Orthodox America

Metropolitan Nestor, Missionary to Kamchatka

In brief Metropolitan Nestor, Nikolai Anisimov at baptism, was born November 9, 1884, in the city of Vyatka. After graduating from high school, he became a novice at the Spassky Monastery in Kazan, and enrolled in the missionary courses at the Kazan Theological Academy. In April 1907 he received the monastic tonsure and within a month was ordained to the priesthood. With the blessing of Saint John of Kronstadt, he left for Kamchatka, a large desolate peninsula in northeast Siberia, separating the Okhotsk and Bering Seas.

In the ten years he spent in this inhospitable wilderness, the young missionary converted thousands of pagan natives; he opened dozens of churches, orphanages and schools; he organized a brotherhood and a sisterhood of nurses; he translated into various native languages the Divine Liturgy, part of the New Testament and many prayers. It was only thanks to his tireless efforts that the Russian government finally gave some attention to this forsaken outpost of its vast empire.

In 1913 Hieromonk Nestor was raised to the rank of archimandrite. During the First World War, from 1914-15, he volunteered as medical corps chaplain. The following year, 1916, he was consecrated bishop of Kamchatka and Petropavlovsk, and in that capacity he was called to Moscow in 1917 to participate in the election of a patriarch. The outbreak of the Revolution prevented his returning to Kamchatka, and in 1921 he found himself in Harbin, together with many other White Russians fleeing the Red Terror. There, too, he actively set about organizing schools, orphanages, soup kitchens and hospitals. Raised to the rank of metropolitan, he tragically succumbed to Soviet persuasion to return to Russia in 1948, only to be sent directly to the Gulag. After his release in 1954, he served briefly in the diocese of Novosibirsk and then Kirovograd before his repose in 1962. He was buried outside Moscow, in Peredelkino, behind the altar of a metochion church of the Trinity-St Sergius Lavra.

Before Metropolitan Nestor left for Kamchatka as a young missionary, his spiritual father, Bishop Andrew of Ukhtomsk, urged him to keep a journal of his pastoral activities. Thanks to his diligence in so doing, he was able later to reconstruct in some detail this fascinating chapter of his life. The following account is taken from these reminiscences, with additional material from a biography based on conversations with people who knew him.

It seems to me that nothing in the world can bring a man greater happiness, greater satisfaction than the work of a missionary, when you go with the light of the Gospel into the dark and gloomy life of a pagan; when, like a gardener, you throw living seeds into a living human soul, and you see how, with  Christ's grace-filled warmth and light, these seeds are watered and sprout; the half-wild pagan... suddenly opens his spiritual eyes and, dazzled by the light of God's love, he comes to the realization that there reigns over the world not an evil but a good God, a loving Father, Who loves him, a poor, forgotten Tungus, Chukchi or Koriak. - Metropolitan Nestor

After graduating from high school, I entered the Kalmyk-Mongol missionary department of the Kazan Theological Academy. Soon I was heading for Kamchatka in the rank of a deacon. It all took me quite by surprise and came about as follows.

On Forgiveness Sunday, after the Divine Liturgy, I went to have tea with Archimandrite Andrew in his quarters there at the Spassky-Transfiguration Monastery. At his request I read aloud the letters that the mailman had just delivered. When I finished, Fr. Andrew asked,

"Well, Kolya, what do you think? Is there anything of interest there?"

"Not really," I replied, shrugging my shoulders. "What interest can there be in the fact that the bishop of Vladivostok and Kamchatka is asking you to send a monk to some unknown and God-forsaken Kamchatka to enlighten some primitive tribes."

"But that's precisely what you should do!" exclaimed Fr. Andrew.

"Why on earth should I leave you and go to some far away Kamchatka?" I answered, rather hurt by the idea. I have to admit that at that time I had no desire to do any such thing, and I was taken aback by this unexpected proposal.

My mother, when I told her all this, calmed me down and said that Fr. Andrew was probably jesting.

Shortly thereafter I asked my mother to go with me to vigil - not to the Spassky Monastery where I usually went, but to the Holy Epiphany church, which boasted the best choir in Kazan. They did a marvelous rendition of "Open to me the doors of repentance."

