Orthodox America

  “Irina” – A Chapter form the samizdat manuscript, Father Arseny; Part II: “Years of Exile”, 1968-1979

December 1956 passed in frosts and snowstorms. The camp gradually emptied and Fr. Arseny found himself on the threshold of release. Correspondence was permitted and the oppressive tedium of imprisonment was eased by letters, of which there were many.

       One of these letters came from lrina; it was impulsive, joyous, kind--wholly lrina."Petr Andreyevich!

      "From Babushka Lubov I learned that you are alive. God preserved you. I felt, I knew that you would survive everything difficult, dreadful, horrifying, because the Lord would surely preserve you. People need you, and I, O how I need you!

      'The past--tormenting, nightmarish--is gradually receding; 1 have faith in a good future.

      "The children have grown: Tanya is a big girl, Alexey is in the fifth grade, you haven't yet seen him. For fifteen years I heard nothing about you, and during this time many changes came to my life. Following your advice I became a doctor.

      "My husband and I continue to be great friends. There are in him some sparks of faith which I try to coax into a flame. He knows all about you and always says to me: "Remember Fr. Arseny; don't forget the good; keep company with people like him."

      "Come soon, as soon as you can, although this doesn't depend on you. I'll meet you and have you live with us. The Mother of God is always with us. She brought me to faith, she saved Tanya and is constantly helping our family.

      "How much good your Grandma Luba has brought me. Mother died and she reminds me of her.

"Lord! How fortunate I am that I met you. "Anna" 

       This brief letter filled Fr. Arseny's heart with memories and led him once again to look into the past with his inner eye, to see the unsearchableness of the ways of the Lord. 

    It was 1939. A few years earlier his term in the camp had ended and there began shifting exiles: Kostroma, Arkhangelsk, Perm and Vologodsk districts. Distant regions; only this year he lived near a railway station. The village was not large, but the woman of the house where Fr. Arseny had settled turned out to be a believer, a kind and caring woman who became his spiritual daughter.

      Secretly, on the day of the Finding of the Honorable and Life-giving Cross of the Lord, August 1 according to the Old Style Calendar, Fr. Arseny arrived in the city to live with 'his own," and moved in with Natalia Petrovna Astakhova, one of his closest spiritual children.

      Only seven people knew of his arrival, those who were utterly devoted to him as spiritual children and friends.

      The Astakhov apartment was located on the third floor of a large stone house. Once there, Fr. Arseny did not go out. In the morning Natalia Petrevna and her husband went to work, while Fr. Arseny stayed alone in the apartment and was not supposed to open the door to anyone. In the event that one of the "seven" should come unexpectedly, they gave a prearranged ring, in answer to which Fr. Arseny would open the door without asking "Who's there?" To everyone else, Fr. Arseny still lived in exile in the north. His arrival in his native city was tied to his meeting with two bishops and several priests to decide various problems concerning the life of the Church in these troubled times. The meeting was set for August 25 at the summer house of an artist in the village of Abramtsevo.

      It was August 19 (New Style), the Feast of Transfiguration. The six days he had been at the Astakhovs’ Fr. Arseny had devoted himself to writing letters to his spiritual children and friends. The letters were passed on to those who knew of Fr. Arseny's true whereabouts, and these, in turn, passed them on to trustworthy people for delivery to the addressees. Those who received the letters assumed they had been sent with someone from Fr. Arseny's place in exile. 

     The first six days in town were spent peacefully. Fr. Arseny served the vigil on the eve of the feast, confessed people, and the next morning he solemnly served Divine Liturgy and communed Natalia Petrovna, her husband and the other six, who had likewise attended the evening service and confession.

       They went off to work and Fr. Arseny was left alone. After the festal service he felt joyful and at peace. There was no cause for anxiety. Marfa Andrevena, his landlady where he had lived in the north, had sent no telegram; that meant the authorities were not searching for him. Here, too, there was no reason to be concerned; there was no indication anyone was tailing him.

       Falling to his knees, Fr. Arseny prayed for a long time, thanking the Lord for His mercy, for his safe arrival, his meeting with his beloved spiritual children, tile joy of being in contact with them, and for the fact that the Lord had vouchsafed him, a sinful priest, to serve Liturgy on the great feast of the Lord's Transfiguration.

