This is an incredible story of the over 1400 years of the Church - this is the Church that has always existed in
Russia outside the gates of organized religion. From Cyril, travelling to deliver the gospel of Jesus and creating a written language to spread the gospel that
is still in use today (Cyrillic), to Leo Tolstoy and the believers living under czars and communism. This is about the most amazing tale I have ever read, and
gives a clue as to what the Church looks like when it is unfettered by tradition and trying to mainly follow scripture and the leading of the Holy Spirit. One
thing in here that caught my eye was that hundreds of years ago, part of this Church was taught by the Holy Spirit how to observe the Feast Days. God taught
these believers what to do and what those Feasts meant. There is some controversy now of whether or not the Church of Jesus is meant to have anything atall to
do with observing ANYthing in the Old Testament. Well, clearly God had a purpose in teaching these things to these old country believers living outside of
institutional religion, outside the Orthodox or Catholic or even Protestant churches. Just reading this story is so inspiring - how the Church developed with
no outside interference as to doctrine or beliefs, where these people were led, and how the gospel was spread across Russia - even through SIBERIA! - during
persecutions that lasted for generations:
The Russians' Secret
What Christians Today Would Survive Persecution?
by Peter Hoover with Serguei V. Petrov
in early Christian times, already appealed to believers intent on doing great things for Christ. The early Christians venerated martyrs, the dates of whose executions grew into a calendar of saints, and wearing a martyrs' halo is still extremely popular. But martyr's halos do not come in the mail.
A great amount of persecution faced by Christians today results not from what they believe, but from what they own, and from where they come. Missionaries in poor countries lose their possessions, and sometimes their lives, because people associate them with foreign wealth.
Other "martyrs" lose their lives in political conflict. But does having our vehicles and cameras stolen, our children kidnapped, or being killed for political "correctness," assure that we have "witnessed for Jesus" (martyr means witness,Rev. 6:9, 12:17, and 19:10)?
Real martyrs for Christ do not wear halos. They only carry crosses. Most people, even Christians, quickly discredit and forget these martyrs. Real martyrs suffer persecution, not like "great heroes of the faith" but like eccentrics and fools.
Ordinary people usually consider them fanatics. Does that disappoint or alarm you?
Do not worry. Reading this book about Russia's "underground" believers will assure you that if you are a typical Western Christian you will never face persecution. You will never have to be a real martyr for Christ.
Only if you are not typical - if you choose to be a "weed that floats upstream" - you may want to know the secret by which Russian Christianity survived through a thousand years of suffering.
"True to the spirit of Russia's believers, this work gives a colorful and detailed description of faith 'underground.' But what makes it unique is the author's penetration of the soul of Russian belief - in so many ways dissimilar to western belief in God." -
Leonid Maslennikov, Russian professor, James Madison University
"Westerners have become increasingly aware of the Russian people's deep roots in Eastern Orthodoxy.
The Russians' Secret introduces us to 'another' side of Russian Christianity not as well known in the West, the 'little traditions' of sectarian, mystical, and evangelical faith that have always existed alongside the official Orthodox church. This book, written for the general reader, offers a sweeping and detailed view of those radical Christian movements without stooping to superficiality." -
William Rushby, member, Rockingham Meeting of Conservative Friends and independent scholar.
Acknowledgements and Dedication
Chapter 1. Speaking Without a Tongue
Chapter 2. Snow, Fire, and Gold
Chapter 3. Old Russia--Its Heart and Soul
Chapter 4. Not With Observation
Chapter 5. Christ Victorious
Chapter 6. With Him
Chapter 7. The Antichrist
Chapter 8. Nonconformity
Chapter 9. Nemtsy
Chapter 10. Bread and Salt
Chapter 11. Mysteries and Miracles
Chapter 12. Salt and Light
Chapter 13. An Explosion
Chapter 14. Ivan
Chapter 15. Christ in Camouflage
Chapter 16. The Kingdom Within
Chapter 17. A Rainbow
Chapter 18. The Lion and The Bear
Chapter 19. Red Sky at Sundown
Chapter 20. Risen and Forever Alive
Chapter 21. The Pilgrim's Way
Chapter 22. Survival
Note on Names
Molokans Around the World
My hope is that the publication of this book on the Internet will encourage you to follow Christ in all you do. Please let me know what you think of this book and if it has been helpful. Other comments or suggestions are also welcomed. Thank you!
Paul Breneman PO Box 3817 Columbus, OH 43210-0817
y greatest debt is to Serguei Valeryevich Petrov of Moscow, Russia, a member of the Rockingham Meeting of Conservative Friends. Serguei read the first draft of this manuscript, and offered numerous corrections both in fact and perspective. In addition, he helped to rewrite the chapter on the Old Believers and sections of the chapters on the Spirit Christians. He brought to this task a knowledge of the Russian sources as well as a sympathy and identification with the spiritual heritage of the Russian Christians. Serguei's Russian perspective complemented and corrected my own North American Anabaptist orientation.Because of his important contributions, I would like to acknowledge him as a coauthor.
To all who long for freedom from this world's things and fellowship with the Infinite, we present this book with a prayer that your longings may lead to eternal reality.
The loud ringing of a bell interrupted our class. The teacher commanded all of us to crawl under our desks. I was an elementary student in the public school system. It was the early 1960s, and we had just gone through an air raid drill. Substantial buildings in town were designated as fallout shelters in case of a nuclear attack. The Cold War was on, and it seemed that everyone was worried about the Russians.
As a young boy growing up in a Christian home, I was shielded from the things that most of my classmates were seeing in movies and on television. They did not seem to be bothered by the threat of war and violence. But I was petrified. To me, the Russians were atheists, and the prospect of meeting them was quite dismal. I was a believer in Christ! There could be no compromise!
As I was thinking about my own welfare, it did not occur to me to consider the experience of believers who actually lived in Russia. They were Russians too, numbering in the thousands!
What would it be like living as a Russian? Had the government of Russia always been opposed to Christianity? If not, what took place in history to bring the nation to this place?
The Russians' Secret tells about life in Russia, not only in recent times, but also through a thousand years of history. The rulers as well as the common people come alive in this story, with names and narratives about them that captivate the reader.
Many of these people were believers. Their lives had short intervals of peace, but most lived daily with the threat of prison and death. While we in the West were trying to protect ourselves and our lands from Russian aggression, the Russian believers were giving up their families, possessions, and lives for Christ's sake.
How did the believers remain faithful in this intense persecution? Why did the church grow so rapidly and large while experiencing horrible suffering? Why did so many believers turn their backs on wealth and fame to be numbered with the poor? Why did they choose suffering? What was their secret?
They believed Jesus, and they loved him! Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he die, yet shall he live!" (John 11:25)
"For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection" (Rom. 6:5).
Death to the Russian believers was not the end, but the beginning! It was the path to life. They saw a victorious Christ. Their lives were a celebration of Christ's resurrection, and their victory was found in calling on the name of Jesus.
Many believers refused to compromise on what some would call minor issues.
Simply refusing to sign their name to a government document often meant years in prison, separation from family, and ultimate death. Believers in the West often have faulted them for such "unnecessary" disobedience. Was their consequent suffering senseless or was it a crucial part of the secret? The reader will have the opportunity to ponder the answer for himself.
Today, I am a father. My concerns and questions have changed. The question is not "Will persecution come to us?" But we must ask: "Have I chosen the path of suffering?" Will my children choose this path as well, or will the world swallow them? Is there a Christian bypass around this path, and will it lead then to Christ?
Our society has not become more Christ-friendly, yet there seems to be little pressure on the church. Is it because the church is in essence no threat to the world system?
The world does not hate good morals or values. It hates the Son! Where the Son is revealed, suffering follows.
The Russian believers succeeded when Jesus was their sole devotion. He became their Mighty Warrior who was also the Victor!
This book will encourage those who are risen with Christ to "set [their] affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For [they] are dead and [their] life is hid with Christ in God."
Lynn F. Martin
Shippensburg Christian Fellowship
October 23, 1999
Speaking Without a Tongue
The sun set in gold on a treeless ocean of snow, the Kulunda Steppe, at the end of Christmas, 1963. Here and there a dry weed stood in the snow. Snow had blown across the frozen river Ob. It had whirled down the streets of Barnaul, filling the gaps between small houses and piling itself on their back window sills. Smoke curled from the houses and from a square cement-block building in the middle of town. But in those houses and in that sparsely lit building the snowy evening produced no coziness, and Christmas it was not supposed to be.
In their over clothes, Vasily and Nikolai Khmara, and one woman, Lyubov Khmara, stood before the Altai Regional Court.
One year earlier no one would have found this surprising. The Khmaras were wild living people. Nikolai, an incorrigible drunkard, had gotten
into so many fights no one kept track of them all. The Khmaras stole and got into trouble with the law.
But now, at the end of 1963, those who knew them felt differently. Instinctively they felt that something wrong was taking place-that the Khmaras should not be in court-and they feared.
The Khmaras had become "believers" and changed their ways. No one doubted that it happened. Nikolai, whom no one knew apart from his drunkenness or periods of grouchy irresponsibility had become a new man. His face shone. He wore clean clothes. He smiled and helped the neighbours. In the summer of 1963 a visiting believer had taken him and his wife Mariya down to the river and baptised them.
Now they stood before the court.
"Why must you tell others what you believe?" one of the judges, a woman with a knitted cap and a red nose, asked Nikolai. "Why
can't you keep your nonsense to yourself and stop contaminating the town?"
Nikolai answered gladly, with a smile, "I was a drunkard. I came to know Christ. He rescued me from my bad way of life and gave me hope and joy. It is so good with Christ I cannot help but share what I have found!"
Cries of disgust and impatience rose from around the room. "We don't need your preaching! Hush him up comrades, judges! Give him a week in solitary confinement and we'll see whether Christ gives him hope and joy!"
It was time to close the court anyway. The prosecutors had said what they planned to say. The judges had listened to the defendants long enough. After a brief recess and the defendants' last address their verdict came: Vasily, Nikolai and Lyubov Khmara, three years in a labour camp after processing in a local jail.
Three years. Without Nikolai, the chief encouragement in their new way of life, the time looked long to Mariya and their four children. But it turned out short.
After two weeks the police asked Mariya to pick up her husband's body. He had died, they said, and would come home in a sealed coffin.
Neither Mariya nor the other believers of the Kulunda Steppe could believe that
Nikolai had died a normal death. He was not old. Since he had stopped drinking he had enjoyed excellent health, so they pried the lid off his metal coffin to see him.
Their imagination could not have prepared them for what they saw. Bruises covered his body. People in the prison had burned the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet. They had torn out his finger and toe nails. They had taken a sharp, heated object to puncture his abdomen and his legs were swollen and blue.
Already horrified, Mariya noticed his mouth stuffed with cotton. When she removed it she saw they had pulled out his tongue.
Piece by piece, the believers at Barnaul learned the story of Nikolai's death in jail.
Other prisoners told how he had spoken fearlessly to everyone about Christ. They told how he had comforted the downhearted and warned the godless to repent until they fell on him in senseless rage. Nikolai's funeral was sad, but not hopeless. Many other believers were in prison at the time. Some of their wives and children could attend. But the funeral, as young people sang and those who had known Nikolai spoke to the crowd, turned strangely from grief and horror into an atmosphere of other-worldly joy. "Do not weep for Nikolai," Mariya admonished her friends through tears. "He is with the Lord. Weep for those still in darkness!"
All over Russia, in secret meetings in back rooms, brothers and sisters cheered one another with the words: "Brother Nikolai lives! Like Christ he overcame the devil and hell. They cut out his tongue and killed him, but like Abel he still speaks!"
What does he speak?
Russia's believers have not found it easy to put into words. Thirty years have passed. Situations in Russia and elsewhere have drastically changed, but more people than ever are anxious to hear what he says. Nikolai, and numberless Russians who like him remained true to what they believed in the face of the devil's worst opposition have something to say.
Shall we listen?
Snow, Fire, and Gold
Russia-strange and wild stories of murder, villages burning, wheat fields ripening on the steppe, long trains of rickety wagons, and horses fleeing in the mud, winter in Siberia-even though we had heard them before, our wonder as children grew while we listened to the grandmother talk.
The grandmother lived far from Russia, in Canada. After the Bolshevik revolution and her husband's death, she escaped from Borosenko, in the Ukraine, with her children. When she fell off a wagon she broke her back. Now she was tiny and stooped half over. Others of the family had stayed behind and fled east through Siberia to Blagoveschensk and Manchuria. There they crossed the Amur river on the ice into China. "They got so hungry," the grandmother told us, "that they thanked God for the Chinese who let them drink their dish water." Eventually those of the family who survived got reunited in Brazil.
As she grew older the grandmother began to forget where she was, in North or South America, in Asia, or Europe. But more often than not she would peer through her flower plants onto her Kitchener street and watch for the neighbours she knew-in Russia. That, theoretically, would not have been impossible. Many Russian immigrants lived in Kitchener, Ontario. Several immigrant congregations met in the city and through them I became aware of more to the story.
That awareness involved my friendship, and eventually marriage, to Susan Krahn (with relatives in an unregistered congregation in Kazakhstan), the mission
Licht im Osten, and a book given to us in 1972. The book, Christen unter Hammer und Sichel 1 (Christians under
Hammer and Sickle), became my first introduction to a strange new world-a world where Christian believers survived incredible opposition for a thousand years.
More than that, where they have flourished, often numbering in the millions "under ground."
How did they do it?
What to Expect
I took as a clue to the Russians' secret what seemed the most obvious: One should expect to suffer while following Christ.
Both what Russian believers wrote and the story of their sufferings in snowy oblivion pointed to such a view of life. The "underground church" of the 1970's was the child of an "underground church" of the early 1900's. That church, in turn, descended from an "underground church" of the 1860's that came from an "underground" tradition that took me like a subway train with only a few quick stops on the surface back to where Christianity began. Georgi Vins, a Russian believer, wrote in the 1960's:
The history of the Evangelical Christian and Baptist Church in Russia, except for a short period of time, has been the history of a people doomed to lifelong suffering, a history of camps and imprisonment affecting fathers, children and grandchildren. . . .
Persecution has become hereditary-our grandfathers were persecuted, our fathers were persecuted; now we ourselves are persecuted and oppressed,
while our children are suffering hardships and deprivations.
2 A young medical student, tried for Christian activity before
a Soviet court in Odessa declared in 1967: The church lives as long as it suffers. Looking at the history of Christianity
we see how faith in Christ survived as long as the church suffered. On the other hand, when the church no longer walked with Christ its sufferings ended.
3 All this I believed, but I soon found a more important clue:
What to Expect in Life to Come
My father has an adopted cousin (the six-foot-seven "giant" of our growing up years) who came from Russia to Canada. His parents owned a vast estate in the Ukraine. But they lost their lives in the Bolshevik Revolution and left cousin Andrey (we called him Henry) an orphan. He knew I liked to read. One day when I stopped in to see him he told me to take any book I wanted from his library. I chose the autobiography of a Russian believer, Ivan Prokhanov, published in 1933. In the book I found a "Call to Resurrection" addressed by Russian believers to "all Christians in the world" in 1928:
With the greeting
Khristos voskrese! (Christ is risen!) we write to you. . . . Today, like in Christ's time the power that transformed Zacchaeus and the thief on the cross still works! From its source (Christ) a stream of light, love and peace still flows into all the world. . . . Those who live by Christ's Gospel still get the power to forget themselves and serve others for the healing of the human race. But by holding up a little parasol or drawing the curtains we can keep the sun from shining on us. In the same way, by making little changes to the Gospel, men have obstructed its radiant light and kept masses of people in darkness.
There is nothing wrong with the light! The Sun of the Gospel still shines! . . . He who has ears to hear, let him hear what God says to the church:
Khristos voskrese! Let us rise and walk in the light!
4 Resurrection and light from heaven. A fire of hope! When Christians suffer with Christ do they naturally become optimistic? Wherever I turned among Russian Christian writings I sensed their joy in springtime and the Resurrection of Christ.
At first I supposed it was the counterpart-the "other side of the coin"-of suffering, and that it might be the secret to their survival under persecution. But then I discovered a third clue:
What "Conversion" Meant in Russia
In 1978 I began to teach school in northeastern Ontario. The fall colours, yellow and flaming orange, were coming on. Up from the log house where I stayed with the family of three of my students, I would climb over rail fences, cross a creek, and sit on lichen-spotted boulders high above a pasture where the lead cow with a bell grazed among her companions. Abandoned houses and barns, very small and wooden, stood among sunlit hills and land that had been farmed. On the upper side of that pasture a road led through the trees, down into a clearing along the Madawaska river and a Christian community at a place called Combermere.
The people with whom I stayed were friends of the community and soon took me for a visit. We bought used clothing at their second-hand store. But as I learned, little by little, the story behind them, I got unspeakably more from the people at Combermere than used pants and shirts.
Yekaterina Kolyschkin, once the Baroness de Hueck and later the wife of a famous writer had come to this place in the Canadian "taiga" to rediscover her Russian Christian roots. Many had followed her and from that the community had grown.
Yekaterina spent her childhood on the estate of her wealthy father near St. Petersburg, in tsarist Russia. At fifteen she married the baron Boris de Hueck. In 1917 she accompanied her husband, a Russian officer, to the German front and served as a nurse. After the Bolshevik revolution, penniless and starving, she fled with him and her infant son through Finland to Canada. Times were hard. Her husband turned sick and could not work. Yekaterina washed clothes, worked as a maid, and finally got a job as a sales clerk in New York City. There another woman discovered who she was, a "baroness in rags," and arranged for her to tell a group of people about her experiences. So strange was her story that she soon got appointments to speak in many places and made three hundred dollars a week.
Yekaterina expected her return to wealth and good fortune to make her happy. But exactly the opposite occurred. Boris left her and died. The fine house and car she bought lay heavily on her conscience and made her miserable. Now that she knew the "fellowship of poverty" (life among the lowest classes) the world's artificial pleasures disgusted her. Then she turned to the Gospels and remembered Russia.
In Russia it had not been uncommon for people to take the Gospel literally. Every so often it happened. A man or woman simply "left the world" and began to follow Christ. Yekaterina particularly remembered a very wealthy man named Pyotr.
One evening Pyotr came to her father and said, "Fyodor, I have been reading the Gospels and I have decided to follow Christ." Her father listened and Pyotr went on, "I am going to take my money out of the bank and give it away." It did not take long. Pyotr and Yekaterina's father loaded the bags of silver pieces (there were many bags) onto a wagon pulled by three horses. They drove into the poorest section of St. Petersburg and started giving them away. When the wagon was empty they returned home. Pyotr, dressed in the rough linen of a peasant, with a stick in his hand, a loaf of bread and a little bag of salt kissed Yekaterina's father good-bye and set off walking down the road. They stood and watched him disappear in the sunset's golden light.
Now, remembering him, it became clear to Yekaterina what Christ wanted her to do. She bought her son what he needed, gave her own things away and moved into an apartment in a Toronto slum. It was 1931.
Yekaterina enjoyed immediate rapport with the poor as she lived among them and served them. She spent more time in New York and in 1947 she
moved with her second husband (Boris had died) to Combermere, Ontario. There her testimony, and the community that formed around her, led me much closer to
discovering the secret of Russia's persecuted believers. But before it came to me I looked deeper into . . .
1 Winrich Scheffbuch, Christen unter Hammer und Sichel, Wuppertal: R. Brockhaus Verlag, 1972
2 Bourdeaux, Faith on Trial in Russia
3 Scheffbuch, Christen unter Hammer und Sichel
4 Prokhanov, In The Cauldron of Russia
- Its Heart and Soul
Yekaterina, when she left all to follow Christ, remembered a common but very special kind of Russian believer: the
poustinik. Every so often some peasant, and less frequently a wealthy person in Russia, like Pyotr, would get rid of his or her things and take to the poustinia. That word means desert.
The poustinik however did not go to a literal desert. He only put on rough linen clothing and went to live in the barest, simplest house in the village. There, with no lock on the door, he lived with nothing but the Bible, his daily bread, and his clothes. The poustinik was no hermit. On call, day or night, he lived to help others. Whether that meant feeding the sick, counselling a distressed sinner at midnight, or quick helping a farmer get his hay in before it rained, did not matter. He lived in the "desert" of freedom from personal ambition and let Christ use him however it suited. All his free time he spent in his house or garden alone.
Committed to discover what Russia's believers knew and we did not, I set out on a spiritual journey through the land of the Tsars, secret meetings in woods and basements, Tolstoy's estate at Yasnaya Polyana, green valleys between snow capped ranges in the Caucasus, communities of Spirit Wrestlers in Tambov, Saratov and Tver, Old Believers so poor they used cow stomachs for window panes in Siberia, a monastery of logs on the River Sora . . . and back to where its story began, in what is now the Ukrainian Republic.
Horsemen on the streets of Kiev did not worry whose clothes got splattered in AD 980. The women of Kiev did not wear silk. Under thick straw roofs they sat in log houses to braid shoes from birch bark while tending their food cooking on open fires. Kiev was a young city, and its ruler, Prince Vladimir, was a young man.
All Russia, in fact-centred around Kiev on the Dnepr River-felt young in AD 980. Young and rough. Prince Vladimir began his rule by killing his oldest brother (who, in turn, had killed his remaining brothers) to rule after their father died.
Such events-murders, treachery, and acts of revenge-took place only too frequently among Slavs and Norsemen (Varangians) who lived along both sides of the broad Dnepr.
1 But far to the south, in Greek Thessalonika, a series of events had begun that would change Russia forever.
Long before Prince Vladimir with his seven wives and wooden idols overcame his brother and made himself ruler of
Russia in Kiev, a young man in Thessalonika overcame himself and decided not to rule, but to serve Christ. His name was Cyril.
He spoke Greek. Like other Christians in Thessalonika Cyril kept to the way of Christ even though many had grown careless and worldly. He prepared to serve Christ by studying at the Imperial University at Constantinople.
In the capitol of the Byzantine Empire-a glorious city where the Emperor, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, numberless merchants, prelates, and military officials lived in splendour-Cyril felt tiny but not lost. He studied to graduate as soon as possible and gained a commission to travel on official business to Arabic and Khazar
2 tribes in the east. During his stay with the Khazars, to whom he told stories from the Bible, Cyril learned all he could about wide steppes and forested lands to the north. He learned about other tribes-Russian Slavs among them-who lived in settled villages, who farmed and raised fruits, but who served wooden idols. After he came to know some of them Cyril sensed what Christ wanted him to do.
Back in Constantinople Cyril learned that Ratislav, a leader of a Slavic tribe north of the Danube River had called for Christian teachers. With his brother Methodius he set out in 863 A. D. to answer that call.
Up the rivers and through the forested wilderness where Ratislav's people lived (in what is now the Czech Republic) Cyril and Methodius worked their way, learning Slavonic
3 while teaching Christ. From the beginning Cyril determined to teach the Slavs what Christ himself taught. But a serious obstacle stood in the way. Very few Slavs could read and write. Those who could, used a disorderly collection of letters to portray Slavonic sounds. Cyril purposed at once to teach them a better way.
With Methodius' help Cyril gathered a circle of Slavic youths about him, and began to write in charcoal, big black letters on birch bark, while making sounds. It did not take long. The boys hurried home, thrilled with their discovery that "birch bark speaks" and told their parents about a great teacher whom their Greek instructors said had taught them.
As their knowledge of Slavonic increased, Cyril and Methodius discovered that their Greek alphabet did not have letters to match all its sounds. Also, writing with crude materials did not produce nice looking Greek. But Cyril did not despair. With the help of another Christian who came to Moravia, Clement of Ohrid, he borrowed bold, easy shapes from Hebrew and Greek and invented others. "We can use other alphabets as a pattern," he decided, "and if we find nothing suitable we will simply have to make our own."
That alphabet, now used by several hundred million Slavs,
4 is called Cyrillic and
Cyril did not die until he had taught people how to use it, written for them numerous books, and overseen for them the translation of the entire Bible, including the Apocrypha.
The "Conversion" of Russia
By the time Cyril and Methodius died a large number of Western Slavs knew of Christ and the Scriptures. Many had gotten baptised. But few Eastern Slavs (Russians) heard about Christ until Basil II, the "Christian" emperor of Byzantium,
5 asked Prince Vladimir to help him fight the Bulgars. Russians and Byzantines, fighting together, won the battle. They celebrated their victory and were happy together until the emperor learned what Prince Vladimir wanted for his wage: Basil's sister Anna in marriage. Basil and his sister were shocked. Vladimir already had seven wives. Anna was an educated Byzantine woman and a "Christian." To think of her living in pagan Russia filled them with horror. But Vladimir would not change his mind. When Anna refused to come to Kiev, he called his troops together and overran the Crimean peninsula (Byzantine territory), taking the city of Kherson (later Sevastopol) and all its people as hostages.
Then Basil made a proposition: If Prince Vladimir and the Russians would convert to Christianity, Anna would come. Vladimir happily agreed. Anna packed her belongings and landed a short time later-still apprehensive-on the Crimean shore.
Vladimir called his troops together for a great feast and wedding celebration. A Greek priest-a
pope as they called them in Byzantium-baptised him by immersion and united him to Anna in marriage. Then the Russians hurried back the Dnepr to Kiev. Everywhere Vladimir shouted: "We are Christians now! Out with the false gods!"
In Kiev the whole city came down to the river at Vladimir's command. Encircled by previously "Christened" warriors with sabres unsheathed, the people could do nothing but allow themselves to be pulled into the water and baptized. Vladimir tore down the temple he had built and threw the idols, including a huge statue of the Slavic god Perun, into the Dnepr. Men with long sticks pushed the idols out from the shore and sent them across the rapids of the Dnepr, downstream. All through Russia, from Kiev to Novgorod the
Volkhvy (pagan priests) fled, their temples fell, and warriors helped priests to baptise masses of people at once.
Sixty years later a Kievan chronicler wrote:
The darkness of the demonic cult perished and the sun of the Gospel shone over our land. The idols' temples were destroyed, and churches built. The idols were broken down and ikons of the saints appeared. Demons fled away. The cross sanctified the towns. As shepherds of spiritual lambs came presbyters, priests and deacons, offering the immaculate sacrifice. They adorned all the sanctuary and vested holy churches with beauty. Angel's trumpet and Gospel's thunder sounded through all the towns. Incense rising to God sanctified the air. Monasteries stood on mountains. Men and women, small and great, all people filled holy churches.
6 AD 988, the date of the great baptism at Kiev, marked the
beginning of Christianity as the state religion of Russia. But the Kingdom of Heaven, the spiritual territory of the poustinikki and the "underground" church, came . . .
1 Slavic tribes were among the first to settle in Russia. Herodotes already mentions settlements of farmers, believed to be the ancestors of the Eastern Slavs, that lived as neighbours to Scythians (nomadic horsemen) north of the Black Sea. Scholars believe them to be predecessors of the Eastern Slavs.
2 Like the Scythians, who lived north of the Black Sea in Bible Times, the Khazars lived in tent villages, moving about the Don and Volga areas on horseback. Before the middleof the eighth century they converted to Judaism.
3 A language still spoken in its ancient form in Macedonia.
4 Russians, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Macedonians, Serbs, and many non-Slavic minorities living in Russia today
5 After the emperor Constantine I got "converted" in AD 313, the Roman Empire became Christian in name, although its government remained foundationally pagan and totally unlike the Kingdom of Heaven described in the New Testament.
6 Ilaryon of Kiev, Sermon on Law and Grace, ca. 1050
Not With Observation
The first Christians could not have believed the story of Russia's violent "conversion." They would not have wanted to believe it. Neither would they have wanted to hear what went on in "Christian" Constantinople at the time. But thanks to Christ and what the Byzantine church remembered of him, a miracle happened.
Byzantine priests who came to Russia with Anna worked hand in hand with Prince Vladimir. In black robes, wearing untrimmed beards and black cylindrical hats, they hung up painted ikons. They swung censors with smoking incense. Behind ornate partitions in new churches that sprang up everywhere, they celebrated the Eucharist while people stood chanting Psalms and prayers. But the priests did more than observe ritual. Reading from the Scriptures was still an important part of Byzantine worship and in Russia this led to results that no one could have foreseen.
Anna's priests brought Cyril's Slavonic Bible with them. When they read from it Russians looked up, startled, to hear simple stories in their own language.
Cyril's translators had done well with the Gospels. They wrote down Jesus' stories and the Acts of the Apostles in such simple Slavonic that no one could misunderstand them. But when they got to the epistles they had problems. Many words in the Greek text had no Slavonic equivalent so they invented new words.
First the Western Slavs, and now the Russians, did not know what they meant.
This made the epistles cumbersome to read and hard to remember. The first priests in Russia discovered this, and decided to stick with the Gospels, at least for most services throughout the year. The Russians, especially the illiterate, could not hear enough of the Gospels' stories anyway (even though they stood through services that lasted from five to seven hours) and eagerly learned to sing Greek hymns along with them.
Two Kinds of Christians
During the Dark Ages, in a time of great wickedness and turmoil among "Christian" nations, the people of
Russia heard the Gospel. In many hearts it fell on good ground. It sprouted, and produced far more fruit than anyone could have expected.
How did it happen? Were the Russians blind to Byzantium's faults?
Not at all.
Centuries before Russia's "conversion," Byzantine Christianity had become a "state church." Christians in Byzantium believed God wanted their emperors to rule the world. They expected their emperors to punish evil, protect the church, and conquer infidels in the name of Christ. This led them into terrible worldliness and sin.
No kings on earth had lived as sumptuously as the "Christian" emperors at Constantinople. None had carried as many magnificent titles, and perhaps none had been so persistently wicked. After Constantine I (the "converted" emperor) who had his son killed and his wife suffocated in her bathroom, thirty Byzantine emperors died violently-starved, poisoned, blinded, bludgeoned, strangled, stabbed, dismembered or decapitated. Never-ending intrigues tore royal families apart and turned church or government officials against one another. People came to expect that young rulers would kill off their brothers and when enemies or evildoers needed punishment their imagination knew no bounds.
In Byzantium, drowning thieves or apostates was not enough. "Christian" authorities drowned people in bags with live pigs, roosters, snakes, and monkeys.
Lawbreakers paid fines by having a hand or foot cut off, or perhaps an ear.
Standard punishments included the splitting of noses, the cutting out of tongues, and setting people onto pointed stakes. Whole armies were regularly blinded and castrated. In the very battle Prince Vladimir fought with the Byzantines, they took fifteen thousand young men as prisoners of war. Out of every hundred they left one with eyes to guide them home. So dreadful was the sight that when their ruler saw them come-wailing, clutching one another, and trailing blood as they stumbled along-he went into shock and died.
All this the Russians knew only too well. And what they had not seen among "Christians" in Byzantium, they soon saw at Kiev. But the Lord helped them understand that this was only one side-the dark and "worldly" side of Christianity in the 900s-and to be sure there was another side.
Here and there in the Byzantine empire, often hidden but resting firm on Christ, remnants of true faith and holiness remained.
Here and there, especially in religious orders, honest men and women loved Christ and lived in communion with him. They treasured the teachings of Christ and obeyed him. Speaking and reading Greek, they still used early Christian writings. They sang early Christian songs. Even in Russia, where missionaries had come to Greek colonies along the Black Sea (perhaps already in Paul's time) some knew there was more to Christianity than what Prince Vladimir had found.
In Bulgaria and Moravia, some Christian Slavs, students of Cyril and Methodius, had always believed the Gospels at face value. They had long learned to take what was good from Greek Christianity and leave the rest. Hundreds of Russians, especially those who worked hard and were poor, the
muzhiks (peasants), now learned to do the same. Not caring or even knowing about Byzantine theology, not bowing to the state church but to Christ, they let much of what they heard "go in one ear and come out the other," like Filofey a believer from Pskov who wrote:
I am a villager. I have learned to read and to write, but I have not examined Greek subtleties. I have not read the rhetors and astronomers. I
was not born in Athens and have not conversed with the philosophers. All I have studied is the teaching of Christ.
The "Church" and the "Believers"
Most Russians did not doubt that some of their "Christian" rulers (both national and church leaders), were villains racing down the broad road to hell. They deplored the fact but did not expect it otherwise. After all, those very rulers claimed to be successors of Israel's kings. That some of them should be Sauls, Ahabs, or Manassehs had to be taken in stride. But while their rulers built "Golden Kiev," crowning it with crosses, towers, and shining domes, another kingdom took shape in Russia.
It was an
inner kingdom-a kingdom of believers-ruled by . . .
1 Gorodetzky, Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk
From the halls of churches in which they stood to worship,
1 Russian Christians looked up into great domes from where Christ's likeness, serene on his rainbow throne, shone down upon them. Byzantine artists depicted Christ for them as the Ruler of the Universe, surrounded by the martyrs and prophets of both Testaments, patriarchs, apostles, and heavenly hosts in the glory and light of the
Resurrection. For centuries following, all Russian believers (long after they left the Greek church) stood in awe of Christ's majesty and worshipped him. But they knew that Christ, like David, grew up among common people and he did not intimidate them.