Holy Epiphany was some distance away, and we missed the beginning of the service. When we finally made our way through the crowd and closer to the ambo, an elderly priest was addressing an appeal to the congregation: "Today at the vigil and tomorrow at the Liturgy, in accordance with the Synodal appeal we have just read, we shall make a collection on behalf of our Orthodox missions. In the wake of the recent war with Japan, our missionary Archbishop Nicholas of Japan is in great need of moral and material support for the further development of his missionary activities. And what can be said about those distant and forgotten frontiers like our Kamchatka. Its inhabitants are primitive, backward pagans, idol worshippers: Kamchadals, Chukchis, Koriaks, and other tribes; and there are no Orthodox missionaries in those parts. Let us pray, brothers and sisters, that God send laborers into that vineyard, for the harvest is plentiful but there are no reapers."

I was stunned by the correspondence between the words of the priest and my own thoughts and inner turmoil. And I very calmly and joyfully acknowledged the path I was to take. I wrote to Fr. John Sergiev [Saint John of Kronstadt - trans.], asking his blessing, and soon received in reply a packet with his photograph, which he had inscribed:

"I give my blessing to the slave of God, Nicholas Anisimov, for the great ascetic endeavor of missionary work - if he finds himself capable of and feels within himself a calling for this work. May he be filled with God's grace, which strengthens the weak. I kiss you as a brother." (signed) Archpriest John Sergiev, 18 March 1907.

On 17 April of that year I was tonsured by my abba, Archimandrite Andrew. On 6 May, in the Kazan cathedral, the former missionary of Altai, Bishop Innocent (Solodchin), ordained me to the diaconate. Two days later, on 9 May, the feast of my heavenly protector from baptism, the holy hierarch and wonderworker Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, in the same cathedral, I was ordained hieromonk.

On the eve of my departure for my place of service, there came a courier from Kronstadt with a package from Archpriest John Sergiev: a set of his rose-colored vestments and a message:

"Give to the Kamchatka missionary (I don't know his monastic name) this set of vestments. May God help him. Give him also this bottle and tell him that I myself have drunk more than half of it in the course of my life. He is to drink the remainder. Only let him endure everything with patience. May our Lord God bless him and grant him salvation." (It was sherry, and later, on Kamchatka, whenever he fell ill, Fr. Nestor found a drop of this sherry to be the best medicine.)

I began my service in Gizhiga, in the northernmost part of the Kamchatka peninsula, on the shores of the Okhotsk Sea. My first impressions were dismal, although I tried to tell myself that this was a marvelous place in all respects. Around the settlement there spread out a marshy, treeless plain, which sloped down in places to the river Gizhiga. The settlement was situated on one of these slopes. Across the river there rose up a steep hill, called Babushka, because the clouds that frequently enveloped the top of it resembled a grandmother's hat. In clear weather one can see on the top of this hill a large cross, erected by Metropolitan Innocent when he was bishop of Alaska and Kamchatka. Over the river there perpetually hangs a dark shroud of thick clouds, and one hears a constant howling of wind, echoed by the howling of several thousand sled dogs. The residents of the settlement are Russians and Kamchadals - Cossacks and petty bourgeoisie; while on the outskirts live sedentary and nomadic Koriaks, Tungus, Chukchi, and other indigenous tribes. All of them are melancholy and taciturn, their faces reflecting a general state of sicklines and boredom. And this is understandable, as their whole life is monotonous, empty and arduous. My visits were a welcome diversion. The people greeted me warmly. "Torovo, innaklek (Hello, friend)!"

On such occasions, the mistress of the yurt spread out for me a bearskin or reindeer hide, and when I had sat down on the warm fur, the inhabitants of this primitive dwelling would gather around me, from children to elders. Residents from neighboring yurts would join them. Simple and naive, they were intensely curious about all that went on far away from them. They spoke about lands and peoples across the ocean as if they were across the river.

While we were thus engaged in conversation, the mistress of the yurt busied herself fixing tea. Over a blazing fire right there in the yurt, they boiled water. If there were no stream or river nearby, they contented themselves with melted snow or ice. They brewed the pressed tea-which they usually received in exchange for furs-very strong, like tar. Tea was the favorite beverage, and they consumed quantities of it, without sugar, excepting when visitors from "beyond the river" brought them some as a treat. Then they would break off a piece and, holding it in their mouth, they would drink gallons of tea. This would make them sweat profusely, and they would proceed to strip naked.

During my years on Kamchatka and Chukotka, the local people did not use bread but were satisfied to use a dried, fresh-water fish called yukola. Nevertheless, they were glad of anything that was offered to them - except chocolate; they much preferred their seal fat to the Russian "black lard," as they called it.

