Pascha 1928 – Letter from a Soviet Prison

Serge Schmemann, son of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his wonderful little book, Echoes of a Native Land, records a letter written from one of his family members of an earlier generation, who spent several years in the prisons of the Soviets and died there. The letter, written on the night of Pascha in 1928 is to a family member, “Uncle Grishanchik” (This was Grigory Trubetskoi who had managed to emigrate to Paris). This letter should become a classic of Orthodox writing and witness to the faith that sustained so many and is today being resurrected in so many placesThe triumph of the Resurrection so transcends his prison cell it’s a wonder that the walls remained. The entire book is a wonderful read. I recommend it without reservation.

30 March/ 12 April 1928

Dear Uncle Grishanchik,

I greet you and Aunt Masha with the impending Holy Day, and I wish you all the very best. For a long, long time I have wanted to write to you, dear Uncle Grishanchik; you always showed such concern for me, you helped me so generously in a difficult moment of my life, and, mainly, your entire image is so inseparably linked for each of us, your nephews, with such wonderful memories; you always are, were, and will be our dearest, most beloved uncle.

I am approaching the fourth Easter that I will spend behind these walls, separated from my family, but the feelings for these holy days which were infused in me from earliest childhood do not fail me now; from the beginning of Holy Week I have felt the approach of the Feast, I follow the life of the Church, I repeat to myself the hymns of the Holy Week services, and in my soul there arise those feelings of tender reverence that I used to feel as a child going to confession or communion. At 35 those feelings are as strong and as deep as in those childhood years.

My dear Uncle Grishanchik, going over past Easters in my memory, I remember our last Easter at Sergiyevskoye, which we spent with you and Aunt Masha, and I felt the immediate need to write you. If you have not forgotten, Easter in 1918 was rather late, and spring was early and very warm, so when in the last weeks of Lent I had to take Aunt Masha to Ferzikovo, the roads were impassable. I remember that trip as now; it was a warm, heavy, and humid day, which consumed the last snow in the forests and gullies faster than the hottest sun; wherever you looked, water, water, and more water, and all the sounds seemed to rise from it, from the burbling and rushing of the streams on all sides to the ceaseless ring of countless larks. We had to go by sleigh – not on the road, which wound through the half-naked fields in a single muddy ridge, but alongside, carefully choosing the route. Each hoofprint, each track left by the runners, immediately turned into a small muddy stream, busily rushing off somewhere. We drove forever, exhausting the poor horse, and, finally, after successfully eluding the Polivanovo field, one of the most difficult places, I became too bold and got Aunt Masha so mired that I nearly drowned the horse and the sleigh; we had to unharness to pull it out and got wet to the eyebrows; in a word, total “local color.”

I remember the feeling I had that spring of growing strength, but that entire happy springtime din, for all the beauty and joy of awakening nature, could not muffle the sense of alarm that squeezed the heart in each of us. Either some hand rose in senseless fury to profane our Sergiyevskoye, or there was the troubling sense that our loving and closely welded family was being broken up: Sonia far off somewhere with a pile of kids, alone, separated from her husband; Seryozha, just married, we don’t know where or how, and you, my dear Uncle Grisha and Auht Masha, separated from your young ones, in constant worry over them. It was a hard and difficult time. But I believe that beyond these specific problems, this spiritual fog had a deeper common source: we all, old and young, stood then at a critical turning point: unaware of it, we were bidding farewell to a past filled with beloved memories, while ahead there loomed some hostile utterly unknown future.

And in the midst of all this came Holy Week. the spring was in that stage when nature, after a big shove to cast off winter’s shackles, suddenly grows quiet, as if resting from the first victory. But below this apparent calm there is always the sense of a complex, hidden process taking place somewhere deep in the earth, which is preparing to open up in all its force, in all the beauty  of growth and flowering. Plowing and seeding the earth rasied rich scents, and, following the plow on the sweaty, softly turning furrow, you were enveloped in the marvelous smell of moist earth. I always became intoxicated by that smell, because in it one senses the limitless creative power of nature.

I don’t know how you all felt at the time, because I lived a totally separate life and worked from morning to night in the fields, not seeing, and, yes, not wanting to see, anything else. It was too painful to think, and only total physical exhaustion gave one a chance, if not to forget, then at least to forget oneself. But with Holy Week began the services in church and at home, I had to lead the choir in rehearsal and in church; on Holy Wednesday I finished the sowing of oats and, putting away the plow and harrow, gave myself entirely over to the tuning fork. And here began that which I will never forget!

Dear Uncle Grishanchik! Do you remember the service of the Twelve Gospels in our Sergiyevskoye church? Do you remember that marvelous, inimitable manner of our little parson? This spring will be nine years that he passed away during the midnight Easter service, but even now, when I hear certain litanies or certain Gospel readings, I can hear the exhilarated voice of our kind parson, his intonations piercing to the very soul. I remember that you were taken by this service, that it had a large impact on you. I see now the huge crucifix rising in the midst of the church, with figures of the Mother of God on one side and the Apostle John on the other, framed by multicolored votive lights, the waving flame of many candles, and, among the thoroughly familiar throng of Sergiyevskoye peasants, your figure by the right wall in front of the candle counter, with a contemplative expression on your face. If you only knew what was happening in my soul at that time! It was an entire turnover, some huge, healing revelation!

Don’t be surprised that I’m writing this way; I don’t think I’m exaggerating anything, it’s just that I feel great emotion remembering all these things, because I am continuously breaking off to go to the window and listen. A quiet, starry night hangs over Moscow, and I can hear first one, then another church mark the successive Gospels with slow, measured strikes of the bell. I think of my Lina and our Marinochka, of Papa, Mama, my sisters, brothers, of all of you, feeling the sadness of expatriation in these days, all so dear and close. However painful, especially at this time, the awareness of our separation, I firmly, unshakably believe all the same that the hour will come when we will all gather together, just as you are all gathered now in my thoughts.

1/14 April – They’ve allowed me to finish writing letters, and I deliberately sat down to finish it this night. Any minute now the Easter matins will start; in our cell everything is clean, and on our large common table stand kulichi and paskha, a huge “X.B.” [Christos Voskrese “Christ is risen”] from fresh watercress is beautifully arranged on a white table cloth with brightly colored eggs all around. It’s unusually quiet in the cell; in order not to arouse the guards, we all lay down on lowered cots (there are 24 of us) in anticipation of the bells, and I sat down to write to you again.

I remember I walked out of the Sergiyevskoye church at that time overwhelmed by a mass of feelings and sensations, and my earlier spiritual fog seemed a trifle, deserving of no attention. In the great images of the Holy Week services, the horror of man’s sin and the suffering of the Creator leading to the great triumph of the resurrection, I suddenly discovered that eternal, indestructible beginning, which was also in that temporarily quiet spring, hiding in itself the seed of a total renewal of all that lives. The services continued in their stern, rich order; images replaced images, and when, on Holy Saturday, after the singing of “Arise, O Lord,” the deacon, having changed into a white robe, walked into the center of the church to the burial cloth to read the gospel about the resurrection, it seemed to me that we are all equally shaken, that we all feel and pray as one.

In the meantime, spring went on the offensive. When we walked to the Easter matins, the night was humid, heavy clouds covered the sky, and walking through the dark alleys of the linden park, I imagined a motion in the ground, as if innumerable invisible plants were pushing through the earth toward air and light.

I don’t know if our midnight Easter matins made any impression on you then. For me there never was, and never will be, anything better than Easter at Seriyevskoye. We are all too organically tied to Sergiyevskoye for anything to transcend it, to evoke so much good. This is not blind patriotism, because for all of us Seriyevskoye was that spiritual cradle in which everything by which each of us lives and breathes was born and raised.