       It was quiet and peaceful in the apartment. Fr. Arseny sat down at the table and began to write short notes on narrow strips of thin but opaque paper. His fine, dose handwriting filled the entire strip, and what import, what great significance these letters held for his spiritual children. His answers instructed, cautioned, persuaded, demanded, consoled.

       We all waited impatiently for these small, narrow strips of paper which brought us light and life.

      From time to time Fr. Arseny got up and walked about the room, sometimes he would go to the window and, standing behind the curtain, looked onto the opposite side of the street where there was a large produce store. He noticed a woman who was always either walking or standing nearby. For several consecutive days this woman appeared at the same time and observed the windows of the house where Fr. Arseny was staying.

      "Are they watching me? or is it my imagination?" wondered Fr. Arseny. He hadn't left the house, on his journey he hadn't noticed anyone tailing him, and only his closest people knew of his presence here.

      "Suspicion," he answered himself and, saying a prayer, sat down again to write.

      It was nearing eleven o'clock. Fr. Arseny adjusted the vigil lamp and began to pray. The small flame of the vigil lamp leapt and dimmed by turn. Immersing himself in prayer and forgetting about everything around him, Fr. Arseny read an akathist to the Vladimir Mother of God, glorifying, magnifying and humbly praying to the Mistress of Heaven. 

      Suddenly a sharp ring at the door tore into his prayer. It was the prearranged ring: one long, three short, a long and again a short ring.

      "Who could it be?" wondered Fr. Arseny. 'Today no one was to come. What could have happened?"

      The rings were repeated, persistent, demanding. Fr. Arseny was worried: only his close ones knew the signal; something must have happened. "A telegram must have come from Marfa Andreevna." He went to open the door.

      In the entryway he crossed himself and, placing his trust in the Mother of God, quickly opened the door. Immediately a woman of about twenty or twenty-five put her foot in the door and barged in. Rapidly closing the door and stepping on Fr. Arseny, she went into the room.

      "I'm from the authorities, here's proof, see for yourself. You are Streltsov, Petr Andreevich, known as Fr. Arseny; you've been living here for six days. I've been watching you during the day; others are arraigned during the evenings and at nights."

      Fr. Arseny was stunned: the table was strewn with letters; he had come from exile without permission. This was a bad turn; he had involved a lot of people.

      "Lord, Mother of God, help me," he mentally cried out, although he understood only too clearly that it was all over; many would be arrested.

      The woman, young and attractive, with an obviously intelligent face, was dressed rather too ordinarily, as if on purpose so as not to stand out from the general crowd, to be unnoticeable.

      "Listen! I'm from the authorities, I've been assigned to watch you, but I've run into trouble. My daughter is ill. I phoned home; she has a high fever, the inside of her throat is swollen; she's turning blue,  gasping for breath. All of a sudden. When I left this morning she was fine, and now my mother tells me over the phone: 'Tanya is dying!

      I phoned my superiors and asked for a substitute but I was refused. There's no one else who recognizes you all. I was ordered not to leave. What can I do? My daughter is dying. I must get help immediately, call a doctor; my mother is out of her mind with worry. Tanya is dying! I must go home, but my relief comes only at five o'clock. I have a request: don't go anywhere. Give me your word that you won't leave. I beg you. If you leave it will mean the end of me. And another request: should someone come see you while I'm gone, tell me; he might be followed to the apartment and I am supposed to report such comings and goings. Your people who work for us say that you are kind, that you help people. Don't leave, I ask you. Say that you will do this. Tanya is in a bad way, and my bosses won't let me go."

      Fr. Arseny understood everything from the beginning. The woman needn't have said any more. In her eyes he read much more than she could ever have told him.

      "Go to your daughter. I won't go anywhere. And if anyone comes, I'll tell you. Go'."

      "Thank you, citizen Streltsov! Thank you. I’ll be back at my post by three o'clock." Before leaving she said unexpectedly, "My name is Anna." 

    The door slammed and Fr. Arseny was left alone. The vigil lamp flickered, a prayer book lay open and a pile of letters lay on the table.

      It was all out. The NKVD knew that he was here; they were watching him and the others; they wanted to expose everyone belonging to the circle and connected with him, in order to arrest them later.