Russian Christians remembered how Christ suffered helplessly on the cross: the "Good Friday Christ." But they saw him in their day as a mighty warrior, standing victor over Satan, death, and hell: the "Christ of the Resurrection." Ilaryon of Kiev wrote in 1050:
Christ was a true man, not in appearance but truly in our flesh. Yet he was perfect God. . . . He suffered for me
as man, but as God remained incorruptible. He died, even though he was immortal, to bring me to life from the dead. He descended to Hell to rescue my
forefather Adam and to bind the devil. Then Godly majesty came back to him. After three days he rose from the dead. He arose the victor. He arose to be Christ
2 Russian Christians did not only see Christ as a victim of God's justice. They saw him as God's pride and joy, his brave Son who dared break down the gates of hell, bind the devil, and rescue them from Satan like David rescued his lambs from the lion and the bear. Kirill Turovsky, presbyter in a small town near Kiev, wrote in the mid-1100s:
Our Lord Christ was crucified as a man, but as God he eclipsed the sun, and changed the moon into blood, bringing the whole earth into darkness. As man, he cried and yielded up the ghost, but as God he shook the earth and tore the rocks in two. As man he was pierced in his side. But as God he tore the veil apart. . . . He darkened the sun, shook the earth and made all creatures lament, to destroy the hidden battlements of hell. Souls living there saw the light and Eve's tears turned to joy. . . . Then the Angel hosts, running with him, shouted, "Lift up your heads, O you gates, and the Kin of glory shall come in." As he freed bound souls and chained the hostile powers they sang, "Where is your sting, oh death? And hell, where is your victory?"
Christ as Lord and Master
Next to his rising from the dead, the Russians celebrated Christ's ascending to heaven-the feast of his
Christ is our brother. But he is much more than a common fellow-family member-someone always around and to whom one has little responsibility. He is our Joseph, now placed by the King of Heaven in direct command over us. Even though he likes to do us special favours, the Russians felt like falling on their faces when bringing petitions before him. For the muzhiks, in particular, that came naturally.
For as long as they knew, the muzhiks had served powerful masters. If they had a good master they lived happily. Everything and everyone depended on him. But if they had a bad one they suffered. They considered themselves fortunate, therefore, to have a good master like Christ in heaven. They believed that Christ, like David, was a good shepherd while on earth. But like David he fought the boasting giant (Satan, Goliath) and won. Now, like David in Jerusalem, he sits on his golden throne.
With King David/Christ for their master-commanding them wisely, taking care of them and easily able to protect them from their enemy (Satan)-Russian believers gladly lived as slaves. Slaves of Christ they entertained no thought of sinning and getting by. Kirill Turovsky wrote:
You are a candle for another to light and use. Only to the doors of the church may you have a will of your own. Do not examine how and what you are made of. You are a cloth. Only until someone picks you up may you be conscious of yourself. Do not worry if they tear you up for footwear.
From the Greek (Byzantine) Church, Russians learned that two birds sing in paradise: the bird of sorrow and the bird of joy. Only through the sorrow of repentance, tribulation, and bodily death, they believed, does it become possible for us to discover everlasting joy. An eleventh century believer, a man who signed his name "Vasily" wrote:
Have a meek gait, a meek way of sitting, a meek glance. . . .
Lower your voice.
Eat and drink without shouting and with moderation.
Keep silence before old people.
Do not argue.
Do not laugh easily.
Hold the eyes low and the soul high.
My child, always remember death. Thinking about death will teach you what is good and how you are to live in this short space of life.
3 Living precarious lives in a vast, cold, isolated land, no Russian could take death lightly. Georgy, a tenth century celibate of Zarub, wrote to a friend:
Avoid foolish laughter. Do not bring jugglers, clowns, or musicians into your home for amusement. That is pagan, not Christian. Those who must be amused are unbelievers.
Always remember ferocious death, its suddenness, how many it ravishes without giving them time to say a word. And what comes after it? Is it not judgment and various torments, cruel, endless . . . and thrones of glory and crowns in heaven for the righteous? . . . Bear the fear of God in your heart and love him.
A believer who signed his name "Gennady" wrote:
It is most profitable for repentance to visit the dying. Who is not struck to the heart by seeing one of his own kind descend into the grave, his name stroked out, and the glory of fortune rotting away?
Straight-forward talk about death did not, however, make Russian believers gloomy or affectedly "pious." They wept easily-especially in church-but foreigners who came to know them reported their outstanding friendliness, their spontaneity and good humour.
Neither did thinking about death bring Russian believers to morbid fear. It brought them to peace and trust in God. The anonymous author of the
Introduction to Repentance wrote:
Jesus Christ who takes away the sins of the whole world will take away yours as well-if you repent with all your heart and do what he wants you to do.
If you have stolen, go and return what you stole. Make things right with those you have wronged-at once. Then come in true repentance and your sins will all be forgiven.
Grace and Truth
Russian believers did not make much of grace meaning "God's unmerited favour."
Neither did they limit grace to the sacraments.
Starting with John 1:14
4 they ordinarily spoke of grace in connection with truth (pravda, which included for them the concept of fairness or social equity) and believed it to be God's enabling power. It took grace, they said, to live the truth.
Grace and truth transforms sinners into saints and prepares them for eternal life.
Ilaryon of Kiev wrote:
Moses' law was a forerunner and pointed to grace and truth. In the same way grace and truth point to the world to come and eternal life. . . . Moses and the prophets led men to Christ. Christ and his apostles (full of grace and truth), lead us to the resurrection and the world to come.
The Jews were made righteous by laws and pictures of future things. Christians are saved by grace and truth. For the Jews, justification is in this world. For us salvation will be in ages to come.
Justification, for Russian believers, was much more than knowing oneself to be "just as if one had not sinned." Righteousness was much more than to be doctrinally "right" like the Pharisee in the temple. Neither justice nor righteousness, for them, had moral value apart from human experience. To be "just" was to give beds to strangers and food to the poor. To be righteous was to think little of oneself, and to deny oneself of unnecessary luxuries.
Believers and the Poor
Though they served Christ as the King of Heaven, Russian believers did not forget how he lived on earth. In Judaea-before his victory and heavenly coronation- they knew he had lived among slaves and the poor. His followers, they believed, should do likewise.
The man who signed his name "Gennady" wrote:
Do not say, "I am the son of a rich man and poverty is a shame for me." Nobody is richer than Christ, your heavenly Father who engendered you in baptism. Yet he walked in poverty with nowhere to lay his head.
Without a doubt, two Greek Christians, John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea had much to do with the Russian' feeling for the poor. The writings of both men,
translated to Slavonic soon after the time of Cyril and Methodius, got widely circulated in Russia. The Russians loved to hear them read and to this day, innumerable parents name their baby boys
Ivan or Vasily, the Russian forms of the good men's names.
John Chrysostom, one of the last "early Christians" to speak of community and Christ's view of wealth, not only advocated helping the poor. He rejected the idea that people could be rich and Christian at the same time. The Russians translated what he wrote about the Rich Man and Lazarus and used that theme for innumerable songs and stories. Basil of Caesarea wrote in the same spirit:
Are you not a robber, you who consider your own what you received only to distribute to others? The bread you set aside is the bread of the hungry. The garment you have locked away is the clothing of the naked. The shoes you let rot are the shoes of him who has none. The riches you hoard are the riches of the poor.
Gennady of Kiev wrote in the eleventh century:
When you are sitting at a table loaded with many kinds of food, remember those who eat stale bread and cannot fetch water because they are sick. . . . While enjoying your drinks remember the one who drinks warm water, heated by the sun and mixed with dust. . . . Lying in featherbeds and stretching out your limbs, remember the one who sleeps on the bare earth under rags, with his legs curled up for the cold.
Russians did not look down on people who handled their money recklessly, particularly not if they did so because of Christ. The wayward son of Christ's parable was not described as
prodigal (something that did not seem evil to them) but as profligate in their Slavonic Bibles. An early example of this attitude was Fyodor Pechersky.
Fyodor, born into a family of boyars did not care for senseless games and the diversions of the wealthy. He put on simple clothes and worked with his father's serfs in the fields. When his friends and family made fun of him he said, "Our Lord Jesus Christ humbled himself and allowed others to degrade him. Shall we not follow his example?" After his father died (he was only thirteen) he escaped from home and set out to be a wandering pilgrim. But his mother caught him and put him into chains.
Even then, Fyodor could not be restrained. As soon as he was on his own he went to live in caves the Varangians had dug for a hideout years before in chalky heights above the Dnepr, south of Kiev. A friend, Nikon, and others joined him.
Over the years, Christian celibates had lived in the caves, digging them deeper and adding tunnels until they become like the catacombs. Fyodor
liked living there, but he strongly disapproved of Christians hiding away and not serving others.
"Remembering Christ's command," he told the cave dwellers, "I tell you that it is good for us to feed the hungry and care for the homeless with the fruits of our labour. . . . If God were not to lift us up and feed us through the poor, of what value would be our work?"
Fyodor got the cave dwellers to live together in community. Together they built a guest house for travelers, a hospital for the sick, and set up a soup kitchen for the hungry. Fyodor established a pattern by being the first to volunteer to chop firewood, peel onions for the soup, or weed the community garden. Nikon (with many eager helpers) began to translate, copy books by hand, and bind them for distribution. The community's members baked bread for the hungry in prison and when they heard of people in trouble anywhere, they risked their lives, if necessary, to assist or intercede. To explain their actions, Fyodor wrote:
Should the words of the Gospel not cause our hearts to burn? . . . What did we do for Christ that he chose us? What motivated him to rescued us from our precarious situation? Have we not all strayed from the way and become useless to him? . . . Yet he did not leave us alone in our predicament. He did not despise us.
Rather he took the form of a servant and became like us.
He looked for us until he found us. He carried us on his shoulders and took us back to sit at our Father's right hand. Do you not see his mercy and love for man?
We did not look for him. He found us! . . . Christ, the Word of God, came to earth not for himself but for others. He suffered and died for all. He excludes no one from his love, so why should we?
Another earnest Russian, a believer named Yakov, wrote to a young man:
If you wish to imitate the apostles' miracles it is within your power. They made the lame walk and healed dried-up hands. You can raise up the lame in faith and start them walking to church and religious events again. You can make their hands, dried up from avarice, flexible again by giving to the poor.
Along with sharing with the poor, the Russians counted it a sacred opportunity to give lodging or food to strangers. They had frequent opportunity to do so. They lived far apart on bad roads and long winters made travel difficult in the snow. But in the villages they needed no hotels. Gladly, even though her pantry was bare, the wife of the poorest muzhik would share her last piece of bread with whoever came to the door.
5 The last and greatest sin to keep people out of heaven, the Russians believed, was to have treated a beggar unkindly.
Christ rules heaven and earth. God has highly exalted him. But he reached his high position, Russian believers taught, through poverty, humility, and love.
6 It looked like a mystery. How could a person by choosing the way down, come out on top? How shall the meek subdue the mighty, the weak overcome the strong, and the poor triumph over the rich? The Russians could not answer, but they knew Christ walked this way and determined to follow him. Even to the cross.
Kirill Turovsky wrote to a friend:
You should take the example of Christ who suffered from birth to death. You should remember how people laid things
in his way. They slandered him. They tried to insult him, and in the end he was wounded for your sake.
Yakov, in a letter to Dmitry his "spiritual son" described the sufferings of Christ:
He was almighty. Angels carried him. But look at him now in bonds, with soldiers leading him around. In heaven he sat at his Father's right hand. But look at him now, standing before the archpriest and the Roman governor . . . He had shone, on the mountain, more brightly than the sun. But now the ungodly beat him and spit into his face!
The fact that Christ never fought back deeply impressed Russian believers, and his patience in suffering-turning the other cheek-became their ideal. Two of Prince Vladimir's sons were among the first to live up to it.
Before his death, Prince Vladimir dispatched his twelve sons to the twelve main settlements of Russia. He hoped they would become Christian leaders for the Russian people and show them how to live. But his hopes could not have resulted in greater disappointment. Svyatopolk, the oldest son who took his father's place at Kiev was a scoundrel. As a young man he already got into trouble, but Vladimir punished him lightly and forgave him. The second son, Yaroslav, a kind and thoughtful man, went to Novgorod. Everyone left home, even the two youngest sons, Boris and Gleb.
Boris and Gleb particularly liked one another. Boris loved to read and entertained Gleb with stories from the Bible and early Greek Christians during winter evenings. When he married in his mid-teens and had to leave for Rostov, and Gleb (still an adolescent) for Murom, they missed one another.
Soon afterward they learned of their father Prince Vladimir's death-and on the heels of it that Svyatopolk, the new prince, intended to kill all his brothers. Boris was already traveling to Kiev when he discovered that a party of murderers was already on its way and about to fall upon him. "What shall I, as a Christian, do now?" Boris asked his companions. "Now that we know, shall we defend ourselves?"
For a long time at night, in their camp by the Alta River Boris struggled with temptation. He went out to stand under the stars alone. He prayed, until he remembered the words of John: "If a may say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar. For he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?"
Suddenly it became clear to him. "Of course, as a Christian I will suffer wrong like Christ. I cannot defend myself. If God wants to protect me that is up to him. But if not I will die like Christ, unarmed."
With a sense of imminent victory already upon him, Boris returned to his companions and said:
Supposing I should take my father's place in Kiev the people would no doubt pervert my heart and I might well treat my brothers like I am now being treated. . . . I might do wickedly for the sake of glory and the kingdom of this world which passes away-a kingdom that hangs on less than a spider's web. . . .
What, after all, did my father and his brothers gain? Where are they now? Of what value is the glory of this world: the purple robes and
ornaments, the silver and gold, the wine and mead, the tasty food, swift horses, high and stately houses, many possessions, tributes and honour without measure
and the pride of those who served them? All this is like it never existed. Everything disappeared with them . . . For this reason, Solomon, having passed
through all and acquired everything, said: vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
7 Before he sent his companions away so he could meet his brother's murderers alone, Boris prayed, "Lord Jesus, you came to earth like a man and let men nail you, unjustly, to the cross. You accepted that suffering patiently. Now I ask you, give me grace to accept mine. I must suffer not from my enemies but from my brother. Lord, do not count it against him."
With such calm did Boris meet his murderers when they arrived that they hardly knew what to do. But a rough youth among them threw the first
lance. One of Boris's companions, a Magyar who could not bring himself to desert him, threw himself in the way. But the men, once they began, could not be
deterred. They rolled Boris's body in a mat and brought it back to Kiev in a cart.
Gleb, coming down the Dnepr in a boat met the murderers near Smolensk, coming upstream. When he discovered their intentions he cried, "Don't harm me brothers, please don't! I did you no evil. . . . Have mercy on my youth. Have mercy, lords! You may be my masters and I your slave, but do not reap me from my immature life. Do not reap the unripe ear. Do not cut down the vine-shoot that has not grown up. . . ."
Svyatopolk's men took no mercy on him. Spotting one of their comrades on Gleb's boat (the man who did his cooking) they got him on their side. He jumped on Gleb and cut his throat.
"You forsook the perishable glory of this world," wrote the chronicler about Gleb. "You hated the kingdom of this world and loved purity. You have suffered a wicked death without resisting your murderous brother in any way. . . . You were killed for the sake of the perfect Lamb, the Saviour of our Souls who was sacrificed for us."
No doubt the chroniclers who wrote the story of Boris and Gleb somewhat "standardized" the account to give it literary form. But the murder of the two boys and their nonresistant response shook Russia to its foundations. What, in fact, was this strange new Gospel that came with Anna from Byzantium? Such a thing had not happened before. That fair-haired Kievan princes who discovered a death plot against them would choose not to defend themselves- it was unreal! All over Russia people began to ask: How seriously should Jesus' Gospel be taken? To some it became steadily clearer that if allowed free course, the Gospel would not stop until it totally changed their lives.
After the boys' death, Yaroslav returned from Novgorod. Svyatopolk, for whom the people felt nothing but horror and shame, fled to Poland. But multitudes who visited the graves of Boris and Gleb, the "holy sufferers," in Kiev left with a strange new flame burning in their hearts.
To live like Christ-to follow him through suffering and death-it dawned on them, is the way to triumph with him in heaven. This led them, even in deepest poverty and distress, to . . .
The Love of Beauty
When Fyodor Dostoyevsky made what perhaps became his best-loved statement,
"The world will be saved by beauty," he put more to words than what meets the eye. Nine centuries before him, the believers of Russia already began to discover that truth.
8 The love of beauty (called by the Greeks philokalia) came to Russians in hard circumstances. Scattered in settlements hundreds if not thousands of verst removed one from another, they spent months at a time with little else but God.
Frightful winters came upon them. Snow fell thick and fast in the fall and came to stay-obliterating trails and loading birch trees and houses alike with a deep blanket of silence. People died in the winter, from sicknesses no one knew, from cold and hunger. The sun grew small and pale above the southern horizon.
But in the spring, in the time of the Holy Celebration
9 when snow disappeared, the sun shone warmly, and fields of young wheat turned green in its heavenly light, the people of Russia revived. They prostrated themselves to the east. They closed their eyes-overwhelmed in the goodness of deep black soil, bees in the plum blossoms, and white clouds like wool floating once more above the steppes and awakening forests.
In the late tenth century David, a man from Smolensk on the Dnepr tried to put his feelings to words:
God immortal! I praise you for everything you made. You are the only King. You give all good things for your creatures to enjoy. You made this earth and watch over it, waiting for those you have placed on it to return to you. You honour with heavenly grace those who lead a good life. . . . All your judgments are fair. You are forever alive. You give your grace to all who look to you.
Vladimir Monomakh wrote:
Who would not praise you God? Who would not glorify your power and your great wonder and beauty visible on this earth? We are amazed Lord, how you rule the heavens, the sun, the moon and the stars! We are amazed at darkness and light, and the earth that floats on water Lord, by your goodness! We are amazed at how you adorned the animals, the birds and the fish! This wonder we admire: how you created man out of dust and how varied are the looks of human faces!
Even if we brought the whole world together, no two faces should be found exactly alike. In your wisdom you gave us all a personal image. We stand amazed at the birds! The birds from paradise that do not stay in one country but fly, both the strong and the weak, over all countries by your command. They fly over all the forests and fields. All this Lord, you gave for our food and joy! . . . And you teach the birds to sing for our delight as well as yours!
To notice beauty is to notice God. Russians saw beauty and rejoiced, even where others drew back in fear. "I love thundershowers in the spring," wrote Fyodor Tyutchev. "From east to west joyful thunder rumbles through the sky. Water nimbly courses down. In the forest birds cannot be silent. Their twittering conversation, water running-all things echo thunder's heavenly joy!"
Worship and the love of beauty became one in Russian experience.
Umilenie, they called it, a word they sometimes equated with the Greek,
katanuxis (a tingling sensation, inner experience heightened to the point of reeling or
dizziness). To have umilenie was to become conscious of God to the point that one's heart changed. It came to Russian believers in the repentance attitude.
In umilenie they got grace to live in truth. In umilenie they freed themselves from earthly things. Once I began to understand this, and as umilenie became a
part of my own experience, I knew how Russian believers survived persecution. They did far more than just "follow Christ." They walked . . .
1 Eastern Orthodox churches are divided into three sections: the "hall" where the audience stands, the "altar" where the Eucharist is consecrated, and the sacristy.
2 Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind (remaining quotations in this chapter from this work unless identified otherwise)
3 Vasily's epistle, a letter of instruction written before his death, is usually called "Pseudo-Vasily" because its author, following a Byzantine and Russian tradition, remained anonymous by using a pseudonym.
4 The Word was made flesh , and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
5 Mennonites, who settled in Russia in the 1700's, gave testimony to this.
6 2 Corinthians 13:4: "He was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God's power."
7 Quotations on Boris and Gleb taken from translations of Skazanie (The Legend), written not long after the boys' death and translated by Georgy Fedotov.
8 A Russian legend tells how Prince Vladimir sent his men to the Khazars, to the Turks, and to Byzantium to find the best religion. The men found Judaism dull. They did not like Muslim worship. But in Byzantium, they reported "we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. On earth there is no such splendour or such beauty. We are at a loss to describe it. We only know that God lives there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. We cannot forget that beauty. Every man, once he has tasted the sweet, refuses to settle for the sour any longer." The legend is definitely fictitious. But its depiction of Russian character-seeking God in the beautiful while leaving rational judgment out of the picture-is true to form. Russian believers, even after they knew Christ and the Bible, tended to operate this way.
9 The Feast of the Resurrection
Travelers coming to a halt at the gate of the compound of the Prince of Chernigov on the Desna often glanced sharply at the young man who let them in. Even in rain and falling snow he greeted them warmly and seemed happy. "Who is that boy?" they would ask, feeling sorry for him with his poor clothes in the cold.
"That is Nikolai," the stable servants would answer. "He lives and works with us. But. . . " with a strange look on their faces they would add, "he is the prince's son."
Travelers wondered and observed.
It began when Nikolai, as far back as he could remember, stood among crowds of worshipers in Chernigov's cathedral of Christ the Redeemer
in the centre of town.
Above the rising incense, above the ikons, high above the people singing Slavonic hymns, he saw the calm, manly, face of Christ the King. It shone from the dome.
Far above all else, it held Nikolai's gaze through the service, but he wondered what the three strange letters beside it meant.
"Those letters," his mother had told him, "are Greek. They spell the name of Christ."
"But how can three letters spell Jesus?" Nikolai wanted to know. His mother was unable to answer and not until he became a teenager and studied Greek did he discover what they meant.
The three letters
···, stand for YHWH, the name God gave himself at Sinai. Greek
Christians believed that was the same as Yah-Shua-the name they translated "Jesus"-and with the first Christians and Jews, they respected it deeply. They also believed that man's salvation somehow depended on it.
"How does it work?" Nikolai would ask himself. "Does the word Jesus have magical power? Will anything happen by simply "calling on the name of the Lord?" But when his teacher, a staretz who lived a godly life, told him to try it even though he did not understand, he obeyed.
He began by saying "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me," every once in a while, like the staretz had told him. By himself he said it out loud. In the company of others he said it silently, in his mind. At first it was almost embarrassing, knowing how well Christ heard him every time he said it. But he gradually became more confident. Saying the name, he knew, was to greet Christ, and he found that every time he did it the awareness of being in his presence jolted him.
At first he kept that awareness only for short times. But the oftener he said the name the more it grew on him, and within a few days his life began to change. A well-to-do and friendly boy, Nikolai had been popular among the teenagers of Chernigov. But now, conscious of being in Christ's presence, their stories no longer amused him. Stylish clothes, and racing about on horseback so the girls would notice, suddenly seemed foolish.
Nikolai used to hate getting up in the morning and poked at his work. But now, waking up to "call on the name" he began each day with mounting excitement. It worked! Calling on the name of the Lord throughout the day-day after day- saved him!
When he felt guilty he called on the name and confessed.
When fear overtook him, or boredom, or embarrassment, or pride, or anger- every emotion came to heel when he called on the name of Christ. When
bad thoughts popped up (as they often did) he called on the name and they left. So simple! It had to be too good for real. Yet it was real, and all who knew
Nikolai Svyatosha, son of the prince of Chernigov, felt the shock of his transformation.
Nikolai moved from his father's palace into the workers' quarters. He gave his horse, his good clothes, and all his money away. Then, even though his parents were embarrassed to tears, he asked the head steward for a job in the kitchen and later on as a gatekeeper.
It worked strangely. His popularity among the well-to-do ended at once (people thought he had lost his mind), but the stable boys, the muzhiks, the beggars-vast numbers of people from the surrounding countryside heard of Nikolai and came to visit him. They held him in deep respect.
Nikolai had studied much. Now he taught those who came to see him. He learned how to make clothes and took care of sick people, taking every
opportunity to lead Russian Christians from the painted "Christs" of their churches to the real Christ.
"All it takes to be saved," Nikolai told them, "is to become fully aware of him.
Then all it takes to stay saved is to keep that awareness by calling on his name."
Early Christian Teaching
It was not hard for the common people of Chernigov to accept what Nikolai Svyatosha told them. They had heard of "calling on the name of the Lord to be saved" ever since Byzantine Christianity came to Russia a hundred years earlier.
Fyodosy Pechersky had spoken of it. So had Vladimir Monomakh and others who learned through John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea what the early Christians believed.
The early Christians, Russian believers discovered, took their teaching about the name of Christ from Joel's prophecy. Immediately after Pentecost, when Peter spoke to the people he quoted Joel, "Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." On another occasion he added: "For there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." Paul repeated that same prophecy in his letter to the Romans.
The early Christians, remembering what Christ said after his resurrection, 1 associated repentance and forgiveness of sins with his name. They did not think of baptizing converts without calling on it. But
"calling on the name of the Lord" was more to them than a one-time formality. They kept on doing it to be washed, sanctified, and justified.
2 All this, especially for the Gentiles, became a fulfillment of Jewish predictions that many would trust in the Anointed One's name. And it confirmed what the Old Testament said about finding salvation in it -especially the words of King David.
Like King David who called on the Lord in his temple, the early Christians called on him in their hearts and discovered a quiet place in his
presence. It was their most holy place-out of reach of what went on the world and of what others did to them. And those who knew it discovered inner fellowship
one with another.We enter Christ's presence, the early Christians believed, through constant inner prayer.
3 For this reason we need no elaborate outer demonstrations. When we pray we do not need to shout, cry, or babble like the heathen.
Since we cannot put our deepest feelings to words and the Spirit of God must speak for us, our words may as well be few. Just being still and knowing that God is God, is also prayer. Basil of Caesarea, a church leader of the fourth century already counseled Christians to reduce all prayer to the words Nikolai Svyatosha learned: "Lord Jesus, have mercy!" This became known in the Greek church as the "Jesus Prayer."
One could pray the Jesus Prayer in any circumstance. John Chrysostom wrote in the fourth century:
No one should say that a person too busy or unable to attend formal worship cannot pray all the time. You can set up an altar to God anywhere, in your mind.
You can pray where you work, while traveling, standing behind a counter, or with your tools in hand. Everywhere, any time, you can pray. And to be sure, if people get serious they do pray!
If people believed that prayer is of all things the most important they would make sure they got it done. They would make necessary conversations with others shorter. They would spend more time in silence and not bother repeating things of no consequence. Neither would they waste time worrying.
If people would pray, their actions would show that power comes from calling on the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . They would discover how easy it is, calling on his name, to rise from vocal prayer to prayer of the mind, and from that to prayer of the heart which opens up the Kingdom of God within us.
Greek Christian Teaching
Those who loved Christ and remained faithful to him, thousands of Greek Christians scattered through the Byzantine Empire, had kept beliefs and practices of the early church alive. It had not been easy. But among the things they remembered was the teaching on "perpetual prayer," and after A.D. 988 they brought it to Russia.
Isaac, a Greek Christian in Jerusalem wrote in the 400's:
The one who desires to see Christ purifies his heart by remembering him constantly. By doing this he discovers his
spiritual country within. The sun that shines on that country is the light of the Holy Trinity. The air its inhabitants breathe is the All-holy Spirit. Its
Life, joy and gladness is Christ. Its Light of Lights is the Father. This country is Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God within us, like Christ said.
5 John, a Greek celibate of Sinai, wrote in the late 500's:
When the spirit is darkened by unclean thoughts, put the enemy to flight by the name of Jesus, repeated frequently. A more powerful and effective weapon than this you will not find in heaven or on earth.
6 Kallistos, a cook's helper in Greece who learned the secret of the name and helped many to salvation wrote:
To pray without ceasing is to call without ceasing on the name of the Lord.
Whether talking, sitting, walking, working with our hands, eating, or occupied in any other way, we should at all times and in every place call on the name of the Lord. . . . If we do this, Satan's attempts on our life will fail.
We must pray with the heart. When we are alone it is also good to pray with the mouth. But when we are in the market or with others we should
not pray with the lips, but only with the mind. We must keep our eyes in control, looking away from distraction and the enemy's snares. Prayer reaches
perfection when we offer it to God without our minds wandering away. It reaches perfection when all our thoughts and feelings are gathered into one prayer:
"Lord Jesus, have mercy!"
7 Barsanofius, another Greek Christian, wrote:
Watching, while spiritually awake, completely delivers us with God's help from sinful actions, thoughts, and words. . . . Silence of heart, a guarding of the mind, it is to stand at attention, thinking of nothing else but to call on Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
8 Gregory, a member of a Greek community at Sinai, wrote in the 1300's:
None of us, to be sure, can control our minds by ourselves. When bad thoughts come it is only by calling often, at regular intervals, on the name of Jesus Christ that our minds quiet down and bad thoughts go away.
The secret of Salvation lies in unceasing prayer. Christian, if you feel unable to worship God in spirit and in truth, if nothing comes to you (no sensation of warmth or fulfillment) when you pray, then you must simply do what you can.
You can call on the name of Jesus. You can do it frequently and keep it up. It takes little effort and anyone can do it.
To pray continually can certainly become a habit. It can become our second nature, bringing our minds and hearts continually back to the right
place. If people obeyed God in this one area (to pray continually) they would obey him in everything, for those who keep calling in secret on Jesus'
name-even though they must force themselves to do it at first-have no time for foolish talking, for criticizing their neighbours, or for wasting their time in
sinful entertainment. If people would remember Christ their sinful thoughts would diminish. Their sinful ideas (hatched in idleness) would not get carried out.
Multitudes of unnecessary words would never get said, and for calling on his holy name, every sin would be washed from their souls.
Niceforus, a Greek teacher of the later Byzantine period, summed up what those who still followed Christ believed. "Calling on the name of the Lord," he said, "leads one to salvation without hard work and sweat."
In Russia, Feodosy Pechersky may first have written about Christ awareness. But by his time the simple practice of "calling on the name of the Lord to be saved" had spread among the common people. To them it was "prayer"-living in the presence of God.
To pray is to open one's soul to the light. . . . Do not neglect prayer, the soul's nourishment. As a body deprived of food suffers and grows weak, so the soul deprived of prayer heads toward spiritual death.
Centuries later the author of one of the "home wisdom" documents wrote:
My son, be low of head but high in spirit. Keep your eyes on the earth but let your soul rise up. Keep your lips closed but always cry in your heart to the Lord.
Keep your feet walking humbly but race in the spirit to the gate of heaven.
11 Vasily Polyanomerulsky, Serafim Sarovsky, Paisy Yaroslavov who translated Greek Christian documents into Slavonic, and other Russian believers wrote about the Jesus Prayer. But after Nikolai Svyatosha perhaps no one did more to teach it to the people than one of Paisy Yaroslavov's students, a young man called Nil.
Nil (as a child they had called him Nikolai too) grew up in a peasant village fifty years before Columbus discovered America. His parents were poor people and could not read. But they believed and walked with Christ. They made it possible for Nil to learn how to read and he fulfilled their desires by studying Christian writings.
Nil read the Gospels and the first letters to the churches, then he discovered more. "Like a bee flitting from one beautiful flower to another," he described his search among Greek Christian writings "to know the garden of life and Christian truth."
He discovered in them a treasurehouse of practical instructions and made it his life's work to translate and copy them.
A number of Nil's friends joined him at a small clearing beside the Sora River.
They built log houses. They set up a chapel where-dressed like peasants in linen-they celebrated communion in crudely carved vessels. But these things did not matter. Their aim was to translate and copy by hand as carefully and as much as they could for the Russian people.
Nil also wrote. Aware of Christ and the value of standing in silence before him, he instructed the people:
Prayer of the heart is the source of all blessing. It waters the soul like rain does a garden.
Just as frost ruins a garden, so an excess of human conversation (even when it is good), destroys the tender flowers of virtue that come to bloom in an atmosphere of silence.
12 Nil Sorsky, like the early Christians, taught against the foolishness of long, eloquent prayers. He believed in "calling on the name of the Lord," but even in this he encouraged believers not to overdo themselves. Work and worship, if done in awareness of Christ are also "prayer." He wrote:
Does calling on the Lord Jesus make you tired after a while? Do not worry. It is alright to just sing or work
sometimes, as long as we keep returning to him.
13 Calling on Christ is the surest and quickest access to umilenie and what Russian believers called the "love of beauty" (recognizing God in the beautiful). It enhanced their fascination with nature, music, and wholesome human relationships. But umilenie does not depend only on the senses. It also comes with recognizing Christ in the beauty of simply being aware of him. Believers discovered it even in appalling circumstances. Nil Sorsky wrote:
During prayer the mind rises above earthly things. Through it we become conscious of the unseen and what our senses cannot reach. Suddenly gladness fills the soul and we are struck speechless with incomparable joy. The heart overflows with umilenye and oblivious to all things sensual we enter a state of wellbeing our ordinary speech cannot describe.
Timofey Sokolov, born in a peasant village at Korotzk near Novgorod in 1724, knew hunger and cold. His father died when he was little. His older brothers worked hard but they could not earn enough to feed the family. One day his mother, unable to see Timofey hungry any longer, decided to give him away. She found a coachman with money who would take him and thought she would quick get it over with before the other children caught on.
Her plan did not work.
One of the older boys, Yefim, saw her walking down the village street. She was crying and leading Timofey by the hand. Yefim dropped his work and came running to see what had happened. When he learned of his mother's plans he begged and pled with her, falling on his knees in the middle of the street, to bring her to change her mind.
"But it is for the child's good," his mother insisted. "Shall we keep him at home only to watch him starve? I cannot do it any longer. . . "
"Leave it to us, his brothers," Yefim promised. "The Lord will give. We will teach him how to read and write and someday he may become the dyachok's helper."
15 Yefim could not have imagined how his spur-of-the-moment idea would affect the Kingdom of Christ in Russia. But Timofey and his mother turned back. The older boys worked harder than ever. After a number of years, to keep their promise, they took Timofey to live with one of them (now married) in the city of Novgorod.
There they sent him to school and he weeded vegetable gardens after class to help with expenses.
