Searching for Kitezh: a conversation with Alexander Ogorodnikov

Alexander Ogorodnikov

Alexander Ogorodnikov was born in 1950. At age 17, he was a lathe operator at a clock factory. Three years later he began philosophy studies at the University of the Urals in Sverdlovsk, only to be expelled in 1971 for “a dissident way of thinking incompatible with the title of the Komsomol member and student.” He then went to Moscow where he studied at the Institute of Cinematography. He founded the Christian Seminar in 1974. From 1978 until 1987 he was a prisoner, finally released at the order of Gorbachev. Since his return to Moscow, he founded the Christian-Democratic Union of Russia and the Christian Mercy Society, a group assisting the hungry and homeless with a special concern for children and adolescents. The following conversation with him was recorded in Amsterdam on 25 April 1999,  following the Liturgy at St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church. Alexander began by recalling his time as a prisoner at Perm 36, one of the worst prisons in the Soviet Union. Quite a number of famous political prisoners were there.

– Jim Forest

Why were you regarded as so dangerous?

It goes back to starting the Christian Seminar in the 70′s. Now there is a fresh interest in what happened at that time — last year there was a television program about it. They united participants of the seminary from 20 years ago, when I was jailed and the Seminar was crushed after five years of life. The television producers wanted to see what had happened to us after 20 years — were we still loyal to the ideals of that time? Sadly, we see that many participants got lost in heresy and left the Church. Listening to my old friends, I realize freshly how difficult it is to get rid of the Communist system. Although 1991 was the official end of the Soviet Union, from the moral point of view it still has not ended. I compare it to a corpse which is decomposing and the poison it creates is everywhere. We carry it in ourselves. It is very important to stress this fact because people tend to underestimate it, and to underestimate the tragedy of Russia in this century.

When the Bolsheviks took over, they fought the Church not only because it was an institution of the Czarist regime, but because the Church was storming heaven and they were at war with heaven. Did you know that in 1923 there was really a trial — a revolutionary tribunal that brought God to court? God Himself was tried! Lunacharsky and Trotsky were the two commissars who led the process, and during this process they sentenced God to death. This was not a carnival — it was absolutely serious. God and the Church had to be crushed. In many of his letters Lenin stressed the importance of getting rid of priests. The whole fight against the church and religion was carefully planned and very fierce. In 1932 there was the 17th party congress which not only produced a five-year plan for the economy but a five-year plan for achieving an atheist society. The plan was that by 1935 the last Church would be shut down, and that by 1936 even the word “God” would have disappeared from the language!

I won’t describe for you all the horrors and all the tortures, and how many bishops, priests, monks and ordinary believers were buried alive or killed in other ways. What I want to stress is that to a great extent the Communists succeeded in converting Russia to Communism. And yet for all their success, hundreds of thousands of people defended the Church and became martyrs and the Church was not destroyed. The Church displayed a unique, quiet belief. Many priests went underground. In the 30′s, there were only three bishops still not in prison. Probably in the whole Soviet Union in the 30′s, just before the war, only 50 churches were still open. Thanks to this war, the fate of the Church shifted. People returned to belief. Stalin invited Patriarch Sergei to come from his small house on the edge of Moscow to live in the former embassy of the German Ambassador — one day in a log cabin with no telephone, the next in a mansion in the heart of Moscow. Many churches were re-opened, and two theological schools.

Still, though the church had survived, when I was a boy we had no living contact whatsoever with the church. None. Most of our generation came from atheistic families. One of my grandfathers was a commissar who died for the ideals of the revolution. My other grandfather has a little different story, a different fate. He was an officer in the Czarist army during the First World War. His orderly converted him to Protestantism — it was a kind of very primitive protest belief against the official Orthodox state Church. Later in his life, when he was 37, they tried to arrest my grandfather. By then he was a school director. He was warned by a KGB member and fled into the woods. For two years my mother went into the woods to bring him food unnoticed. Because of that, he survived. Nonetheless, I was raised as a normal Soviet child.

Where was that?

I was born in 1950 in Christopol, a town in the former Kazan government. We were raised in such a way that by the time we were 14 or 15 years old, we were ready to give our lives for Communist ideals. We were convinced that all these churches, which were only attended by old women, would sooner or later disappear together with their babushkas. Yet finally, in our search for true belief — true Truth — we began to understand that Marxism was a lie.

How did you go from being ready to give your life for Communism to seeing Marxism as a lie?