My dear Uncle Grishanchik, as I’ve been writing to you the scattered ringing around Moscow has become a mighty festive peal. Processions have begun, the sounds of firecrackers reach us, one church after another joins the growing din of bells. The wave of sound swells. There! Somewhere entirely nearby, a small church breaks brightly through the common chord with such a joyous, exultant little voice. Sometimes it seems that the tumult has begun to wane, and suddenly a new wave rushes in with unexpected strength, a grand hymn between heaven and earth.

I cannot write any more! That which I now hear is too overwhelming, too good, to try to convey in words. The incontrovertible sermon of the Resurrection seems to rise from this mighty peal of praise. My dear uncle Grishanchik, it is so good in my soul that the only way I can express my spirit is to say to you once again, Christ is Risen!

Georgy

26 comments:

  1. Christ is Risen!
    In the prison of hopelessness,
    Christ is Risen!
    In the prison of isolation,
    Christ is Risen!
    In the prison of loneliness,
    Christ is Risen!
    In the prison of depression,
    Christ is Risen!
    Bound in shame,
    Christ is Risen!
    In the dark night of the soul,
    Christ is Risen!
    In this prison of death,
    Christ lifts us up from its pit, proclaiming,
    come, My sons and daughters…for I, the Avenger, the Almighty, am Risen!

  2. Christ is risen! This writing is so moving. And Paula, thank you for sharing those words, too. All of this I will store away to return to again and again.

  3. What a beautiful, joyous letter. I particularly enjoyed this:

    > We are all too organically tied to Sergiyevskoye for anything to transcend it, to evoke so much good. This is not blind patriotism, because for all of us Seriyevskoye was that spiritual cradle in which everything by which each of us lives and breathes was born and raised.

    The joy of being spiritually tied to a place is one that cannot be easily communicated, if you have never experienced it. A place, a home, can be rooted deep in your soul as the place of your spiritual awakening and birth (or rebirth).

    What joy.

    Christ is risen!

  4. Christ is risen!

    I have just come through one of the most difficult several months in my life—the multiple acute health crises and finally loss of my dear mother, a special needs child’s nervous breakdown, father’s dementia, a loved one’s hospitalization with mental illness relapse. In my parish, our Rector emeritas (resident retired) and current Rector have also both been through multiple personal and/or family health crises over the past couple of years, culminating with our Rector going to the ER after Friday evening service and our Rector emeritas being called upon at the last moment to lead Pascha services after his first couple weeks of chemotherapy! Still, if anything, all this deepens the thrill and joy of Pascha as we hear the refrain again and again sounding the death nell to all this death, “Christ is risen (and *not one dead remains in the grave*)!”

    Indeed He is risen!

  5. After attending all of the Blessed Services of Holy Week my car failed me as I left from work to the resurrection liturgy some 40miles away, to no avail I tried Uber in a word I missed all of the beautiful Resurrection services which each year restore my soul after 27 years of Orthodoxy I am stunned that I did not get to cry out with my brothers and sisters Christ is risen!!! I returned to work in the morning when normally I have 8 to ten orthodox coworkers, none were there I’m mourned and pouted all day , selfishly, forgetting all the great joy Infuse in my orthodox brethren. Finally getting home with the assistance of several friends I decided to breaks the fast check my emails I read this beautiful beautiful piece of writing tears rolling down my face and now I can join my brothers and Sisters and joyfully and with total sincerity of heart scream out Christo’s voskrese!!!! Thank you Father and say the wonderful writer who sits by Christ at this very moment gloryto God for all things

  6. Something about such extended suffering, isn’t there, Karen. “The way up is down” seems to be not only a reference to humility, but also to suffering . Then again, they are both the same thing, really.
    God’s grace to you Karen.
    May your mom’s memory be eternal.
    For He is Risen!

  7. Paula AZ,
    your wise words on suffering reminded me the ‘Holy Mount Athos, “60 Minutes” CBS News documentary’, where Father Serapion of Simonoptetra (Fr Serapion was blessed to finally go to Our beloved Lord two weeks ago – from torturous cancer all over his body), saying: “the first thing is to embrace and love death, because death is the ticket to the other life; what we do each day is prepare for death, joyful about our journey to Heaven”.

    As the Paschal cannon goes: ‘For Christ God has brought us from death unto life and for Earth unto Heaven’…

  8. Moving article. When I read this article or others like it, I am amazed at the vibrancy of the Orthodox faith here in Russia. This year at Pascha, like other years, the churches were packed. Even cab drivers greet you with, “Христос Воскресе.” The symbols of the faith are seen everywhere. Saturday morning we turned on the Orthodox channel on TV and watched the services in Moscow and listened as the hosts explained exactly what was being done to the audience. The governmental powers sought for over 70 years to obliterate the Orthodox faith from this land. They did not. It is alive and well here in Russia.

  9. Charles,

    I was in something of the same boat this Pascha. I made it to services but, about 1 hour in, began to suffer horrible stomach cramps. As I had last eaten roughly 9-10 hours before, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Suffice to say that I could not remain and, after an hour or so, went home to about 12 hours of pain and suffering, broken only by short “rests” and bouts of “stomach cleansing” (not the hugs I had envisioned on such a wonderful day)!

    It made for a reserved Pascha and I noted this morning that I was less enthused, although happy to be well. I’ve since realized that this (quite painful) bout really stripped away pretenses of joy. Taking part in the Feast is not the same as taking part in His Resurrection. Even as weak as I am, I can still cry out, “Glory to God in All Things!”. It is a joyous occasion, regardless of circumstances!

  10. Hal,
    Thank you for your sharing about your life in Russia. For other readers, Hal is a distant cousin in my extended Freeman family back in SC – we only met after a mutual priest friends asked about our ancestry. Hal is married to a Russian and lives in Russia. I treasure his observations and accurate accounts of life there (versus the insane propaganda of American pseudo-news-on all channels).

  11. Thank you very much Hal and Father Stephen such affirmations are certainly appreciated and heart warming.

  12. Father…so your distant cousin became Orthodox, married a Russian woman and lives in Russia and you are an Orthodox Priest with a heart especially dear to Russia, and you two did not know each other until later when that connection was made. Now that is one of those not-so-coincidental coincidences! I love when that happens!
    Hal, thanks for your comment. Indeed, our news media terribly distorts, with full intent to still enmity. Very encouraging to hear the Faith remains solid in Russia. They strike me as a very resilient people. And very devoted.

  13. When I visited Russia in 2015, on a pilgrimage with members of my parish, as a group we were all amazed at how people were in the Churches every morning–weekdays and weekends–venerating the Icons, praying, and worshiping. I still treasure that experience and would love to go back!

  14. Dino…a little late on this response, sorry…
    Thanks for mentioning that CBS documentary. At your mention, I enjoyed watching it again. I am sorry to hear about the loss of Fr. Serapion and the suffering he endured, yet very glad he is with his Lord. I imagine the brothers miss him very much.

    (Just some more thoughts….)
    I am only beginning to understand the paradox of joyful suffering. Not long ago on this blog there was talk about existential crisis. I never did understand what that meant, as defined by those words. But they are words that were invented to describe an experience that people have encountered as long as we’ve been here on this earth. It was only over the past year having suffered significant losses, that I realize the meaning of existential crisis. When your life changes through events that surround you, you begin to wonder “now what?”. Just when you thought you knew your purpose by definition of the things you attach yourself to, those things change, or go away completely. Really, the only true and unchanging existence is in the Everlasting One…solid, unchanging, true and faithful. And these things we attach ourselves to are gifts from God, to be thankful for and to glorify Him, not to take upon ourselves and covet as our own. So we offer them all back to God. But you can not know this apart from suffering loss. Well, Christ shows us this, yes, in His Passion. But we have to experience it…sometimes greatly, before it begins to sink in.

    St John of the Ladder says shame can only be healed by shame. Anger, hatred, envy, jealousy…the root of shame…can only be healed, not by dishing out shame, anger, envy and jealousy, but by enduring it. This is the paradox of death, dying to self, which brings Life…”except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone”…if we don’t “die” we remain alone (the ultimate despair!). The death which leads to Life consists in the very act itself of bearing the burden. Like St Paul says:
    “As it is written:
    “For Your sake we are killed all day long;
    We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
    But then he goes on to say:
    ” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death [!] nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing [!], shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
    You know…Father says repeatedly…everything in passing in our time here on earth…past, present, and future… is only rightfully seen in the Crucified and Risen Christ. I only wish I really knew the depth of this truth. I don’t know if it is possible to fully understand these things. But I’m beginning to see bits and pieces. Those monks on the Holy Mountain….they know much more because they have devoted themselves to that special monastic calling that more readily affords such wisdom. That is why we look to them. Thank God they pray for us.

  15. Paula AZ
    Christ is Risen! It is as you say.
    Father has spoken against the modern notion of self-progress, but if there is a traditional notion of this ‘progress’ , it is the continuous movement towards greater detachment from everything (and above all our egotism) and more secure intimacy and Union to God’s will, in trusting abandon to His providence, no-matter-what.

  16. Indeed He is Risen!
    Oh yes, not to forget, “above all our egotism” …. “in trusting abandon…no matter what”. Two Amens, Dino!
    It is a journey of a lifetime. It is The Way.

    Thanks, brother…

  17. “…ceaseless ring of countless larks…”

    “…There! Somewhere entirely nearby, a small church breaks brightly through the common chord with such a joyous, exultant little voice. Sometimes it seems that the tumult has begun to wane, and suddenly a new wave rushes in with unexpected strength, a grand hymn between heaven and earth….”

    The very physicality of the uprising of spring and the Resurrection are one. Glory to God!

    Christ is Risen!
    Indeed He is Risen!

  18. Paula AZ et al,
    I was thinking of Fr Serapion, and of others in terminal illnesses, and then picked up Elder Aimilianos on illnesses to read [my translation]:

    During our illnesses and tribulations let us be entirely entrusted upon God. Let us not even consider that something is befalling us. Let us not be concerned, distressed, pained; let us not despair or panic, but let us be utterly rested upon, surrendered to the hands of God. May His will be our only desire.
    Some people never believe that they can be cured, that their soul’s angst or their body’s suffering, or their spirit’s temptation can ever go away, and this makes their torture increase a thousand-fold. They forget that God can, if He knows this will be to our benefit, in one instant make all these troubles disappear.
    Others believe that God will, of necessity, cure them; but this is not really faith, it is but human wilfulness, and when these people become later disproved they reach the opposite conclusions.
    Let us walk absolutely free, liberated from wishes and desires, from anxieties and worries or expectations and hopes; may we be light and spry in the knowledge that we are resting upon the wings of the Holy Spirit, not thinking that something cumbersome is occurring in our lives.
    If God so wishes, I can immediately be cured miraculously, or I might go to Him in two months. Maybe I will be resurrected from the grave in order to sleep in the Lord again like Lazarus after eighteen years. But if God wants me to live, I will serve Him and His will wholeheartedly. Everything is God’s business and not mine. Can I think like that? Everything is part of His perfect providence. For us and for those we think of, commending them to Christ our God means that ‘whether we live or die’, whether we stand or depart is the same. What matters is God.

  19. Thank you Father!

    I am struck by how many posts there have been of Paschas with broken down cars, stomach cramps, and other health problems. Unlike those who were not able to attend, I made it through the services this Pascha but with a great deal of nausea and other health issues related to a chronic auto-immune issue I have. I was NOT able to focus on the service as I have in the past. I kept wondering why God would let this happen on Pascha. Although I’ve been through four years of Orthodox seminary, I’m still a fairly recent convert (this was my 7th Pascha since chrismation). I suppose I thought that God would always preserve my health on special days like Pascha!

    But reading all these comments, and thinking about Pascha in a prison camp, I think there is a deeper meaning to all this. Instead of focusing on the fact that God didn’t preserve my full health this Pascha, perhaps the main point is that Christ’s resurrection points toward our “remembering” our resurrection to eternal life with (I hope) Christ, where nothing including bodily ailments can keep us from worshipping Him. Instead of bemoaning my sickness, I can see it in light of the Paschal services that (whether I’m there or not) will always remain in my heart as a promise that God took on my suffering and filled it with His eternal life.

  20. Indeed He is risen, dear Giorgi, and Father Stephen – thank you for bringing this letter! I treasure this book and the small miracle that brought it to me, so I join with you in recommending it highly. My youngest son is named for this radiant young man – radiant even as he is about to be sent to the gulag! Our little church stood in the shadow of his dear Sergiyevskoye for many years and remains a shining beacon in my heart.

    Each of us is in bondage to some extent , imaging at Eastertime this extraordinary sound of the multitudinous ringing of the bells in captive churches sounding freedom as they evoke the glory of the natural world – what a joy! What a time! Memory of blessed moments from our childhood or younger days is the flame that sustains us in the worst of times — and such blessed memories!

    Christ is Risen!

  21. Dear Dino…
    I tell you, it is a blessing to know someone out there is also contemplating these issues of life. Thank you for coming forward and sharing your thoughts.
    The Elder is right…of coarse he is.
    When I can ‘get over’ my frustrations, the tension of the true reality of Life and not quite being there, I can ‘hear’ what the Elder is saying. We are told our life is hidden in Christ, in His glorious Resurrection. That we will be known as we really are when we see Him face to Face. I know this is true. The tension is living in ‘time and space’ in ‘the body’, and simultaneously living ‘in Christ’ in the eternal ‘now’. If ever there was an existential crisis, this has got to be it. This situation which has always been, ever since Christ took on our nature, has only recently occurred to me as I reach my elder years. Inescapable losses, including the wasting away of bodily strength, combined with living alone, after lamenting all this (like Jonah under the tree) has actually bought me closer to God. Even if I didn’t live alone, He would still be the only One to carry me through. But living alone, I do not have to expect help from those who would take responsibility for my welfare, because there is no one else. I do not know how else to describe this. I do not want ‘pity’ or sentimental sorrow, but just to acknowledge that this is a difficult situation. Take my word for it. Add to that, the challenge of being a woman and the ‘expectations’ and assumptions we encounter as our ‘role’ in society…well, all I can say is that over the years those expectations have added to an already hardened heart. Not a few have asked me how I ‘do it’…take care of the farm, etc etc. I do it, by the grace of God, and no other way. Not to say my stubbornness may help some. But He is utterly merciful in the face of my shame and anger…my sin. (This is the consuming Fire, by the way, I believe we all will face at the Dread Judgement)
    Now, considering all this, and reading the Elder’s advice (just reread his first paragraph),,,I have to believe that he is talking about an ideal situation. Really Dino…isn’t he? Are we not, by the grace of God, moving toward this realization? I am ‘in the middle’, here ‘in the body’, but turning and returning my face toward God.
    I think the dross slowly dissipates. Sometimes it is noticeable, most of the time not. The Elder asks “can we think like this?”. I answer somewhat shortly ‘Yes!’…Yes! I can think like this! It is the thinking and doing that have not quite come together so much.
    This Lent and Pascha was a heavy one. I do not have a hip-hip-hooray kind of tone and thus shout ‘Christ is Risen!’ (another expectation?). It is more like seeing a miracle right in front of my eyes…it takes your breath and causes much wonder. God is good. Christ is indeed Risen.

  22. Paula AZ
    It is true that the Elder had a naturally stoic predisposition and would retain an aristocratic impertubability in the face of what many would consider unprecedented distresses. So he had a head start. But he would want all Christians to be living proofs of their ‘total turn towards God alone’ through their fearless Joy.
    I will put you in my prayers from today.

  23. Dino,
    Yes, as our Elder and a Father, he would wan’t only the best for us and nothing less.
    Thank you ever so much for your prayers.

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