Timofey put his whole heart into his studies. He not only learned how to read but learned Greek as well and became a writer. After he became part of a religious community and people called him by a new name, Tikhon, he wrote:
Blessed are those who saw Christ in the flesh. . . . Still more blessed are we who see him through the teaching of the Gospels, who hear him speak through that teaching, who confess and call upon his name. In a way we cannot explain his perfectly pure body becomes ours and his blood becomes our life.
We meet Christ in the inner room of our souls. We meet him in prayer. We meet him in acts of love toward people-in everything on earth that gives us an idea of how life will be when Christ will rule over all. To know Christ is our only absolute necessity. Let our first and greatest effort, therefore, be to discover him.
All else is nothing, even though the whole world lies at our feet. . . .
To pray is not to stand and bow with your body or to read written prayers. One can pray at all times, in all places, by the mind and spirit. One can lift up the mind and heart to Christ while walking, sitting, working, in a crowd or alone. Unlike ours, Christ's door is always open. We can always say to him in our hearts: "Lord, have mercy!"
16 Not many years after Tikhon (Timofey) died at Zadonsk, another boy who became a Christian writer was born in Russia. He also joined a religious community (an Orthodox community) and took the name Ignaty.
After moving to far southern Russia, into the Caucasus, Ignaty Bryanchaninov wrote, "In the name of Jesus the soul, killed by sin, comes back to life. The Lord Jesus is life! His name lives! It awakens and gives life to those who contact, through it, the source of life itself." To this he added:
The one who desires to purify his heart should cleanse it continually with the fire of Christ awareness. He should
make this his constant meditation and work. The one who desires to overcome his old nature must do more than pray sometimes and sometimes not. He must pray
without ceasing with his mind awake, even when he is not in a house of prayer. Goldsmiths, if they let the fire in their furnaces burn low while purifying
their metal, cause it to harden again. In the same way, the one who is sometimes mindful of God and sometimes not, ruins through carelessness what he hopes to
17 The skhimnik 18 in the story of the Pilgrim of Orel said:
No distraction can interrupt the one who seriously wants to pray. He frees his thoughts from what goes on around him and prays at all times. . . in the presence of many people and while working with his hands. Business cannot be so important nor conversation so interesting that it becomes impossible to call on the name of Christ.
If it were impossible to pray amid the noise and commotion of society, it would not be required of us.
To this, a listening Russian professor replied: "I agree that while working with our hands it is possible-even easy-to pray continuously. But how can I concentrate on reading, studying or writing and at the same time be conscious of Christ? I have only one mind. How can I focus on two things at the same time?"
The skhimnik answered:
It is easy. . . . Just think how you would feel if the tsar ordered you to write a complicated report in his presence, sitting on the steps of his throne. Even though your mind would be occupied, the presence of the tsar who holds your life in his hands would not allow you to forget for a moment that you are thinking and writing, not in solitude, but in a place that demands your highest reverence, respect, and proper behaviour. The acute awareness you would feel, so close to him, describes exactly what we mean by continual prayer.
Awareness and Holiness
Noise and activity cannot keep us from Christ awareness. Neither can strenuous
mental effort. But self-indulgence and sin certainly can-and will. It does not work, Russian believers discovered, to pray the Jesus Prayer while hiding sin. Nil Sorsky drew up a list of things to get rid of:
1. Gluttony. We should eat when we need to and not just for pleasure.
2. Impurity. We dare not entertain wicked fantasies.
3. Greed. A desire to hoard things ruins our trust in God.
5. Sadness. To get discouraged is to lose our souls.
7. Vanity and pride.
Ignaty Bryanchaninov wrote:
"Let everyone who calls on the name of the Lord stop sinning" (2 Tim. 2:19). . . . The name of Christ cannot exist in the midst of impurity. For it to live within us, all impurities must go. Our souls must be clean. . . .
Let us stop overeating and doing things to feel good. Let us take moderation as our rule and cut back on tasty foods and drinks for pleasure. Let us sleep enough but not too much. Let us renounce idle talk, laughing, joking and making fun of others. Let us put a stop to unprofitable chatting done under the pretext of love because it leads to unnecessary words that devastate the soul. Let us renounce day-dreaming and vain thoughts. . . .
Hold back and keep all your impulses under control, the good ones as well as the bad. . . . Let the "old man" inside you shut up! Then let Christ do what he wants.
If you live like this the Jesus Prayer will certainly blossom within you, quite independently of whether you dwell in the deepest solitude or amid the hustle and bustle of community.
Awareness Among the Common People
Russians who wrote about Christ Awareness and prayer (the men I quote in this chapter) were the professionals, the artists, who put this early Christian teaching to words. They stood closest to the Greek Christians through whom it came. But it was Russia's common people-the muzhiks-who made of what they taught a way of life.
It was so simple. First thing in the morning, before the sun came up and they stepped out to milk the cow, they prayed the Jesus Prayer. All day long they prayed it-out loud or silently-however it suited or whenever necessary.
"Calling on the name of the Lord," they believed, "is to Christians what nursing is to an infant."
Only a few Russian peasants could read. But the vast number who could not, found walking with Christ just as easy. Ignaty Bryanchaninov wrote:
Basil told those who could not read, and those not eloquent in prayer to simply call on Jesus' name. With this he started nothing new. He merely confirmed a known practice. Since then, Basil's suggestion has come with the other traditions of the church, from Greece to Russia. And many people with little education, even those who are totally illiterate have found salvation and eternal life through the Jesus Prayer.
The Lord Christ rejoices with incomprehensible joy at our success. He declares that the mysteries of the Christian faith are revealed not to the wise and exalted of the world, but to those who are children in worldly things. Of such were his disciples. He took them from among the simple, the unlearned and illiterate. To follow Christ we must become children and accept his teaching with childlike minds in simplicity and love. If we follow him like this, he explains his deepest teaching to us. He explains to us how the Son, even though he became human, remains above the grasp of human rationalists. His holy name also remains above their grasp. Only with the simplicity and trust of children can we receive the teaching of prayer in Jesus' name. Let us practice it the same way.
What no one could have envisioned was what would come of this direct access to Christ. By calling on Christ the King, any man in rough linen, any woman in rags with a scarf tucked around her face, any boy or girl hoeing turnips or beating out the clothes could-and did-bypass the state church to get what they needed straight from heaven. Ignaty Bryanchaninov wrote:
Only the poor in spirit, only those constantly aware of their poverty and need, cling constantly to Christ in prayer. Only they are capable of discovering within themselves the greatness of his name. "The poor and needy will praise your name" (Psalm 73:21) "Blessed is the man who trusts in the name of the Lord" (Psalm 39:5).
Not the rich and powerful, not those smugly in charge of religious institutions, but great numbers of common
people in Russia learned like Nikolai Svyatosha how towalk with Christ. With him they
survived persecution and got ready for . . .
1 Luke 24:46-47
2 1 Corinthians 6:11
3 1 Thessalonians 5:17
4 quoted by Ignaty Bryanchaninov in his Ascetic Essays
5 From the Dobrotoliubie (Philokalia), a collection of early writings translated from Slavonic into Russian by Paisy Velichkovsky in the 1700's.
6 From The Ladder to Paradise
11 Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind
12 de Grünwald, Saints of Russia
15 The dyachok is a deacon who takes part in the Eastern Orthodox worship service.
16 Gorodetzky, Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk (remaining citations from this work)
17 Bryanchaninov, On the Prayer of Jesus (all remaining citations from this work)
18 an older, celibate, teacher
All Russians sensed-two hundred years after Kiev became "Christian"-that
something dark and terrible was coming upon them. In outlying settlements on the
great plains they heard pounding hoof beats at night, bringing dozens then
hundreds of stocky round-faced horsemen with slanted slit-like eyes. No one knew
the wild language they spoke. But their shouts sounded like curses. Their curving
scimitars flashed and wherever they suddenly appeared, blood ran.
During the summer of 1240 hundreds of marauders seemed to turn into thousands.
here and there one heard the word, or was it a name? Batu, if so, who was
he? What would he do?
Only after it happened did the few who survived know.
Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, Tatar "ruler of the universe" from
Mongolia, surrounded Kiev with untold thousands of horsemen. He attacked,
burned and killed almost everyone.
Then, with his "Golden Horde" (the Tatars from Mongolia) he took control of
Russia. The horror of that conquest could only have paled before the knowledge
that Russia would languish under Tatar rule for nearly three hundred years.
A Long Night
Unlike the newcomers from Scandinavia the Tatars did not mix with the Russians
nor settle in their towns. All they wanted was food, furs and women. Every spring
they rounded up thousands of Russian girls for their harems. At the site they
would designate as a
deviche pole (virgin's field) they would gather like dealers at
a stock yard to divide them up. The crying of the girls rose to heaven, and their
parents who believed in Christ prayed they would quickly die.
The greatest camp of the Tatars, Saray Berke, stood on a muddy hoof-trampled
bank along the lower Volga. Six hundred thousand people, at times, lived in its
felt tents among the stench of fermented milk and horse manure. But lesser camps
sprung up across the steppes, up the Volga to Kazan, down to Astrakhan on the
Caspian Sea, and into the Crimean Peninsula.
Not even after the Tatars under Öz Beg Khan started to mix with the Turks and
convert to Islam in the 1300s did their ways improve. Ruthless, relentless, they
broke Russia and the land of the Eastern Slavs would never be the same again.
A Parting of Ways
During the Tatar invasion lords and serfs, princes and muzhiks fled together. They
shared their poverty and distress. They huddled in the same hideouts in the woods.
But after the Tatars' grip began to loosen (a process accelerated by the Black
Death that swept through their camps in the 1340s) divisions among Russians
reappeared-deeper than ever.
Russians divided as they struggled to survive under the Tatars. Some-including
Prince Vladimir's ruling descendants and even church leaders-began to
collaborate with the khans
at Saray and rebuilt log forts called
kremlins in out-ofthe-
way corners in the woods. One of them, the son of Prince Aleksandr Nevsky,
rebuilt a kremlin among the headwaters of the Oka and Volga rivers. People called
Other Russians, including a large number of "believers" as distinct from the
"church," did not collaborate with nor rebel against the Tatars. They fled. Far to
the north into snowy forests where Tatar horsemen hated to go they escaped with
their wives and children. They built log houses and fished. During short summers
they planted turnips and wheat in their clearings.
With every new winter that came to the taiga-the vast sub-Arctic hinterland
north of Novgorod, Pskov, and Tver-these Russians' memory of other people
and lands to the south grew fainter. They forgot how far they had left "civilised"
people behind them. They forgot the ways of their Greek and Slavic exneighbours.
But they did not forget the name of the Lord.
During winters that seemed to last most of the year, when wolves howled and
mighty storms blew in from the White Sea they met in their homes to pray, and to
sing early Christian songs. Every year at the time of the Paschal feast, when the
sun warmed the land, their joy in Christ revived. And here, in the wilderness,
many shrugged off what had not been truly
Christian in Greek Christianity.
"Why give money to priests for their services, when Paul said they should not
serve for gain?" some Russian believers began to ask. "Who says we need their
services at all? Christ Jesus is our Father and Priest!"
Even in fortified towns close to the northern forests people began to ask these
questions. But when Karp, a dyachok from Pskov (a man who knew how to cut
hair), and Nikita another believer challenged them publicly, Orthodox authorities
arrested them. They beat the two men and tortured them, but they refused to
recant. Then the authorities threw them down from a bridge in Novgorod.
All who sympathised with Karp and Nikita got called in derision,
(barbers). But nothing could stamp out the fire of love for Christ in Russian
believers' hearts and the movement went "underground."
By the time Constantinople fell to the Turks and the Byzantine Empire ended in
1453, those who loved Christ in Russia had grown numerous-and groups of
Strigolniki met in secret in most of its northern towns.
A young prince, Ivan I, married to a niece of the last Byzantine emperor, governed
Russia from the kremlin at Moscow at the time Constantinople fell. He did not
take that event lightly. "Since Constantinople and the emperor are no more," he
told his subjects, "we must do what we can. God depends on us, the Russians, to
carry on his Kingdom. We are his Church and what remains of the Roman and
With the help of his
boyars (noblemen), Ivan built a bigger and stronger kremlin
at Moscow than Russia had ever seen. He forced the towns of Novgorod and Tver
to honour his rule. Then he began to use the golden double-headed eagle of
Byzantium for his royal seal. He introduced all he could (and what his wife
remembered) of Byzantine court ritual and before long the princes of Moscow
A monk, Filofey, put the new situation to words: "Two Romes have fallen, the
third one (Moscow) stands, and a fourth there will not be."
Prince Ivan of Moscow had a sickly, not at all good-looking grandson who got his
name. At first no one thought little Ivan II would pull through. But the winter after
he turned three his father died and they crowned him tsar in his place.
For years no one took the sickly, moody little tsar seriously. Others ruled in his
place (and poisoned his mother when he was eight). But when Ivan, at thirteen,
had a boyar killed and at fifteen cut out another one's tongue "for saying rude
things" people began to take note. In a quarrel, a year later, he killed his best
At seventeen Ivan married the beautiful daughter of a Moscow boyar. Her name
was Anastasya, and he loved her. Anastasya bore him six children and as long as
she lived he governed Russia fairly well. Only when she died young, did trouble
Ivan felt certain someone had killed his wife. He suspected a boyar had done it,
and when none of them confessed he began to distrust them all. He lived obsessed
with fears of conspiracy. In 1546 he suddenly left Moscow and fortified himself in
the nearby village of Aleksandrovsk. The people debated what to do. Should they
call him back? He was, after all, their God-given ruler. . . .
Ivan promised to come back under one condition: he alone would rule as God's
judge and lawgiver, and all Russians great or small would submit to him. The
people, considering the fact that he had spent time in a monastery as a young man
and seemed pious, agreed-to their undoing.
Terror in the New Rome
On his return to Moscow Ivan divided Russia in two regions. The smaller region
(including his own estates and those of his friends) he called the
Whoever lived in it became a privileged
oprichnik, entitled to wear black clothes,
ride a black horse and carry a dog's head and broom as symbols of his authority.
All the rest of Russia became the
Ivan forbade the
oprichniki to socialise in any way with the zemskye (residents of
the zemshchina) who as "second class citizens" were to serve them. He ordered
ditches dug around oprichnina property and forbade the zemskye to cross them on
pain of death. Many families, friends and neighbours found themselves divided.
All of Ivan's bizarre new laws favoured the oprichniki. "Judge fairly," one of
them read, "but remember, we (of the oprichnina) will never be in the wrong."
Such laws set loose a wave of violence that far surpassed anything Russia, even
under the Tatars, had seen.
On all Russian roads Ivan placed oprichniki guards to keep people from travelling
without permission. Everyone had to register and carry a passport. Travellers
without passports he ordered stripped and rolled in the snow until they died, or
else burned alive.
Ivan sealed Russia's borders. When he suspected three towns close to Poland of
communicating with "westerners" he had their men decapitated and their heads
sent in bags to Moscow as proof and warning. Foreigners who came to Russia
(and a good number actually did) found themselves whisked at once to Moscow
by Ivan's guards. In special communities, Ivan offered them houses, land, and
religious freedom. Their only obligation was never to leave Russia again.
Ivan made a rule that anyone, Russian or foreigner alike, caught escaping the
country should be impaled on a pointed post as a warning.
Religious Fakes and Holy Fools
Throughout his fifty-one-year reign "Ivan the Terrible" (as other Europeans came
to call him) saw himself as God's faithful servant, chosen like the Byzantine
emperors to rule God's kingdom on earth while Christ ruled in heaven. He
attended at least one church service a day. He paid the priests large sums of money
to pray for the eternal damnation of those he killed (and for the salvation of those
that might have been innocent-like his oldest son whom he knocked down in a fit
of rage). All his life Ivan supported the Orthodox church with huge sums of
money, rebuilding the monasteries of Solovets on an island off the Arctic coast,
and embellishing to no end the "sugar candy" cathedrals of Moscow and Sergiyev
Ivan lived on vodka. He spent most of his days somewhat drunk, but he wrote
beautiful prayers and hymns. He kept all Christian fasts and had church leaders
publish a list of approved devotional literature for the people to read.
This-Ivan the Terrible's "Christianity"-heightened as nothing before the
contrast between Russia's
church and its believers. While Orthodox church
leaders praised Ivan as the "unshakeable pillar, the immovable foundation of true
Christianity, the holder of the reins of the Holy Church of God which is the throne
of all bishops and priests, the sage helmsman of the ship of this world,"
throughout Russia saw him quite simply as an incarnation of the devil.
Some who opposed Ivan and his wickedness saw their becoming
fools) the only option.
The yurodivi threw off all worldly possessions (sometimes including even their
clothes) and became wanderers. A few, like a man called Vasily who lived on the
streets of Moscow, puzzled everyone. Were they crazy? Or were they only putting
into perspective how crazy society had become?
Vasily prayed in sun or snow on the streets. He shambled in and out of shops,
taking things from the rich and giving them to the poor. Without fear he walked
into Ivan's palace and told him what was wrong with Russia. One day in Lent he
brought the tsar a big piece of raw meat. Ivan was shocked. "I do not eat meat in
Lent," he protested.
"Then why," Vasily asked him, "do you drink the blood of men?"
No one else could have done this and gotten by. But Ivan feared the yurodivi. He
suspected they were messengers sent from God, and ordered his men to leave
them alone. When Vasily died, Ivan buried him beside the exotic multicoloured
church he had built on Red Square in Moscow. People began to call it "Vasily's
church" and after the Orthodox canonised him it became officially St. Vasily's (St.
Basil's), a name it has kept till today.
Refuge in Christ
Heinrich von Staden a German official in Ivan's court (and in the oprichnina)
mentioned in his memoirs in 1579 that many a peasant, before getting struck over
the head by an oprichnik, would cry out:
"Gospode Isuse Khriste, syne Bozhii,
(Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy).
Never before had as many people in Russia called on the Lord's name-and as
their troubles increased they did so in ever increasing numbers.
A plague struck in the 1570s. So many died that unburied corpses lay throughout
Russia's homes. Too many were sick to work the land and business ceased. Ivan
the Terrible, who had hoarded thousands of wagon loads of unthreshed grain (and
kept his cellars full of fish in ice, and wax), shared nothing. Thousands starved,
wandering about in the fields, until eaten by dogs. Outside Moscow, city work
crews dumped corpses in piles of two to five hundred. The following year Tatars
from the Crimea attacked and burned part of Moscow. Numberless bells rang in
as its churches came crashing down but Ivan, as always, escaped.
Some people managed to escape Russia's disasters and find refuge in the far north
where they became self-sufficient and avoided contact with larger towns. But most
could not do that. Their only refuge was Christ.
During Ivan the Terrible's rule a young man, Matvey Semyonovich Dalmatov,
worked for a farmer in Tambov who read the Bible. When the farmer came home
one night with a foreign doctor
who also studied the Bible, Matvey listened to the
two men talk and became curious. "What does that book say?" he wondered. He
could do nothing but learn to read and find out.
Matvey was deeply moved. The more he read the Gospels for himself the more he
realised that the Christianity he knew in no way matched the teachings of Christ.
The more he read, the more uncomfortable he became with the state church until
he quietly, without raising issues, withdrew.
Nothing might have happened, had not Matvey's life changed so much. He no
longer took part in dances and festivals. He taught his children godliness at home.
Whenever opportunities came he warned his fellow-servants on the farm to turn
from Satan to Christ, until those who persisted in sin reported him to the
oprichnina. "This man," they said, "no longer falls down before the ikons. He
neglects the church services and drinks milk on holy days!"
The oprichniki interrogated Matvey. So did state church officials who pronounced
him a heretic. In 1553 they had Matvey flogged, pulled on the rack, his abdomen
slit, and his intestines tied to a wheel. As the executioner slowly turned the wheel
they gave Matvey time to change his mind. But he did not. In a clear voice heard
by a multitude gathered on Red Square, he declared while he still had breath: "The
Spirit says: Blessed are those who die in the name of the Lord. They rest from
their labours and their work follows after them. But you who are enemies of the
Lord Jesus Christ will stand before his judgment."
The people feared, and Matvey's life spoke even louder after his death. All around
Tambov where he had lived, God-fearing people began to meet in secret to
encourage one another, read the Bible, and pray. The movement grew rapidly to
include hundreds, then thousands of "underground" believers in Tambov,
Voronezh, and beyond. Their enemies called them
Molokans (milk drinkers).
But among themselves they simply spoke of Christians, often
(Spirit Christians) and "those of the world."
A Time of Troubles
On March 18, 1584, when Ivan the Terrible finally died he left Russia full of
gleaming white churches with golden domes-but in unspeakable misery. Because
he had killed the wealthy and reduced the size of their estates, the muzhiks had to
work harder than ever. Taxes had risen and new laws ensured their collection.
Of all Ivan's marriages only two of Anastasya's sons, a mentally retarded boy and
an epileptic survived. They both died and years of strife followed until the zemsky
(the council of the zemshchina) pulled a poorly educated sixteen-year-old
boy out of the Kostroma monastery where he had grown up with his mother, a
nun. He was Mikhail Romanov, a grandson of Anastasya's (Ivan the Terrible's
first wife's) brother.
Mikhail Romanov and his son Aleksey, a quiet friendly youth crowned in Moscow
when he was sixteen, began a new line of tsars. They made fair laws. They
promoted foreign trade and education. Most Russians might have been happy
under their rule, had it not been for Revelation 13:18 and what they saw
happening in the state church.
Guardians of Piety
Beginning in the early years of the Romanov tsars, a group of concerned Russians
began to meet regularly in Moscow. Calling themselves "Guardians of Piety,"
they set out, under the leadership of a strong-willed ambitious man named Nikon,
to improve the spiritual condition of the Orthodox church.
Nikon, whose wife and three children had died, took what he felt was his call to
celibacy seriously and lived a sober life. His earnestness appealed to Tsar Aleksey
Romanov who, after his coronation, made him his religious advisor. The
"Guardians of Piety" supported him. Nikon became more popular and widely
known, until in 1652 he became "Patriarch of all Russia."
The Year of the Beast
Nikon's rise to power, considering his personality and the changes he soon called
for, could not have occurred at a more critical time.
For years, a large number of Russia's Christians had looked at their leaders (both
religious and political) as possible agents of the devil. Now, as the mid1600s drew
near and they read Slavonic translations of books like Ephraim of Syria's
Terror of Judgment and Antichrist
their suspicions grew into powerful conviction.
Ephraim of Syria wrote:
The one gifted with divine wisdom and understanding will easily notice when the
Antichrist comes. But the one immersed in the things of this world, the one who
loves what is worldly, shall not be able to do so. Those who are married to the
affairs of this life will hear the Word but not know the truth. If anyone preaches
it, in fact, they will hate him.
Believers in Russia also read John's Revelation where he described the "beast"
and difficult times at the end of the world. About the beast, John wrote:
He forced everyone small and great, rich and poor, free and slave to receive a
mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless
he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. This
calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast,
for it is man's number. His number is 666.
With the year 1666 coming up, most believers did not wonder what awaited them.
Besides that, numerous signs of the times confirmed their suspicions.
Changes For The Worse
No sooner did Nikon become Patriarch in Moscow, than he brought about reforms
quite different from what the "Guardians of Piety" had expected. He took Greek
texts, recently printed in Italy (in Roman Catholic publishing houses) as the
pattern for his reforms.
Then, with the long arm of Russian law he tried to force
everyone to accept them.
Some of Nikon's reforms no longer seem important to us-singing three
hallelujahs instead of two or spelling Jesus' name with an extra vowel-but the
reason many Russians opposed them was real and resistance to them quickly grew
as large as Russia itself.
Those who defied Nikon and kept to the old way believed his reforms were an
accommodation to Roman Catholicism (that is, to the "world"). They saw his
enforcement of them as just another example of the state church corrupting itself
through political affairs. Across Russia, millions of impoverished and poorly
educated farm workers, celibates in remote communities, and local church leaders
with little responsibility, dared to rise up and declare that
what they believed and
they believed was no one's matter but their own-that belief was a matter of
conviction, not legislation. They dared, at the price of their lives, to challenge
Moscow, Constantinople, and whatever civil authorities or means of repression
would fall upon them.
The Price of Conviction
At the very meeting where Nikon announced his plans for reform, Pavel the
presbyter of Kolomna calmly said he could not comply. Nikon removed him from
office and had him beaten before the council. He sent Pavel into the far north,
where he died after repeated tortures. Then Nikon pronounced the
anathema on all
others who refused to obey his orders to change, and by 1666, the year of the
beast, several hundred thousand "Old Believers" found themselves outside the
Orthodox church. In great suffering and weakness they learned that one can walk
with Christ and survive persecution, only in . . .
"Underground," did not mean invisible, however, nor silent. Sources prove that
members of the Strigolnik movement were exceptionally bold when explaining their
beliefs before courts and prosecutors. When the Strigolnik Zakhar was brought before
Gennady, archbishop of Novgorod, and asked why he had not received the Holy
Communion for three years, he replied: "Whom shall I come to for that? Priests are being
ordained for money just as Metropolitans and bishops are!" Gennady did not know at
first what to say. Then he mumbled, "The Metropolitan is clear of this sin." Zakhar
objected, "He had to pay the Patriarch of Constantinople to be ordained. So who is
worthy to give the Holy Communion?"
Russian for Caesar
Curtiss Church and State in Russia
"If any one takes himself for wise in the world, let him become a fool," they read in 1
Ivan the Terrible loved the sound of bells, and by the time he died he had around five
thousand ringing intermittently throughout Moscow.
a man from Great Britain
On weekly fast days the Orthodox church forbade the consumption of meat, eggs, and
Book of Spirit and Life, 9:7
When this name came into general use, the Molokans reconciled themselves to it, on
the basis of 1 Peter 2:2: "As newborn babies, desire the sincere milk of the word." They
believed their teachings to be this spiritual "milk."
The Greek Orthodox Church, by now under Muslim rule and deprived of its privileges
and power, had began to seek union with the Pope at Rome--the very symbol of heresy
for Eastern Christians during previous centuries.
Almost hidden under great roofs of straw, mud plastered houses of Russian
muzhiks huddled like chicks with their mother hen around rickety wooden
churches topped by onion domes. Far from Moscow and Kiev, but within easy
reach of heaven, those who lived under bunches of dried pears hanging in semidarkness
from their beams, called on the name of Christ. And as they did so, what
Christ wanted became more and more important to them--while the demands of
Russia's church and state took second place.
As far back as they could remember, the muzhiks had lived in distrust of what
happened at Moscow. "Live, live, until Moscow gets a hold of you!" their parents
and grandparents had said. So now, when many of them got separated from
Moscow's state church, they felt no remorse. Called
Raskolniki (separatists) or
"nonconformists" by other Russians, they began at once to live like they thought
Christians should. That, in every place, was not the same. But in every place it
drew the wrath of Moscow's authorities upon them and by the mid-1660s, the
"year of the beast," the tsar's men were torturing and publicly flogging Old
Believers from Kiev and Smolensk to Ryazan, Kazan, Yaroslavl, Saratov,
Novgorod, Pskov and Tver. Everywhere they tore up homes and villages and
drove families to Siberia. But such persecution only confirmed what many
believed: The state church had become an institution of the Antichrist.
Many, but not all, Old Believers were uneducated country people. An outstanding
exception was Avvakum Petrovich, an ordained leader in the Orthodox church,
who had been Nikon's companion and fellow-worker. Avakkum grew up in the
village of Grigorovo, near Nizhny Novgorod (Nikon's home area), and with
Nikon he became a member of the "Guardians of Piety." But where Nikon sought
earthly power and prestige, Avvakum sought to please Christ no matter what it
Before his first ordination (as a dyachok when he was twenty-one years old)
Avvakum chose Nastasya Markovna, a poor orphan, to be his wife. She became
his faithful and patient companion, supporting him no matter how badly his nonconformity
to the world brought him into conflict with it.
An early occasion for conflict arose when Vasily Sheremetev, a high-ranking
boyar, came down the Volga. The people of Grigorovo, including Avvakum, went
on board his ship to greet him. When he saw that he was a religious man, Vasily
ordered Avvakum to bless his son Matvey. But Avvakum could not obey. "How
can I pronounce a blessing on a man who has shaved off his beard, deliberately
changing the way God made him?" he asked.
Vasily Sheremetov was stunned. "You take it upon yourself to disobey me?" he
thundered. "For this you shall be thrown into the river!"
Fortunately, no one carried out the boyar's orders. But within a few years
Avvakum found himself imprisoned then exiled with his family to Tobolsk in
Siberia (for withstanding Nikon's reforms). When they detected his influence even
from there, Russian authorities sent him as far away as they could--to Dauria, on
the border with Mongolia. There the district governor, Afanasy Pashkov, did what
he could to make Avvakum and his family's lives miserable. He tortured
Avvakum, often keeping him in chains in the prison, and severely beat him. Two
of Avvakum's children died from hunger, but he did not give up in his struggle to
walk the narrow way. Everywhere he warned the faithful not to have anything to
do with Nikon's fallen church. "When the priest comes to sprinkle your house
with holy water," he told them, just follow him around and sweep it out with a
broom. And if they drag you into church keep right on whispering your prayer to
I Kept On Preaching"
In an attempt to reconcile Avvakum with the Orthodox Church (and rid himself in
this way of a formidable adversary) Nikon recalled him to Moscow in 1663. While
travelling through the country toward the capital Avvakum could not help but
notice the state church's reforms being carried out with great vigour. He wrote in
In sadness I wondered if I should keep on preaching or if I should escape
somewhere for the sake of my wife and children to whom I was intimately bound.
Then my wife came up to me and gently asked, "Why are you so sad?" I
explained what I had been thinking and asked her in turn, "What shall I do? Shall
I speak or keep silence?" She replied, "How strange you talk! Do not the children
and I bless and support you? Preach the Word of God and stop feeling sorry for
us. We will stay together until God wishes. If we get separated, only remember us
in your prayers. Christ is strong enough to take care of us!" I thanked her and, as
having my eyes opened from blindness, I kept on preaching in towns along the
way, denouncing Nikon's heresy.
About his arrival in Moscow Avvakum wrote:
The tsar and the boyars accepted me as an angel of God . . . They offered me any
position I might like… providing I would unite with them in faith. I regarded all
this as refuse, however, to remain with Christ, remembering death and that all
worldly things pass away.
When his attempt to win Avvakum to his side failed, Nikon exiled him and his
family to the far north, to the Mezen region, where they remained until 1666. In
that year (the "Year of the Beast"), Avvakum appeared for the last time in Central
Russia. Nikon called him before a council that condemned him and all Old
Believers with him as the worst heretics. Then he sent Avvakum and three other
nonconformed believers, Lazar, Yepifany, and Fedor (who already had their rights
hand cut off and their tongues cut out) to the dreaded underground prison at
Pustozersk. Avvakum wrote:
It is strange how little they (of the state church) think of discussing things. No, all
they think of is using fire, the whip and the gallows to bring us to their faith. Who
of the apostles ever taught such a thing? I would not know. The Christ I know
never taught that fire, whips and bonds are educators in faith… It was the Tatar
prophet Mohammed who wrote: "Our duty is to strike off with the sword the
heads of those who will not submit to our tradition and rules."
During the fourteen years Avvakum and his friends languished in the Pustozersk
prison, Old Believers from all over Russia travelled the long road to see him.
Then, in 1682, after admonishing a great crowd that had gathered to weep and
pray, Avvakum allowed his guards to chain him to a stake. Lazar, Yepifany, and
Fedor suffered the same treatment and they died together, shouting
encouragements one to another in the flames.
The Antichrist in Person
Eight years after Avvakum's death, Tsar Aleksey's son Peter
took charge in
Moscow. Only eighteen, he had grown into a six-foot-seven-inch giant. Fascinated
with ships and exploration, he fidgeted when he talked. His eyes darted about and
his big hands appeared always itching to land on something.
Newly married and with his servants in tight control, Peter enjoyed being tsar. But
he saw his position as far more than an opportunity to lead a comfortable life. He
aspired to personal greatness and wanted to make Russia great too. In 1697 he
travelled with two hundred and fifty "Grand Ambassadors" to western Europe to
see how modern people lived. In disguise, he worked in the shipyard of the Dutch
East India Company at Saardam. He visited doctors and lawyers, looked through
telescopes, listened to musicians, attended
lavish receptions (shocking a German
girl in one when he lifted her up by the ears to see her better) and a session of
in London. Then during his visit to Vienna he learned of a revolt in
Russia and hurried home.
Peter did not come to Moscow like travellers usually did. He visited no churches
and said no prayers of thanksgiving for his safe return. The people were shocked.
They were even more shocked to hear him curse and swear, laugh at holy
traditions, and seize respectable men to cut off their beards (on his trip west, Peter
concluded it was necessary and important for men to shave).
It did not take the Old Believers and the "underground" Christians of northern
forests long to reach a firm conclusion. The Antichrist had come
Success for the Antichrist
Nothing worried the Old Believers more than Peter's rapid take-over of Russia
and seemingly unlimited success. With a mug of beer in his hand, wearing shoes
with holes and a sloppy hat, Peter appeared everywhere. Sometimes he marched
with his soldiers. Sometimes he worked with his shipwrights swinging a hammer
or wielding an axe.
Peter always carried a club and no one dared get in his way. (He used it freely,
even on his best friends.) But he knew a clever person when he saw one and
promoted only those who deserved
it. "Necessity drove away sloth and forced me
to work night and day," he wrote. Peter was Russia's best carpenter, a blacksmith,
a horse breaker, soldier, and tsar at the same time.
In 1703, after winning a twenty-one year war with Sweden, Peter began the
biggest project of his life: building a city. On the marshy banks of the Neva, a
desolate northern river flowing into the Gulf of Finland, he built Saint Petersburg
on innumerable wooden piles pounded into the bog. Perhaps as many as one hundred
thousand workmen died from the cold, disease, overwork and accidents at the
Peter's family, however, had little praise for his success. His timid and refined
wife, Yevdokiya, never got used to the way he acted after his return from the west.
He resented her criticism and shut her up in a convent. Their only son grew up in
the care of others and when he ran off to western Europe Peter had him brought
back and executed in jail.
The poor people of Russia, the muzhiks, did not think much of Peter's success
either. For the first time they became "individual serfs." That meant the boyars
could take anyone out of any family and buy or sell his labour at will. This
brought division to old village communities and sorrow to families that got
Even the Orthodox church had second thoughts. Peter got rid of the Patriarch at
Moscow and put a "Holy Synod," monitored
Oberprokuror (an official
who served as the tsar's "eye on the church"), in his place.
The Agent of All Wickedness
Of all Russians, however, no one suffered more under Peter's successful rule than
the "underground" believers. Peter could not tolerate dissent. The very idea that
anyone would dare oppose him made him furious. The worst floggings and the
slowest or most painful tortures could not do justice to his revenge.
At the same time, under Peter's rule it became much harder for the Old Believers
and their sympathisers to hide. He tried to take a census and register all Russians.
He made a law that births, marriages, and deaths had to be legally reported. But
many refused to comply.
Thinking of King David's census and the fact that Peter quite likely was the
Antichrist, Old Believers feared eternal damnation
should they become
registered. "The Tsar," one of them wrote, "has become an agent of all wickedness
and of Satan's will. He has raised himself on high above all false gods."
The situation, particularly after Peter ordered everyone to pay a poll tax and carry
a passport, became one where compromise
was unthinkable. An Old Believer
tract written in the early 1700s stated:
Christ has instructed us and given us his law. We keep his commandments and
our faith in him. For that reason we will not submit to the false Christ (Tsar Peter
Alekseyevich) and obey him. We will not let ourselves be inscribed in his books,
taking part like that in the sins of the godless. Instead, we will tell everyone who
wants to be saved not to do so by any means. . . . We are seeing the mystery of
the Apocalypse revealed in our time. The reign of the first and greatest beast is
established among us. He is making the earth and all that live in it to bow the
knee to Satan and say, "Settle our account, we humbly beg you to grant us passports."
Then Satan answers, "Out with your poll tax for the new year! Are you
sure there is nothing else to pay? Remember you live on my earth!" Here you see
the great pit that stands open to swallow the human race.
Wickedness and Steadfast Faith
Among the first to fall into the tsar's "pit" were the celibates of Solovets on the
White Sea. Five times they had asked for permission to conduct services like the
Old Believers. Their answer came in a contingent of troops sent north to "convert"
them. The celibates, living in their stone community buildings, locked their doors.
But the soldiers would not go away. They stood guard for several years until
someone betrayed the brothers' way of entry and the soldiers rushed in to hang,
stab, and drown around four hundred believers. Only fourteen escaped.
Even after the tsar removed Nikon from the patriarch's office, the Old Believers'
situation did not improve. Nikon's successor, the Patriarch Ioakim, issued twelve
articles against them. Under his severe laws, those who as much as gave food or
drink to Old Believers had to be publicly flogged. Those who went so far as to
join them, make converts or baptise others, subjected themselves to an
unconditional death penalty--even those who recanted.
Only in the first decades of persecution under the state church, it is estimated that
more than one hundred thousand Old Believers died martyrs' deaths. But the
greater their trials, the more Russians took note. Even families of the wealthy and
those in government positions did not remain untouched--as in the case of
Feodosiya Morozova and Yevdokiya Urusova.
From their childhood Feodosiya and Urusova enjoyed the luxuries of a noble
upbringing. Both of them spent time in the tsar's court. But when faced with the
issue of supporting the state church or the cause of the Old Believers they let go of
their wealth, respect, and honour to suffer affliction with the people of God. After
their arrest the sisters survived incredible torture before landing in the dungeon of
the Borovsk prison near Kaluga. There they lay without food (the authorities
expected to force them through starvation to recant) until Yevdokiya died. After
fifty-one days Feodosiya died, triumphant in the faith she had chosen, as well.
Baffling the Antichrist
As the arrests and executions of Old Believers increased, around three thousand of
them took refuge on the island of Pal in Lake Onega. In this remote place, far from
Russia's cities, they hoped to avoid attention by hiding in the buildings of an
ancient monastery. But they hoped in vain. Tsarist troops surrounded them, set fire
to the buildings, and all of them perished in the flames.
Was it this incident, or simply mass terror when the soldiers came that convinced
many Old Believers the only way to escape the Antichrist was through death?
After what happened at Lake Onega more and more fires blazed throughout
Russia. Hundreds of Old Believers, men and women with their children and aged
parents, would crowd into a large straw-roofed house or shed when they saw the
soldiers coming. Then, before the "powers of Antichrist" could do anything to
them, they would light the straw. Amid roaring flames and fiery beams crashing
around them they sang their last songs and prayed to Christ as soldiers looked
"Baffling the Antichrist," they called it, and by the end of Tsar Peter's reign
thousands of Old Believers
had died in these dreadful fires. But throughout his
rule others were already choosing a better way of escape.
They escaped, as always, to the wilderness.
The Dispersion of the Old Believers
East and southward from Moscow Old Believers fled through Voronezh, Saratov,
and Tambov, down the Don River and into the Kuban and Terek areas on the
border with Persia. They fled into the deserts of Kazakhstan and the Crimean
held by the Turks. But nowhere did they find a better refuge than north
of Novgorod and east beyond the Ural mountains in seemingly endless birch and
pine forests, brambles and mosquitoes under a pale grey sky--in Siberia.
Fleeing into the north and east meant fleeing from all earthly comfort--something
that did not matter much to Russia's believers. Sleeping on moss, eating wild roots
and berries, even the sorrow they felt when they buried their little ones along the
way, drove them further from a wicked world and into the arms of Christ.
Many of the Old Believers were simple people. "No learning,
no heresy," they
said. No doubt for this reason they misunderstood
some Scriptures and made
mistakes in their prophecy. Along with them, into the wilderness, they also took
what may seem like useless traditions (if not traces of fanaticism) today. But even
their opponents had to admit, they gave everything up for Christ. They called on
Christ's name to be saved and he blessed them.
He even blessed them with fellowship.
Teachers in the Wilderness
Old Believers in Arctic forests soon found what remained of Nil Sorsky's
nonchurch disciples and the Strigolniki who had survived there for centuries
"underground." Rapport was immediate.
There can be no doubt that the
nonchurch disciples helped an ever growing number of Old Believers to feel
"apostolic succession" and the rites of the Orthodox Church.
Like them, the majority of Old Believers, the
Bespopovtsy (priestless ones) took to
confessing their sins one to another instead of to a priest. Family heads began to
perform simple communion services and baptisms, and in some areas it became
common for converts to baptise themselves by trine immersion.
The Church of the Old Believers
Far removed from religious institutions the Old Believers became what they had
always envisioned as the real church. A 1723 statement from close to the Arctic
Ocean (the Vygovsky Raskol community) describes it:
All (Old Testament) assemblies and rituals, feasts, celebrations
were established to purify men from their sins so God could come in. But now the
one who carries
God (the Christian) does not depend on visible buildings and
sacrifices, on assemblies and human feasts. He does not worship God on this
mountain or in Jerusalem. He has God within himself. He worships in the true
spirit at his pure altar within: his conscience. He weeps, not naturally with the
eyes, but inwardly to the purifying of his soul. Going up to his inner Jerusalem
his spirit rejoices. His soul, being spiritual, offers up the sacrifice of spiritual
When asked where they went to church Old Believers typically
answered: "I am
the church." Pointing with their fingers to their chests, some would add: "Here in
my heart is the true church. The true church is not found within timbers and
wooden walls. It is found within ribs and human flesh."
New Testament references to Christians being the temple of the Living God, to
Christ dwelling in us, and to all believers being kings and priests became
particularly meaningful to the Old Believers. Their slogan, one scholar wrote,
could well have been Revelation 5:10: "You have made us kings and priests unto
God, and we shall reign on the earth."
An Old Believer from Pskov wrote: "Melchizedek's priesthood
exists among us
today. Every believer is a priest." In a tract
Against the Ritualists of The Church
another one wrote: "The spiritual sacramental priesthood of Christ
belongs to every Christian-that is, to everyone who has become holy through the
gift of the Holy Ghost."
With every man a priest, the Old Believers (the Bespopovtsy) took a dim view of
authoritarian church government. In a book they published in secret,
Teaching About The Keys
they explained how the keys Christ gave to Peter belong
to the whole church, not just to its leaders. Nikifor Petrovich, an Old Believer,
wrote in the early 1800's:
We are all on the same level. We need no clergy. We have all received the same
(laying on of hands). We make our confession to Christ in our hearts
and receive our ablution directly from him.
In another writing from the Novgorod wilderness, the Old Believers gave their
reasons for having nothing to do with the Russian state church:
The tsar has enslaved the church and when people speak of the church they mean
the clergy, rather than the community of believers.
Communion, the Old Believers taught, is a daily constant experience, not just a
service with bread and wine. "A man who lives by the sweat of his brow has
communion every day of his life," they said. "And if a man loves Christ and his
words, Christ will love him and come to live with him."
Communion took place in any common activity, eating, drinking, or working,
done in full awareness of Christ. A Russian official reported a conversation
between an Orthodox priest and an Old Believer in the nineteenth century:
Old Believer (leading the way to his cabin): "Here you see my church."
Priest: "And how to you take communion in this supposed church of yours?
Old Believer (pointing at his rough table): "There we have our altar at which we
take communion every day."
Priest: "But how can you communicate at this table?"
Old Believer: "How? In what? Surely in the bread of Christ. Look at the bread
Christ gave us today!"
The Saviour's People
Among the Bespopovtsy one group living deep in the Siberian taiga stood out for
its radical Christocentrism. They spoke of themselves only as
Saviour). They neither had nor desired duly ordained leaders, church
buildings, written liturgies, or lists of saints.
They said, "Our hope is in the
Saviour alone, and in these difficult and confusing times we cannot rely upon
human opinion. We cannot argue about details nor involve ourselves in
theological discussion. Christ alone is able to save us!" The Spasovtsy even
accepted converts from other Christian groups without re-baptising them (a
practice unique among Old Believers), because they believed that Christ Himself,
not rituals, will save his own.
Old Believer Families
Old Believer parents married their young people one to another, often in their
early teens, in utmost simplicity. They asked the boy and the girl a few questions
in the home and gave them their blessing. In some cases there was even less
formality. This horrified the Orthodox. "You are living in sin," they insisted.
"How can you call yourselves married without having received the sacrament or
even having seen a priest?"
"How did Abraham and Sarah get married? Or the rest of the patriarchs?" the Old
Believers asked in return. "Were their children illegitimate?"
Noting their lack of legal contract (and the fact that their wives easily could have
deserted them) Russian scholars observed that Old Believer men treated their
wives with special care. Their marriages seemed happier than ordinary. The Old
Believers saw other reasons for that. A writing from the 1700s states:
The infidels (rich, high class, people) look on a woman as just another luxury to
enjoy. They see only her beauty and lust after her. The religious people (poor
Orthodox Russians) look at a women as a beast of burden. They only put her to
work and keep her to raise children. But for true believers the woman is the other
half of the race. We must treat her with respect and reverence. We look at her
Even though many of them were happily married, Old Believers considered
celibacy a higher calling, and recommended it if at all possible.
Old Believer Communities
Tsar Peter's reforms included much more than the registration of individuals with
their births and marriages. They included the partitioning of land into private
property, the accurate surveying of claims, and the registration of deeds. All this,
the Old Believers also took as the "work of Antichrist."
Ever since early Slavic times Russian communities had held their land in
common. All the boyars could claim was the right to production
and labour. Land
itself was seen as belonging to everyone, like air and water, and ultimately to God.
The Old Believers, settling in Arctic regions and Siberia kept on thinking this way.
On virgin land, particularly along the Vyg river flowing north through the taiga
between Arkhangelsk and Finland, they built rough log homes. In ever widening
clearings they planted wheat and vegetables. Under the direction of Danilo
Vikulin, Andrey Denisov and others, Old Believer communities on the Vyg River
grew to include thousands of souls. They fished in Lake Onega. In the winter,
when the Arctic Ocean froze, their hunters reached the islands of Spitzbergen and
Novaya Zemlya. For more than a hundred years they prospered like no one else in
Arctic Russia before or since, until Tsar Nikolai I scattered them in 1855. Other
Old Believer communities flourished in Siberia and among the Altai Mountains
along the border of China.
In most of their communities the Old Believers held what was indispensable to all,
in common. That included the land, the fisheries, pastures and salt deposits.
Things for personal use (houses, furniture, tools, or animals) they bought or sold.
Because the Antichrist's number, 666, is contained in the Russian word
they shrank back from hiring or working for wages. In one community, dependent
on making leather boots, they arranged to have all who helped make them share
the profit. In other communities they lived from a common purse.
A hundred years after the founding of the Vygovsky communities,
Pereyaslavsky, a convert from Poltava decided the Old Believers there
too comfortable. Taking on the rule of the Rechabites and John the Baptist, he
called for a total forsaking of houses and lands. This began an exciting movement.
All over Russia
Stranniki (wanderers) began to appear, carrying nothing but bread,
salt, and water.
When they entered the
Strannitchestvo (the wandering life) men and women gave
up everything, including their family names. Even selling one's Bible to give the
money to the poor was not considered extreme.
For practical reasons the Stranniki divided themselves between
Christians," those who took care of houses and crops, and "road Christians," those
who went about warning the unbelievers. The house Christians did not own their
houses. At any point they would get up and leave them behind. Even while they
lived in them, they lived without locks and anyone "from the road" was free to
enter and go as they pleased. In some places, hidden in the forest, the Stranniki
kept communities for the road Christians' children.
In many ways the Stranniki kept themselves even further from the world than the
rest of the Old Believers. Because of the Antichrist's image (the tsar's likeness) on
money, most of them refused
to touch or carry it. They believed that praying for
the Tsar, as required by Russian law, was the worst form of blasphemy (asking
God to save the Antichrist) and worthy of excommunication.
Before they read
from a Bible or sang from a hymnal they tore out the title page with the
imprimatur carrying the tsar's name.
Thanks to their constant missionary activity the Stranniki gained followers all over
Russia. Entire villages got converted and became communal hiding places. Secret
entrances led to cellars, attics, closets, and compartments under staircases, in
cupboards, behind the walls, among the eaves, or under the stove. In some "house
Christian" villages, all buildings were connected by tunnels with hidden escape
No less amazing than their hiding places was the communication
by the persecuted Stranniki. Moscow authorities knew that no matter what law
they passed or pronouncement
they made in the capital, news of it spread through
all Russia by the "Stranniki grapevine" long before it arrived through official
One of the Stranniki's most carefully guarded rules was not to die under a roof.
All "home Christians" promised to take up the Strannitchestvo at some point and
to die on the road was an honour.
The Testimony of the Old Believers
The Old Believers studied the Bible and taught their children
from it. Some of
them also wrote tracts and books. Timofey Bondarev wrote
A True and Faithful
Way to Salvation
in the eighteenth
century. Pavel, a monk who became an Old
The Royal Road. In a book from the late 1700s A Testimony From
The Holy Writings
an anonymous Old Believer explained how the Antichrist
a system, not just an individual. Men and women may indeed become
"Antichrists" in their own way, but the real Antichrist
is the world--everything
that opposes Christ.
The Old Believers published and distributed their books with great success. But
even much more widely known than their writings was the testimony of their
The Old Believers, even though many saw them as die-hard traditionalists, did not
fear to make changes if necessary. In fact, they made such drastic changes in their
way of worship and church structure that the Orthodox were horrified (it soon
became apparent who had been "stuck on insignificant details"). Traditions that
reminded the Old Believers who they were and who they served (Christ) became
yet more precious in the wilderness. At the same time they developed new
traditions and adjusted others to fit their circumstances. This selective and highly
creative-if unplanned-process did much to keep them civilised and together as
The Old Believers wore colourful but very modest and old-fashioned clothes. The
men wore loose shirts that fell over their pants. They never shaved nor trimmed
their beards (not even when they had to pay the heavy "beard tax" introduced by
Peter the Great.) From the least to the greatest, all women and girls wore large
headscarves all the time. They sewed ample skirts and blouses for themselves, and
in the winter bundled up in furs. During the day the Old Believers prayed many
times, falling on their faces before Christ. If their contacts led them without their
communities they avoided social intercourse (including eating) with others, but
spoke freely of what they believed.
New things, particularly tobacco, but even potatoes and tomatoes (Eve's apples),
they looked at with distrust.
Because they refused to register deaths as well as
births, many of them got buried at night in ploughed fields or in lonely forests
with nothing to mark where they lay. But peculiarities notwithstanding, even their
enemies knew they could trust them. Drunkenness, laziness, and begging among
them was virtually unknown. Toward the middle of the nineteenth century a
government inspector reported:
When I entered a peasant's house and asked them what they believed they would
often tell me quickly, "We are not Christians."
"What are you then?" I would ask. "Infidels?"
"No," they would tell me. "We believe in Christ but we belong to the church
because we are worldly, frivolous people."
"Why do you say you are not Christians if you believe in Christ?"
"Christians," they would tell me, "Are those who stick to the old beliefs. They
pray differently than we do, but we have no time to imitate them."
What Became of The Old Believers
Even though the Old Believers would not have a thing to do with it, tsarist
officials taking a census calculated their number at over eight and one half million
by 1859. Then, after the freeing of the serfs three years later
(when muzhiks could
move freely from place to place for the first time), thousands more united with the
Statistics show that during the 1860s twenty-five thousand people joined the Old
Believers only in the Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk) area. In 1867 half the population
(five thousand people) of Petrovsk near Saratov joined them. In 1879 a reported
eight thousand converts--from Orthodox, Muslim and indigenous pagan tribes--
united themselves to Old Believer congregations in Orenburg and Perm.
they numbered around thirteen million altogether, and by the Bolshevik
Revolution in 1917 there may have been as many as twenty five million. Without
a doubt, the attraction of Christian "nonconformity" pulled on the inner feelings of
many seeking Russians.
Harassed-and fiercely persecuted at intervals-the Old Believers eventually
gained a measure of freedom simply by their numbers. The tsars wearied of trying
to subdue them, and to get rid of them all (a significant percentage of the
population) looked impossible.
At the same time, what persecution could not do, inner decay
and apostasy did to
some degree. Two hundred and fifty years after the "year of the beast," observers
reported as many as one hundred and thirty different movements or groups among
Old Believers. In a sense this was a strength as much as a weakness. Most of them
did not think of themselves as a denomination. The Bespopovtsy and the Stranniki
in particular had little use for officially ordained men, central authority, and
organisational ties linking communities one with another. While communities in
one place apostatised
or got strange ideas, others improved and drew closer to
In 1905 a new constitution drawn up under Tsar Nikolai II finally
Orthodox church from persecuting Old Believers. But with the communist dictator
Yosef Stalin's new registration laws in the 1930s, their troubles returned. This
time even the north offered them no refuge and only a few escaped through China
into Hong Kong where they startled British officials. Tall bearded men, their
wives wrapped in colourful home-made skirts and scarves, with blond-haired
children mini-replicas of themselves, they seemed to come walking straight out of
the Middle Ages. From Hong Kong they found their way to Brazil, Argentina,
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Oregon and some to Alaska.
Wherever they settled, core groups and continual renewal movements among them
have kept the Old Believers from losing themselves in the world. In free countries
they have identified the Antichrist not so much with rulers and political systems as
movies, drugs, tobacco, shameless immodesty, and birth control.
Old Believers still refuse to shave or drink coffee. They do not use musical
instruments and stand segregated to worship. They still resist legal involvement as
much as they can. Most people see them as impossibly "legalistic" and
opinionated Russians, some of the unhandiest people governments have to deal
with. But their clear testimony
for Christ and against the Antichrist, even in great
weakness and sometimes error, inspired untold numbers in Russia. Without them,
the story of all Russians who followed them on the narrow way (Spirit Christians,
Stundists, and Evangelicals) would be unthinkable and things would have turned
out differently even for the people Russians called . . .
One of the first books he had Russians print was a translation of Johann Arndt's
Coneybeare, Russian Dissenters (remaining citations in this chapter from this work
unless identified otherwise)
Answers from the Shore Dwellers
Frederick C. Coneybeare
For this reason people ordinarily called them Nyetovtsy (from nyet no).
Several Old Believer groups did not want their young people to marry because they had
no ordained men to perform the ceremony. But the rest insisted that marriage was God's
first commandment to men and women, "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gen. 1:28). Therefore
it is not subject to the rites of the church, but to the common desire of the couple
involved and the consent of their parents.
Some Old Believer leaders, including Antip Yakovlev of Plyosovsk, Vasily and Ivan
Petrov taught that all possessions should be held in common. They said: "The words
and yours are curse words. They are the source of all evil in the world."
Considerable numbers joined them.
Usually known as "shore dwellers" because they lived along the Arctic Ocean.
If disaster or sickness struck a home Christian, he would still ask to be carried out, at
least into the garden to die.
Catherine the Great introduced these vegetables to Russia.
Old Believers, meeting in secret during Tsar Peter's reign, could not have foreseen
through whom their first respite from persecution would come. It came through
connections made by the "Antichrist," Peter the Great, himself.
As a boy in Moscow, Peter had made friends with the
Nemtsy (Germans) who
lived outside the city. Years later, after he put away his first wife, he met an
orphaned girl who had grown up in a German home. Her name was Marta.
A Lutheran pastor had found Marta when she was three years old. He and his wife
had taken her into their home. They prayed much and read the Bible to her. Marta
learned to talk German. But when she grew up, Peter saw her one evening and
said: "I want that girl."
At first Marta was terrified. She knew that Peter's legitimate wife languished
the convent to which he had banished her. But Peter treated her well and the two
became inseparable companions.
In 1703 Marta gave birth to her first child. Peter had her and the baby baptised
into the Orthodox church and the priest renamed her "Catherine."
Nine years later
Peter and Marta/Catherine got married, after which the Russians crowned her
tsarina, Catherine I.
In spite of her position the new tsarina never forgot what her kind Protestant
stepfather had taught her. When she traveled with Peter to Germany she slipped,
disguised as a common woman, into the school of one of his friends, August
Hermann Francke, at Halle.
She told August Hermann about Russia, her secret
longing to serve God, and he met Peter.
A most unlikely match, Peter the Great, the dreaded "Antichrist" of Russia, and
August Hermann Francke, the pietist teacher, liked one another immediately. They
respected one another and exchanged letters for as long as they lived.
August Hermann helped set up Russia's first high school in St. Petersburg. On the
tsar's request he sent a director and teachers
from Halle who translated for him
Wahres Christenthum (True Christianity). The Lord used its
message to transform innumerable lives.
While Catherine I ruled Russia (following her husband, Peter the Great), more and
more nemtsy moved into St. Petersburg
and Moscow. Then, thirty five years after
she died, a young woman from Stettin
in West Prussia-Catherine II-took her
place on the throne.
Catherine II came to Russia a cheerful, round-faced, girl with blond hair. Only
fourteen, the Russians brought her to marry their crown prince, also a
German boy) named Peter. But the two decided at once they did not like each
Catherine made friends easily and liked Russia. She promptly learned the
language. Peter hated everything about it. The match was impossible and they
avoided one another's company whenever they could.
Bored and embarrassed Catherine sat in the palace with nothing to do but read.
There she got into trouble. She had a baby and named him Paul. Two more babies
followed but none of them had Peter for their father. After he became tsar,
Catherine plotted against him. With the help of another man whom she liked, she
had him captured and shot. Then she took charge of Russia.
Catherine the Great
All Russia, all Europe-perhaps even Catherine herself-stepped back in surprise
at what happened after her coronation festival in Moscow. With one of her lovers
taking control of Poland she fought the Turks with another one, Grigory Potemkin,
and won. Then she drove the Turks out of all of southern Russia.
In a few years, Catherine's empire, from Kamchatka to the Polish border, from the
Arctic Ocean to Turkey, Persia, and China, had grown yet much larger than that of
Tsar Peter the Great. People, in fact, began calling her "Catherine the Great."
Most Russians liked Catherine. Here and there she had to put down minor
rebellions, but she made fair laws. She disapproved
of serfdom (even though she
could not stop it), torture, and persecution. "Everyone may do what the law does
not forbid," she said. "Officials must stop harassing the people. Only those laws
made directly by the tsar (or tsarina) may be enforced, and the tsar cannot be
under any law but God."
Having grown up Lutheran, Catherine had nothing against the Old Believers and
gave them freedom. Under her rule their communities along the Vyg river and
throughout northern forests prospered undisturbed. The Spirit Christians prospered
likewise, and within a year of coming to power, Catherine had made new laws
permitting foreigners to settle in Russia with religious freedom.
Desperate to find people who would settle on the great open plains she won back
from the Turks, Catherine and her supporters
did what they could. In Estonia the
wife of a Russian official began buying illegitimate babies and hiring wet nurses
to raise them for colonists. In Italy a Russian ambassador tried to get the Mafia to
come. In England law enforcers got a letter from Grigory Potemkin asking them to
send criminals to Russia instead of to Australia. But in the end, nothing worked
better than Catherine's
plan to attract more nemtsy. Among the first to come were
five surveyors, twenty-five single brothers, seventeen single sisters, a widower
and four married couples from the Moravian Brothers' community at Herrnhut in
The Moravians settled just south of Tsaritsyn on the Volga, near the site of the old
Tatar camp at Saray Berke. On river flats unsuitable for grain but excellent for
raising vegetables they built a new community and named it Sarepta. From there
they hoped to reach the wandering Kalmyk people-Buddhists-who roamed the
In Sarepta the Moravians held their things in common and worked hard, raising
mustard seed and cotton. They made candles, and ran a sawmill. Gaily coloured
cotton cloth, woven and sold at low prices, became popular among peasant women
and girls all over Russia.
The Moravian settlers prospered, and large numbers of immigrants (mostly
Lutherans and Roman Catholics) from southern
Germany, Switzerland, and
Prussia followed them. These newer settlers built colonies along the lower Volga
with names like Schaffhausen, Glarus, and Zürich. Then, from where no one expected,
came another Christian community.
A Palace, a Count, and Three Plain Men
Catherine the Great cut no corners, decorating her winter palace in St. Petersburg.
She called artists from Italy and France. From all over Europe she called
architects, sculptors, designers and painters to build a yet more elaborate palace
complex, Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar's village) outside the city. "I have numberless
rooms," she wrote to a friend, "and all of them are full of luxuries!" But one thing
Catherine could not change: St. Petersburg's weather.
All winter terrible storms blew St. Petersburg full of snow. The Neva froze and its
residents could do nothing but huddle around their fireplaces wishing to be warm.
Then, all summer long great clouds of mosquitoes rose from surrounding swamps.
got tired of it. She began to spend part of the year with one of her
noblemen, Peter Aleksandrovich Rumyantsev, governor of Little Russia (Ukraine)
in what she began to call her "summer palace" far to the south on the Desna River
The Rumyantsev family owned much land. They called their estate Vyshenka. But
the Count could not spend as much time on it as he would have liked. Large parts
of the estate lay idle for, besides being governor, he was also a general in the
When a new war broke out with the Turks in 1770 Catherine
Rumyantsev to command Russian troops in Turkish-held Walachia. There he met
three nemtsy with beards and dressed in very simple home-made clothes. Their
names were Hans Kleinsasser, Josef Müller, and Jörg Waldner.
The three men and the people with them, were part of a fuse that would ignite and
explode in a great new light-another resurrection of the "underground church" in
The fuse went back to Tsar Peter the Great's friend, August Hermann Francke,
and his school at Halle.
Thanks to August Hermann and his promotion of Johann Arndt's book about true
Christianity, seekers for the truth throughout German and Austrian lands began to
read their Bibles and pray. Everywhere men and women wept for their sins and
turned to Christ. One group of seekers, Roman Catholics in the Austrian province
of Kärnten, began to meet in their homes to seek the Lord together. They decided
to become Protestants, since that was what August Hermann Francke and Johann
Arndt had been.
This brought persecution.
Catholic Austrians, urged on by Jesuits, drove the little group (two hundred and
seventy people) from Kärnten through Hungary into Transylvania.
government tolerated Protestants. The Austrian empress, Maria Theresa, promised
to give them land in Transylvania if they would swear allegiance to her. But the
Kärnten seekers had problems. First, they did not believe
they should swear.
Second they did not like the Protestant (Lutheran) church they now became part
Protestants at close range did not seem at all like the books from Halle. For all
their "piety" they looked to the Kärnten seekers
like so many worldly people with
religion in their mouths.
Was this the best one could expect? Was this living with Christ?
The more Matthias Hofer, Hans Kleinsasser, Jörg Waldner and the other new
Christians from Kärnten became aware of Christ, the more they hoped not.
Conscious of Christ, they could not live like the worldly Protestants nor remain in
fellowship with them. "Come out from among them!" "Follow me!" The call of
Christ struck them to the heart-then they met some strange people in a village
called Alwinz (now Vintu de Jos, Romania).
Their contact began with the swearing problem. Since they would not swear the
oath of allegiance they got no land in Transylvania.
They had to work as day
labourers and Jörg Waldner found employment in Alwinz. The people he met
there were the last remnant of what had been the great Anabaptist movement of
Austria, Moravia, and Hungary. They had dwindled from thousands
in dozens of communities to nineteen people in one village. Even those, after
centuries of persecution, had nearly lost what they believed.
At first the seekers from Kärnten merely found the Anabaptists, here called
(Hutterian Brothers) interesting.
But the more they talked with
them, and once the Alwinz brothers began to pull old books from their hiding
places, their interest knew no bounds. Night after night the Kärnten people sat
with the old men from Alwinz, asking questions, studying
the Bible, reading by
candle light from hand-written manuscripts,
and learning songs they had never
It caught like fire. "This is it!" the Kärnten families agreed. "This is the way of
Christ! Let us walk in it!"
Even though the people at Alwinz had lost many of their distinctive practices, the
"new Anabaptists" turned at once to complete separation from warfare and
materialism, the baptism of believers, life in community, and more.
This brought persecution in earnest. Now the Protestants joined the Catholics in
hating them, threatening to take their children,
and throwing them in jail. In 1767
all of the Kärnten believers fled across the Carpathian Mountains into Turkishheld
At least they thought it was Turkish-held. In actual fact Walachia (a Greek
Orthodox state, now southern Romania) was in a state of anarchy. The Turks still
tried to keep order but uncontrollable
bands of marauders rampaged the
countryside. From the east it faced a Russian invasion.
The Kärnten believers settled first at Choregirle, near Bucharest, but disease and
robberies drove them to Presetchain. From there repeated plunderings drove them
into the hills and surrounding woods. In this condition Russian soldiers found
them and their hearts were moved. The children were starving. A Russian
commander gave them a yoke of oxen and a wagon and pointed them east. There,
in the main camp near the Moldavian border, they sent their elder Hans
Kleinsasser, their community steward, Josef Müller, and Jörg Waldner, their
schoolteacher, to speak with the field marshal, Count Peter Aleksandrovich
East and West Meet
Count Rumyantsev, having spent much time with Catherine the Great and her
friends, spoke German fairly well. That was good, for the three Anabaptist
brothers from Kärnten had much to explain.
"Are you Catholic?"
"Are you Lutheran or Calvinist?"
"Well, what do you believe?"
While the three men explained their walk with Christ, Count Rumyantsev
remembered his vast empty estate on the Desna and a plan took shape in his mind.
"Would you like to farm?" he asked them. The men's eyes lit up. They talked and
plans progressed speedily, until by August 1, 1770, four months and six hundred
kilometres (under friendly military escort) later, a new community of believers
stood at Vyshenka, near Chernigov.
The brothers and sisters at Vyshenka set to work at once. Other Anabaptists,
fleeing Moravia through Herrnhut in Germany (with passports issued by a
Moravian friend, Ludwig von Zinzendorf) joined them.
They farmed and set up a
mill. They began to make pottery, hats, shoes, and furniture. Some worked with
metal and others tanned hides. But every evening work stopped when they met to
pray, to sing, and to read from the treasure of Anabaptist writings they had
smuggled out of Austria.
Not far from Vyshenka sat the Old Believer community of Slisnov, also tolerated
by Count Rumyantsev. In it the Waldners, the Kleinsassers, and others from
Kärnten first received the bread and salt of Russian Christian hospitality. Even
though they could talk little and their cultures differed much, the Old Believers
and the Kärnten Anabaptists found fellowship in their common poverty and hope
in Christ. In them the "underground" church of the east met the "underground"
church of the west-and this was only the beginning.
For both communities their time in fresh air and sunlight would be short.
Count Rumyantsev's happiness with his Anabaptist colony had direct and farreaching
consequences. By now a member of Catherine's imperial council (her
inner circle of advisors) he took her, Grigory Potemkin, and other officials to see
the brothers at Vyshenka. All of them liked what they saw and began to discuss
what it could mean for the vast, empty steppes south of Kiev.
"What we need is more settlers like this," Count Rumyantsev
declared. "And I
know where to find them. In West Prussia!"
Catherine remembered them. In marshy lowlands along the Baltic Sea, not far
from where she had grown up, she remembered
seeing their flat, well-drained
fields of wheat and rye. "You are right," she agreed. "And I know how to make
them come. Because
they will not fight they are always in trouble and pay heavy
taxes to the Prussian government. Let us promise them freedom from military
service and free land! They are good workers. They like to farm. You watch, I'll
make them an offer they can't possibly refuse!"
True to her word, Catherine sent a message to Peter Epp, a Mennonite elder in
Danzig. (People called the Anabaptists in the Netherlands and Prussia
for Menno Simons.) She promised to give 65 dessyatins (182 acres) of land to
every family that would move to Russia. She promised the Mennonites freedom
from military service and permission to run their own churches and schools
Her message had its desired effect. Within two months, Jakob Höppner and
Johann Bartsch, two West Prussian brothers met Grigory Potemkin in Dubrovna
on the Dnepr to see the land. The following spring they met Count Rumyantsev,
Catherine the Great, and a group of tsarist dignitaries at the Kremenchug fortress
near Poltava. They gave Catherine a letter signed by a long list of Mennonites
ready to come. All they yet needed to know was when and where.
Catherine decided to look at "Taurida" (the territory between
Kiev and the Black
Sea just reconquered from the Turks) herself.
Like a queen out of the Arabian nights she set out with Grigory Potemkin in a fleet
of flower-decked boats and barges. Musicians played. Everywhere she travelled
down the Dnepr people celebrated with their best foods and wine. To impress her
even further, Grigory (it is said) erected portable villages along the way and hired
people to stand before false house and shop fronts to wave. But the flotilla of
barges that followed less than two years later was not gaily decorated and no one
waved from the shore.
Even the people were plain and poor.
Because of renewed fighting with the Turks and Tatars, the Mennonites who
followed Catherine down the Dnepr could proceed
no further than a squalid
nomad camp at a place called Kichkas. They were very unhappy.
"What do you mean, great fertile plains?" they asked Jakob Höppner and Johann
Bartsch. "All we can see is bare rocky land and hills. On top of that it is not
empty. Who are these people here at Kichkas?"
Jakob and Johann tried to explain that the people who had swarmed around the
Mennonite camp (taking what they could when no one looked) were not farmers
but herdsmen who only appeared now and then. The Mennonites were not so sure.
Some refused to build, but when fall came and no other options appeared they dug
sod houses up from Kichkas (renamed Einlage) and at places they called
Kronsweide, Neuenburg and Khortitsa-Rosenthal. This last and largest village
became the centre of their colony.
Nothing went well. The Mennonites ran out of food and their clothes wore out.
Their few animals began to die and to plough the unbroken grasslands was almost
impossible. Grigory Potemkin's
men brought them old rye flour to bake and
make soup with. But it tasted horrible.
Worst of all, many of the settlers had fallen a long way from the spiritual life of
their Anabaptist ancestors. No church leader had come with them. The men
complained and quarrelled. Some set up a drinking place on the colony and in a
fight one Mennonite got killed. When Jakob Höppner and Johann Bartsch tried to
keep order the colonists (by now with an elder ordained through a letter from
Prussia) excommunicated them and had Jakob put in jail.
In spite of their spiritual poverty, the Mennonites' crops eventually did better.
More settlers came until six thousand lived in Khortitsa and along the Molochna
(milk river) to the south. Every year the number of their farms and villages
increased, yet material prosperity did nothing to satisfy the longings of those who
saw their condition before God.
"We are lost!" Klaas Reimer, elder Peter Epp's son-in-law, began to cry out. "Let
us repent and find the way again!"
Throughout the Mennonite villages-particularly along the Molochna where
Klaas Reimer lived-those who longed for peace read their Bibles and dug old
Anabaptist books from their chests. For the first time in two hundred years men
and women, even young people and children, read the Bible, the
and Pieter Pietersz'
Weg na Vreden-stadt (Way to the City of Peace)
as if their
lives depended on it. Some saw visions and had remarkable dreams. Others spoke
of the Antichrist. So desperately did many colonists seek deliverance that they
wandered the streets crying out loud to God in the dead of winter.
prayed in the snow until he froze.
Repentance even though misguided or unbalanced brought with it a great fear of
God, and to some people an awareness of Christ the King. Young people stopped
drinking and playing cards. Foolish laughing and joking died away. Those who
followed Klaas Reimer, Kornelius Janzen, Heinrich Wiebe and other awakened
returned to living with the barest necessities and dressing in the simplest
clothes. They detached themselves from worldly things to walk with Christ-like
their neighbours who worshipped around . . .
Russian Orthodox priests were legally responsible for the naming of everyone they
baptised. In the case of converts they gave new names.
In this German town northwest of Leipzig, seat of the Martin Luther University of
Halle-Wittenberg in which he was a theology professor, August Hermann Francke began
a school for poor young people, an orphanage, a clinic, and a publishing house in the late
The book deeply moved Tikhon Zadonsky, quoted in chapter six.
now Szczecin in Poland
The Moravians were a pacifist Christian group with links in the early 1400s to the
Waldenses and other nonconformed believers. They patterned their communities after the
teachings of Christ. They loved and served Christ with unusual devotion and by the late
1700s they had carried the Gospel to nations around the world.
the northern part of modern Romania
A Czech-speaking brother from Herrnhut risked his life to visit the Anabaptists in
Hungary and tell them of the new refuge on the Desna Rviver in Russia. Many escaped,
trying to get there, but many also fell into the hands of the authorities who hauled them
When Count Rumyantsev died his sons threatened to take over the Hutterite
community and make them serfs. They moved first to Radichev, nearby, then to the
southern Ukraine. But as official harrassment increased both Hutterites and Old Believers
had to leave Russia.
During the Seven Years' War, beginning in 1756, Count Rumyantsev as commander in
chief of Russia's cavalry units had spent his winters in West Prussia.
Pieter Pietersz was the elder of Anabaptist congregations at De Rijp and Zaandam in
the Netherlands where he wrote his book around 1625. He loved Christ and deplored
disunity and worldliness in the church. His book is a description of life's journey to the
heavenly Jerusalem where "unity of Spirit is found under palms of peace." It seems to
have been known by and may have inspired John Bunyan who wrote a similar work,
, fifty years later.
"So dasz einige im Winter im Graben und Schnee lagen und laute Bußgebete
according to a contemporary report.
the fellowship that became known as the Kleingemeinde (little community)
Bread and Salt
"Visit one another, practice bread and salt, practice charity, keep the
commandments, pray to God," a group of believers in Russia wrote in the
Why bread and salt?
Since Slavic times, Russians used bread and salt as symbols of hospitality-
symbols standing for fellowship and peace. But to believers meeting in secret
during times of persecution, they came to mean much more.
Christ said, "I am the bread of life." He also said, "You are the salt of the earth."
Seeing bread and salt together spoke to Russian believers of fellowship between
Christ and his people.
Beyond this, they believed bread and salt were the least a person could live on.
Bread (Christ) keeps one alive, and salt (Christianity sprinkled throughout the
world) keeps one from spoiling. Many believers detached themselves so
completely from this world's things that they took to the road with nothing but a
bag of dried bread and a pinch of salt. Even to those who did not go to that far,
bread and salt stood for the self-denial, the suffering, and "otherworldliness" that
is ours, in community with Christ.
Spirit Christian Communities
While Old Believers spread through remote regions of Russia and colonies of
Nemtsy appeared in the south, Spirit Christians
in its central and most densely
populated regions (around Tambov, Voronezh and Moscow) also increased. Like
the Old Believers they called on the name of Christ, and like those who loved
Christ among the Moravians, Hutterites, and Mennonites, their walk with him led
them into serious-minded obedience to his teachings.
A wool merchant from Tambov, Ilaryon Pobirokhin, became
a leader among the
Spirit Christians in the late 1600s. He read much and kept his large family in
order. Before his death in Siberian exile he wrote:
Be serious minded. Trust in God. Love God with all your heart. Actively work for
the good of his holy congregation. Show respect and obey all his commandments.
Follow the path of virtue. Shun enslaving habits. Be perceptive. Do everything in
light of what comes after death. Do not allow opportunities to do good escape
you. Think carefully before setting out to do anything new, and make no
decisions in a hurry. Be prompt in meeting your obligations. Do not believe
everything you hear. Do not tell others everything you know, but only what is
necessary. If you are not sure about something, do not affirm it nor deny it.
Investigate, so you may be discreet. Be temperate. Do not eat unless you are
hungry. Do not drink unless you thirst, and that only in small quantities. Avoid
drunkenness like you would avoid hell. Intemperance leads to sickness. Sickness
brings death. Those who abstain from the unnecessary live in health and wellbeing.
Do not be arrogant, but meek. Keep more to silence than to much conversation.
When someone is speaking, listen. When someone talks to you, pay attention.
When someone gives you orders, carry them out. Do not boast. Do not be
stubborn, quarrelsome or vain. Be friendly to all but flatter none. Be fair. Do not
desire what belongs to others. Do not steal but work hard to produce everything
you may need. In poverty ask for help. When it is given, accept it and be
thankful. But return the things you borrow, and whatever you promise, fulfill.
Be courageous, and always ready to work. Leave off idleness
and laziness. If
you wish to start a project, count the cost in advance then stick to it without
giving up. Do not lose heart in adversity. Do not let prosperity corrupt you. Be
thrifty. Take note of what happens to those who do not persevere:
they come to
misfortune and sorrow. The fainthearted
sigh, lament, and wail, over things the
without murmuring. Be generous and kind to all. Give to the one
who asks of you. As long as you have anything left, help the poor. If someone has
hurt you, forgive him. If you have hurt anyone seek reconciliation. Do not hold
grudges. Forgive the sinner. Let peacemakers do their work. If you love your
fellowmen, you will be loved in return. Greet those you meet. Return the greeting
of those who greet you. Answer those who ask questions. Give advice to those
who want it. Comfort the sorrowful. Do not envy. Wish everyone well.
Serve everyone to the extent of your ability. If you only do good to others your
friends will love you and your enemies will not be able to hate you with reason.
Always speak the truth. Do this and it will go well with you. Glory to God!
Ilaryon's son-in-law, Semyon Ukleyn, worked as an itinerant
tailor. In his travels
he told many about Christ. On one occasion,
with too large a group to arrest, he
entered the city of Tambov,
publicly calling on the whole city to repent. Isaya
Kirilov, another zealous leader read the Gospels and taught the people. As a result
of these men's work, large "underground" communities of Spirit Christians took
shape in the 1700s.
Back to Christ
Twelve years after the Mennonites' came to Russia, Spirit Christians also began to
settle on great plains of the south. They established themselves-directly across
the Molochna from what became the Mennonites' largest colony-in communities
called Bogdanovka (gift of God), Spaskoye (Salvation), Troytskoye (the Trinity),
Terpenye (patience), Tambovka, Rodianovka, Yefremovka,
and others, south to the Black Sea.
"The cry of the Spirit Christians," a scholar who visited them in the 1800s
back to Christ." They lived by the Sermon on the Mount and
counted twelve virtues as friends:
truth that delivers us from death, purity that
brings us to God,
love that is where God is, labour that is good for body and soul,
the quickest way to salvation, not judging that brings us grace without
reasonableness the highest virtue, mercy of which Satan himself is afraid,
the work of Christ, prayer and fasting that unite us with God,
the highest commandment of Christ, and thanksgiving that pleases
God and the angels.
Equals in Christ
Nowhere did the Spirit Christians' obedience to Christ become
than in their relationships one to another. With Christ, they objected to being
masters over others. "The Spirit of God lives in man," they taught. "God has no
or dwelling place apart from his Spirit. Therefore all men
deserve the same honour: poor and rich, servant or master, lowly or high. All men
have fallen and need a Saviour. We must serve them all, like Christ." This attitude
led them into good relationships,
not only with their Mennonite neighbours but
with the pious among the Orthodox, the Old Believers, the Armenians-even the
Turks and Tatars with whom they came into contact.
The Way, the Spirit Christians believed, did not belong only to them. All who
follow Christ in their hearts, whether they know him with their mouths and minds
or not, will be saved. One of their members wrote in the nineteenth century:
The church consists of all whom God has separated from worldly society. These
elect ones are not distinguished by any special symbols. They are not united in a
with distinct doctrines and rites. Rather, the children of
God are scattered all over the world and belong to all confessions. . . . The church
is a society selected by God himself. It is universal.
It has no common external
creed. . . . We must understand the Scriptures as representing what is inward and
spiritual. We can only understood them if Christ lives within us.
Growing up in this atmosphere of equality and grace, Spirit Christian children
honoured their elders but used no special titles. All who lived in their communities
greeted one another by bowing "to the inestimably precious image of God that
lives in all men." A woman who visited them in the 1800s remarked:
Can you picture an old man of eighty and a boy of ten calling one another
affectionate diminutives like Stepa, Viktorushka, Lusha, Dasha, etc.? That is
exactly how they do. Fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, children
of all ages address one another, and even strangers, with their given names. . . .
At first it is impossible to know who is related to whom and how. Along with this
they respect one another alike, the young the old, the old the young, the men the
women, and the women the men. The men take no liberties they would not allow
the women to take.
Spirit Christians respected all, but like the Quakers they refused to bare their heads
The Holy Trinity, Spirit Christians believed, lives within us. The Father is our
inner sense of right and wrong-our conscience.
The Son sets our consciences
free. He is our light. The Spirit moves us to do what the light allows us to see. He
is our will. To worship God is to stand in unobstructed fellowship with the Holy
Trinity within us. Novitski, an Orthodox historian quoted a Spirit Christian:
I am the living temple of God. The altar and throne of God is within me. The
Holy Trinity is made flesh in me. I am the priest, the one who sacrifices, and the
sacrifice itself, all at the same time. My heart is the altar. My will is the offering,
and my soul is the priest.
Beyond this, Jesus Christ is my High priest. He makes me holy. So why should I
yet need an outward clergy? The one in whom Christ works is chosen and
ordained to the priesthood
Visible and Invisible
Spirit Christians believed salvation comes through baptism (baptism of the Holy
Ghost and fire), but most of them did not use water in connection with it.
is our priest," they said. "We are washed daily by his Word of truth. We are
baptised (immersed) in the Holy Ghost and fire (persecution). Our communion is
fellowship with others and with Christ. Our confession is to confess our
faults one to another. Our fasting is more than abstaining
from certain foods at
certain times-it is to abstain from sin and sensual indulgence all the time."
With their rejection of visible sacraments Spirit Christians also rejected the use of
ikons and the veneration of saints. They did not believe in the necessity of
miraculous signs as Novitski reported one of them saying:
We believe that Christ does miracles and are living testimonies of it. We were
dead in sin. We were blind and deaf. But he has raised us up. He has let us see his
salvation, and hear his commandments. Beyond this we are not interested in miracles.
We need no outward, bodily, miracles for our salvation,
because we do not
know Christ in an outward way. He is the inner Word and reveals himself to us in
the innermost parts of our souls.
Thrift and Order
Living to please Christ in the "inner man," Spirit Christians avoided what they
thought was for outward show or carnal pleasure. This certainly included wine and
tobacco, but most of them abstained even from garlic and spices, and some from
meat. "One can catch a glimpse of God in the kitchen as well as in meeting, on the
home table as well as on the table in the house of prayer."
A Russian observer
wrote in the 1800s:
They condemn luxuries in food or dress. In general they condemn what is
expensive, saying: "If we insist on living in luxury and spend a great deal of
money on ourselves, we only help to make our neighbours miserable. Every
thing we allow ourselves we take away from a brother who needs it.
It is good to prosper, but let your prospering be for the benefit of all and not to
satisfy your own greediness. Let the one who prospers find his greatest pleasure
in contributing to the welfare of his brothers. If he does so, he will lead a simple
life and not chase after luxuries."
A reporter for a Russian Orthodox journal wrote in 1870:
The majority of the Molokans love to do good and try to detach themselves from
anything that can corrupt a man. They condemn card playing and all games using
money. They say that such games are a waste of time and teach greediness. They
think competitive games gender strife and nothing, they think, is worse than
playing and drinking at the same time. They believe nothing leads so directly to
ruin and sin and shun both vices. On the other hand they think hard work is as
necessary as daily bread and the breath of life. Even beyond supporting
themselves it keeps them out of depravity and trouble. They look on hard work as
a religious duty.
Filaret, the Orthodox bishop of Kiev, wrote in 1870:
The Molokans, the moment you meet them command your attention. They have a
sensible look and way of talking. They are sober and mannerly. They hold to
good morals. They are thrifty and work hard. They live in neat well-built villages.
In everything they do around their homes they use good management and are
especially known for their production of wool.
Order in Worship
Spirit Christians gathered often (some daily) in their homes to read, sing, and pray
around a bare table set with bread and salt. Even children read in these meetings,
from the Scriptures, or repeated long portions by memory. The oldest men, like
the rest in simple clothes and with untrimmed
beards, opened and closed the
meetings. Women wore large headscarves and sat separate from the men. A report
written in 1805 by Governor Kohovsky of Yekaterinoslav, describes a meeting in
a Molochna village:
The Spirit Christians meet often. . . . Any one of them may arrange a meeting at
his house by inviting all the brothers and sisters. If such a meeting is held at the
house of a poor brother who cannot provide food for those who have assembled,
the others previously contribute the necessary food or else bring it with them. For
at these meetings they serve a meal.
When they enter the meeitng the men greet
the men, and the women the women, by grasping each other's right hands,
bowing three times and kissing each other. Then each one says a prayer. . . .
During the meetings they pray one after another. They sing psalms together and
explain the Word of God one to another. As almost all are illiterate, and therefore
without books, all this is done from memory. They have no priests in the ordinary
sense of the word because they acknowledge as priest the one just, holy, true
Christ, uplifted above sinners, higher than the heavens. He is their sole teacher.
For this reason they hear the Word of God from each other. Each one may
express what he knows or feels for the benefit of his brothers. . . . At the end of
the meeting they again kiss each other three times and return home.
Order in the Congregation
Visitors to Spirit Christian communities marvelled at their internal order and
peace. That peace seemed all the more remarkable when they learned how it was
kept. Governor Kohovsky wrote:
In their society there are no elders who rule or administrate, but rule and
administration are by all and each. Written regulations or rules they also have
none, and one might suppose that there ought therefore to be disagreement and
disorder amongst them. Yet no such disorder has ever been noticed. Along the
Molochna River from three to five families live peaceably together in every one
of their large houses.
Where discipline became necessary the Spirit Christians still followed the
instructions of Christ. Governor Kohovsky described it:
No punishments exist among the brothers. As soon as any brother thinks another
has behaved improperly, he, according to the Gospel's instruction, reminds him
that he is acting wrong. If the one in fault does not respond, he is admonished in
the presence of two or three of the brothers. If he does not listen to them he is
invited to appear before the general assembly.
There have been cases, though very seldom, in which some of the brothers have
left the society, doubtless in order to live at liberty according to their own
unrestricted desire. It has even sometimes happened that wives have deserted
their husbands. The husbands in such cases do not detain their wives but give
them liberty, at the same time giving them what they need to live. Deserters may
be reaccepted into their society if they completely repent and leave their immoral
Order in the Home
The Spirit Christians had no rigid rules nor governing body for their community as
a whole. But in their families they observed a careful order of headship. Governor
In their families, the weakness and dependence of the women, the inexperience of
youth, and the education of the children, naturally makes another system
necessary. In every family there must be an authority, and the father is that
authority. His duty is to care for the needs of his family, to watch the conduct of
the children, correct their faults, and teach them the law of God. When the father
dies, his place is taken by the oldest one of the brothers, and in the case of his
incapacity, his place is taken by the one most capable.
Spirit Christian fathers educated their children, not so much with books as by
working with them, teaching them trades and drawing lessons from nature. At a
very young age children learned to sing and memorise Scriptures. They learned to
read and write and listened to old men tell stories on long winter evenings.
schools, their parents believed, were unnecessary and wrong. Governor Kohovsky
The education of children among the Spirit Christians is most simple and
uniform. As soon as a child begins to speak and understand, his parents begin to
teach him to sing and pray and to tell him something out of the Holy Writings. In
this way they continue to instruct him in Christian doctrine. When the children
have learned a few prayers and psalms they accompany their parents to the
meetings, take their turn in reciting what they have learned and sing psalms with
the rest. Not only the parents but every Spirit Christian regards it as his duty to
teach every child something useful whenever he has the opportunity to do so, and
to keep him form evil whenever he has occasion.
Thanks to such an education, the attitude of the parents is passed by degrees into
the children. Their ways of thinking take deep root and the tendency towards
good is most strongly encouraged by good examples. It is said, and indeed seems
quite natural, that among a number of children one can distinguish the Spirit
Christians' children from the rest like ears of wheat among oats.
Like the Old Believers the Spirit Christians had no way of getting legally married.
Fathers simply took their daughters by the hand and presented them to young men
they wished to marry with the words: "Here, take my daughter for your wife
according to God's law. Take her with you to your father's house." The parents of
both the boy and the girl (usually in their early teens) would give them their
blessing, and as in all meetings they would sing and pray around bread and salt. A
Spirit Christian wrote in the 1800s:
Man and wife must be united in love. Their union must be an inner, spiritual, one.
He who loves his wife, loves himself. The man who treats his wife roughly in
word or deed sins against the Lord's command. How could love and harmony
exist between people who quarrel? Without love and harmony
a wife cannot be a
helper for her husband. She sinks to being nothing more than a slave for carnal
cohabitation. Degraded to the level of a non-reasoning animal, the spirit and
image of God in her is dishonoured and lost. Unless a man and woman are united
by a bond of affection their union is fornication and adultery.
In a nineteenth century description of their beliefs a Spirit Christian wrote:
Among us a woman is not a beast of burden but a helper and a support. She is a
companion and friend.
War and Government
The historian Novitski wrote: "Most likely it was only a lack of opportunity and
resources that prevented these dissenters (the Spirit Christians) from re-enacting
the horrible mutinies and bloody disputes which characterized the rising of the
similar sect of Anabaptists in Westphalia." But nothing could have been further
from the truth.
The Spirit Christians believed it their first duty to love all men. "To kill a man's
body is to break down a temple of God," they believed, and died rather than take
up arms. They rejected participation in government, patriotism, and warfare
outright. A tsarist official described in his diary how some of them responded to
military conscription in 1818:
In the morning the commandant told me that five peasants belonging to a
landowner in Tambov had been sent to Georgia. These men had been sent for
soldiers, but they would not serve. They had been flogged several times and made
to run the gauntlet, but they would submit readily to the cruelest tortures, even to
death, rather than serve in the army. "Let us go," they said, "and leave us alone.
We will not hurt anyone. All men are equal and the Tsar is a man like us. Why
should we listen to him? Why should we expose
our lives to danger to kill those
in battle who have done us no harm? You can cut us to pieces but we will not be
soldiers. He who has compassion on us may give us what he wants to, but as for
we have not received them before and we do not want them
The Spirit Christian leader, Siluan Kolesnikov, wrote, "We should submit to
worldly authorities, not only to the good and gentle, but to the perverse. We
should obey them even when they mistreat and persecute us." But when obeying
authorities meant hurting others, the Spirit Christians withstood them firmly. A
document they wrote at Yekaterinoslav in the Ukraine states:
Society is full of evil people motivated by jealousy and terrible passions. Such
people could not exist by themselves for they would exterminate one another. For
this reason the wisest among them have set up authorities to curb disorder. Up to
this point, worldly authorities are beneficent and ordained by God. God wants
them to exist for the good of the human race.
But Christ said. "I am not of the world." We who follow him shun evil not
because we fear the punishment of worldly authority, but because we are born
again. We want to live like Jesus said. He changed our wills and freed us from the
bondage of man-made laws. He gave us his Holy Spirit and created in us a new
heart. He freed us to live above God's laws and do what pleases him, totally
Fire and Light
Enemies of the Spirit Christians (church and government officials who feared their
rapid spread) began a wave of persecution against them in 1792. They ordered the
registration of all their meeting places and tried to stop them from making converts
-in spite of an admission made by one of their own historians:
The Spirit Christians are not interested in conflict with the authorities. Their
desire is to create a just and sensible community. Their morals make them stick
out from the surrounding population like ears of wheat stick out from the weeds.
Even the places where they live look tidy and well-cared-for, in part because of
the way they help one another. In their teaching and conduct they emphasise
brotherly love above all else. Friendliness is their outstanding characteristic.
A provincial governor who described the Spirit Christians as "monsters and
breakers of the general peace," wrote:
Those infected with the movement merit no mercy. . . . They are all the more
dangerous because of their exemplary
conduct. They avoid drunkenness and
idleness. They work hard to support their families and lead moral lives.
In spite of his serious mistrust of them, Novitski also wrote:
They are sober, hardworking and hospitable. Their houses and clothes are clean
and simple. They spend all their time working in their fields and taking care of
Such a way of life could not go unnoticed, and from their new colonies on the
Molochna River the Spirit Christians sent messengers to visit those who expressed
interest in them. Novitski wrote:
They believe themselves children of God and think God has called them to teach
one another. They are quick to give to the poor. They think they must share with
others what God gives them, everyone according to his ability. . . . Along with
this they have carried their propaganda with incredible zeal all over the south of
Russia. They have gained crowds of followers in the governments of
Yekaterinoslav, Kharkov, Tambov and in the country of the Don Cossacks. In the
Caucasus they have showed their face and they have overrun
and Kursk. From the centre of Russia they have made their way north to Finland,
the islands in the White Sea and Arkhangelsk. In the east they have gone as far as
Siberia and Kamchatcka. Wherever they go it is not the rich but the poor and
humble, the peasants
and workers that welcome their teaching. The educated do
not know them and it is rare even for a merchant to join them.
Village priests soon feared the Spirit Christians because "every one of them is
familiar with the Gospel and overwhelms an adversary in discussion with citations
In the mid-1800s an Orthodox scholar wrote:
More than once I have seen the priests roundly defeated in their arguments by
Spirit Christians. When this happens, many leave the church and join the heretics.
Neither should we think the heretics keep themselves to acquaintance with the
Scriptures. Many of them buy books and read them eagerly to find arguments in
support of their teaching."
In 1799 a new law banished the Spirit Christians to mines in the Ural Mountains
"so that those who reject God-ordained authority on the earth may feel and know
that there is still a power, put in place by God, to defend those who do right and to
restrain and punish evildoers like themselves." But neither the law nor persecution
could stop them and by 1800 "crowds of them, preaching openly in the
marketplace" were reported in Astrakhan on the mouth of the Volga.
Most Spirit Christians along the Molochna River lived in semi-communal villages.
Every seven years they used the lot to redivide their farmland.
Older men and
women among them made sure that everyone worked and had enough: at least a
one-room house, food for the day, bedding, and clothes. But around three
thousand of the Molochna settlers, led by a converted soldier, Savely Kapustin,
began to live in communities that operated
from a common purse.
An Orthodox priest first called them
Dukhobortsy (Spirit wrestlers). He accused
them of wrestling
against the Spirit. But like they had adopted the earlier
nickname Molokan-saying they desired to drink the sincere milk of the Word-
they now adopted this one. "Let us wrestle with Christ against spiritual
wickedness in high places," they said.
Savely and the Dukhobors held their land in common and stored their harvest in
large communal granaries. Living together in the love of Christ they refused even
to kill animals and stopped eating meat or wearing clothes of wool or leather.
Anyone could leave at any time
(even the wives and children of resident members)
but so joyful had their community become that hardly anyone took
advantage of it.
Like Russian believers through centuries before them, the Spirit Christians learned
what it takes to survive persecution. They discovered the great strength that comes
through submitting one to another and sharing everything in Christian community.
Doing this, they flourished in adversity and blossomed out during a strange time
of . . .
Coneybeare, Russian Dissenters (citations in this chapter from this work unless
Russian believers took literally the Scripture quoted by Christ: "Man shall not live by
bread alone." But they thought it was possible to live on bread and salt.
This generic term came to include the Molokans, the Dukhobors, Communist
Christians and other similar groups. In many ways they resembled the Old Believers. But
the Spirit Christians were yet further removed from Eastern Orthodoxy and closer to the
Quakers and Anabaptists in practice.
Instructions for Life, translated by Eli A. Popov, Grand Forks, British Columbia.
Exceptions were the communities in the lower Don region. They baptized with water
and celebrated communion with ordinary bread and wine.
The testimony of a Molokan brother in California, 1982.
Kostomarov, quoted by Coneybeare
At fellowship meals after meetings, four courses-tea and sweets, borscht or lapsha,
lamb or chicken, fruits in season-were served if available. During every course
someone spoke or read, and every course ended with a song.
translated by Vladimir Chertkov in Christian Martyrdom in Russia, 1897
Description of Beliefs and Teachings of the Molokans
benefits paid to families who had sons in the army
quoted by Lev Tolstoy in The Kingdom of God is Within You
cited in Coneybeare, Russian Dissenters
Kohovsky, quoted by Coneybeare
A practice they continued when they settled the Valle de Guadalupe, in Baja
California, in 1904.
only on foot and taking with them only what they could carry
Mysteries and Miracles
Catherine the Great, after she had Russia's twenty-nine provinces in peace and on
the way to prosperity, settled down in Tsarskoye Selo to enjoy the last years of her
reign. Like King Solomon, she denied herself no pleasures. A plump
grandmotherly woman with twinkling eyes she owned some of the world's largest
collections of art and sculpture. Around her palaces she laid out parks and pools.
Several hundred servants scurried about at her command and her court became a
virtual "harem" of handsome boys she picked up on her trips through the empire.
Only one boy she could not stand: her homely son Paul.
Paul was short, with a pug nose and little round eyes far apart. He looked simple.
But his son Aleksandr was a different story. Tall, fair-haired, open-faced, and
intelligent, even if somewhat shy, he was Catherine the Great's golden boy. She
raised him in her palace and made plans for him to become tsar in her place.
Paul would not hear of it. As soon as Catherine died he assumed control and
shocked everyone by leading Russia into conflict with western Europe, making
plans to send an army to India, and sending all who opposed him into Siberia.
Russians saw him as a bloodthirsty maniac, an Ivan the Terrible in the making,
and with his son Aleksandr's consent a group of conspirators broke into his
apartment in the Mikhailovsky palace on the night of March 23, 1801. They shot
Paul and crowned Aleksandr tsar the following day.
Tsar With a Guilty Conscience
Aleksandr, only twenty-three years old, was very unhappy. With his capable
grandmother and his father both dead, he did not feel ready to rule Russia. Neither
had the conspirators told him they would kill his father. He felt terrible about it.
But now what? Should he arrest the murderers? He knew if he did they would turn
on him and say, "You were part of it!"
At first Aleksandr tried to overcome his guilt by making Russia happy. He stopped
the persecution of Spirit Christians and Old Believers at once. He made good
laws, promoted public schools, built teachers' colleges, and put his childhood
playmate Aleksandr (Sasha) Golitsyn in charge of religious affairs.
Sasha protested. "What do I know about religion!" he cried when he heard the
news. (He had been a page in Catherine the Great's court and had lived a loose
life.) But Aleksandr could not have made a better choice and Russia still lives with
Sasha, for all his worldly ways, believed in doing things thoroughly. He felt the
least he could do to fit himself for his new post as Oberprokuror was to read the
Bible. The more he read, the more it spoke to an unmet need in his soul. Then he
began to pray. But a strange shadow had fallen over St. Petersburg.
A White Dove
Several years before his untimely death, Tsar Paul had heard of an exiled starets in
Siberia who claimed to be Catherine the Great's murdered husband, Peter. It made
him curious. He would have loved to meet his "father" and called the old man to
That the starets (who believed in the transmigration of spirits) was not Peter, soon
became apparent. His real name was Kon
dratiy Selivanov and he came from
central Russia. But Paul believed him a harmless "holy man" and in spite of his
sentence allowed him to live in the city.
Now Sasha discovered him.
Kondratiy Selivanov deeply impressed Sasha. Kind and soft-spoken, he shared his
wisdom with humility. He healed people emotionally as well as physically and
Sasha remembered his friend, young Tsar Aleksandr's torment with guilt. "Why
don't you go see the starets?" he asked the tsar after several visits of his own.
"Perhaps he can help you."
Aleksandr took his advice. Like Sasha, he was moved by the starets's warm
humility and Kondratiy became secretly famous.
A wealthy St. Petersburg family, the Nenastyevs, took him into their home where
night after night, fur-clad, carriage-driven guests came silently to sit around him--
as many as three hundred at a time. Sasha kept coming. So did Tsar Aleksandr.
The cheerful starets had words of advice and comfort for all. But who, exactly,
Sasha felt responsible to find out.
The records showed that Kondratiy Selivanov had grown up among the "People of
Khlysty, in central Russia. Then he had changed his beliefs, fallen into
the hands of the authorities and come to Siberia.
The People of God Sasha discovered had roots in the Russian province of Murom
where a peasant, Danilo Filipov, had been their leader two hundred years earlier.
Like Sasha himself, Danilo had been a sincere seeker. He fasted and prayed until
one day, standing on a bank above the Volga he sensed a change in his inner
being. His heart grew warm. A tingling sensation flowed through his limbs and in
a rush of emotion he cried out, "The Holy Spirit has come upon me! My sins are
Danilo began at once to share his experience with others. He taught people that
reading the Bible helps only the unconverted. For the truly born again, in whom
Christ the Word lives, it is no longer necessary. When asked which religious texts
were better, those of the Old Believers or Nikon's, Danilo said, "Neither of the
two are good. There is only one good and necessary book: The Golden Book, The
Living Book, The Dove's Book--That is, the Holy Spirit Himself." To
demonstrate this he put a copy of both the Old Believers' and Nikon's texts along
with a Slavonic Bible into a bag with heavy stones and threw it into the Volga.
Shortly after Danilo's "conversion" another peasant from Murom, Ivan Suslov,
joined him and the "Spirit of Christ" fell on him. Then a women got converted and
received the "Spirit of Mary" and others received the Spirit of Peter, of John, of
Timothy . . . any of the apostles and saints of the early church.
The People of God drew crowds in Murom and throughout central Russia. In their
meetings (held at night for fear of the authorities) they sang and listened to
powerful speakers until they fell into trances, shouted, leaped, whirled about, or
spoke in unknown tongues. Whoever had the Spirit of Christ they believed was
Christ, and most "ships"
had at least one woman whom they identified as having
the Spirit of Mary.
The Spirit is light and the body a veil that hides it, the People of God believed.
The less one has to do with the body, the brighter the Spirit shines. "Walking in
the light" is to walk free from the works of the flesh.
With this teaching, Kondratiy Selivanov had grown up in Orel, southwest of
Moscow. But he had a problem. A serious-minded youth, it distressed him that he
could not overcome the desires of his flesh. The more he tried to subdue them, the
stronger they seemed to become. Then he learned what a friend of his, Andrey
Blokhin (who had a similar problem), had done. He had castrated himself
this the answer? Andrey convinced Kondratiy that it was, and when Kondratiy
could not muster the courage to do it himself, Andrey did it for him.
Martin Rodyonov, another young friend learned of it and followed their example.
So did Aleksandr Shilov, a boy from Tula who became a powerful promoter of
this "real way to holiness." To him, and to the other young men, the Gospel
suddenly became clear. Castration was Christ's "baptism of fire," the only way to
"flee youthful lusts." It was what John did to Christ in the Jordan when the white
dove came down and what Christ did to all his disciples except Judas who "kept
the bag" and betrayed him.
Belye Golubi (white dove people) Kondratiy , Aleksandr and
their friends found their way through Russia, converting thousands of men and
to their ways.
Now Kondratiy was in St. Petersburg.
To what extent Sasha Golitsyn became a follower of the Belye Golubi we may
But his life remained permanently changed. He gave away his
private wealth. Even though he had much to do he visited the sick, incognito, in
the evenings. Still single, he never again showed the slightest interest in marriage
and became a thoughtful, serious, and active promoter of Christ--even more so
after he met Yekaterina Tatarinova.
Sasha met Yekaterina, the wife of a Russian officer, in Kondratiy Selivanov's
meetings. She was from Courland (Latvia).
Her husband had left her. Her only
child had died. Her Lutheran faith had failed to meet her needs and she, like Sasha
and the tsar, had become an anxious seeker for the truth. What Kondratiy
Selivanov said spoke to her, but when she learned of bodily mutilations she drew
back in horror. "This is of the devil!" she declared. "God did not give us bodies to
destroy. The life that we now live
in the flesh we may live by faith in the Son of
God, and if the Spirit of Christ who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us, our
bodies may also live without condemnation."
It made sense. Sasha and the tsar stopped seeing
Kondratiy and began to meet
with others in Yekaterina's house. They turned from the "Spirit teachings" of the
Belye Golubi to studying the New Testament. But the time for quiet evenings at
home was past.
Napoleon had crowned himself emperor of France.
The Russians feared Napoleon. He came east. He boldly planned to take over
Europe--all the world perhaps--and frightful reports of his victories reached St.
Was Napoleon the
real Antichrist? Many Russians suspected it, and by the fall of
1805 Aleksandr found himself swept with ninety thousand soldiers toward the
Austrian front. They (Russians and Austrians) met Napoleon's army on December
2, at Austerlitz in Moravia.
Hoofbeats, smoke, the roar of cannon, terrible
screams of dying horses and men--if only that day had been a dream. But it was
not, and Aleksandr found no words to express the horror he came to feel for war.
By the end of the day twenty-four thousand soldiers lay sprawled out dead on rye
and potato fields and eleven thousand had fallen into French hands.
Fire of City and Soul
On June 24, 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with six hundred thousand men. At
Borodino, a hundred kilometres (125 km) west of Moscow, they met the Russians.
From six in the morning until late at night they fought under cannon fire until the
Russians suddenly retreated, lit Moscow, and melted into forests north and east to
This time they really baffled the "Antichrist." On entering the burned out, empty
city, Napoleon could do nothing but set up camp and begin looking for Russians
to conquer. Winter came on. French soldiers got hungry. They shivered with coats
too light for the Russian cold, wrapped their feet in rags and sat around campfires
to keep from freezing. Even then, many turned sick and died while far to the north,
in St. Petersburg, another fire had begun to burn.
"The flames of Moscow lit my soul," Aleksandr described it later. With Sasha
Golitsyn and others who wanted to know Christ he now spent his evenings
studying his Bible, and the writings of men like Nil Sorsky, Tikhon Zadonsky, and
Johann Arndt, in earnest. What was God saying?
All over Russia people wanted to know. On December 6, 1812--the day Napoleon
left Russia at Vilna on a horse-drawn sleigh--Aleksandr signed the charter for a
Russian Bible Society. He put Sasha Golitsyn, the Oberprokuror, in charge of it
and translators promptly began to work on Scriptures in modern Russian and
sixteen other languages used throughout the tsar's domain.
Admonition at Heilbronn
To sign a peace treaty and decide what to do with Napoleon after his first defeat,
Aleksandr traveled to Paris and Vienna. There, in the Heilbronn palace, a woman
insisted on meeting him. Her name was Juliane.
Juliane von Vietinghoff spoke Russian well. Born into a noble family in the
Latvian city of Riga, she had decided to follow Christ after a shoemaker (a
Moravian brother) spoke to her while measuring her feet. Loving Christ she had
abandoned her worldly ways. She had sold her clothes, her jewels, and her pieces
of art and given the money to the poor. Then, sensing a call from God, she
determined to speak to Tsar Aleksandr and tell him to stop war.
The admonition could not have come at a more crucial time, or struck Aleksandr
deeper. At Heilbronn negotiating generals coolly repeated round figures--seventy
five thousand had died at Borodino alone--but Alexander cried in his heart for
every young man who had lost his life in senseless combat. In his mind's eye he
could see their mothers wringing their hands and crying to God in straw-thatched
houses, their fathers alone with the work, and the children whose big brothers
would never come back.
Juliane did not need to tell him that war was the devil's feast. He already knew it
and joined her wholeheartedly in denouncing it to all, and calling Europe to
The generals looked at him strangely. Many said nothing to him but whispered
among themselves, "Has the tsar gone mad? Is he bewitched? Who is this woman
with whom he speaks so much?"
Made Equals By God
Napoleon returned. On June 18, 1815 German and British troops defeated him at
Waterloo, but Aleksandr's mind was elsewhere. Juliane, the Baroness von
Krüdener, had accompanied him and his troupe back to St. Petersburg. Now, in
the Christian fellowship around Sasha Golitsyn, she and the tsar discussed
"The holding of private property is wrong," Juliane firmly believed. "Among
Christians there shall be no rich nor poor. Government is not Christian. Christians
cannot punish others, nor go to war."
Knowing the teaching of Christ, the tsar could only agree. But how? And where?
In a flash he remembered the communities of "bread and salt" in Little Russia.
On the third week of May, in 1818, a messenger appeared at the door of the
Mennonite elder David Hübert in the village of Lindenau on the Molochna. "The
tsar," the messenger said, "will come to your house for breakfast next week."
Aleksandr arrived with nineteen carriages (the department of state would not have
it otherwise). Entering Lindenau he saw that the Mennonites had swept the village
street and sprinkled it with sand. Four hundred boys on horseback--boys whom he
knew had never held guns--came to meet him and their plainly dressed families
stood among fruit trees and plots of vegetables alongside the street to watch him
At the elder's house they asked him to sit at the end of the table, but Aleksandr
refused. Taking the elder's wife he had her sit there and took a chair on the side.
"We are all just human," he explained, "and God has made us equals."
Besides the Mennonites Aleksandr also visited Dukhobor community farms and
Molokan villages along the Molochna.
Mystery at Taganrog
After his visit to the south, Aleksandr's struggle to know Christ and his Kingdom
of Heaven intensified. How could a statesman and ruler, the
tsar of Russia, live
like Christ? How could he, short of forsaking his office completely, live by the
Sermon on the Mount?
In 1824 Juliane von Krüdener, tired of waiting on him, left for the Crimea to
found a Christian community based on the example of Acts 2 and 4. She died on
arrival. A year later, Aleksandr and his German wife--the tsarina Yelizaveta--set
out for Taganrog, a Russian outpost on the dismal, windy, shore of the Sea of
They spent two pleasant months together. They talked things over and drew closer
one to another than they had ever been. Then Aleksandr made a short trip to the
Crimea and on his return, suddenly died as well.
His coffin did not reach St. Petersburg until months later. It was sealed, and they
placed it in the Petropavlovsky fortress on the Neva.
Thirty-five years later a monk at the Alekseyevich monastery at Tomsk, in Siberia,
recorded the death of a strange pilgrim, Fedor Kuzmich. In a marginal note he
added: "This man bore an exact resemblance to Tsar Aleksandr I of Russia."
In 1917 when the Bolsheviks took over the Petropavlovsky fortress and opened
that tsar's coffin, they found it empty.
After Aleksandr, his younger brother Nikolai became tsar.
Nikolai had no use for pacifism nor Christian community. Even though he had
grown up with Sasha Golitsyn, he threw him out of office and closed the Bible
Society. He made all religious meetings, apart from state registered services in
official buildings, illegal. Level headed, cruel, and conservative, his slogan was,
"One tsar, one faith, one people."
That meant himself, the Orthodox church and
By Tsar Nikolai's time the Russian state church had sunk even deeper into
corruption and legalism. Its priests lived with their wives and children in poverty.
Many of them drank. Church rules called for the keeping of fast days and strict
penance. Worship services lasted for hours. But many remained ignorant and lived
careless lives. They could no longer understand Cyril and Methodius' Slavonic,
and the Gospel lost its meaning.
Rather than trying like his brother to end this unhappy darkness, Tsar Nikolai
determined to keep Russia "Russian." He set up official censoring of the mail, a
secret police force, and harsh religious tribunals to keep people from thinking
disloyal thoughts. To escape him, those left of the Spirit Christians in Central
Russia (the Tambov, Voronezh, Saratov area) travelled on foot or with horsedrawn
wagons down a new military road toward Persia. There, in the Caucasus,
they hoped to find greater freedom around Tiflis (later Tbilisi) and the new town
of Vladikavkaz. They farmed, milled grain, and once more, due to thrift and
godliness, prospered by making cheese.
In southern Russia the Mennonites also prospered. But with material gain came
ever greater spiritual loss. From their neighbours, some Mennonites had learned
much more than just the wearing of peasant clothes, how to cook borsht, and
embroider colourful flowers on their headscarves. They learned how to distill
peach leaves and wild cherry stones in copper stills to make vodka. They learned
how to farm on the fertile steppes and some became wealthy while others suffered
miserable want. Even the Hutterites on the Desna above Chernigov gave up their
community of goods and turned spiritually cold. But far away--in the Netherlands
and northern Germany--the Lord Christ had set in motion events that would turn
Russia's communities of bread and salt into . . .
The People of God called their secret congregations "ships."
To believe in the "transmigration of souls" was for many Russians not a new idea. The
Khlysty of Danilo Filipov's time based some of their beliefs on the revelations of "christ"
Averyan who lived during Ivan the Terrible's reign. Averyan, in turn referred to "christ"
Yemelyan who lived in the fourteenth century. In all probability, this sect's history dates
back to early Christian (Manichean, Gnostic) heresies.
who mutilated their breasts
That other influential members of the tsar's court, like Kamerherr Yelyansky, "went the
whole way" is an established fact.
her name before marriage was Katherine Buxhöwden
the site of the first Anabaptist "Bruderhof" community
Pravoslaviye, Samoderzhaviye, i Narodnost (Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Peoplehood)
Salt and Light
Rumbling eastward, a cloud of dust rising behind them, no one could have
guessed what a long train of wagons on the road from Lemberg through Zhitomir
and Kiev would bring to Russia in 1835.
An old man sat beside the driver of the lead wagon. His beard was long and white.
Like the rest of his companions on the wagon train he wore dark peasant clothes.
But his eyes were bright, and he looked eagerly ahead to settling along the
Molochna River plains.
Wilhelm Lange had not always been a Mennonite. In his youth, the idea of settling
with a group of defenseless people on Europe's far eastern frontier would have
seemed absurd. Only now that he knew Christ it no longer seemed absurd. His
group's defenselessness (refusal to bear arms), in fact, was the reason for going
As a young Protestant in the emperor's service, Wilhelm had arrived in a German
Mennonite community. He had come to assist in a government takeover of
Christian schools. But the takeover happened in reverse. The small congregation's
refusal to fight back, their simple services and congregational singing, their
putting to practice of Christ's Gospel in daily life, had so impressed him that he
sought Christ himself and became converted. Now he was a Mennonite elder, and
to escape forced conscription into the army he had brought his congregation to
A Field of Grace
Unlike the Mennonites who had settled in Russia earlier, Wilhelm Lange's group
found good land at once and named their village Gnadenfeld (Field of Grace).
There, under Wilhelm's far-sighted leadership and the grace of Christ, they lived
up to the name they had chosen. Among all the Molochna villages, Gnadenfeld
stood out for its warm spirit of love, its hospitality, and the zeal with which its
inhabitants sought to follow Christ. German settlers, Spirit Christians, Russian
Orthodox and Jewish neighbours--even the families of wandering Naga tribes who
visited there--sensed something different. And with time, that noticeable
difference in Gnadenfeld worked through the Molochna villages like the pinch of
yeast its women added to their bread dough on Saturday mornings.
New Books and New Hopes
The villagers of Gnadenfeld liked to read. They set up a good school, and before
long a lending library. Besides this, through close connections to the Moravian
Brothers' community at Herrnhut in Germany, they stayed up-to-date with what
Christians published in other countries. Among the books they received in the
mid1800s were several written by a Christian eye-doctor: Hans Heinrich Jung-
In Hans Heinrich's books he wrote about the last days and the Antichrist. He
wrote about Christ's reign on the earth, suggesting how it might begin in the east
with a coronation ceremony at the foot of Mount Ararat. Hans Heinrich wrote
gripping stories and the villagers of Gnadenfeld, even though they took some of
their contents with a grain of salt, enjoyed reading them. The books turned their
thoughts to Christ and his coming kingdom. . . . Then their neighbours along the
Molochna River discovered them and drastic events took place.
After Hans Heinrich's books began to circulate in Russian,
a young Spirit
Christian from the other side of the river, Anakey Ignatovich Borisov, read
Triumph of The Christian Faith
and found his life transformed. "Christ is coming
back!" he announced to his Molokan brothers and sisters. "And the Spirit says we
should prepare to meet him in the east, at Ararat." Anakey's joyful message did
not only grip and motivate a large number of Molokans. Many of their Old
Believer and Orthodox neighbours joined them in a fast spreading Spiritual
Orthodox authorities tried to crush the awakening at once. They arrested Anakey
and walked him in chains to Siberia. But he rejoiced to suffer for Christ and when
his sentence expired he returned
to the Molochna settlements. Convinced that his
family and friends stood in need of further awakening he called them to meetings
in his home where they prayed until the "Spirit fell" and humble Molokan brothers
and sisters suddenly began to prophesy in unknown tongues. They began to leap
and praise God. So great was the emotion that the neighbours heard and came
running to see what had happened.
Then other things began to happen.
The new Molokan brothers--people called them
Pryguny (jumpers) in contrast to
Postoyanye (constants)--faced tremendous opposition from state
authorities. Mass arrests began. Several entire villages of Pryguny had to march
under armed guard to exile to Siberia. Policemen flogged the men until some
remained crippled for life, or died.
But the Pryguny could not be suppressed. Their movement spread as they gathered
for meetings in cellars or in the woods. They fasted and prayed much. Through
prophecy they reestablished
Biblical feasts: the Passover to celebrate the triumph
of Christ, Pentecost to remember the coming of the Spirit,
Pamyat Trub (the
blowing of trumpets) in September to welcome Christ back to earth,
, the day of forgiveness. On this day, every brother and sister in the
congregation would approach every other member in turn, asking (while kneeling
before them) whether any offence or hard feeling remained unsettled between
them. Reconciliation followed and believers forgave one another in the name of
Christ. At the end of the day they would hold a love feast, and for a week
Kusha, the feast of tabernacles-they would remain together to pray
and offer praise to God.
In 1842, Tsar Nikolai put a new law into effect that classed all Spirit Christians
(both groups of Molokans and the Dukhobors) among "the most harmful sects."
By 1849, in a determined effort to remove them from the Molochna region, tsarist
soldiers marched their leaders in chains (Anakey was in his eighties) and several
thousand men, women and children on foot, east into the mountains of Armenia. It
took all summer to walk a thousand miles. A large number of the children died,
but hope and joy filled their hearts as every step took them eastward. Would
Christ come in person to meet them there?
Whatever the case, in heaven or on earth, they longed for nothing more than to
The Time Is Short, Oh Man Be Wise!"
The Molochna colonies, after the Spirit Christians left, became quieter. But much
hidden longing to know Christ remained-especially among the Mennonites.
After Wilhelm Lange died in 1841, the villagers of Gnadenfeld continued to meet
for prayer and Bible study in their homes. More and more seekers from
surrounding villages joined them. As they became aware of Christ their lives
changed and even though their opponents called them
die Mährische (Moravians),
die Fromme (the pious ones) and "cracked horsewhips around their ears when
they passed them on the street,"
the believers increased in strength and numbers.
Tobias Voth from Gnadenfeld, a schoolteacher and the brother who organized the
lending library, began to hold Bible studies for young people in his home. One of
the young men who decided there to "know nothing except Jesus Christ and him
was Bernhard Harder.
Bernhard came from a family that drank and fought. His father died when he was
twelve. But after "joyfully and eagerly" accepting the call to become a Mennonite
minister he raised fourteen children while working six months every year (during
the summer) and traveling six months (during the winter)
to call others to
repentance and new life. "With great zeal and a thundering voice," wrote a
biographer, "Bernhard Harder opposed everything he thought to be ungodly, but
most of all he protested the formalism that threatened the life of the church.
Moved by love for the Saviour and lost sinners, he tried to reach his hearers
through their eyes and their ears. When he preached he preached with his entire
being. His enthusiasm and clear convictions made his sermons particularly
Bernhard also wrote poetry, including the words for what became one of the bestloved
hymns of the Mennonites in Russia,
Die Zeit ist kurz, o Mensch sei Weise:
The time is short, oh man be wise! Use every moment for gain! You will only
pass here once. Leave good tracks behind
you. You cannot keep one hour.
Before you notice it has fled. Wisdom counsels: "Persevere!" A high reward
awaits the true.
The fool wastes his time eating, drinking, telling jokes and resting. The wise man
works and wins. He fills the time with doing good. Therefore, Christ, teach me
how to give my years to you alone. Teach me how, from now to death, to sow
what will produce in life to come!
Christ the Key
While Molokans and Mennonites found their way to Christ in the Molochna
villages the Spirit began to awaken the nearby German settlement of
In 1845 the Neuhoffnung settlers welcomed a shy but sincere
young man, Eduard Wüst, who had come from Germany to be their pastor. Little
did they expect what he would tell them but his very first message, preached on
the last Sunday in September, set a pattern. Eduard began by saying:
Here lies the Bible. You want me to teach you from this word, full of holy truth.
A voice from heaven calls me to do so. But how shall I go about it? Where will I
find the key to the Holy Scriptures?
I find it in Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins and mine.
You are not getting a well-educated pastor. But I have learned in the Holy Spirit's
school that the man without a living relationship to Christ is lost. . . . I know Jesus
Christ as the one who frees sinners from the grip of Hell. I know him as the one
who frees them from the wrath of Satan, who looks for them when they are lost in
the world, and who gives rest and peace to the burdened down.
Jesus' yoke is easy and his burden is light. He is the bread of life and those who
find him never go hungry. This Jesus I will speak about and I want to bring you
to where you see him too. . . .
Those of you who are greedy and materialistic, I will point to Christ hanging
naked on the cross for your sins. I will lead you vain ones and honour seekers to
Pilate's hall where Christ stands among soldiers, dressed with a purple robe and a
crown of thorns on his head to atone for your pride. You who are sensual I will
lead to Christ on the cross, dying, his blood running out, to atone for your lusts.
This word of the cross I will speak to sinners so that they may stop sinning and
turn to Christ. . . .
I do not come only to warn, but also to comfort. Our comfort is in Christ who was
tempted in every way like we are. He emptied himself out and took on the form
of a servant.
He entered through suffering into the joy of his kingdom.
him! Follow him! And you will be more than conquerors.
Christ is our wisdom, righteousness, holiness and redemption.
I want you to see
him! I want to engrave him on your hearts with preaching and prayer. For what
use is the Christ of the Bible to us, if we do not have him in our hearts? The heart
is where this treasure, this gift from heaven, belongs. . . . How is your inner
relationship to Christ? This is the issue-whether we have Christ living within or
I am an enemy of Christianity only in outward form and name. Therefore I tell
you: Do more than just listen. Do what the Word says and stop deceiving
I expect this will make trouble. A man's enemies will be those of his own
household. Christ can have no half-heartedness. Either we go with him or we do
not. Cursed is the one who tries to add a third option. Every one of you is either a
sheep or a goat. You are either on the narrow way or the broad. You are either for
God or money, Christ or Belial, life or death, heaven or hell!
What I speak will separate you along these lines. Do not try to bridge the gap! Do
not try, for the sake of comfort and respectability to find some middle road! If
you want to be friends both of Christ and the world, I tell you already, you will
not like what I say. But I did not come from Germany to Russia to please you. I
came to preach Christ!
What Eduard predicted began to happen at once. Some of the Neuhoffnung
settlers (German Pietists) had never separated themselves very far from the world.
Rich and poor people lived among them. Some had grown lukewarm and careless.
Others made much of religious experience but neglected obedience to Christ.
When Eduard spoke clearly about these things the majority of the Neuhoffnung
Pietists disowned him. But with those who did not he found warm fellowship and
support among the Mennonites of Gnadenfeld.
More Seekers and Struggles
The Spirit of Christ moved among the Molochna settlers, both Russians and
Germans, in the mid1800s. But Christ, merciful to all who seek him, did not limit
his attention to them. Far to the north, between Chernigov and Bryansk, the small
Hutterite community founded by immigrants from Austria, entered its own time of
testing and renewal.
After Count Rumyantsev died his sons had threatened to take over the Hutterites'
houses and fields at Vyshenka and make them serfs. Quickly before that happened
they had moved to government land at Radicheva, nearby, and rebuilt their
A visiting tsarist official reported on that settlement before 1817:
The brotherhood's houses are situated on a piece of land 490 feet square. It is
surrounded by a fruit bush hedge with an entrance gate. They regard themselves
as one family. The building where the members live and practice various
handicrafts has six brick and two wooden wings of one story, built rather low.
There are several small houses on the place as well. The roofs of the main
building are high-pitched, and corridors have been built through the attics with
small cells, or rooms, opening on either side. This is where they have their
dwelling quarters, each married couple with their own room. There are no stoves.
In each room there is a bed, a table, and two chairs. The couples use them only
for sleeping or for short stretches of time.
Similar but larger rooms for sleep and rest are provided for the unmarried men
from fifteen years old and upward, who have finished their school studies and
received baptism. There are twelve to sixteen men in each room and a bed for
every two of them. The older girls also have separate sleeping
In addition to the bedrooms there is still enough space in the attic to dry the
For worship services they set aside a separate room without
any pictures of
saints or crucifixes. Here they meet on Sundays and church holidays and also
gather for prayer every evening before they go to supper. . . . During the service
they sing appropriate songs, and the sisters are especially well-taught in singing.
The brothers' way of life appears to be humble and unassuming. They are wellmannered,
friendly, eager to do their duty, hospitable, and ready to help in every
In winter, they go to bed at nine and to work at five o'clock in the morning. In
both seasons, various members in turn have the duty of telling people when it is
time for bed or for work. In summer, because of the increased workload, the
people get up earlier and go to bed later. Visitors to the community are guests of
the whole brotherhood, in whose name the elder offers them hospitality.
In this way, the community has lived and prospered in peace from the time they
settled here, honouring God and the tsar and earning for themselves an admirable
Their worked land and meadows are fertile and productive. Cattle
raising is done on a large scale, using good Hungarian stock. . . . The brothers
keep bees too, but are mainly occupied in their own trades and crafts, including
the cultivation of garden crops. . . . On the Jessman river, some sixteen kilometres
from the settlement, they own a mill with three sets of millstones. Felt hats are
made in the community, and carpentry, turnery, tailoring, weaving, pottery,
blacksmithing and lock-making are carried on as well, to produce no small
quantity of goods for sale. There is, in addition, a workshop for making winter
wagons and summer wagons, harrows, ploughs, cleaning machines, spinning
wheels, etc., and a tannery that provides sole and Russian leather.
For a number of years the Hutterite community at Radicheva
prospered in sunny
harmony like the tsarist official described. But little disagreements eventually led
to division among them, and thirty families moved to Khortitsa to live with the
Mennonites in 1818. The following spring the smith at Radicheva made a large
iron hoop for a barrel. Fresh out of the forge, when the hoop was still red hot he
rolled it out the door. It touched the reed thatch and the smithy went up in flames.
All the community buildings followed and the brothers and sisters stood with their
among the ruins.
Those who had gone to Khortitsa felt sorry for them and returned to help rebuild
the houses. But peace and prosperity did not return. The community broke up and
everyone began to farm scattered government lands in the Radicheva district.
Johannes Waldner, the elder, who had escaped as a boy from Kärnten in Austria
through Transylvania and Walachia to Vyshenka could not shed enough tears for
what happened to the community. Left to their own designs, the brothers hired
themselves out as day labourers and craftsmen. Too busy to teach their children,
the oncoming generation grew up like the Russian peasants around them, illiterate.
They kept their Bibles and their wealth of hand-written
Anabaptist books, but
they could no longer read them. The hard years of Tsar Nikolai's rule came upon
them and dressed in rags, they suffered hunger and disease. Those who still lived
in the communal dwellings ate poor food and for lack of space had their children
sleep as many as half a dozen to a bed, no longer caring about boys and girls being
After more than twenty years of this sad condition two Hutterite brothers,
Benjamin Decker and David Hofer decided to go for help. Something had to be
done! Everyone longed to return to the good ways they had known, but in
Radicheva it seemed impossible. Taking a young man, Jakob Walter, with them to
care for their horses and wagon, the two men set out on the long journey through
Kiev and Kherson to Odessa on the Black Sea.
They asked the tsarist colonial administration for a place to settle together. But no
one paid them much attention. "Go talk with the Mennonites," they said. "They
might know what to do with you."
Desperate enough to take the suggestion, the Hutterite men turned east and found
their way after days of travel through Jewish and Russian villages to the Molochna
River colonies. There they found land to rent between Mennonite and Molokan
villages on the eastern bank of the river. In the fall of 1842 all who remained at
Radicheva followed them to this place and they called it Huttertal.
Quickly before snow fell, the Hutterites built sod houses. The following spring the
Mennonites helped them make bricks and settle in neat tile-roofed buildings. They
showed the Hutterites how to plant fruit trees and gardens, and how to raise the
best hay and grain. In the middle of Huttertal the Mennonites built them a well-lit
The Hutterites kept their old German way of dressing and speaking. They stayed
with simple tastes and discouraged their young people from having too much to do
with the world. But for the first time in years they worked with joy in peaceful
Their effort paid off and within two years they founded
Johannesruh, another village on the Molochna even more attractive than the first.
The End of the Fuse
By the mid 1800s the Spirit of Christ had drawn all strands of a long fuse together
in southern Russia. Spirit Christians (both Molokans and Dukhobors), the new
Pryguny movement, awakened Mennonites, Pietists, and Hutterites, all lived
among a fast growing Orthodox and Old Believer population along the Molochna
River. The only thing yet missing was a spark to trigger . . .
Believers in the city of St. Petersburg translated them.
A love feast in connection with this day anticipated the "marriage supper of the Lamb."
From a contemporary report: "Diese mußten es sich sogar gefallen lassen daß sie auf
der Straße beim Vorbeifahren, Peitshenhiebe um die Ohren bekamen."
That this Scripture (1 Cor. 2:2) became the unofficial slogan of the renewal movement
in Russia may reflect the influence of Ludwig Hofacker, who had made it his personal
resolve and whose sermons many colonists read.
Cornelius Krahn, Mennonite Encyclopedia
One of four villages founded near the Molochna Mennonite colony by the independent
of Württemburg, in 1833. They had come east after
reading Hans Hermann Jung-Stilling's books and hoped to go on to Ararat to meet
Christ. But tribal wars in that region had detained them.
The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren: Volume II (Das Klein Geschichtsbuch)
Late at night, the spark lit up a room in a German settler's house on the Molochna.
Several families from the "awakened" village of Gnadenfeld. A few Bible students.
A German Pietist preacher. . . . All it took for the Spirit of Christ to begin
shaking southern Russia
and to draw hundreds of thousands of people into a new
awareness of his presence was a group of believers to gather in a clandestine
Because they loved Christ the
Stundisten of the Molochna village of Elisabethtal
(those who met for prayer and Bible study in their homes) desired to break bread
and drink wine together every week, like the early Christians. They asked the
elder of their Mennonite congregation for permission to do so, but he did not give
it. Then they had more questions. "Is it right for us to hold back from obeying
what the Spirit of Christ tells us because of the commandments of men? What
about Acts 5:29?"
Finally, in unanimous agreement, the Stundists decided to do what was right no
matter what happened. They met at the Kornelius Wiens home in Elisabethtal,
broke a common loaf of bread and passed a cup of wine to all.
Within hours, word of what happened began to spread.
As soon as the Molochna colony leaders learned of the meeting at Elisabethtal
they called for the Stundists and forbade them ever to hold unauthorised
communions again. Reading Hebrews 13:17 and other similar Scriptures they tried
to show them from the Bible that only "properly ordained" elders may serve the
bread and wine. They also warned the believers that should they persist in their
error, the church would not only excommunicate
them. They would turn them
over to the civil authorities (the volost) and the Russian police.
The Stundists could not turn back.
They kept on having communion services and committed themselves one to
another in a new
Brüdergemeinde (brotherly community)
after the pattern of
Herrnhut, the first Anabaptists, and the Lord's church in Jerusalem.
In the Ban, but Joyful
Not only did the colony leaders deliver the new brotherhood unto Satan. They
delivered it to the civil authorities, "for its promptest suppression with whatever
means necessary to curb its spread and to exterminate it entirely." After this, all
who belonged to it could no longer buy or sell from their neighbours.
closed down. Factories and mills came to a standstill (for the dismissal
labourers or managers), and growing numbers on both the Molochna and Khortitsa
colonies found themselves in jail, doing forced labour, or threatened with exile to
Local authorities refused to give passports or marriage licenses to the believers,
forcing them to travel illegally and to register
their children as illegitimate. On
some occasions, when new converts headed to the river for baptism, angry
villagers drove them away with sticks. But opposition only fanned the awakening.
On March 18, 1862, the first nineteen converts on the Khortitsa colony followed
Abram Unger and his wife to the Dnepr. Not far from the village of Einlage
(across from Zaporozhye)
they made a hole in the ice and Abram baptized them
one by one. A fisherman saw them and reported them to the authorities. Shortly
afterward the colony volost imposed a ten o'clock curfew and published a notice:
Mennonites these people no longer want to be, and by their actions they prove
they no longer belong to us. They fear no admonition or warning for they believe
themselves to be born again and to follow the Spirit of God. Therefore we must
resort to police force to keep these dangerous people in bounds. Village leaders
shall most emphatically forbid them to gather in homes or to try to convert others.
They shall be commanded to disperse and if they fail to obey, they must be
arrested and conducted by force back to where they belong. After ten o'clock no
one is to be about on the streets. In the villages of Einlage and Khortitsa guards
shall be placed on the streets to make sure this is carried out. The volost asks all
to withdraw themselves from these sectarians and do no business with them
whatsoever. Perhaps through this means, and through the application of police
methods, these erring ones can be brought back to their senses.
Secret meetings continued.
So did arrests. Men, partially drunk to keep up their courage,
fell on believers
anywhere, but usually at night to avoid a riot. When they dragged Wilhelm
Janzen, a Khortitsa resident before his village court to face the question why he
disobeyed the law he answered, "I must obey God before men!"
In a rage, the village leader jumped on him, ripped off his shirt (tearing it to pieces
in the process) and laid him out for a flogging. He took the rod himself and
whipped him as hard as he could. Then, without returning his coat, the court
(among whom sat Wilhelm's brother) locked him up in an unheated cell.
The jailer threw him a chunk of firewood saying, "There you have something to
sit on!" But Wilhelm could not sit for his wounds. All night long, his teeth
chattering in the cold he paced about to keep from freezing while the presence of
Christ came to him with such shining clarity that he remained speechless with
wonder and joy.
Several months later a large group of believers fell into the hands of the volost
who locked them up in the Khortitsa colony jail, covering its windows to keep
onlookers from conversing with them. From Khortitsa they took them to
Chornyglas. Along the way and at the Chornyglas jail curious onlookers crowded
around them to hear their songs and testimonies.