In our school, there was a map of the world with flags marking every new country converted to Communism. We were singing revolutionary Cuban songs, and we were ready to die for Cuba or for any of these countries. How we moved from that attitude to understanding that the Marxist ideology was a lie is something of a mystery. In the beginning it was just a kind of clash with reality, because we looked at real life and saw it didn’t match all those high ideals we were taught. First we thought, “Well, we live in the provinces — maybe it takes a little longer for all these ideals to reach us,” though later, in Moscow, I could see the very same problems. Finally I was expelled from university because of my growing doubts about materialistic ideology.

So little by little people like me became critics of Marxism and of the Soviet system. Protest became a way of life and also a way of survival in the system of lies. Also little by little, through irony and criticism, we ended up in a kind of vacuum — with only criticism and irony, you end up with denying everything. We didn’t actually have any other choice because we hardly had any information. We were boiling in our own soup. Russian literature offered a kind of revelation for us when we came to know it. However you have to understand that the way Russian literature was taught in the schools was so perverted that you came to hate it. But thanks at last to Russian literature, we finally got a little, not understanding, but a feeling that somewhere there is God. Through our searching, we understood that God exists. This literary understanding of God was more abstract, like as creator or creative force or power, a bag of ideas. We had far to go from this abstract idea of the existence of God to finally reach the living Christ.

By the time I had been expelled from the university I was attending in the Urals, I managed to get to Moscow and enter the film institute. It was a kind of miracle that I was accepted. In that period one of my fellow students gave me a copy of the Gospels, though for a long time I didn’t read it. I couldn’t even touch it. The guy I shared my room with kept his money hidden in the Bible because it was a book that nobody dared to touch.

One day, as part of our lessons, we were invited to a hidden place where forbidden films were kept by the film institute. You had to go train to get there.

By this time the New Testament was the only book I possessed I hadn’t read, but that day I had it with me. There on the train and I opened the book and started reading. Immediately I had this very strange feeling. On one side my mind knew or told me that this is just a legend or fairy tale. But from my heart there arose a different feeling that became stronger and stronger that this is actually the truth. I couldn’t rationally understand that feeling. At that moment the conductor came into our carriage. Of course we didn’t have a ticket. We were all protesting students — the film school was more or less the only place where dissent was tolerated. The way we dealt with these situations when we didn’t have a ticket usually was to start arguing with the man, saying things like, “Don’t touch the guy because he is in Nirvana, and if you touch him he will die, and you will be responsible.”

For the first time I did something that rationally I couldn’t understand. I took out my money and wanted to pay. And wanted to pay also the fine for all of us. It was very strange, but I understood that the Gospels had done this to me.

At last we arrived and we walked through the woods towards the restricted cinema, first passing through several security posts. The first film we were shown was “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.” It was real shock for me. It helped me overcome all my irony and to accept the Savior, Jesus Christ. The background of the film was that Passolini, an Italian Communist, had who stayed some night in some hotel, had the Bible on the bed next to him, read St. Matthew’s Gospel, and decided he wanted to make a film that would simply show every scene from this Gospel. He decided not to use professional actors. He found people on the streets. Jesus Christ was played by a Spanish student he happened to meet. After seeing this film, I couldn’t he silent. I started preaching to my colleagues. They were amazed because I had been such a cynical man, and here I was promoting the film as being the truth.

Thanks to this film, I became a Christian and searched for a Christian way of life. I was a Christian outside the Church. I didn’t know what the Church was. I took my Bible with me and went to look for people thinking similar thoughts. The people I met became the core of that Christian Seminary. This was the summer of 1973. We felt that we were missing something, that there was a mystery hidden somewhere, but we couldn’t touch it. The Church was far from everything we knew, but finally I made a big effort and went to church.

It was a big church near the center of Moscow. I was amazed it was so crowded. It amazed me that so many of those attending the Liturgy were from the intelligencia. Despite there being so many people, I was able to walk toward the altar right through the crowd. A saw a bishop was celebrating. I didn’t understand what exactly was going on. Almost everyone was crying. I couldn’t understand why, but I was also crying. And when the bishop came out to serve communion, a certain power pulled me toward the chalice. It so happens, without thinking about fasting, I hadn’t eaten the whole day. Even the days before, it so happens, I had been fasting. It was by accident. And I received Communion. After that I found out that it was Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, the bishop in London, who gave me communion. He happened to be in Moscow at that moment.

Were you already baptized?

My grandmother had arranged my baptism secretly when I as a child. My father, a Communist, didn’t know.

What happened after your first communion that day in Moscow?

