Orthodox America


A chapter from the samizdat manuscript Life of Hieromonk Arsenius


     Life and labor in concentration camps is not human, it is frightful. Each day brings the prisoner closer to death, and often costs a year of life outside. And yet, knowing all this, the prisoners did not wish to die spiritually; they tried inwardly to fight for life, to preserve their spirit, although not always successfully.

     They would talk and argue about science, life, religion; sometimes they would organize lectures on art, on scientific discoveries, or arrange literary evenings where they would reminisce and read poetry. All this was truly amazing considering the general atmosphere of cruelty, hoarseness, hunger, extreme exhaustion, awareness of imminent and inescapable death, and the constant presence of criminal prisoners. The prisoners of the "special" lived in constant fearer violence, of hunger, and often sought support from one another to make life bearable.

     As Avseenkov observed the life of the prisoners, he came to the conclusion that on the average hardly any of them survived more than two years in the "special," and he pondered on how much longer he himself would stay alive,

     Depending on the wave of arrests, the barracks was filled with engineers, military men, clerics, scholars, actors, writers, collective farmers, agronomists, doctors. Thus, there formed groups representing various professions. They were all captive men; nevertheless, one could see their desire not to forget their past, their professions. Everything surfaced in their reminiscences during discussions. Anything could lead to heated arguments, they would become excited trying to prove their point of view as if the outcome of events and resolutions depended on their point of argument.

     Fr. Arseny did not take part in these debates; he was not a party to any group and was impartial and sociable with everyone. As soon as a debate began, Fr. Arseny would retire to his bunk and stand or sit there praying silently.

     The intellectuals of the barracks were condescending in their relations with Fr. Arseny. "In a word, a 'popik,' and very much a believer at that; kind-hearted but virtually lacking in inner culture, hence his faith in God; there is nothing else to his name." This was the opinion of the majority.

    On one occasion about ten or twelve men --artists, writers, art critics, actors-gathered in the barracks at the end of a working day. They would often return from work, eat quickly, rest a while, and after they had been checked and the doors locked, they would proceed with their discussions on theater, literature, medicine, art. They would engage in arguments and come to life.

    One evening they began discussing early Russian painting and architecture. A tall prisoner, who had preserved his gentlemanly bearing and manners even in the camp, discussed the topic with great self-confidence and ardour. Those gathered listened to him with evident interest. The "tall one" spoke impressively; he was knowledgeable and assertive in his presentation. During this discussion Fr. Arseny happened to pass by those gathered; As he did so, the "tall one" who, it turned out, was an art historian and a professor, condescendingly addressed him. 

    “As a believer and a clergyman, Father, would you tell us how you would evaluate the connection between Orthodoxy and early Russian painting and architecture, and whether such a connection exists?" He said this with a smile. Everyone laughed. Avseenkov, too, who was sitting nearby and heard this conversation, could not help smiling.

    To address Fr. Arseny with such a question seemed absurd to everyone. Some felt sorry for him, others felt like laughing. It was perfectly clear that this simple "popik" would not answer anything; he would be unable to answer because of his ignorance. Everyone understood that the question was intentionally humiliating.

     Er. Arseny stopped, heard out the question and said: "Just a moment. I have to finish something first." And he went his way.

    "Our 'popik' is no fool; he has run away to avoid being disgraced." "Well," ventured another voice, "our Russian clergy has always lacked in culture."

     Some ten minutes later Fr. Arseny approached our group of intellectuals and, having interrupted the "tall one's" lecture, said: "Now I am free; please repeat the question."

    The professor looked at Fr. Arseny as he probably would at an ignorant student, and enunciated his question.

    "Well, Father, the question is rather simple but quite interesting. How would you, a representative of the Russian clergy, evaluate the influence of Orthodoxy upon the art of Early Russian painting and architecture? We'd like to hear your opinion. You have, quite possibly, heard about the treasures in Suzdal, Rostov the Great, Pereyaslavl-Zalessky, the Monastery of St. Therapont. You are probably familiar with lithographic prints of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God and Rublev's 'Trinity.' Tell us if you will how you evaluate them from the point of view of their bond with Orthodoxy."

     It was an academic question, everyone realized that, and the majority of those present thought for a moment that such a question should not be asked of a simple but kindhearted "popik". Obviously, he wouldn't answer, one could see that just by looking at him.

    Fr. Arseny straightened up, his very appearance seemed to change, and he looked at the professor.

    "There are many opinion s on the influence of the Orthodox faith upon Russian fine arts and architecture. Many diverse ideas have been expressed regarding this topic, and you, Professor, have written and talked about it a great deal. However, many of your theses are deeply erroneous, contradictory and, frankly speaking, circumstantial. What you have been saying just now is significantly nearer the truth than what you've so extensively expounded in your articles and books.

     "You consider Russian painting to have developed solely from an ethnic basis; you virtually deny Orthodoxy's influence upon it, and generally, you adhere to the opinion that only economic and social factors, not the spiritual principles of the Russian people and the beneficial influence of Christianity, exerted an impact on painting and architecture.

     "Personally, Professor, I am of a different opinion regarding the way our Early Russian painting and architecture developed. I consider that the influence of Orthodoxy was a decisive factor in shaping the Russian people and their culture from the 10th and up to the 18th century.

     "Russian clergy, Russian monasticism, having adopted Byzantine culture in the 10th century, carried it and transmitted it to the Russian people through books, icon-painting, the first churches erected by the Greeks, through the order of Church services, the Lives of saints. All this exerted a decisive influence up on the subsequent development of the whole of Russian culture.

     "You mentioned the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. Don't you think that this Icon as well as other works of painting which came to us from Greece, formed the very basis of the subsequent flowering of Russian painting, iconography in particular? Any work of the Russian icon-painting school is inseparably linked with the soul of the Christian painter, with the soul of the believer who regarded the icon as a spiritual symbolic image of the Lord, of the Mother of God or His saints.

     "The Russian approached the icon not as an idol but as a symbol in which he saw and spiritually perceived the form depicted in the icon. The Orthodox person saw in this embodiment a symbol of the One Whom his soul sought in prayer, full as it was of sorrow or joy.

     "The Russian iconographer, accompanying his work with prayer and fasting, would imprint an image of the Lord, of the Mother of God and saints, and it is not without reason that the Russian people have preserved many wonderful traditions about the origin of icons. They believed that an angel of the Lord guided the iconographer' s hand. The Russian iconographer--in early times--never signed his icon, for he belie veal that the image was created not by his hand but by his soul, with God's blessing. You, however, attribute all this to the influence of social and economic prerequisites.

    “Look at our ancient icon of the Mother of God and at the Western Madonna, and you’ll see at once a striking difference. Our icons are imbued with spiritual meaning, with a spirit of faith, the sign of Orthodoxy. Western icons, on the other hand, depict a lady who is religiously inspired and endowed with earthly beauty but lacking in Divine power and grace; she is simply a woman. If you look into the eyes of the Vladimir icon of the Mother of God you will read in them a tremendous power of spirit, faith in the boundless mercy of God toward man, hope in salvation."

     Fr. Arseny became animated, changed somehow; he stood erect and spoke clearly, precisely and with great force of expression. Naming icons, offering explanations, he revealed the soul of Early Russian painting; moving on to architecture he used as examples the churches of Rostov the Great, Suzdal, Vladimir, Uglich and Moscow to demonstrate their affinity with the Orthodox faith. In concluding his remarks, Fr. Arseny said: "By erecting churches, the Russians made stones sing praise to God, they made the stones tell Christians about God."

    Fr. Arseny spoke for about an hour and a half; his audience of intellectuals listened to him in complete silence. The professor lost his half-mocking gentlemanly airs and seemed to have shrunk. "Excuse me," he asked, "but how is it that you know my articles and books and Early Russian art? Where did you study it? After all, you are a priest."

    "One should love his country and know all about it. The 'popik,' as you like to refer to priests, should understand the soul of Russian art, for as a pastor of human souls he should be able to present them with the unimpaired truth, because many people--and you, Professor, among them--tend to envelop in fabrications and lies that which is most sacred to man. This is done either for gain, for some temporary political purposes and views, or in answer to some directive."

    The change which had come over the Professor became even more marked and he asked: "Who are you? What is your name?"

    "I was Petr Andreevich Streltsov in the world, and now I'm Fr. Arseny, like you, a prisoner of the special."

    The Professor moved forward and with difficulty exclaimed:

    "Petr Andreevich! Forgive me, please, forgive me! I had no idea, I never imagined that here in camp I would meet the most distinguished art historian, the author of many scholarly papers and monographs on the history of Russian painting and architecture, the teacher of many, that I would meet him as a priest, and would confront him with a stupid question. No one heard anything of you for several years. Only your articles and books told us of your ideas. A year ago I entered into polemics with you, without knowing you personally. How did you, a distinguished scholar, become a clergyman?"

    "I became Fr. Arseny because I saw and perceived God in everything, and as Fr. Arseny I understood particularly well that a 'popik' must know a great deal. However, speaking of Russian priests, you should know that they were the fundamental force which in the lath-15th centuries unified the Russian state and helped the Russians throw off the Mongol yoke. True, in the same period the Russian clergy began to disintegrate morally, and only a few individual luminaries of the Russian Church shed some light upon her horizon, but prior to that time they were Russia's principal strength."

    Having said this, Fr. Arseny left. The Professor and the other participants of the discussion circle, including Avseenkov. remained standing in amazement.

     “So, a simpleton ‘popik’. Comrades!” muttered someone, and all began to disperse in silence.

    Avseenkov noticed that from that night the intelligentsia of the barrack and of the entire camp began looking upon and treating Fr. Arseny altogether differently. For many, their understanding of God, of science and the intellect began to draw together.

    Avseenkov had been an ideological communist who had almost fanatically believed in the ideas of Marxism. During his first years in the "special" he had tried to lead an isolated existence, but later befriended some of the prisoners. However, he left the company even of these few people when he realized that many former Communists were basically preoccupied with the desire to return to their former comfortable life and that they no longer nurtured ideas of achieving justice and fighting against Stalin's arbitrary rules.

    Avseenkov reexamined his former life and he understood that his ideas were lost, that they had been replaced by orders from above, by standard, dictated truths and circulars. He had lost the bond with living people, with the masses; reports and newspaper articles had come to replace for him the living human being.

    Contact with prisoners revealed to Avseenkov a genuine life, a life which was not invented. He felt attracted to Fr. Arseny and was won over by his uncommonly equal treatment of people for he had no respect of person; by his sincerity, kindness, his constant readiness to help people in every possible way, and, as he learned now, his intelligence and erudition.

    At first Fr. Arseny's boundless faith in God and his constant praying had antagonized Avseenkov, but at the same time something inexplicable drew him to the priest. It felt good to be in "Fr. Arseny's presence; all his difficulties, sadness and the depressing camp life faded away. Why? He did not understand.

    Ivan Aleksandrovich Sazikov was an old and notorious criminal. He was a masterful, hard man who knew well his fellow criminals and in no time had subdued the entire barracks and established contact with all the criminals in the camp. His word was the law; everyone feared him, although he rarely interfered in the affairs of the political prisoners in the barracks.

    In the first months following his illness, Sazikov shunned Fr. Arseny and appeared not to notice him. After a serious leg injury, however, he spent five days lying in the barracks; the wound began ulcerating and he was in danger of losing his leg. Although he had a dispensation from work, his condition was not improving, and once again Fr. Arseny nursed him back to health. Sazikov tried to pay Fr. Arseny, but the latter only smiled and said: "I am not doing this for a reward, but for you, as a person, for your own sake."

    Sazikov softened towards Fr. Arseny; he even told him a little about his life. One day he said suddenly:

    "I don't believe people; and priests, so they say, are not to be trusted at all. But I trust you, Petr Andreerich. I know you will never betray me. You live in your God, you do good for the sake of others without seeking gain for yourself. My mother was like that!" He said this and left. 

(Translated by Olka Oleinikov)

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