      This Anna, who had shoved her way into the house, who knew the signal, her bosses' refusal to relieve her, her passing phrase: "your people who work for us," the appointed meeting with the bishops, the unexpected illness of Anna's daughter--was a single chain of events guided by God's Providence.

      The weight of what had just transpired fell upon Fr. Arseny, pressing and crushing him into a confusion of thoughts and feelings. It frightened him with his accountability for the fate of others, for their torments, what they would have to endure. Yes, of course, he shouldn't have come. It was his mistake.

      Fr. Arseny went up to the open prayer book, he sank heavily to his knees and began reading the akathist to the Vladimir Mother of God, continuing from where he had been interrupted by Anna's ring.

      The phrases were tangled; he didn't understand the familiar and beloved words, his thoughts were confused. Gradually, however, Fr. Arseny got control of himself; he cast aside all worldly care and retired into prayer.

      He prayed for nearly four hours; he read akathists, prayers, he served a thanksgiving service of intercession. What had happened just now was according to God's great mercy, His allowance, His care for those with Fr. Arseny. Fears, anxieties dissipated.

       At three o'clock came the signalled ring. Fr. Arseny opened the door. Anna entered.

'Thank God! You're here!" she burst out.

      "Here. I didn't go anywhere, and no one came to see me. Go to your post, Irina."

      The woman was exhausted, but when Fr. Arseny called her Irina, she straightened, shuddered and, in a voice of amazement and fright, asked: "Why did you call me Irina?"

"Go along, Irina, go along!" replied Fr. Arseny.

      Tears came to her eyes. "Thank you," she said, barely audibly.

      Fr. Arseny closed the door and returned to the room.

      "Lord! You inspired me to call her Irina. You are all-knowing, O Lord Almighty."

      On the opposite side of the street, near the store, walked Irina. At five o'clock a man came to replace her.

      Fr. Arseny said nothing to Natalia Petrovna or her husband, nor to any of the others who came that evening. It would have changed nothing and only frightened them. An inner voice told Fr. Arseny that he must wait for the next day, that all was in God's hands.

      He prepared himself for the worst. He burned the letters and asked Natalia Petrovna likewise to destroy everything extra. 

    August 20. Early in the morning Fr. Arseny served Divine Liturgy and after Natalia Petrovna and her husband left he began again to pray, but the prayer would not come. He was upset, anxious, confused. About eleven o'clock the doorbell rang. Fr. Arsony opened the door; there stood Irina. He let her into the room and sat down near the table.

      "I've come to see you. With considerable difficulty I managed to have Tanya admitted to the hospital. I'm terribly afraid of what will happen. Thank you for yesterday. I called in my report in the evening; I told them no one had been to see you."

      "Sit down, Irina! I'm surprised that you decided to come see me, a man on whom you are spying. You probably consider me an enemy?"

      "I’ve come to talk to you; don't be afraid of me. Believe me, I've come on my own; I didn't fabricate my daughter's illness. Tell me, who and what kind of people are you? Why are they conducting such a vicious campaign against you? Those of your people who report on you speak a lot about good deeds, help, mutual concern. They say a lot of good things about you personally, but it's been explained to us that you are a fanatic, a class enemy, that you are gathering a hostile group from among church-goers, and that the good you do is harmful for the revolution.

      "Right now I have three hours of free time; no one is going to come and check up on me. Checkups are rare and, as a rule, at two o'clock. Tell me about yourself, I’ll look out the window from time to time, and if necessary I'll leave immediately."

      Looking into Irina's face, Fr. Arseny began telling her about faith, about believers, about why believers were being persecuted, and about the fact that believing people weren't against the authorities. In speaking to her, Fr. Arseny had no fears. After all, what was there to fear when he saw that Irina knew about the community and about individuals considerably more than he himself could tell her. More than two hours passed. Fr. Arseny became so involved in his story that he forgot about the time, he forgot what kind of woman it was sitting in front of him; he spoke persuasively, defending the faith.

      Irina listened attentively to each word, although she seemed skeptical. She knew a lot about the community, but in her mind stuck one word, "enemy," while here Fr. Arseny was saying something quite different. She was faced with two "truths". Which was right?

    There in the NKVD they knew a lot, but they were waiting until they could nab the entire community and send them to the camps, into exile. They had to make a case; they couldn't be arrested simply for believing in God, but for resisting the authorities· But there was no resistance, no one was fighting. There was only belief in God, a belief which united them.

       "In the party organs we are given systematic lectures; they say that you are enemies, but what you say is different, and all I can say after having watched you is that your people are not modern.

       "In these lectures we were told in detail about your organization; we were shown your letters and those addressed to you, which gave us to understand that someone is caring for someone, there are instructions, a lot about God. Maybe it's all a code?

       "Several of 'yours' have for some time been working in the apparatus and the information comes mainly from them. I'll tell you their names."

       "Don't, there's no need. I don't want to hear them!" exclaimed Fr. Arseny.

       "But I'm going to tell you! I'm going to tell! I don't like informers. These people would betray you just as they betrayed their own. I was present once at an interrogation. It's dreadful to watch. Their eyes fidget; they wriggle like snakes; they are afraid but they write. Sitting to one side, I listened, and it seemed to me that it was a pack of half-truths.

       "Here are the names of those I know: Kravtsova, deacon Kamushkin, Guskova, Poliushkina." Fr. Arseny shuddered, inwardly agitated: 'That's not true! They can't betray." But looking at Irina he understood it was true, and he burst into tears. He wept, sobbed.

       "What's wrong? What's the matter with you, citizen Streltsov? I'm telling the truth. On August 16 I myself accompanied Kravtsova from your place to Headquarters. But that's all. Calm down, they're a rotten bunch. I shouldn't have told you, but I feel sorry for you. Don't be upset. I'm going to leave. I'll check in with you tomorrow. They won't take you for a while; they want to expose all ties. I’ll call mother from the phone booth and ask about Tanya. I've upset you." 

     Fr. Arseny was shaken, crushed. Tears covered his face, and thoughts kept coming, coming, each one more oppressive than the other.

       Katya! Katya Kravtsova---one of his closest, a tireless helper, such a kind-hearted soul, a woman of prayer who knew well the services. She knew everything about the community. She knew everyone. What could have made her turn informer, traitor? Katya, whom everyone in the community called "Katya the Fair," to distinguish her from the other Katherines. Beautiful, intelligent Katya. What made her do it? Fear, disappointment, hurt, momentary despondency, threats?

       Deacon Kamushkin, his spiritual son and former co-server at all divine services, and the other two Lydia Guskova and Zina Poliushkina, his devoted spiritual daughters.

       Yes! They were devoted, loving, deeply believing and his beloved spiritual children. What happened? What caused them to fall? Only fear?

       As a spiritual father, I must have failed to see something, failed to guard the sheep of my flock from falling? Am I not at fault here? Lord! Forgive me, a sinner. Teach me, enlighten me! It's my fault. Save them. Stop and guard the rest of them."

       Thinking back--confessions, conversations, the letters from these spiritual children--Fr. Arseny tried to piece together the past and discover the beginning of their fall.

       Yes! He, Hieromonk Arseny, should have noticed in time the wavering of his children, their mistakes, and stopped them.

       Falling to his knees, weeping, Fr. Arseny prayed, begging the Lord and the Queen of Heaven to help:

       "Lord! Lord! Do not abandon me! Stretch out Your helping hand, be merciful. Save my spiritual children from perishing?'

      On the twenty-first Irina came again· Herdaughter's condition had become critical· The abcess in her throat had grown substantially, the pneumonia had spread, she was breathing only intermittently. The doctors warned that her condition was extremely serious, desperate.

      Irina was not relieved from her post; during the day the grandmother stayed with Tanya, at night--Irina. Entering the room, Irina burst into tears.

      'There, there! Calm down. The Lord is merciful Tanya will pull through," said Fr. Arseny, looking at the figure of Irina, a young woman beside herself with inconsolable grief, with no hope in sight anywhere.

      "It's hopeless, Tanya is going to die. Two illnesses at once. They said she's going to die, and I can't even spend the day with her," sobbed Irina putting her head on the table.

       Fr. Arseny went to the cupboard with the icons, opened it, lit a second vigil lamp and said, "I'm going to pray for Tanya; I'm going to ask the Lord."

       "I'm also going to ask your God; I'm ready to do anything if only to save Tanya. But I don't know how to pray; I don't know God."

       The flame of the lamps flickered quietly, casting its glow first on one icon, then the other, while seeming to favor the Vladimir Mother of God.

       "We'll ask the Mother of God, our Intercessor, to heal Tanya," said Fr. Arseny, and he began to pray loudly and distinctly.

       As he prayed, Fr. Arseny forgot about Irina, he didn't see her, he thought only about the inconsolable human grief, suffering· Entreating the Queen of Heaven to heal the child Tanya, Fr. Arseny put all his soul, all his spiritual strength into this prayer.

       Nearly twenty-five years later, in telling me about this prayer, Fr. Arseny said:

       "You know that I rarely cry, but this time I did, begging the Lord and the Mother of God to help; I asked as a priest, with boldness, l even demanded, yes, demanded, so great and desperate was Irina's grief. She had neither hope nor faith, but in her eyes I could see kindness and love.

       "I begged the Lord to heal Tanya, I asked the Mother of God to sign Irina with Her light, with the light of faith, to kindle in her faith in Christ, to give her hope.

      · "Later I repented of my brazenness before Vladika Jonah."

       Two hours passed. Fr. Arseny finished praying and turned to see Irina standing on her knees, her face wet with tears, he eyes looking steadfastly at the icon of the Vladimir Mother of God; she was oblivious to her surroundings and only whispered something inaudibly.

       Fr. Arseny's heart filled with infinite compassion for Irina. He went up to her, put his hand on her bowed head and said: "Go, Irina, God will help. We'll both ask, you and I; the Mother of God will not abandon you. She'll help."

       Irina got up from her knees, stepped towards Fr. Arseny and tightly took him by the hand, and said, still crying, "Petr Andreych! I shall trust you as long as I live and Her, after all, she was also a Mother and if it really is as you say, She will help. Mother of God! Help and save Tanya. I'll do anything, only save her!”


     Fr. Arseny prayed until Natalia Petrovna came home. That evening, Natalia Petrovna, her husband and two of the so-called "seven" were at the apartment. About eleven o'clock the telephone rang. Fr. Arseny reached quickly for the phone: "Anna! I'm listening."

       "Thank you, thank you, all is well. She helped. From now on I have faith in Her and in you. Thank you. I'm calling from a phone booth."

       All those present in the apartment wanted to know whatever possessed Fr. Arseny to answer the phone. '"he phone is bugged."

      Fr. Arseny went to the icons, crossed himself and said,

      "It was necessary. The Lord and the Mother of God have manifest a great mercy to me, and not only to me but chiefly to someone who has just been reborn. No one can know with whom I spoke; there are many Annas in the world." And approaching the icon of the Mother of God he began to pray.

      It is worth remembering that when Fr. Arseny was later interrogated, he was often asked, Who is this Anna?

    Irina's sudden appearance changed everything. After much deliberation and prayer, Fr. Arseny decided not to meet with the bishops and to leave the city on the twenty-fifth, and until then not to go out from the apartment. He had to preserve the community, to guard his spiritual children from arrest and exile, somehow to isolate the betrayers.

      Until the very day of his departure, Irina came daily, arriving at eleven and leaving at two. She would come, ask questions, relate, but for the most part she listened to Fr. Arseny; for the first time in her life she had confession and received the Holy Mysteries. She became Fr, Arseny's spiritual daughter.

      It was decided that Irina would write letters under the name of Anna, and Fr. Arseny would reply using the return address of Irina's cousin. In order that Irina might learn the fundamentals of the Faith and to have nearby a trustworthy, believing person, Fr. Arseny gave her Grandma Luba's address, a woman of profound faith who was not connected to the people in the group.

      He wrote her a note: "Help her, instruct her, never leave her. Pray together."

      Until Fr. Arseny was sent to the "special," he managed to write to Irina two or three times a year; from the "special" correspondence was forbidden.

      Enlisted from the komsomol, Irina, after meeting Fr. Arseny, extracted herself from the party organs to study medicine. During the Great Patriotic War she was a nurse at the front; she graduated in 1947 and then worked as a doctor in a Moscow clinic. Fr. Arseny learned all this on being released from camp in 1957.

      Now, at the end of December 1956, recalling those days in August 1939, Fr. Arseny remembered agonizing over Vassily Kamushkin, the sisters Zinaida and Lydia; in their confessions, conversations with him and letters he had found no betrayal. These people, Fr. Arseny could not abandon.

      He remembered the confession of Katya Kratsova, that August 23. The confession ended, Fr. Arseny hesitated; he wanted Katya to say something, but she was silent. Fr. Arseny prayed, he called out to the Lord. Katherine awaited the prayer of absolution, puzzled at Fr. Arseny's taking so long. He recalled her bewildered phrase: "Batiushka, I've finished." And Fr, Arseny read the prayer.

       The confession was over, but not the conversation.

       "Katya, why did you betray the group? Why do you recount our doings to the interrogator? Why? How many people you are destroying. You are my support and one of my most beloved and faithful spiritual children. Katya!"

       Listening to his words, Katya became frightened, horrified; her large eyes filled with tears of shame and she bit her lips.

       "How did you find out? Who told you? Fr. Arseny, they know everything anyway, everything. They know that you've come. They know everything. And I only tell half-truths, L.." Suddenly her expression became determined, focused. "I wanted to save people, to save you, our group... Now I'm confused."

       They had a long conversation, Katya was asked to leave the group, and so it happened. A year later she got married, she stopped seeing old friends, and only in 1958 did she meet again with Fr. Arseny.

    In 1942 during exhausting interrogations and judging form materials he was shown by the prosecutor, he became still more convinced that what Irina had told him, in naming his informers, was true. In the '60s the former deacon had a responsible position within the Patriarchate.

    Fr. Arseny had to leave. He had a long talk with Natalia Petrovna and Vera Danilovna in which he told them the true reason for his departure, without mentioning Irina or where he had discovered all this. It was decided that deacon Vassily, Lydia Guskova and Zinaida Poliushkina were not to be trusted. About Katya Kravtsova--"Fair Katya"--Fr. Arseny said nothing; he believed her, he understood that she had been deceived; she had made a mistake but she was not a traitor.

      Fr. Arseny understood that his arrest had been decided upon, but it was important that it take place not here in the city but in exile. Let them interrogate him later, put him in prison, beat him, show him the reports of his informers; he did not leave his place of exile; he did not come to the city.

      Irina bought a train ticket for the twenty-fifth. On the twenty-fourth Fr. Arseny wrote letters, among them was one to Katya Kravtsova. Years later, in 1966, Katya gave this letter to Vera Danilovna and told her how she had cooperated with the party organs and why. Here is an excerpt from that letter:

      "I pray to the Lord for you. Strengthen yourself with prayer, ask the Mother of God for help. You fell, now find the strength to get up. I understand your error and I don't judge you. You are strong, determined, firm, and when they called you you were sure of yourself, whereas we must place all our hope in God; only then will our determination and steadfastness help us in our struggle with evil. Your heroism changed into error, and then into evil.

      "Depart from this business, withstand the pressure of evil and vanquish it, although I know this is not easy. Battle against evil. Gather strength and comfort in prayer. The Mother of God is our helper I and protectress.

      "May God keep you. Your spiritual father, Hieromonk Arseny.

      "The time will come when we shall meet again. I pray constantly for you. May God bless you." 

      At eleven o'clock in the morning of August 25, during Irina's shift, Fr. Arseny left for the station where he waited, until evening. He was accompanied to the station by Irina's mother, Varvara Semyonovna, who brought him food for the journey; she was full of concern for him and gave him a warm goodbye.

      It was a time of great heaviness for Fr. Arseny; he had lost three of his spiritual children, irretrievably. But he still had hope for Katya, he trusted in her, she would not abandon the path of faith.

      Irina said her goodbyes in the morning; she was moved and asked him to pray for her and all her family. A new person had come to faith, to that inexhaustible source of consolation and life, and this brought Fr. Arseny great joy.

       Later Fr. Arseny was asked how it was that he straightway trusted Irina. "I trusted her," he answered, “because the ways of the Lord are past finding out and His mercy is everlasting."


(Based on the recollections of Fr. Arseny, Irina, Vera Danilovna and Natalia Petrovna; compiled and recounted by one of the participants in these events; 1968-1975)