My friends also started going to church and participating in church life. But we encountered a new problem. It seemed to us that the church as an institution was not ready to accept us. The priests were afraid of us, and not only the priests. I went to a church in Kazan and when I entered, an old babushka tried to push me out. She thought that since I was a young man, I must be a representative of the government or the Konsomol [the young Communist association] who had come to provoke them in order to shut down the Church. At that time young people did not go to Church. She was protecting their church against me, or my kind. It was not easy to stay! But when the old women saw that I went to confession and I received communion, they all cried. At the end they all came and they wanted to kiss me and thank me. It was a powerful experience — they saw a new generation coming into the church.

We young people found ourselves in a very complex situation. It was difficult to find a place for ourselves inside the church. There was no living community, and no education. We were trying to find out what were the possibilities, what could we do in this world as Christians, as Orthodox Christians.

In this kind of schizophrenic situation, we could only pray while we were in church, and then it was like leaving our belief in a kind of waiting room. It was difficult for us to understand because the reason we came to church was because it was the truth, but outside the church we had to go on living as Soviet citizens. This being torn apart was very difficult. We came to church because here was the True Light. That’s why we started the Christian Seminar, because we couldn’t live with this church which was silent.

the mystical city of Kitezh

The Seminar helped us to start a living Christian community, and also to educate us in Orthodox belief. Then we started to travel all over Russia in what we called our search for the invisible town of Kitezh. Kitezh is a fabled place miraculously preserved under the waters of the Svetloyar Lake where the old way of life and worship has continued without pause. According to the legend, occasionally Kitezh rises from the water and appears to the devout. To “search for Kitezh” is a way of speaking in metaphors about the search for holiness. Little by little we were discovering the spiritual life in Russia. It was hidden, but it started to open to us. We didn’t want to remain just a small intellectual circle of Orthodox youth. We found monks and nuns who helped us. Now today we can openly talk about this, how in the Ukraine, at the Pachaiev monastery, they hid us from KGB at a time when the KGB was looking for us. And they helped us with other ways. They gave us money and helped us buy a house for the Seminar. We declared that house to be a kind of free territory, not part of the Soviet Union, a liberated territory. Of course the authorities paid us back and they declared us to be a forbidden zone. We were actually provoked, persecuted.

One day I was called to Moscow by the KGB. Five strong men from the KGB put me in a car and driven out of the city. The car stopped in the middle of the forest and I was thrown out of the car. They put me against the car, and encircled me, holding guns in their hands. At that moment, someone in a black suit came toward us out of the forest, walking in our direction very slowly. And the KGB men opened their circle and stood to the side. The man in black said, “You are free.” But when I tried to get through the circle of the KGB men, they wouldn’t let me pass. So I said to the man in black, “I can’t go, I can’t get out.” He made a gesture, and then I was able to force my way out with my shoulders. And I walked away, all the time waiting for a shot in my back. I didn’t know where I was — a very dark wood.

Then behind me I heard footsteps. The KGB men again surrounded me, one on the left, one on the right, one in front, one in back. They said, me “Now we will look for a place where we can shoot you.” I understood that this is the blind force of evil, which in this world you can never hide from. They brought me to a certain place, then one of them took out his gun and said, “Get down on your knees.” I responded, “I kneel only in front of God.” Then he fired a shot, but over my head. After that he said, “We don’t want any new martyrs.”

After this incident, for a certain time they left the Christian Seminar in peace, but before long once again they were looking for ways to frighten us. There were times when we had to flee over roofs. We had to invent all kinds of conspiracies, not because we were hiding guns or narcotics, but spiritual literature. So we were actually forced to behave in that way.

Yet all this time we were living with the constant feeling of the presence of God. There were many miracles that saved us. But finally there came a moment when I was arrested and was brought to Lubianka, the KGB headquarters in Moscow. They told me, “It is time you put an end to behaving as a hero. You have one month, we give you the possibility to leave, get out.” I said “Why should I leave my country? I was born here, why should I leave?” They started shouting at me, “We give you one month. If you don’t emigrate in that one month, then we will arrest you and you will never get out again, you will die in prison. You will die forgotten and deserted by all.”

In those years it was almost impossible to emigrate. Only 1,500 Jews emigrated in one year. What we understood is that once you were willing to speak, you had to be willing to pay the price. We had to prove that Christianity is not an abstract idea, but that it was real life. And so we decided that I would go to prison. After me 13 others were arrested. There was a kind of systematic arrest of every new leader that came after me. I must say that all of us behaved very bravely in prison. Nobody surrendered.

