Books blog: A testament to Russia’s enduring hunger for faith

Pskov-Caves Monastery, near Estonia: ‘A new world suddenly opened up for us’ (Wikipedia)

By chance I heard a part of a programme about Russia on Radio 4 earlier this week: it touched on the Romanov dynasty, the brutality of Peter the Great – whose much derided statue I saw in Moscow last year – the siege of Leningrad, the music of Shostakovitch and other topics, including the re-emergence of the Russian Orthodox Church since the collapse of Communism. As well as this, I also watched part two of War and Peace last night on Sunday: good enough to make me want to read the book again, 50 years after I first discovered it.

But now I want to return to a book I first blogged about before Christmas: Everyday Saints and Other Stories, by Archimandrite Tikhon, produced by Pokrov Publications (which is donating the proceeds of its sales to helping build a cathedral in Moscow, dedicated to the countless victims of Communist repression in Russia.) Since it was first published in 2011 it has stayed at the top of the Russian bestseller list, which tells us something about the bedrock of belief as well as the hunger for belief that exists, and which has always existed, in Russia despite 70 years of harshly enforced atheism.

Unlike War and Peace, Fr Tikhon’s book would not be considered great literature, but that is not the point. In his fascinating hotchpotch of stories about the Orthodox monks in the Pskov Caves Monastery, at Pechory, near the Russian-Estonian border, including some homilies, anecdotes of people he knows and humorous accounts of priest friends in country parishes, the author manages to convey what books of conventional devotion often lack: a palpable encounter with the world of the supernatural in such a way that it comes across as part of everyday life. I would guess that this glimpse of the divine is what makes it so popular of modern-day Russia, which is an uneasy mixture of secularism and faith, capitalism and corruption, nationalism and tradition.

The “Everyday Saints” that Fr Tikhon refers to are the men he encountered as a novice as Pskov Caves Monastery in the 1980s when, as a secular young graduate of a prestigious film school in St Petersburg, he had fallen in love with Orthodox monastic life: these include Fr John Krestiankin, his spiritual mentor, who had spent eight years in the Gulag and who has prophetic powers; Fr Nathaniel, the monastery treasurer, a harsh taskmaster with a brilliant mind, determined to make the monastery flourish despite decades of Soviet harassment; the Abbot, Archimandrite Alipius, who had kept his old army uniform with its rows of medals, to intimidate the Kremlin officials sent to demand the closure of his monastery. Fr Tikhon writes, “It was here that the Great Abbot struggled against the entire machinery of the mighty atheist state. And – he triumphed!”

The late President Kruschev might seem to Western eyes to have been more amenable than Stalin, whom he denounced in a famous speech; but under his regime thousands of cathedrals, churches and monasteries in Russia were closed, destroyed, dissolved or converted to other uses. Pskov Caves Monastery was only one of two monasteries (the other, Holy Trinity Monastery, was, according to the author, kept open as “window dressing” for western visitors) that the authorities never managed to shut down – a tribute to the determination of the monks, many of whom were former veterans of World War II.

As the author comments, “Having liberated their own country from the Nazis, these young warriors had paid their debt to society in full and had decided now to serve Almighty God…They were ready to engage in mortal, spiritual combat for themselves and for their living and dead companions – those who had not been called to fight this unseen yet crucial spiritual war between good and evil.”

I do recommend this book; above all it will bring home to readers what is meant by the phrase “Holy Mother Russia” – with all the religious fervour, ancient Christian faith and its own exotic characteristics that this phrase implies. It is a truism to say that Russian Orthodoxy has its own spiritual genius, very different from the Western tradition. For example, in this country you would hardly find a character like Fr Dositheus, a village priest who lived in a hermitage on a swampy island, who paddled to his parish in an unstable homemade canoe and who spent hours sitting in a hollow tree trunk praying the Jesus Prayer.