It was a pleasing fact that among these forgotten peoples one did not hear any foul language. Nor was there any fighting or cheating. These were trusting people, like children, pure in heart.

One winter I came by dogsled to one of the Korish settlements. In one of the yurts I found all the men fast sleep. They were stone drunk.

"What kind of celebration did you have?" I asked the mistress. She told me that the residents of this yurt were the most fortunate in the entire settlement. From her confused explanation, I understood that a merchant had come to them who, for "friendship's" sake, had delighted them with some sewing needles. In exchange he had taken their entire supply of skins: sable, bear, black fox, rabbit, otter; and they had even thanked him for his "kindness." You can imagine the woman's astonishment when I gave her all the needles I had, vainly trying to explain that they had been grossly defrauded.

These predatory merchants regarded me as their enemy, and they avoided meeting me in the Koriak and Tungus yurts, although they always asked the people if "Mainga-pop Nestor" had been there and what he had said. These scoundrels plyed the locals with cheap eau-de-cologne, whisky and other alcohol, which caused some of them to go blind. Once, in the village of Yamsk, two locals drank so much eau-de-cologne that they passed out. One of them, on waking up the next morning, called to his friend: "Come over here; I don't see you." The friend did not answer; he was dead.

Their dwellings, to my mind, were horrid. To enter a yurt belonging to the Koriak or Chukash, who lived near the shores of the ocean and the Okhotsk Sea, you had to climb down a charred log stuck through a smoky aperture. The acrid smoke would sting your eyes to tears, and fill your nose and mouth, provoking a terrible cough. But after an arduous journey, the desire to get warm made bearable even the fetid air of these yurt-pits. One Christmas eve, when, in churches all over Russia, Orthodox faithful were glorifying the Lord, Hieromonk Nestor, still very young, found himself miles away in a smoky yurt. He wanted to breathe some fresh air, to gaze at the star-studded sky. Past the yurt's sleeping inhabitants, he made his way up through the smoky entrance to stand beneath the open sky. At that moment, a wondrous spectacle met his eyes: the sky was shimmering with northern lights.  A sense of consolation bathed his homesick soul. Climbing back into the yurt, he awoke the sleeping Koriaks and summoned them to witness the dazzling play of light. Afterwards, animated by the celestial display, he began to tell his listeners about that wondrous Christmas night, when the sky was also illumined, and there appeared an angel, announcing to the shepherds the great joy that was come for the whole world: the nativity of the Saviour, Jesus Christ.

The govenrment bureaucrats cared little for the welfare of the inhabitants of this forsaken region. Almost all of the natives suffered from eczema, caused by the fact that they never bathed and wore on their naked bodies a garment made of reindeer skins, covered inside and out with fur, which they never changed. A majority were afflicted as well with trachoma on account of the smoke and filth of their dwellings.

In order to ease the suffering of these unfortunate peoples, I brought with me not only a travelling pharmacy, but about 700 pounds of zinc mercury ointment. They impatiently awaited my arrival, and greeted me with great joy as their Deliverer from bodily afflictions.

In the yurts where I stayed, I saw people who were literally half-decayed. In one yurt, for example, I saw a ten-year-old boy crawling on the ground. He was covered with chronic, festering sores. With incoherent moans, he begged for some help, some relief. His poor mother tried to alleviate the sufferings of her child, but in her ignorance she employed an outrageous method of treatment, scraping his putrid scabs with a dull work knife, which she then used to cut fish, wiping the wounds and the knife on the same fur rag or on the hem of her garment.

I was very restrained and careful in my approach to the hearts of these people, who at that time were under the influence of shamans. The Koriaks, Chukchis, and other tribes that believed in shamanism, worshipped evil spirits. They considered them to be rulers of the mysterious forces of nature. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, northern lights, storms, illnesses, epidemics, famines and other calamities were attributed to the visitations of these evil spirits. Being ignorant of the true nature of these phenomena, the shamanist lived in constant fear before the spirits of evil, and tried, through the medium of the shaman-priest and exorcist, to somehow avoid their spite, attempting to placate the dark forces with propitiatory animal sacrifices, accompanied by absurd and barbaric rituals.

There on Kamchatka, the shamans were held to be mediators between the spirits and the people, and also interpreters of the spirits. A shaman could be a man or a woman. In the pagan ritual, the shaman would smear idols with the blood of a sacrificed deer. Often they would kill some sled dogs and hang them on a pole near the yurt. This was in fact very detrimental; sled dogs are as valuable to the Kamchadal as horses are to the Russian peasant. It was hard for me to contend with this ruinous custom, but by the power of intelligent persuasion, I succeeded in some places to uproot it...

Among the natives, Fr. Nestor met a number of lepers. They had been banished from their settlements and their life was difficult in the extreme. One of Fr. Nestor's first undertakings was to establish a special colony for these unfortunates. Three wooden houses were built: one for men, one for women and children, and one for the nurse, A.M. Urusova. About her the Metropolitan later wrote:

This woman volunteered in response to our appeal for someone to come and serve these incurable sufferers. Her self-sacrificing, tender and heartfelt care for these unfortunate people eased their suffering and averted desperate thoughts of suicide. She herself bathed their wounds and sores. I would visit the colony periodically by dogsled, bringing with me food suplies for the residents and distributing various materials for crafts and handiwork, appropriate to the sex and age of each recipient, as well as magazines, books and toys. In one of the rooms I fashioned a humble chapel, dedicated to the righteous Job the Much-Suffering."

It was there, in 1908, that Fr. Nestor, wearing the rose-colored set of vestments given him by Saint John, celebrated his most memorable Pascha: In my half-century of priestly service to the Orthodox Church of Christ, I have celebrated Pascha in the most unusual and diverse conditions. I have glorified the Risen Christ in the harsh Kamchatka wilderness, on a ship in the open sea, on the shore of the Pacific, at the front in the Great War, in an infirmary, in pre-revolutionary prisons, in monasteries, in the Moscow Kremlin, in Constantinople, in Egypt (Alexandria), China, Japan. But what most stands out in my memory is that Paschal night in the Kamchatka leper colony. There I left a piece of my heart.

The settlements were often some distance apart, and Fr. Nestor was constantly travelling. The journeys were both arduous and dangerous. The usual mode of transport was by dogsled, or sometimes with reindeer. The dogs were harnessed to a sledge reminiscent of a coffin. The passenger sat in this coffin-like box, while the driver sat on its roof, over the passenger's feet. On a long journey, it was essential to have along several supply sledges, as it was not uncommon to have to wait out a storm en route.

In my frequent travels across the peninsula and over to the continent, my route often took me along the Anapka River. The area is notorious for frequent snow storms and blizzards, due to the ravines (locally called "Cheeks") dividing the narrow stretch between the Pusta and Anapka rivers. In 1911, on one of my regular trips along the ill-fated Anapka, I met face to face, as they say, with death. An unexpected storm threw up a thick curtain of snow, causing our trailing caravan of five reindeer sleds to separate. We lost sight of each other. The reindeer struggled to the point of exhaustion. The sled carrying our provisions was lost to us, and for the next five days and nights my driver and I fought for survival as the snow swirled around us unabated. Hunger began to gnaw at us; we had no food to eat, only snow. The frost was so intense that our hands and feet grew numb in spite of being enveloped in fur. My driver, a young fellow, offered to go in search of our lost companions and the provision sled. Following his directions, I tied a seal-skin strap, about sixteen yards long, to his belt; the other end I fixed to my sledge. Striking out with a long pole in hand, the driver undertook to circle our sledge in a wide circumference, hoping to locate the other sleds, including the one with our food.

My driver was gone for some time, and I began to fear that he had frozen. The very thought was enough to throw me into a cold sweat. I felt my remaining strength seep away and tried to shout, but my voice was swallowed up by the frenzied howling of the still raging blizzard. Then I essayed to pull in my poor driver by the strap, but I was too weak. The realization that I was all alone in this frozen wasteland gripped me with the fear of death, in anticipation of which I began reciting the prayers for the departure of the soul. The first sign of fatal numbness, in the process of freezing to death, came in an overpowering desire to sleep. I dozed off and was visited by pleasant dreams: I saw myself at home, with my family; it was warm and cozy, and my mother was offering me something tasty to eat.

When, through a tremendous exertion of willpower, I forced myself awake, I felt the prickly snow and freezing wind burning my face, and again I was seized by dread and despair, and broke into a cold sweat.

At last, when I was utterly drained by this tormenting anguish, my driver dragged himself in by the strap to our sledge and collapsed into the snow. On the sixth day the storm began to abate. Meanwhile, all our reindeer had died of starvation and we had to drag our sleds ourselves. When we crawled out from our snowy burrows, we looked at one another - and were horrified: hunger and exhaustion had turned us into corpses. Tears ran down my cheeks. Worst of all, my mouth had become so swollen that in spite of my agonizing hunger, it was a long time before I could ingest anything but snow.

Yet another episode comes to mind. Together with some Koriaks, I set out on sled from Chukotka to the village of Gizhiga. As we neared our destination, we gave away our remaining food supply to the last yurt along our route. The weather was clear and calm, and gave us no warning of the blizzard that rapidly overtook us. The sled dogs, plastered with snow, howled dismally. Hopeful that the storm would soon pass, we were not terribly anxious - at first.  But the storm held us captive for eight days. Men and dogs suffered from hunger; the Koriaks chewed on wood shavings, and when this did not appease their hunger, they began killing the dogs and greedily eating the raw meat. I, meanwhile, tried to deceive myself by chewing on a sealskin harness, succumbing to this desperate measure only out of sheer despair. It was only on the fifth day that some travellers stumbled upon us. "Vanka has come, the cossack Paderin!" shouted my companions exuberantly. Beside myself with hunger, I cried out in anguish to the cossack, "Bread, for Christ's sake, give me some bread!"

The cossack smiled knowingly and replied, "Wait, Batiushka, first bless me. After all, it's been two years since I've seen you. Bless me. Then I'll give you some bread."

I continued to cry insistently: "No! give me bread!"

It was only after several minutes that I came to my senses and gave Paderin a blessing. Then we were given some soup with yukola, bread and tea. The cossack helped us to brace the tent with the sledges, and I was dragged in, with my swollen feet, closer to the fire. Paderin rubbed my numb feet, which alleviated my pain considerably. We were compelled to sit there under the snow from 24 to 31 January. On 1 February I conducted a service of thanksgiving for our survival. Paderin chanted.

On one journey by dogsled, the dogs suddenly ran off course and stopped in front of a cave. There emerged a man, covered with leprous sores, with a healthy-looking woman who turned out to be his wife. On learning that a priest had come, they were overjoyed and began to thank God for such a mercy. They had a new baby whom they wanted to have baptized. They had gouged out the trunk of a tree to serve as a font, and had been praying that God send them a priest. When Fr. Nestor later asked the woman how it was that she continued to live under the same roof with such a diseased man, she replied simply, "But he's my husband; we're married. Just because he became sick, is that any reason to abandon him?" How deeply Christ's teaching penetrated into the souls of these simple people!

Sled dogs and hunting dogs are valued highly there on Kamchatka. At that time there numbered on the peninsula some 36,000 dogs. Smart and acutely sensitive, they feed their masters and take the place of horses. On long journeys I always trusted the dogs' instinct over the authority of the driver. Once, because of a driver's obstinacy, his refusal to defer to the dogs' instinct, we flew into a deep ravine.

The most fatal accident, however, occurred on another occasion, when, together with the dogsled, I fell through the ice, which had become thin as a result of spring winds. Fortunately, the place where we fell through was not deep, and with the help of my driver I was able to stand on the river bottom. The icy water was waist high. In trying to extricate myself I lost consciousness, and it was with diffi-culty that my Kamchadal companions were able to rescue me. It was another day before we reached the nearest dwelling where I could change out of my frozen clothes, and as a result I developed pneu-monia.

Nothing, however, could stop me from striving to fulfill to the end the responsibility I had undertaken: to carry the word of the Gospel to the unenlightened and ignorant inhabitants of Kamchatka.

It is with a feeling of quiet contentment that I conclude these brief sketches of my dear and beloved Kamchatka. With love and gratitude to God, I look back on the long path that I and all the laborers of our Kamchatka mission traversed along its snowy vales. With our feeble strength fortified by God's strength, we cast the holy seeds of the Gospel onto the open field of men's souls. And from all my heart I believe that, together with their Russian brethren, those simple-hearted inhabitants of Kamchatka preserve in their hearts love and faithfulness towards that Bright God, Whom not so long ago they came to know and love with their whole hearts.

I will always thank God that He called me to Kamchatka, that I was able to devote the best years of my life to the great work of enlightening men's souls.

Translated and compiled from Missionerskoye Obozreniye, Sept 1996 and Nov.-Dec. 1996, Belgorod; Nadezhda #7, Possev 1982.


See also Please Make me a bishop (from this issue)