Before I was imprisoned, I knew that I would have a difficult time in prison — I liked being free, I liked good food, I liked all these things. I was afraid. I thought I would not be able to lead a worthy life in prison. In prison you have constantly to fight for your own rights and for the rights of the other prisoners. But finally when I was imprisoned, I discovered my own depths, and not only inside of myself, but in every man. This was such an elevation, it lifted me spiritually, but also it gave me strength. There are many stories I could tell you, but I’ll tell just one.

This was during my stay at the Habarosk prison. I was being held in a large cell shared with many others. It was the plan of the KGB on this occasion to break me with the help of the real criminals. The door was closed. I heard the lock slam in place, leaving me with about forty men, half naked, all with tattoos.

As I entered the cell, I said, “Peace be with you.” It was strange for them to hear these words — they looked at me in amazement. At that time I did not wear prison clothing — I still had my own clothes. And they said, “Take your clothes off,” and they threw some old rags at my feet, which I had to put on.

I answered, “I can give away my own clothes only to those who really need them, not if you force me to.” They started yelling at me, and they were at the point of violence. The leader of this group, a man sitting on a top bunk, said, “You will be sleeping near the toilets” — the place where the worst criminals sleep, the pederasts. You find this pecking order in every prison. The pederasts are considered subhuman. Most of them are not real criminals, but victims themselves. What happens to them is that they are violated, used sexually as a punishment.

The men in the cell were getting ready to attack me. Then one of them asked me, “You said ‘Peace be with you.’ Are you a Christian?” And I said, “Yes.” He replied, “We heard that if a Christian prays to his God, then a miracle occurs. So please prove to us that you are a Christian and not just somebody trying to make an impression.” In prison it is very important that you take responsibility for everything you say. And I accepted this challenge.

They answered, “We are the scum of the earth, everything is negative as far as we are concerned. We have nothing, not even cigarettes to smoke. And our ears have become thick because of not smoking. So if you really are a Christian, please pray to your God that we get something. Pray to your God that He will bring us something and then we will believe that He exists.”

I said, “I’m convinced that the miracle will happen, but for this we have to pray all together.” That was my condition. I went into the center, or in the middle of the room. And I made them all get up from their beds, because it is our tradition to stand in front of God as a sign of respect. And they all got up. They were all smiling and they thought it was a kind of game, and they would beat me up in the end. So I said, “Please listen carefully to the words of the prayer. And those who are able to, repeat them. And the other who was not able to repeat the words, just listen.” And I started to pray.

After one minute I started to feel by the skin of my back that something was going on. You have to realize that in this atmosphere of hatred and cynicism, and neglect, for the first time these high words of prayer were heard. A devout atmosphere of silence came into the room. And when I ended the prayer, the smiles from their faces had gone, and they were full with a new feeling. It was the first time in their lives that they heard these words, and it probably had touched their hearts. And in this complete silence I showed them with my hands that they could sit down. And at that exact moment, a small window in the door was opened, and cigarettes were thrown through the hole in the door.

Who would believe God can show Himself with cigarettes.

We don’t know His ways. Before the prayer I had told them smoking is a sin, but that God will show this miracle to show His love. Their Creator loves them despite their sins, and because of this love, He will show his miracle even in this way, not withstanding that the behavior is sinful.

I tell you this story just so you will know how my heart was burning when I was in prison. I understood it was not an ordinary imprisonment — it was a kind of mission. And I tried to make something out of this. Finally, when the KGB or authorities understood how dangerous it was to keep me together with other prisoners, I was isolated completely. And then too I understood how wise that was. Because while I was living in the world, my prayer was not strong enough, and I did not have the peace to think. I was very much involved fighting the system, and in a certain sense this influenced my spiritual life. And I understood it was necessary for me to be in isolation. Of course it was very difficult for me — I had no contact with priests, I couldn’t receive communion.

When you say it was necessary, do you mean it was God’s will?

Yes. For instance one day I felt that I absolutely needed to confess, and I started to pray to several saints, and when I directed my words to St. Seraphim, I had this physical feeling that an epitrachelion was touching my head. And literally this heavy feeling was lifted from my heart, and I felt as if I was born again. And I think that I had the strongest experience of gratitude I had during isolation. And that is the reason why sometimes I long to be in isolation again.

translation from Russian: Kathi Hansen-Love; transcription of the tape: Mitchell Goodman; editing: Jim Forest; photo of Alexander: Jim Forest

from the Fall 1999 issue of In Communion, journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship