labor shortage, but no-one wants to work. Nobody works, but production just keeps on rising. Production keeps rising, but there's nothing in the stores. The stores are empty, but the refrigerators are full. The refrigerators are full, but people complain. People complain, but everyone votes yes [for the Party]..." (The anecdote of the Seven Paradoxes of Soviet Life.)

I said I thought the paradoxes might give a certain freedom. "Yes, we have an enormous freedom," he said (and to this day I don't know if he was making fun of me). "There's something unhealthy about this life, of course, but I've grown so accustomed to it that I could probably never get used to the West. Speaking of freedom, have you heard about John the American and Ivan the Russian? John says: 'You don't have freedom. I can mount my horse, ride up to the White House and call the president an idiot!' 'That's nothing,' Ivan replies, 'where I come from, they call your president an idiot in the newspapers! Listen to the freedom we have: Can you come late for work whenever you want?' John is shocked: 'Of course not!' 'Can you sit at work without doing a thing for days? Can you go on a binge for weeks, without even notifying your boss...?'"


I asked him to tell me about the Church. He talked for hours, showing photographs of priests and starcy. One of his stories was about Vasily Minaev, a former atheist, who became a priest and was persecuted till he lost his mind. He was sent to an asylum, and wrote to his friends: "Things are bad with me, but I want to say one thing. If it's ever written or said that I renounced the faith, you shall not believe it, you shall defend me." Years later he was let out, restored in mind, but reduced in body. One day an article appeared in Pravda Vostoka. Peter laughed. "It's worth noting the name - pravda (truth). Once again - it's pravda!" The article listed names, among them Vasily Minaev's, claiming they had renounced Christ and their priesthood. Vasily marched to the editor's office in full ceremonials, and roared: "Who's Editor-in-Chief here?" "He's in an important meeting and can't be disturbed." He went to the meeting-room and interrupted the proceedings: "Where is your Editor-in-Chief?" "It's me." "I must speak to you now." "Don't you see we have an important meeting..?" "It must wait. I shall speak to you now, in front of these others... Fall down on your knees and ask my forgiveness!" "Are you crazy? Don't you know I'm an atheist and don't believe in God?" "So that's how it is! Well, then don't. You see. I respect your belief. That's what decent people do. Sniveling liars don't. When they can't convince their opponent they slander him. You published an article in your newspaper with my name. You claim I have renounced the priesthood and the Cross. Do you see me? Here I stand in full ceremonials, the Cross round my neck. I want a correction in your paper tomorrow. Let me be perfectly clear. I've been to the nut-house. I can't be held responsible for my actions. If there is no correction, I shall speak to you again, and I will not be as polite as now..."

The day after, there was a tiny correction in the paper, with Minaev's name. Peter said this was the only instance of its kind he had ever heard of. Even those who were rehabilitated after 25 years in the camps don't get a correction in the papers.


It was strange and sad to hear the stories and see the pictures of old faces in black gowns, long, white hair and beards, wrinkled and strong - all dead now. It was like being introduced to an ancient, wide-spread family, for this was how Peter spoke of them. But so much suffering! Again and again he would repeat: Father Evdokim - 25 years in Siberia. Mother Sofiya - six times to the camps. Father Boris - dead after 35 years in camps. And the same recurring theme: They were strong before - before that they were even stronger... An old starec, who had known the greatest holy men of the mid-nineteenth century, once said to a younger starec - now dead from age: "Even though our generation did not itself attain holiness, we at least had the opportunity to meet and learn from the great ones before us. I think of the young and pity them. From whom shall they learn?" - It was a family becoming extinct. A whole culture they had been taught to revere and love - crushed and annihilated, spat on and desecrated. No matter what sins the Church had to atone, why was this tranquil, deeply spiritual tradition of mystics struck down?

It is not strange if Peter himself feels drawn towards his dead, towards death itself. "My family is a vicious circle," he said. His grandfather was the director of a factory in Kiev. After the revolution, his factory was nationalized, but he continued on as director. Later, he was invited to go to another city and built up a new factory there. Then he returned to Kiev, but someone had informed against him to the local chapter of the NKVD. He was arrested, and two months later, he was shot. His son got no job because of his background. He became an actor, was arrested on trumped up charges and shot.(5) Peter himself has had a hard life, and now "they" threaten his children: "'Don't forget, you've got a lot to thank us for - a house, a nice job and family[!]. Call us soon....' Of course I didn't call. That's the stupidest thing to do. My father died at 31. I'm 45, I have three children, I've seen them grow, I've experienced love and done something with my life. If death comes I don't think I'll be too sad..."

During Khrushchev's years in power he was sentenced to a Central Asian camp. It lay near a gold refinery, and the slag contained valuable trace metals, but it was economically unfeasible to utilize them. So the slag was loaded into great basins for storage. The prisoners laid plastic drainage-pipes along the bottom of these basins. But there was no one to lead the work, so their real job was to burn the pipes to keep warm, since it was very cold. Peter needed a better job to feed his wife and children. He decided to risk it as a welder. "Let's say I learned that craft pretty quickly..," he smiled. Then he moved to the archives, looking up blueprints for thousands of specialized parts needed at the factory. Again he made do without qualifications, and when his boss left, he took over the design work as well. "A camp is a great place," he remarked laconically. "It shows just what kind of person you are immediately... The camp is inconceivably absurd. Just imagine - over the entrance was a sign reading: 'Welcome!' - and from there a long, straight road led through the camp, bordered by posters with good communist slogans. They were unbelievable: 'Mutual love may give a person great happiness. (Krupskaya.)' Over the exit from the ícamp hung another banner, reading: 'Return to freedom with a clean conscience.'"(6)


The inhabitants of the camp were split into four main groups: the young gang leaders - pakhany; the muzhiki - drivers who had been sentenced to long terms for causing serious traffic accidents; the nacionaly - uzbeks, tadzhiks and other Central Asians who had commited various crimes; and the administration. Camp life was based on a simple premise. As long as the three first groups - the criminals (blatnye) - balanced out against the administration, all continued fairly normally, but when this equilibrium was disturbed, life quickly became unbearable. Trouble started when the camp was reorganized. When Peter arrived, he found himself in a fairly large camp, with some 1,600 inmates. Now, most of these were removed, and only the worst cases, about 300 men, remained. Peter was considered to be one of these, and along with the rest, he was moved to another, much smaller camp, ruled by new boss. This man was "very strange, very unusual". Peter thought that there few others like him. "He was unique - a real SS-type, who decided that he would break the back of the blatnye once and for all. He got rid of the worst guys by sending them off to prison, and then he turned his attention to the rest of us." A new group of nacionaly were brought in. These were violent criminals, who had previously cooperated with the camp administration. They had no scruples, and willingly cooperated with the boss's plans.

It was common in the camps to organize "special campaigns" (osobye akcii) around the great communist holidays, and since the anniversary of the October Revolution was approaching, the boss timed his actions in accordance with this. Around the 8th of November, the barracks were closed off. Then the prisoners were called out, one by one, and given into the hands of the newly arrived nacionaly, who were waiting outside. One by one they were beaten - "not beaten up, but beaten senseless", as Peter put it. "There were soldiers standing around, but they just stood there, watching. Each time the new guys had finished with a prisoner, the soldiers gathered him up, dragged him over to one of the isolation cells, and threw him in, on top of the other half-dead bodies. The cells were small, and there were only four of them. But they crammed nearly 100 people in there." People died, but when this happened, the administration would issue a certificate discharging them from imprisonment, so they could report to the authorities that "the prisoner died in freedom".

Peter himself was left alone. He ran around, desparately trying to help, but he was always too late. "It was impossible to understand what was going on," he sighed. At last he managed to grab a young boy before he was taken to the isolation cells, and carried his bleeding, half-dead body straight to the administration building ("prjamo v shtab"). It just so happened that on that day, a group of representatives from the regional administration of the GULag was at the camp on an inspection tour. "I think that was why they listened to me," he said, shrugging his shoulders. At any rate, the violence stopped. But then the inspectors left - and the time had come to take revenge...

While working on a construction site, a crane drove at him. He could not escape, but managed to throw himself off the rails, so only his leg was crushed. He was left to rot in a field clinic with no doctors. His wife got news of the situation, and by a miracle obtained a transfer to the central hospital in Tashkent. But before the doctors had time to do anything, the MVD removed him - a prisoner cannot stay in a civilian hospital. So his wife managed another transfer - to the camp hospital this time. But by then it was too late. He had gangrene, and his leg was amputated.

Nine months later, he was released and tried to get back to work as a priest. He traveled for months, but was accepted nowhere. So he came to Moscow. He made for Lyublyanka, the KGB headquarters, and asked for a specialist on Church affairs. "We have none." "Well, could I speak to someone competent in Church matters?" "Yes, if I can find anyone."

Finally, a plump, red-faced man came out, without a uniform. Peter told him his problem: "Shoot me now, or give me a job. It's my life to be a priest." "But we don't have a thing to do with these matters! The Church hires its own priests. Speak to the the bishop. Peter explained that he had already done that. The man shook his head. "I think maybe the bishop didn't really understand you, speak to him again, and it will certainly all get sorted out." The bishop in Tashkent was an "very good person, very brave". He had taken on "a lot of problems" for Peter's sake and done everything he could for him. Now he greeted him with a warm smile: "Why are you running around here in the capital. You already have a position..." There was a "Place" waiting for him in Central Asia.

Many years later he came to his present parish. His church is large and beautiful, but needs repairs. The problem is not money, but workers and raw materials. Peter in fact manages to collect 12,000 rubles, an enormous sum, which is enough to pay not only for the gold leaf on his own ikonostas, but on that of another church as well. But getting permission to buy that much gold is even harder. He needs good contacts, since he is careful to do nothing illegal. To obtain boards for the floor he scoured the district for miles around - two planks at one kolkhoz, ten at the next... He does most of the work himself, lying on his back to lift the beams in place with his leg. Once in a rare while, he'll hire a black-market worker at black-market prices. But it's risky. If they do bad work there's no way to control it before it's too late.

His greatest asset in all these undertakings is his natural authority, his ability to talk to people and make them do as he says. Even if they're not Christians, the local people regard the church as "theirs". An old, wizened worker drove home with us, while Peter laughed at his dirty jokes and talked about the new church-bells. He liked this, I think, but found too little time for spiritual work.


"I'm not afraid of death," Tolya said. "Twice I've experienced it as a real threat, and I was filled with joy! I think when we die we won't feel it as a loss. I only say this because I've experienced it. After death, the soul goes into timelessness. Since Judgement Day marks the end of time, the soul will experience the Resurrection immediately after death." Peter listened in silence, then interrupted him in the middle of a sentence. "I don't know how to explain this," he said thoughtfully. "But what you say is not in accordance with Orthodox belief..." He thought for a while, with Tolya energetically talking and gesticulating. Then he broke in again: "Maybe you're right that the soul will be outside time after death. But the body won't. And the soul will feel the loss of its body. That is the meaning of the dogma of resurrection of the body - soul and body shall be reunited in joy. When we die, we will feel the loss of our dear ones, of the earth itself - how can a man not mourn the soil he is departing?"

*       *       *       *

1. Several people informed me that in Leningrad this job is monopolized by ostracized intellectuals - artists, poets and Christians.

2. The tradition is still alive: Tolya's mother asked a starec if she should change apartments. Tolya asked if it was right for him to practice yoga and read Hegel.

3. Today, it is possible to recount another chapter in the story of namestnik Aleksis. Sometime around 1990, Tolya tells me, as the Church increasingly became master of its own affairs, Aleksis was removed from his position at the monastery, promoted to Bishop, and sent off to a distant parish in Siberia. There he continued his high-handed behavior, until "the people" (narod) finally beat him up on the street. He was then removed from his see, and sent off "for correction" to a newly opened monastery on an island in Lake Ladoga, not far from St. Petersburg. After several years there, he was sent back to Siberia, where he now "perhaps has cooled down a little".

4. The reader will note that Father Peter is here voicing a general view of Soviet society which corresponds closely to my own (a society of Islands), and is also close to views expressed by Verdery, Humphrey, Wedel, and other prominent Western anthropologists of post-socialism (see the Preface 1999 to this volume). Peter's perceptiveness, here as elsewhere, is striking.

5. Both men were officially rehabilitated after Stalin's death.

6. Years later, Peter told me, he had observed another example of this absurd rhetoric. Over the desk of the chief prosecutor in a provincial city hung a picture of the fence surrounding a camp, with the text: "If you have not been sentenced, that is not your merit, but a sign of our poor work". (Esli Vy ne byli sudimy - eto ne Vasa zasluga, eto nasha nedorabotka.)