In jail seven weeks, the prisoners made the most of their opportunity to tell the
people of Chornyglas and the soldiers who guarded them about Christ.
One Faith, One Baptism
On the evening of March 26, 1860, the son of a believing family learned (spying
on a meeting of the Molochna volost) that they planned to arrest Jakob Claaszen
of Liebenau. He rushed at once to inform him. Jakob was a leader among the
Without telling his wife where he went (for her safety in case of interrogation)
Jakob fled that night on horseback. For one hundred and seventy five miles up the
Dnepr, he fled to Kharkov and caught a ride from there to Moscow on a mail
Jakob knew his way around. He had travelled by train from Moscow to St.
Petersburg before (on school business) and made his way straight to officials he
knew in the Oberprokuror's office. They received him kindly. "You want to have
a new church on the colonies? That is alright," they said. "But who are your
leaders? One cannot register a church with no one in charge."
Jakob was delighted. He hurried back to the Ukraine and called the brothers
together. They chose Jakob Becker and Heinrich Hübert-a quiet pleasanttempered
student of Tobias Voth-as elders, and in Khortitsa Abram Unger. The
registered their church as the
and the new group got permission to settle in the Kuban
river valley between the Black and Caspian Seas.
For the German Stundists this worked well. Local authorities now had to leave
them alone and they could meet freely whenever they wanted. But their new elder,
Heinrich Hübert, had a maid.
From a Russian village just north of Liebenau, Yelizaveta Kasyanova had known
the Hieberts for years. From them she had learned German, and in a
study meeting) at their place she had come to believe in Christ.
Not only did Yelizaveta become a faithful believer. She spoke to her family and to
her friends among the Russian young people about Christ. More and more seekers
began to meet in her home. But Yelizaveta's father was a rough man and opposed
her. When she asked Heinrich Hübert to baptise her, he beat her "until her body
streamed with blood." Then, to get her away from the Hüberts, he sent her to work
for an unconverted
family in the village of Gnadenheim.
In the meantime, in the village of Volovskaya not far from Khortitsa, Gerhard
Wieler met regularly with a Russian man and baptised him. Word got around. A
headline in an Odessa paper read, "Mennonites Illegally Baptise Two Russians."
The man fled to Turkey, but the Stunden in Volovskaya continued.
In 1869, as the brothers Abram Unger, Jakob Koslovsky, and Johann Friesen got
ready to baptise a group of converts in the Dnepr, a Russian seeker spotted them
from a distance and came running. "Baptise me too!" he cried. "Who will baptise
me if you don't?" Abram could not refuse. He baptised Yefim Tsymbal and what
followed surpassed everyone's expectations.
Explosion Upon Explosion
Yefim lived at Karlovka, near Yelizavetgrad. In his village he had been meeting
secretly with ten other families who studied the Bible and prayed. Returning from
his baptism at Khortitsa he told them of Christ's promise: "He who believes and is
baptised will be saved." Several men, including Tryfon Khlystev, Fyodor
Golumbovsky and Grigory Voronov asked Yefim to baptise them too. Maxim
Kravchenko with many others followed. Within a year Yefim baptised Ivan
Ryaboshapka, a serious-minded peasant from the village of Lyubomirka.
Ivan left his farm for long periods and travelled from village to village, calling
men and women to repent. In marketplaces he read the Scriptures to crowds that
gathered around him. He also baptised and within a year he met Mikhail Ratushny
a peasant from Osovna between the Dnepr River and Odessa.
Mikhail, a young farmer, and his wife had studied the Scriptures with their friends
in Osovna and the neighbouring village
of Ignatovka. Karl Bonekemper, son of a
pastor, had studied with them. Their lives had changed.
Their drinking, stealing, and fighting stopped. Not wishing to offend their
Orthodox neighbours the believers in the two villages had taken their ikons and
left them quietly in the home of the priest. But they had not heard of committing
themselves to Christ in believers' baptism. Now, when Mikhail learned of it
through Ivan he was overjoyed and asked Ivan to baptise him before he hurried
Among the hundreds of Russians Mikhail baptised in turn, was Gerasim Balaban,
a peasant from Chaplinka close to Kiev. Through Gerasim the movement spread
north and west. But before
that took place more began to happen at Sofiyevka,
three kilometres from the Mennonite village of Friedensfeld on the Molochna.
Repentance and New Joy
Pyotr Lysenko, a farm labourer who could barely read, found Christ at Sofiyevka.
His father opposed him and threw him, with his young wife, out of the house. But
Pyotr did not turn back. Believing villagers (both from Friedensfeld and Sofiyevka)
helped him build another house. An awakened Mennonite baptised him
and he began to walk the streets of Russian villages shouting for all to hear: "Turn
from your sins! Turn to Christ!" Curious people followed him to the place where
he would lead them to hold a meeting. Ever growing crowds fell on their knees,
cried to God, and asked for believers' baptism (always done, as in the Russian
Orthodox church, by immersion).
From Sofiyevka the Stundist movement (the word
Stundist itself came into
common use among Russians), spread south and east. Andrey Stoyalov baptised
wherever he went. Young believers travelling with wheat harvesting crews spread
it from Kherson and Kiev through Poltava, Chernigov, Minsk, Mogilev, Orel and
Tver. Seekers of all descriptions-Lutheran and Catholic colonists, Old Believers,
Don Cossacks, Dukhobors, Orthodox people from all over southern Russia, even
some Muslims and Jews-became one in faith and one in baptism with Christ.
Within ten years the movement numbered thousands of souls.
One in Christ
While Russian and German villagers drawn by the Spirit of Christ entered the
Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom came to Hutterite colonists along the Molochna
River as well.
For years the settlers at Huttertal and Johannesruh had watched with dismay how
Molochna colony authorities (Mennonites who had grown spiritually cold)
flogged people and put them in jail. "How can you, who refuse to go to war, do
this one to another?" they asked.
In answer, the authorities took the Hutterites' young people and scattered them
throughout the Molochna villages. With harsh words and rough treatment they
hoped to "rid them of silly ideas" and accustom them to the real world. But the
young people cried at night and Jakob Walter, their elder at Huttertal, made a trip
to the volost office to intercede for them. Unconverted Mennonite officials told
him to go home and be quiet or else they would arrest him and send him to
Yekaterinoslav. Another old Hutterite brother who tried to speak to the volost
authorities got a rough answer: "There you stand with your beard down to your
navel and it seems your wits have grown whiskers too! What you say is not true!"
This conflict did nothing but convince many Hutterites that the way their ancestors
had chosen in Austria was indeed the way of Christ. Self denial, the giving up of
private property, and nonconformity to the world began to make sense to them like
never before-all the more so, as they turned to Anabaptist writings
with them and began to read with joy and tears how believers in Christ had lived
before them. On October 20, 1848 Hutterite leaders signing their names Yakov
Walter, Igor Waldner, Ivan, Igor, and Mikhail Gofer, Daryus Walter and Andrey
Stahl sent a letter to the tsarist colonial office in Odessa:
Many years ago our forefathers founded a Christian community
with the words of our Saviour and his apostles in the Holy Scripture. A house of
was built and all lived together there. The whole
community was like one family. The old, crippled, sick, and weak, the widows
and orphans were given a home and were provided by the community with
clothing and whatever
they needed. After many years had passed like this, in
brotherly love, some grew dissatisfied, bringing about a change of location for the
church. When communal living was abandoned we moved to the Molochna River
in the Aleksandrovsky district of Tavrichesky (Taurida) province. . . . Now we
are sorry we did not persist in brotherly community of goods.
The Hutterite elders explained their dissatisfaction with the internal government of
the Molochna colonies and in another letter gave their reasons for returning to
We recognise in the depth of our hearts that the more time passes, the further we
stray from the true way that Christ trod before us, the way we deserted over thirty
years ago. Therefore we have decided with God's help to seek again what we
have lost. . . . Christ says, "No man can serve two masters. You cannot serve God
and money." When one master says, "Renounce everything you have," and
another master says, "Keep everything you have," we have to follow one or the
Finally, after several years of inner conflict, thirty-three Hutterite families moved
to a Russian woman's estate near Orechov, a hundred kilometres north of the
Molochna River, and founded a new colony they named Hutterdorf. Not
everything worked as they had hoped. After a few years their attempt at setting up
an Anabaptist community farm collapsed. But the dream did not die, and a young
man who worked in the smith's shop-Michel Waldner-had a literal dream.
To the shock of those with him, Michel suddenly fainted. Not sure whether he was
dead or alive his companions did what they could to bring him to, but he remained
unconscious until he awoke with a desire to talk to Jakob Hofer, a Servant of the
Word (Hutterite leader) living in the village. "While I was unconscious I saw an
angel," he told Jakob Hofer. "The angel showed me the host of the redeemed in
heaven. They stood in an indescribably beautiful place, praising God. Then he
showed me the lost in hell and asked me: Where are those who did not join Noah
in the ark?"
Jakob thought about the words and wondered: "Does God want us to return to the
ark of brotherly community?" The Hutterdorf colonists, after a period of time,
chose Michel to be his assistant leader and the two men discussed the issue
further. An anonymous brother wrote what happened:
Finally they came together to pray and said to one another before their prayer:
"Whoever will finish his prayer first will stand up and confirm the other with
laying on of hands into the membership of the church community. . . . Then they
fell onto their knees and prayed very seriously to God that he would help them
and grant them his grace to accomplish their undertaking. Jakob Hofer was the
first to finish his prayer. He rose up and with the laying on of hands, he accepted
Michel Waldner into the membership of the church community. Then Jakob
Hofer knelt down and Michel Waldner, with laying on of hands, accepted him.
All this happened with the help of God and the support of our dear Lord and
Saviour Jesus Christ. To him shall be alone the praise, the honour, and the glory.
After this they accepted their wives and sisters into the church community, and in
this way the fellowship of the Holy Spirit was re-established. They brought their
goods together and began to go out and preach and teach about the true way. God
gave them blessings so that the church community grew and increased.
People called the Hutterdorf villagers who joined Jakob and Michel the
(the "smith people," because of Michel's work). A year later, many
of the remaining villagers under the leadership of Darius Walter formed another
community. They gathered--in friendly fellowship with the first group--at the
other end of the village and people called them the
As in days gone by, the brothers and sisters met for daily prayer meetings, and
worked and ate together with great joy. The older sisters taught the little children,
and the boys worked with groups of men in the fields. Everyone got assigned jobs,
and every job had its overseer. Within a few years the Hutterite communities in
the Orechov district prospered like they never had before.
Community in the Caucasus
The Lord Christ who kindly helped the Hutterites in Russia to rediscover his way,
helped their Spirit Christian neighbours to find it too.
In 1849, Tsar Nikolai's officials had driven most of the Spirit Christians from the
Molochna colonies into the Caucasus. There they settled around Delizan and Kars
in Armenia, and around Tiflis between snow capped ranges that end at the Caspian
The Spirit Christians' new home could not have been more drastically unlike the
steppes they had known before. Finding their way up rocky trails more than six
thousand feet from the valley floor at Tiflis, they followed their guides to the land
gave them in the Mokrye Gory (wet mountains) of the Muslim
and bandit-plagued region. Without money, they built the barest one-room houses
with mud and sticks at villages they called Voskresenovka, Nikitino, Troytskoye,
Spaskova, and other beautiful
Christian names they had used on the Molochna.
Molokans and Dukhobors settled close together, and the latter also built large
communities at Yelizavetpol and Akhalkalaki in what is now the northeastern
corner of Turkey.
Most of this new land was too wet and cold for raising grain. Cattle thieves fell on
their herds and the Spirit Christians lived in greatest discomfort and poverty. But
the light of the Resurrection had never shone brighter among them. So moved
were their neighbours by their nonresistant testimony that hundreds
joined Spirit Christian congregations. The entire Armenian village of Karakalla
got converted and joined the Molokan Pryguny.
Six years after the Pryguny arrived in Armenia, their leader and prophet Anakey
Ignatovich Borisov died. He was one hundred and five years old and had suffered
sixty-two arrests for preaching the Gospel. After his death other leaders like
Fyodor Ossipevich, author of the
Book of Zion and The Mirror of The Soul, took
his place. Fyodor, like all Spirit Christians, felt strongly about suffering for what
one believed and not fighting back. He wrote:
Our beloved ancestors, with tearful prayers and holy love called us, their
followers, to promise to fear God by upholding
what we believe with firmness.
At the same time, they called on us to be ready to suffer, even unto death,
knowing that suffering itself is a gift from God. Living unwaveringly in this
manner, let us instruct our children and grandchildren
from generation to
Fyodor wrote at length about the Ten Commandments and what they mean in light
of the teaching of Christ. He preached and took the message of Christ to many
places, until the authorities exiled him again-to Rumania. On his way across the
Black Sea his ship sank in a storm.
In 1852 a nine-year-old Molokan boy, Yefim Gerasimovich Klubnikin, greeted
one of the brothers from the village of Nikitino with a joyful prophecy. That
brother, Maksim Gavrilovich Rudometkin began to invite the believers to his
house for prayer. There were more remarkable visions-one of them seen by a
whole group of people at once. And in 1855 Yefim, who had turned twelve, fell
unconscious for eight days. When he awoke he described in detail how troubles
would soon come upon them, and how a great migration of the Spirit Christians
would take place.
Within a few years the trouble came. Tsarist authorities, alarmed by the rapid
growth of Spirit Christian communities in the Caucasus turned to floggings, exile,
and once more to persecution of their leaders. In 1858 they arrested Maksim
Gavrilovich and walked him in chains to Solovets on the Arctic Ocean. It took
him a year and half to get there. For nine years they held him in a subterranean
dungeon on bread and water. Then, seeing they could not break him, they gave
him an ordinary cell.
In Solovets, Maksim wrote songs and a major part of the
Book of Spirit and Life,
still treasured by Spirit Christian believers. In it he outlined how Christians should
obshina (community of goods), and be totally defenseless. He wrote:
After the rule of the Hebrews with its harsh discipline was over, God Almighty
showed himself to us in his only begotten
Son, Jesus Christ. This put an end to
the old, natural, dynasty of the house of David. Through Christ, God gave us a
new law and the right way to believe. God now wants the righteous to live always
without a sword or weapon and to use no iron rod but the word of God and the
Spirit of his wisdom to repel our adversaries.
Little did Maksim know, at the time he wrote this, how the Spirit of Christ would
move others to discover the same truth.
A Soldier and a Sick Boy
In 1853 fighting broke out between Russia and Turkey. France and England got
involved (both wanted to keep Russia from conquering Turkey) and all armies met
at Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula.
Bitter fighting and a siege of the city lasted eleven months. In Turkish barracks at
Constantinople, where the "lady with the lamp" (Florence Nightingale) made her
rounds among the wounded, a young Englishman lay dying. At least he thought he
would die, and terrible scenes came up before his eyes.
Nothing had prepared Granville Waldgrave, growing up among cricket players
and fashionable parties in his upper class English home, for the dirt, the brutality
and terror of war. Even though he was twenty-two, and certainly as British boys
thought, "too old to cry," he could not live with what he saw when he closed his
eyes. He saw other boys, Russians, scrambling over the rocks above the Black
Sea, yelling what he could not understand but what sounded like prayers to God as
they fell, one by one, swatted down like so many flies by British bullets.
In Britain, God-fearing parents had told their sons to pray before they sailed for
the Crimean War. Protestant clergymen had blessed them. Victoria, the Bibleloving
queen herself, had praised them for their bravery and patriotism and wished
them God-speed. But this, Granville felt certain, was not God's work. It was hell.
Granville had grown up saying his prayers, but never had he prayed in desperation
like now. "Lord," he cried in his heart, amid the groans of suffering men in the
night, "if you give me life I will come back to Russia with your Gospel instead of
Christ heard his prayer and Granville kept his promise.
For twenty years following his return to England Granville met every week to
break bread and worship Christ with the "Brethren."
His noble birth earned for
him the title of Lord Radstock and he became the owner of a large estate. But
Russia did not leave him. He prayed without ceasing for the day the door would
open for him to go back.
In the meantime a boy named Mikhail turned sick in St. Petersburg.
Mikhail's father, Grigory Chertkov, was a high-ranking general in the tsar's army.
His mother, Yelena, was a vain woman, with her heart on fine clothes and jewelry.
But they found Mikhail a good tutor-one of the St. Petersburg believers who had
quietly continued during Tsar Nikolai's reign what Sasha Golitsyn and the seekers
who gathered around Tsar Aleksandr I had begun. The tutor spoke to Mikhail
about Christ, and the suffering boy discovered his healing presence. From that
time on, he invited everyone who came to see him to let go of the world and
discover him too.
So happily did Mikhail die, and so clear was his vision of Christ and life to come,
that his mother and a number of her fashionable friends began to meet for prayer
and serious considerations.
One of them, the wife of a diplomat, met Granville
Waldgrave (Lord Radstock) in a meeting in Paris.
It did not take long for the woman from St. Petersburg and the man from England
to discover their common longing. She was as anxious to have him come as he
was anxious to go, and with the necessary invitation and legal work in order
Granville arrived in Russia, in March, 1874.
Not only did Yelena Chertkova welcome Granville into her home. She invited her
sister and her husband, Vasily Alexandrovich Pashkov (one of Russia's wealthiest
men), and many of her friends to meet the visitor from England. Granville did not
lose the opportunity. At a luncheon served in the Chertkov dining room he began
to talk with Vasily about Christ and discovered that for all his money, the man had
an unmet need in his life. He longed for something totally different from what St.
Petersburg society had to offer, and in Russian fashion, when he made his decision
he did not go half way.
Even Granville was startled.
Vasily Pashkov, the millionaire, began to live like Christ. His business, his
position, his money, his reputation, nothing mattered. He spoke of Christ to
everyone, high or low. He left the army and started giving away fantastic amounts
of money to open boarding houses and workshops for the poor, to print literature
and to distribute
Bibles. By this time Nikolai, "the tsar who froze Russia," had
died and Aleksandr II, a less reactionary ruler had taken his place. The Bible
Society had resumed its work
and Vasily Pashkov, Count Bobrinsky (the
minister of transportation), Baron Modest Modestovich Korf, the Countess Lieven
(wife of the tsar's master of ceremonies) and other St. Petersburg seekers arranged
for Granville Waldgrave to speak in their homes.
The meetings were not spectacular. Granville was not a dramatic speaker, let alone
in Russian. But they broke bread every week and fine parlours took on the
atmosphere of his birth as stable boys and barons, cook's helpers and ladies of the
tsar's court knelt in quietness and tears in his presence together. In "Brethren"
fashion, they chose no clergy but allowed everyone to participate as he felt led.
Attendance in meetings at the Pashkov home grew rapidly from a dozen to five,
six and seven hundred people or more.
During the time the Lord Christ accomplished so much in Russia he also reached
down and touched a young Nestorian Christian
with his Spirit, in Persia. The
young man's name was Yakov. After he became aware of Christ he set out to find
his brother who had left home.
Yakov Delyakov travelled north through the Caucasus and took the new railroad
from Baku on the Caspian Sea to Rostov. He found his brother, by now a drunkard
and married to a Russian woman. But something else he found excited him more.
Wherever he went and talked about Christ he found open doors.
Someone told Yakov about the Bible Society in St. Petersburg.
He wrote and
made his first order. So many Bibles did he ask for that Vasily Pashkov became
personally interested in his case and "hired" him to distribute Bibles full time.
That distribution involved ingenuity.
Russian law did not allow Yakov to travel about as an evangelist. So with Vasily
Pashkov's help he bought a horse and wagon, loaded it with pots, pans, and
household goods, and set out as a peddler. While offering his wares he took every
opportunity to speak of Christ, and if people showed interest, he pulled out a Bible
and offered it too.
The results were immediate. Everywhere people discovered Christ and Yakov
began to hold meetings. But no result of his travels brought him greater pleasure
than his discovery of the Spirit Christians. Whenever he met them, particularly
those of the Postoyanye-the "constant" Molokans of whom many remained in
regions other than the Caucasus-Yakov felt innerly drawn to them. He admired
their quiet ways, grounded on conviction. Their thrift and industry spoke to him.
Beyond that, the interest was mutual. The Molokan brothers, after the unrest
created among them by some prophets who claimed "Spirit manifestations," had
misgivings about following an "inner light" too far and taking the Scriptures too
lightly. A renewed and very serious interest in the Scriptures led them to welcome
Yakov Delyakov with open arms. Relationships between them grew even warmer
after Yakov married a Molokan widow whose son, Ivan Zhidkov, became his
helper and successor in the work.
Like Yakov Delyakov-
as people knew him in his older years-
two other men distributed Bibles in Russia with Vasily Pashkov's help.
The first, calling himself Ivan Vasileyevich, spoke Russian with an accent. On his
passport his name read John Melville and he came from Scotland. The second one,
Martin Kalweit, came from East Prussia. Born into a Protestant family, he had
found Christ and a German missionary
baptised him on confession of faith at
Kaunas in Russian held Lithuania in 1858.
No sooner did Martin Kalweit commit himself to Christ in baptism than he offered
to distribute Bibles through the Baltic countries and Russia. Like Yakov
Delyakov, he moved about as a tradesman, and like Yakov he found the Spirit
Thanks to Yakov's work among them, the Molokan brothers of Russian Georgia-
by the time Martin Kalweit arrived with his wife and children to live among them
-were well informed and kindly disposed to the Bible Society. But they had not
heard of believers' baptism.
In Tiflis Martin Kalweit came to know a Molokan tea merchant named Nikita
Isayevich Voronin. They became friends. The more they spoke of the way of
Christ, the more his Spirit drew them together. Finally Nikita told Martin:
"Baptise me!" and Martin could not refuse.
They went out at night. In a small stream flowing into the Kura River Martin
baptised Nikita and many other baptisms followed.
A major part of the "constant"
Molokans in Georgia joined their fellowship and people began calling them "New
Molokans." Among themselves they preferred the name "Evangelical Christians."
Oil Makes Light
Slow, wavering songs, women in long dresses and with their heads covered, old
men with untrimmed beards, bread and salt, umilenie-as untold numbers of
Spirit Christians, Old Believers, and converts from the Orthodox church became
one in spirit with Anabaptists, Pietists, and the Brethren at St. Petersburg, Christ's
Church in Russia revived. And with that revival, as always, came persecution.
An old Russian proverb says: "The pressing of olives makes oil, and oil makes
light." Nothing could better describe what happened
to Russia's believers in the
last half of the 1800s.
After holding great meetings on the Molochna Mennonite colony and in St.
Petersburg, the Stundists attracted the Oberprokuror's
attention and many got
arrested. A few believers, like Vasily Pashkov and Modest Korf, got sent out of
Russia. The rest returned to functioning "underground." In the south Ivan
Ryaboshapka got arrested. Heinrich Hübert, suspected of having baptised his maid
(actually another man, Abram Dueck, had done it but Heinrich would not tell)
spent a year in jail. Groups of newly converted villagers who handed in their
fell prey to savage arrests, interrogations, and floggings. Tsarist officials
stamped their passports with the word Stundist,
"so that no one will accept them
for work or lodging, and life in Russia will become too costly for them."
The fact that Russian believers questioned the state church (and by way of
implication, the state itself) troubled the Oberprokuror.
But nothing perhaps,
troubled him more than to see how they not only survived, but flourished, under
persecution. Whoever joined them, it seemed, learned how to read. Their
immorality and drinking came to an end. They picked up the garbage, cut the
weeds around their yards and even their crops and gardens (for the care they
received) grew better. The wives of evangelical believers looked happier than
others and their children more orderly. Such a movement, the Oberprokuror
feared, would continue to spread until it resulted in the downfall of Russian
"Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and peoplehood."
But those who refused to conform to the world because their minds had gotten
transformed, rejoiced in the Kingdom of Heaven. Among them was a boy
called . . .
Even at public sales, auctioneers refused to take the believers' bids.
Zirkular des Khortitzaer Gebietsamtes erlaßen am 28. Februar, 1862
When the men came to arrest Jakob Claaszen and found him gone they were enraged
and the other villagers harassed his wife and family. An old men who met one of the little
Claaszen boys on the street frightened him by asking:
"Na, du tjliena fromme Diewel,
wua es dien Foda?"
(Well, you pious little devil, where is your Dad?).
Even though the new group in Russia resembled the Moravian Brüdergemeinde from
whom they took their name, they remained distinctly Anabaptist (nonresistant,
nonconformed, practicing believers' baptism, etc.)
There she prayed much. The woman for whom she worked found her in prayer one day
and recognised her own need. Both she and her husband got converted, followed by the
bar tender of Gnadenheim and many others in the village.
Even though the Oberprokuror had given the Mennonite believers freedom to baptise
converts among themselves, to baptise or even meet to study the Bible with members of
the Russian Orthodox church was a serious offence, punishable with exile to Siberia, or
By this time most Mennonites were shaving off their beards and made fun of the
Hutterites whom they called
die Bärtige (the bearded ones). Huttertal and Johannesruh
appear in official Molochna records as
die bärtige Nummer (villages of the "bearded
Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren: Volume II
The three areas are now in Armenia, Turkey, and Georgia.
Book of Spirit and Life
His prophecy reached fulfillment when the Molokans moved to Mexico, California,
and Arizona in the early 1900s.
a British renewal group often called "Plymouth Brethren" from one of their first
The Bible in modern Russian was completed and published in 1876.
For well over a thousand years the Nestorians, a Christian sect from the fourth
century, had survived in Zoroastrian and Muslim Persia.
Frederick C. Coneybeare who travelled in Russia during the 1800s wrote: "In the
Caucasus I have passed through many Molokan villages in early spring and in late
autumn. Their dwellings are usually of wood, but sometimes of stone, often built in
gardens surrounded by walls. Everything is neat and clean, and everywhere an air of
sobriety and quiet industry prevails. It as a pleasure to see their stalwart tidy wives sitting
outside their houses in the sun, working at their sewing, the snow still around their feet at
the close of winter, which in the highlands between Tiflis and Yerevan is severe."
of the Baptist Church
to avoid charges of desecration
So much a part of Russian vocabulary did this German term become that even a train
station in the Ukraine got the name
Stunde. When Yakov K. Dukhonchenko asked its
residents a century later (during communist times) the reason for the name, they told him,
"A long time ago some people called Stundisten lived here. They lived in peace and
loved one another."
At first they seemed unreal-blue mountains emerging from the haze above the
southern horizon. Never had Stepan, twenty-year-old Molokan believer in a linen
shirt, leading a horse and cart with his young wife, his mother and her sister, seen
mountains. Let alone snow-capped mountains! But the road from Saratov on the
Volga had been long. The spring of 1862 had turned to early summer and their
destiny, Vladikavkaz at the foot of the Caucasian Mountains, lay just ahead.
Stepan Prokhanov with his family was only a small part of the Spirit Christian
migration to the south and east during the mid 1800s. Like those from the
Molochna River colonies they left most of their belongings behind. But the
Prokhanovs did not come from the Molochna. They came from Saratov, one of the
earliest regions affected by the Spirit Christian movement. And to the older
women on the cart and Stepan-serious-minded and willing to work-the
prospect of settling in a new land where they hoped the tsar would leave them
alone, looked bright.
In reality, it was not a new land.
Cyrus, in the prophet Daniel's time, already knew the Caucasus-a great
mountain barrier between the Black and Caspian Seas. He knew its hidden valleys
and the mountain tribes who lived there. To Alexander the Great and his Greek
voyagers it was Colchis, land of the Golden Fleece. Early Christians settled there
(in Armenia and Georgia). Mohammed's missionaries reached the Azerbaijan city
of Bakir on the Caspian Sea, and now, since the time of Tsar Peter the Great and
Turkish threats from the south, the kingdoms of the Caucasus had looked to
Russia for protection and trade.
Only three years before the arrival of the Prokhanovs and their Spirit Christian
friends, the Russian army had driven four hundred thousand Cherkessian Muslims
from the Caucasus south into Turkey. Now large tracts of land lay empty and Tsar
Nikolai let undesirable residents from Central Russia and the Ukraine (Molokans,
Dukhobors, Mennonite Brethren, and Old Believers) settle there. He ordered a
good road built from the Volga River to the Caucasus and at the foot of Mount
Kazbek, his engineers laid out the new city of Vladikavkaz.
A New Home and Son
Hundreds of Molokan refugees settled, like Stepan Prokhanov,
on the outskirts of
Vladikavkaz. Some of them milked cows and made cheese. Some owned shops
along its wide acacia-lined streets. Stepan himself kept bees, tended fruit trees and
built a mill on the banks of the Terek River, rushing down from the mountains.
And here in Vladikavkaz, on April 17, 1869, he and his wife blessed a new son
and named him Ivan.
Ten days after his birth, Ivan suddenly died. They called the elders. They set out
the bread and salt, and prepared to read from the Scriptures and pray over the
infant's grave. But when the elders came, a strange thing happened. The baby
opened its eyes. Was it still alive? Or again?
"Surely this child has a special call from God," the elders said. "The devil tried to
kill him, but Christ has rescued him from the grave!"
A Nonconformist Legacy
Already as a preschooler Ivan Prokhanov learned to sing Molokan hymns and read
the Bible. With his parents he attended meetings where the brothers and sisters
spent most of their time in prayer. But as much as the meetings, or more, long
evenings with his family shaped his life. He wrote later:
I will never forget those summer evenings when we sat out-of-doors around the
table with a samovar of tea. Father, the two grandmothers (one of them actually
my great-aunt) and Gavrilich, an old man who lived with us, would tell stories
and we listened to them with glowing eyes and trembling hearts.
The stories about the suffering of the innocent spoke to me. . . . My father told
how he was left an orphan as a child. Both grandmothers told of the Molokans'
sufferings in the province of Saratov where they were arrested and imprisoned
themselves. The thought that such good and innocent people should suffer at the
hands of the wicked struck me with wonder.
I considered the grandmothers saintly women, and the stories of their sufferings
meant all the more in light of what happened to me. At the primary school we
attended all the students knew my brother and I were nonconformists-Molokans
-and were often unfriendly to us. They joked about us and hurled insults at us.
Sometimes on the street they took after us with sticks, shouting, "Molokans!
But this did not discourage me nor make me ashamed of what
we believed. On the contrary, I sensed that it somehow made me a participant of
that holy multitude
who have suffered through the ages for Christ and the truth.
To comfort my brother Aleksandr I used to say, "Don't be afraid Sasha. The One
in us is greater than the one in them!"
Close to Stepan Prokhanov's mill, stood the regional jail. Already as a small boy,
Ivan accompanied his father on visits to the prisoners. His father brought them
food and money if they needed it. He admonished the wicked, and encouraged the
Spirit Christians, Evangelicals, and Old Believers who passed through on their
way to exile. Ivan himself became so used to the prison that he made visits to it on
The example of his father in helping the afflicted, and what took place when Ivan
was six years old, stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Examples and Commitments
When Ivan was six Nikita Voronin, the tea merchant from Tiflis, came on a visit.
Everyone of the Molokan community in Vladikavkaz welcomed him. But what
Nikita came to tell, surprised
them very much. He said a great number of the
Spirit Christians at Tiflis had gotten baptised.
Stepan Prokhanov and the believers around him did not react with displeasure.
They looked instead, to the example of Christ, and studied the Scriptures. Then,
convinced that Nikita had done the right thing, many of them (including the
Prokhanovs) asked for baptism too.
The example of Christ in the Scriptures guided the Molokans
in all areas of life.
Already in grade school Ivan learned the blessings of following it and the terrible
things that happen where it is ignored.
Walking home from school one evening, Ivan and his brother saw a
(vagrant) on the street. The bosyak was asking a wealthy man on horseback for a
kopek with which to find lodging
for the night. "Why should I give you money?"
the wealthy man responded roughly. "No doubt you would spend it on drink. I will
not give you anything."
The boys watched as the bosyak, his hand outstretched, tottered down the snowy
street to a deserted market area. The next morning they found him, a frozen hulk,
in a scale shed. About this experience, Ivan wrote:
Since that time I have understood the words of Christ: "Give to him who asks of
you," in an unconditional way.
So easily we shrug off requests for help by pointing to the errors and sins of those
who ask. If we, like God, could know the hearts of men, this might be alright. But
since we are not like God, our knowledge of man is limited in the extreme, and
we err so easily in refusing to help one really in need (one who may perish
through our neglect), we dare not turn anyone down. We must "give to him who
If some of those who receive our help abuse it, the responsibility rests with them,
and by helping all we avoid the risk of failing to help the one who really needs it.
If, however, we judge those who ask for help and give to some while refusing to
give to others, we may err both ways-by giving to those who will abuse it and
by refusing to give to those who are really in need. So the only wise thing to do is
obey Christ who says: "Give to him who asks."
Of course we must decide how much help to give-in proportion to the need and
according to our ability.
Even though the Molokans taught against arming themselves and taking part in
war, Stepan Prokhanov kept a hunting rifle in his house. On one occasion Ivan
took it with him on a walk along the Terek. He saw a bird sitting on a tall stalk of
grass and shot it. Hurrying to pick it up he saw what led him to write:
The bird lay on the ground, still alive but with blood on its wings. Its eyes were
closing and it was dying. I cannot describe what I felt. The word "murderer"
flashed into my mind and I blushed from the shame of a crime committed. An
inner voice asked me: "Why have you stopped this life which brought glory to its
Creator?" I trembled, and prayed in despair.
When the bird died I buried it in the sand. I did it without thinking why, but now I
understand my action. I did it from the instinct to hide the evidence of my crime
from the shining
sun, the blue sky, and heaven above. But nothing, of course,
was hidden. I vowed then and there, never to go hunting again. I vowed never to
take another gun into my hands.
Since that time I have hated everything connected with the taking of life.
Several years later, when Ivan was seventeen, he almost broke that vow.
As a young teenager, in high school, Ivan began to pay attention for the first time
to something totally other than Molokan thought. Tsar Nikolai's long rule had
ended and his son's milder rule let the books of modern thinkers from Germany,
Artur Schopenhauer, Eduard von Hartmann and Ludwig Feuerbach become
popular in Russia. Many whom Ivan knew, both students and faculty at the high
school, had declared themselves "nihilists" (from
nihil, "nothing") and revolted
against the established order of the state, the church and the home.
The nihilists were the "hippies" of late nineteenth century Russia. They scoffed at
the idea that man is immortal, that God exists apart from human imagination, or
that human beings have souls. They wore their hair long, dressed in the sloppiest
clothes they could find, and threw rules of propriety and morals to the wind.
Ivan's closest friends, including a boy called Grigory Korsh, were would-be
nihilists. Even though their parents hindered them as much as they could, they met
in the evenings, and Ivan began to meet with them.
Grigory was the high school nihilist leader. He read the most and had connections.
One evening he said, "Watch me overcome
life by death!" To the horror of the
boys he pulled a bottle of cyanide from his pocket and lifted it to his mouth. Ivan
jumped on him and knocked it to the floor. But this experience, combined with his
own struggle to overcome sin, led him into a period of dark depression.
Stepan noticed it, and acting on impulse in November, 1886, he hid the hunting
rifle that hung in his son's room.
That evening Ivan came home late. His face would have frightened his parents.
Beyond what had become his ordinary gloominess, his eyes looked wild. He lit the
lamp to take down the gun. But it was gone-and he found a paper lying on the
stand beside his bed. In his father's Cyrillic script (he wrote with a large but
careful hand) he read: "Do you love Jesus Christ?"
For a moment Ivan stood, unable to move.
Then he began to cry and reached for his Bible.
Even though he knew exactly where to turn, Christ's words, "I am the way, the
truth and the life. . ." had never come home before. He called his father. His
mother came too. They prayed, wept, and rejoiced together, and on January 17,
1887 the New Molokans held another baptism at a bend in the Terek.
Ivan threw himself with all he had into the service of Christ. He returned at once
to Grigory Korsh (who had made another unsuccessful attempt at suicide) to tell
him of his conversion.
At first his friends laughed at him. But before long they
saw he was in earnest and took him seriously.
In meetings on the day of Resurrection (Sunday), he began teaching the children
and gave his first message to the whole assembly of believers on Christ's promise:
"Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth."
Several months later he graduated from high school and left for St. Petersburg to
study engineering. There he found . . .
In Spirit Christian meetings everyone was expected to speak. Older men led out in
congregational matters, but there was no "clergy."
Christ in Camouflage
In the shadow of St. Petersburg's golden-domed churches, in back streets among
its palaces, bridges, and squares, Ivan Prokhanov soon made contact with fellow
believers. But he learned, just as soon, that his contacts had to remain discreet.
Tsar Nikolai's son had led Russia with an easy hand. Then a terrorist bomb took
his life and a grandson, Aleksandr III became tsar. He made a tall man with little
black spectacles on the end of his nose-Konstantin Pobedonostsev-his
Oberprokuror. People called Konstantin the "Grand Inquisitor." Like the new tsar
he hated democracy and did all he could to keep Russia, the tsar, and Orthodoxy
It seemed only too familiar. By the time Ivan reached St. Petersburg, believers all
over Russia had returned to meeting in utmost secrecy. Because their mail got
censured, they reopened clandestine means of communication and everyone,
everywhere, watched what they said. Spies abounded, even at secret meetings.
Ivan did not study long at the National Institute of Technology until he learned
what one should not do. As much as mentioning "the working class" (a socialist
term) or "repression" could lead to interrogation and arrest. One after another,
Ivan saw his companions disappear from class and terrible stories circulated about
what happened to them at the Petropavlovsky and Schliesselburgsky
But like in grade school at Vladikavkaz, he counted it an honour to identify with
the suffering followers of Christ.
Meetings in The Night
While street lamps came on along the Nevsky Prospekt, and jingling bells warned
of swiftly passing sleighs with ladies almost invisible in furs on their back seats,
Ivan found his way through St. Petersburg to the houses of his friends. Every
Friday night they met at a different place. Every Saturday they informed the
believers of the city where to meet on the Day of the Resurrection-a different
time and a different place every week, to confuse those who tried to spy on them.
In the workshops of city craftsmen and in hidden rooms of palaces along the
Morskaya Canal, they entered cautiously to meetings where they broke bread and
shared the wine of communion. Sometimes they met in the coachman's quarters of
the palace of the Countess Shuvalov. It stood on the corner of the Moyka and
Zymnia Kanavka streets in a beautiful part of the city. The coachman was a
believer and the countess herself came to the meetings. At other times they met in
government buildings, off hours. Ivan wrote:
Especially do I remember one meeting we arranged in a basement room occupied
by a concierge in a military school. One approached the room through long dark
that made me think of the catacombs. The concierge stood at the
entrance of the first corridor. The visitors came one by one, careful that no one
should see them. The concierge
passed only those he knew or who came with the
recommendation of a known brother. In total silence he led us (perhaps twentyfive
people) to his room. We did not sing for fear of being heard. After the
meeting was over we all left one by one, with the same precautions.
The meetings were not safe. Everyone who attended did so at the risk of prison,
torture, and banishment to Siberia. But no matter what it might cost, the St.
Petersburg believers kept on making contacts and more and more seekers became
part of their fellowship.
Ivan was not in St. Petersburg long before he heard and saw evidence of mass
migrations from Russia to foreign lands. Aleksandr III and Konstantin
Pobedonostsev believed in letting those go whom they did not trust. "Good
riddance of bad rubbish," they reasoned. And many who failed to trust them-Old
Believers, Spirit Christians, Hutterites and Mennonites-only too gladly took the
opportunity. Thousands found their way to Western Europe, North and South
America. Others, no doubt remembering Hans Heinrich Jung-Stilling's books,
moved east into Tatar lands and Siberia.
Those who could not escape Konstantin Pobedonostsev's long arm for lack of
funds and legal permission to travel could do nothing but stay behind and suffer-
like Vasily Pavlov.
Converted as a young man at Tiflis (he worked for the Nikita Voronin, the tea
merchant) Vasily was only married a few years when tsarist officials exiled him to
the Ural Mountains. His wife could follow him but they lived in miserable
poverty. Four years later, on his return to Tiflis, the same officials asked him to
sign a document declaring he would stop preaching and baptising. He refused.
Much against the authorities' wishes, a crowd of relatives and friends gathered at
the train station to see him off-this time to exile in the Kirgiz steppes south of the
Once more Vasily's wife and children followed him. But conditions were bad. She
died of cholera. So did three of the children.
One of his two remaining sons
drowned in the Amu Darya River and Vasily took it as a sign that God wanted him
to spend his life as an itinerant evangelist.
Hundreds of those to whom he preached got sent in turn-in box cars with no
sanitary facilities, poorly fed, in chains, and with half-shaven heads-to Siberian
and Armenian prison camps. Their leaving brought unspeakable hardship to the
families they left behind. But nothing, perhaps, struck terror to the hearts of
believing parents like the threat of having their children put out for adoption or
placed in monasteries. A believing woman from near Yekaterinoslav in the
Ukraine, described an arrest:
In the morning, people began to get together in our village. They came from all
the surrounding villages and khutors. Some came in wagons and others with sleds
because it had already snowed. Policemen came on foot and on horseback. We
were surprised and started to ask what was going on. "They are going to take
away the Stundists' children," they told us. A commotion began in the houses of
all believers that had children. They arrested some of the men-Grigory Cherdak,
Yevstakhy Likhogray, Grigory Volochay and others-and took them to the police
office. . . .
"Now you Stundists," began the priest who awaited them there, "up to now, as
your shepherds, we have used words to persuade you to return to Orthodoxy. But
from now on we will use force. We have received notice from the governor to
"reconvert the Stundists using every means necessary." You must give us a
signature that you are returning to the Orthodox Church. Anyone who does not
comply will have his children taken away. Come now! Sign!"
Not one of the men obeyed.
"Go on," said the priest to the officers.
The men knew where the priest was sending them, but could do nothing about it
for they were under guard.
A turmoil began throughout the village. A crowd of people with sticks in their
hands, accompanied by police, went in turn to all the houses where baptised
believers lived and took away the children, giving them to whoever wanted them.
The children screamed and ran bare-footed through the snow from one street to
another. They hid themselves in haystacks, but were found, put on sleds and
taken to the administration office where the police sorted out who would be given
The children of my husband's brother ran to us, barefooted
and without their
over clothes. They wanted my husband
to protect them. A crowd was chasing
after them. My husband let the children into the house, but went out himself
face the people. "Sign your agreement that you are returning to the Orthodox
church," said the village policeman.
My husband refused.
Then the policemen asked for the children. "I cannot give them up," my husband
said, and called to me, "Close the door!" I did so and put the hook down while he
to keep people from breaking it down. But they knocked him over,
tied him up, and left him on the ground.
"Open up!" the policeman shouted to me.
"I will not," I replied, holding the hook down with my hands.
"Break the door!" screamed the policeman. The people pushed and shook until
the hook broke and several men burst into the room, shouting. I trembled with
"Where are the children?" asked the policemen.
"You will have to look for them," I said.
They hunted everywhere but could not find them. "Where have you hidden
them?" they shouted, grabbing me by the arms.
The children had hidden themselves under the stove and in the attic. I could see I
would have to give them up. I called them but they cried and would not come out.
I had a hard time persuading them. The boys were nine and seven years old, the
sons of Grigory Kuchugurny, and someone from Tarasovka got them. Grigory's
wife, Darya, was sick in bed with another boy, two years old. For a long time she
would not let him go, but they tore him out of her arms. She got worse and died
two weeks later.
New Friends and Yury
Among the villagers many turned to Christ, in spite of persecution,
baptised. But Ivan found most of the boys at college afraid, or else unwilling, to
speak of religion. Two exceptions,
Pavel Zavtschenko and Fyodor Sakharov
began to meet with him to study the Bible and pray. Several other students from
believing homes joined them and Ivan became friends with Heinrich Fast, a young
Mennonite from the Molochna who had taken a position in St. Petersburg as tutor
to the son of a tsarist officer. Heinrich and his new wife, Olga, attended the
meetings. Olga was an intelligent woman and Ivan enjoyed visiting with both of
them. But no one fascinated him more than her brother Yury, who had brought her
Yury Gorynovich, the son of a Ukrainian priest, had been a nihilist. With his
friends he had let his hair grow long and lived a wild life. They got into socialist
terrorism, and while still in high school, Yury fell into the hands of the police.
His mother and father came to see him in jail. They cried and pled with him to
cooperate with the police who had told him if he would inform on the rest of his
group they would let him go free. Finally Yury consented and told the police what
they wanted to know.
A short time later some of his friends took him for a walk. In a lonely place in a
park they struck him down and poured sulphuric acid over his face. Thinking him
dead they let him lie, beyond recognition. But he was not dead.
Someone found him and carried him to a hospital. Yury never knew the details.
All he remembered was coming to, weeks later, missing both eyes, his nose, one
ear, and part of his mouth. His right arm was paralyzed.
They sent him to St. Petersburg to a hospital for the incurably diseased. There he
lay, so frightfully disfigured that no one could stand to look at him. He pled with
the doctors to let him take poison but they did not give him any. Then Vasily
Vasily regularly visited hospitals. Many were glad to see him, but Yury, in his
slurred speech without lips, cursed him. He cursed God, himself, his parents, his
friends-everything he knew or could think of, and the doctors who kept him alive.
Vasily did not insist. But his heart went out to the young man and he prayed for
him. Within a few weeks a nurse from the hospital sent him a message to come
again. Yury wanted to see him.
Vasily hurried back. It turned out that Yury had heard Stundists singing in an
adjoining cell while in a Ukrainian prison. A seed had been planted. Vasily had
watered it, and now it began to sprout.
Yury repented with all his heart, thanking God for what had happened to him. He
left the hospital (always wearing a mask that totally covered his face) got married
to a Christian girl and before the tsar's assassination they started a home for blind
sponsored by Vasily Pashkov.
Yury told his family members and friends about Christ. But nothing convinced
more people of his conversion than when his "murderers" came to trial and he
publicly asked the court to let them go free. "Let my suffering suffice for them,"
he said. "All I want for them is to find Christ and become as happy as I."
During St. Petersburg's short summer, the believers met in woods and open fields
around the city. In spite of the danger, crowds came to worship and baptisms
usually followed. Ivan often spoke at these meetings but the day the police found
them and broke up their assembly his friend Sergey Alekseyev was leading out.
They arrested Sergey and sent him to a prison camp for eight years. After that he
got five years more.
Ivan felt sorry for Sergey and his family. He felt sorry for believers in scattered
fellowships throughout Russia, many of them brutally separated one from another
and needing the prayers and encouragement of others. Then, while doing an exam
at the college in 1889 an idea came to him: "Why not have an informative church
The very idea of a periodical for the "underground" church, most would have said,
was laughable. For nonconformed believers to publish anything at all, let alone a
periodical, was illegal. But Ivan began to think. When he returned home on
vacation in May, he discussed it with his brother Aleksandr.
Aleksandr (they still called him Sasha at home), had become a genius in his own
right. He loved to invent things and in no time had a curious-looking hectograph
machine ready to use.
Ivan typed up the first articles. Local believers, using Bible pseudonyms,
The excitement-even of seeing the clandestine copier hidden in the
boys' bedroom-was catching. But the reception of the first issue of
(Conversations) far exceeded their highest hopes.
The boys sent it out in registered envelopes and carefully worded its contents not
to reveal who sent it. They mailed it to Mikhail Ratushny, Gerasim Balaban and
other Stundist leaders in the Ukraine. They mailed it to the congregations founded
by Yakov Delyakov, the Mennonite colonies, and all the believers they knew of
throughout central Russia, Siberia and the vast northern regions.
Everywhere, word came trickling back through secret channels of its joyful
reception. Believers everywhere wept as they read reports-even though with
camouflaged names and details-of others who suffered and stood for Christ. The
articles spoke of nothing but hope and imminent victory.
No doubt many of the papers got intercepted. At best there was only one for every
region, and they got passed on in secret from one family to another and from one
village to the next. But after the first issue everyone knew that
Beseda had to
continue. In the fall, when Ivan returned to St. Petersburg, he found no one more
excited about the new periodical than Heinrich and Olga Fast. They offered to
help him with it and he moved in with them.
Meeting With a Tolstovets
After his third year of study in St. Petersburg, Ivan did a summer assignment as a
railroad engineer in southern Russia. He enjoyed the work but got laid up with
malaria at Novorossysk. There a
tolstovets (disciple of Lev Tolstoy) came to see
For several hours Ivan and the Tolstovets, a boy called Viktor Alekhin, talked
about Christ's example and what to do with it. In one way Ivan felt Viktor (who
wore rough clothes and boots and spoke like a peasant, in spite of his education)
was mistaken. Following Christ involves more than rejecting wealth and power
and identifying with the poor. But on the other hand Ivan sensed that this, Christ's
radical otherworldliness, had indeed been the way of Russia's believers through a
thousand years. It was what transformed their faith from a bare concept into
shining reality, mysterious to the established and comfortable but well-known to
those who suffer.
The more he thought about Christ and his church, the better Ivan understood what
Aleksey Khomyakov wrote about:
The church is a collection of men (all without distinction of clergy and laymen),
who have become bound together by love. . . . It is not a matter of which church,
who's church, or whether the church has the correct authority. Rather we must
know where the church is. The church is in the heart and in the community of the
Ivan also thought much about a poem Fyodor Tyutchev had written:
Land of long patience, country of the Russian people with your poor villages and
nature parsimonious in her gifts,
Never can the foreigner's proud glance fathom the fire that burns so mysteriously
beneath your poverty.
Bowed under the load of the cross, the King of Heaven in the linen shirt of a
lowly peasant has journeyed over you from one end to the other, bestowing on
you his blessing.
The church of the poor. A mysterious, unquenchable, fire of faith. Christ in a
peasant's disguise. Committed to walking with him, Ivan returned to St.
Petersburg, and after his graduation to central Russia, where he learned about . . .
Among those who moved east was a group led by Klaas Epp, a Mennonite from
Saratov, and Abram Peters from the Molochna River settlement. In long wagon trains
they travelled through Uralsk and Chimkent to Kaplanbek on the mouth of the Syr Darya,
and from there to the Khanate of Khiva. Many died on the perilous two thousand
kilometre journey. Those who did not, passed through terrible times of turmoil and
deception. But the Lord Christ was kind to them and the settlements they established
In this case an order came, after a month, to return the children. But others were not so
fortunate. Count Lev Tolstoy wrote a letter to the Oberprokuror and Tsar Aleksandr III,
protesting this inhumane breaking up of families.
Ivan chose Zacchaeus for his own pseudonym, in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact
that he had grown well over six feet tall.
Zernov, Nicolas: Three Russian Prophets
The Kingdom Within
While Granville Waldgrave tossed and turned, sick to death and seeing nightmares
after the attack on Sevastopol, a boy his age saw the same nightmares on the other
side of the line. His name was Lev Tolstoy and he was sick too.
Like Granville, Lev grew up among the wealthy and privileged. Born on Yasnaya
Polyana, an estate not far from Tula, his earliest memories were of strolling the
park-like grounds with long-skirted governesses while serfs at work among the
gardens lifted their caps when he spoke to them in passing. He learned to swim
and ride horses. But no amount of wealth could keep his family together.
Lev's mother died when he was two, and his father, Nikolai Tolstoy, seven years
later. The aunt responsible for him died when he was thirteen and he moved to
In Kazan on the Volga both Lev and his life changed. His brothers introduced him,
as a young teenager, to what they knew of manhood: wine, women, and gambling.
At sixteen he entered the university, got bad grades, and was soon taking
treatment for venereal disease. After three years he dropped out, moved in with
friends at Moscow and took to partying and seeing gypsies night after night. "I am
living like a beast," he wrote in his diary and disgust at his own behaviour finally
drove him into the army.
In 1851 Lev joined his older brother Nikolai, fighting Muslims with Russian
troops in the Caucasus. The mountain fighting was tough--ambushes and quick
attacks. In one struggle Lev narrowly escaped capture. In another, a flying grenade
whizzed past his ear. After three years he found himself at Sevastopol, surrounded
by "blood, suffering, and death," and sick of war.
Money and Power
Nothing struck Lev as a greater tragedy than the lives of the soldiers around him.
He saw their simple sincerity. They wanted to be good and have friends. They did
heroic things one for another. But wars--and the politicians who plan but do not
fight them--he came to see as unspeakably unheroic and evil.
Stories Lev wrote of the fighting at Sevastopol got accepted in a St. Petersburg
paper and struck a responsive chord throughout Russia. He wrote more. Literary
societies competed to gain him as a member. But he did not need nor want their
acceptance. In 1857 he travelled through Germany, England, and France. In Paris
he saw an opponent of the state on a guillotine. No sooner did the blade drop and
the head fall into a bucket than something else fell into place in his life:
Money and power are the devils of the human race.
A Horse Story
On his return to Russia Lev wrote
Kholstomer, a story written from the viewpoint
of a highly principled horse comparing his situation to that of the ridiculous
humans who depended on him. He also wrote a few other stories before turning
his back on wickedness in high places and settling down to live among the
Russian farm workers he had always known and loved at Yasnaya Polyana.
Lev began a school for the farm workers' children. The joy he discovered among
them--little boys and girls, curious, eagerly discussing great things, dressed in
linen shirts, full skirts and brightly flowered head scarves like their parents--was
mutual. They loved him for a teacher and he wrote simple attractive textbooks for
In his early thirties Lev met Sofya, the daughter of Heinrich Behrs, a Moscow
doctor. When she was eighteen and he thirty-four they married and began to
rebuild the old house at Yasnaya Polyana. (A man to whom Lev had lost a highstaked
game of cards in his youth, had carried most of it away, piece by piece.)
Then he dug into farming. Soil and crop management fascinated him and the
Tolstoy estate, with what became its ninety-six acres of vegetable gardens and
orchards, began to produce like never before. Lev kept bees and experimented
with fruit trees while Sofya bore him thirteen children (eight of whom reached
maturity) in fifteen years.
The story might have ended here, had not Lev's urge to serve his fellow Russians
through "irresistable education" driven him to write
Voyna i mir (War and Peace)
the novel that became one of the two or three most famous in world literature.
It took Lev seven years to write it. But after its publication he became a famous
and wealthy man. Immediately after this, he wrote
With their older children needing to study, and--in Sofya's estimation--needing to
meet the right people in the right kind of society, the Tolstoys moved to Moscow
in 1881. They moved with their servants and staff into a small estate on the
outskirts of the city, but Lev was not happy. From their new house he heard
factory whistles ca!lling shifts of bleary-eyed, shuffling multitudes--mothers and
children among them--to work at bad hours. While the wealthy frisked about
Moscow in furs and perfumed gowns, snuggling up in dimly lit theatres or feasting
and dancing in lavish homes, the poor worked. And earned little.
Posing as a census-taker, Lev began to tramp the back streets of Moscow taking
notes on how people lived. He found many sick and some who had not eaten for
days. Everywhere he found filth, drunkenness, corruption (including child
prostitution) and despair. His frustration and guilt--worsened by coming back
every night to his own comfortable home--resulted in another book:
shall we do?
On top of the guilt he felt for his wealth and privilege, Lev felt hopelessly guilty
for his personal sins. So dark and stormy had his struggle become at one point that
he lived with lingering temptations to suicide. Then his farm workers at Yasnaya
Polyana helped him. They said, "If you are unhappy turn to the Lord and stop
living for yourself." Everywhere he heard this among them, the older men making
the simple comment, and the young men nodding agreement.
The Lord. Who was he?
Walking through the woods Lev turned to Jesus Christ and experienced his own
"Joyful waves of life welled up inside me," he wrote later, "Everything came alive
and took on new meaning."
Along with Christ came a simple understanding: "If one life changes, the world
changes with it."
It was simple but electrifying. Suddenly Lev understood what Christ had done. He
did not force anyone or anything to change. He simply changed himself, and
untold millions followed.
(the true way of life) Lev suddenly knew, is within everyone's reach. No
matter how wicked we are, or how bad our situation, we know good and evil.
Good is God. It is the Gospel. It is Christ. Living in its constant awareness our
lives become transformed.
After his conversion Lev began every day with a walk he called his morning
prayer. But his life did not become "pious" like many westerners would have
expected. In true Russian fashion he threw himself into the kind of Christianity
symbolised in bread and salt.
"Works of charity will not solve the world's problems," Lev now believed. "They
are comparable to a man sitting on a tired worn-out horse who tries to lighten the
beast's burden by removing a few coins from his pocket when the essential thing
is to dismount." The solution is personal. Every man, every woman must change,
one by one. And the change, Lev well knew, would have to start with him. "I take
part in crime," he wrote, "as long as I have extra food and someone else has
none." So he gave his extra food away.
Everyone should do what he can, Lev believed, and depend as little as possible on
the labour of others. He divided his day into four parts. Before breakfast he
worked hard--shovelling snow, sawing or splitting firewood to carry to the ten
stoves in his house, or hauling water to the kitchen in a barrel on a sled. He began
to wear peasant clothes (the linen shirt tied with a cord belt, over loose homemade
trousers) and took to ploughing with oxen, cutting hay with a scythe or
hauling manure at Yasnaya Polyana.
From breakfast to lunch he wrote. From lunch to the evening meal he worked with
his hands, sometimes making leather boots. After that he spent time with his
family. Sofya played the piano and he played chess with the boys.
Lev stopped drinking and smoking and wrote a tract against both:
Why Do Men
In a move toward the Spirit Christians, many of whose
beliefs and practices he adopted, he stopped drinking coffee (an imported luxury)
and became a vegetarian.
Private property, Lev came to feel, was wrong. He fully intended to give Yasnaya
Polyana with everything on it to the people who had worked there for generations.
But his wife interfered and he ended up deeding the estate to her and the children.
New Friends and Critics
Among the teachings of Christ, Lev found none more enlightening than his
command in the Sermon on the Mount: "Do not resist evil." Having seen the
corruption of war and political violence it made perfect sense to him. He wrote on
the subject and in the discussion that ensued he heard not only from Spirit
Christians delighted with his new position, but from Mennonites and Quakers as
well. He read with great interest a letter from the son of William Lloyd Garrison
(the nonresistant anti-slavery prophet of America), the testimony of Petr
Chelcicky (forerunner of the Moravian Brethren) and a tract on nonresistance
written by a Mennonite minister, Daniel Musser of Pennsylvania. In trips to the
Ukraine, Lev made friends with both Spirit Christian and Mennonite colonists.
The community of goods among the Dukhobors, the Molokan Pryguny and the
Hutterite brothers who had returned to it, fascinated him in particular.
But Lev drew more than friendly response.
Most people who wrote to him, or about him, thought him crazy. Theodore
Roosevelt, an American politician, called him a genius "with a complete inability
to face facts" and described his writings as "revolting, appealing only to
Frederic William Farrar, dean of Canterbury and author of
The Life of Christ (a
best seller through thirty editions) wrote that he did not think it necessary to
"forsake all the ordinary conditions of life and take up the position of a common
laborer" to follow Christ. To that he added:
With few and rare exceptions all Christians from the days of the Apostles down
to our own, have come to the firm conclusion that it was the object of Christ to
lay down great eternal principles, but not to disturb the bases and revolutionise
the institutions of human society that rest on divine sanctions as well as on
inevitable conditions. Were it my object to prove how untenable is the doctrine of
community of goods taught by Count Tolstoy . . . something that can only be
interpreted on historical principles in accordance to the whole method of the
teaching of Jesus, it would require an ampler canvas than I have here at my
"What a pity," remarked Lev Tolstoy on reading this, "that Mr. Farrar's canvas
was not more ample!" In reply he wrote:
Without exception the criticisms of educated Christians are like this. Apparently
they understand the danger of their position. Their only escape lies in the hope of
overawing people with their church authority, the antiquity of their tradition, or
the sanctity of their office. Using these they try to draw people away from reading
the Gospels for themselves and forming their own conclusions. They can do this
quite successfully, for how would it occur to anyone that what has been repeated
from century to century with such earnestness and solemnity by so many
important church officials is all a big lie, all an evil deception on their part to
hang on to the money they must have to live luxuriously on the necks of other
men. Yet it is a deception, and such a poor one, that the only way of keeping it up
consists in overawing people by their earnest and conscientious words.
Robert G. Ingersoll, another important American, dismissed Lev Tolstoy's newest
books with the comment: "Christ's teaching is of no use to us anymore. It is
incompatible with our industrial age."
To this Lev replied:
Robert Ingersoll has expressed with perfect directness and simplicity how refined
and cultured people now look at Christ's teachings. They consider the existence
of this industrial age a sacred fact that should not and cannot be changed. It is just
as though drunkards when advised how they could be brought to habits of
sobriety should answer that the advice is incompatible with their habit of taking
With the ever increasing circulation of his books, hundreds of people from all over
the world came to see Lev Tolstoy. The extension table in their dining room, even
though it seated fifty, could not always accommodate the guests. And some like
Vladimir Chertkov--son of Yelena Chertkova and brother to Mikhail, the sick boy
whose testimony brought many to Christ in St. Petersburg--actually moved in with
Vladimir Chertkov became one of Lev Tolstoy's closest disciples and his
secretary. He was also a friend to Ivan and Fyodor who on a trip to the Caucasus
visited Yasnaya Polyana together.
Mushrooms and a Manuscript
Ivan Prokhanov described his visit:
In Tula we hired a cab to take us to Yasnaya Polyana. Among the trees on the
estate grounds we first saw the white house and a group of ladies playing lawn
tennis. Then we saw an old man with rough features, gray hair and a beard,
walking toward the veranda. On his head he had a large white cap. He was
dressed in a linen shirt, grey trousers and rough boots, looking like a gardener.
But we recognized him as Count Tolstoy. He carried a walking stick and was
eating a piece of dry bread.
When the Count saw us he came to meet us, and we introduced ourselves to him.
He wondered from which school we came and asked us: "Would you like to walk
with me on a trail through the woods?" Of course we eagerly agreed and
explained our reason for coming: "We want to be Christ's disciples and would
like to hear what you say about following him."
After our conversation Count Tolstoy asked us whether we preferred to go with
him to look for mushrooms or to read the manuscript of his new book,
bozhiye vnutri vas
(The Kingdom of God is Within You). We preferred to see the
manuscript so he climbed through a window into his room, got his copy, gave it
to us, and went to the woods with a basket to gather mushrooms.
In the manuscript Ivan and Fyodor came face to face at once with the reason why
people stop short of walking with Christ.
People do not walk with Christ, Lev Tolstoy explained, because they convince
themselves they are what they ought to be. A greedy man, a great landowner,
"sends some soup and stockings by his wife or children to a few old widows" and
convinces himself he is generous. The man who grows rich from the labour of the
poor convinces himself he is doing it for their good. The church leader whose ego
and control grows more oppressive by the day convinces himself he defends the
truth. The rebel steals and lies convinces himself he does so for the sake of justice.
We have come to where we are because of our disunity. Our disunity comes from
not following the truth that is one, but falsehoods that are many. The only way to
bring us all together is to all come to the truth. The more sincerely we struggle for
the truth the closer we come to inner unity.
But how can we find unity in the truth or even come close to it, if we fear to come
out in the open with the truth we already know--if we say there is no need to do
so, and keep on pretending to regard as truth what we know is false?
If today's hypocrisy will continue, if men do not profess the truth they know, but
continue to feign belief in what they do not believe and venerate what they do not
respect, their condition will remain the same, or even grow worse.
People stop short of following Christ because they fear the unknown. Lev Tolstoy
shared an account from a friend:
A doctor, a psychiatrist, told me how one summer day when he left the asylum
the lunatics accompanied him to the street door. "Come for a walk in town with
me," the doctor suggested to them. The lunatics agreed, and a small band
followed him. But the further they walked down the street where healthy people
moved freely about, the more timid they became, and pressed closer and closer to
him, making it hard for !him to walk. Before long they began to beg the doctor to
take them back to the asylum, to their meaningless but customary way of life, to
their keepers, to blows, strait jackets, and solitary cells.
This is how men of today huddle in terror and draw back to their irrational
manner of life, their factories, law courts, prisons, executions, and wars, when
Christ calls them to liberty, to the free and sensible life of the coming age.
To shrink back from following Christ because we do not know where he will take
us, Lev Tolstoy said, is as logical as an explorer refusing to enter new territory for
lack of a detailed map.
A Cup Already Full
People do not walk with Christ because they think they are already "Christian"
and know all about the Gospel. Lev wrote:
Even in these days when the Gospel has penetrated the darkest corners, Christ's
teaching is not understood in its true, simple, and direct sense. This would be
inexplicable if there were not several causes to account for it.
One of these causes is that believers and unbelievers alike are firmly persuaded
that they have understood Christ's teaching a long time, that they understand it so
completely, beyond doubt, and conclusively that it can have no other significnace
than the one they have given it. They believe this because their false
interpretations and misunderstandings of the Gospel have been around for such a
long time. Even the strongest current of water cannot add a drop to a cup that is
"We all sense the great difference between how things are and how they ought to
be," Lev Tolstoy wrote, "but everything is set up to keep things going the way
they do." Society operates on a great law of inertia. People keep doing what is
wrong even though they know it is wrong, because they all believe change would
bring trouble. That is why ordinary people, when they hear Christ's words, think
not how to obey them but how to get around them.
To portray the "social inertia" he saw, Lev Tolstoy described a group of soldiers
on a train from Moscow to Ryazan.
A nobleman had decided to cut down a patch of woods, but his peasants refused to
help him. Their crops had failed and they were starving. On top of that it was fall
and they depended on this patch of woods for their winter's heating supply. The
nobleman, with high connections in St. Petersburg, had called for troops. Now
they came--and Lev Tolstoy happened to meet their train at the Tula station. He
The train I saw on the 9th of September going with soldiers, guns, cartridges, and
rods, to confirm the rich landowner's possession of the woods he had taken from
the starving peasants (the woods they needed badly and he did not need at all)
was striking proof of how men can do things directly opposed to their principles
and their conscience without perceiving it.
The special train consisted of one first-class car for the governor, the officials,
and officers, and several luggage cars crammed full of soldiers. The latter, smart
young fellows in their clean new uniforms, stood about in groups or sat swinging
their legs in the wide open doorways of the luggage cars. Some were smoking,
nudging each other, joking, grinning, and laughing. Others were munching
sunflower seeds and spitting out the husks with an air of dignity. Some of them
ran along the platform to drink water from a tub, and when they met the officers
they slackened their pace, made their stupid gesture of salutation, raising their
hands to their heads with serious faces as though they were doing something of
the greatest importance. They kept their eyes on them till they had passed, then
set off running still! more merrily, stamping their heels on the platform, laughing
and chattering after the manner of healthy, good-natured young fellows,
travelling in lively company.
They were going to assist at the murder of their fathers or grandfathers just as if
going on a party of pleasure, or at any rate on some quite ordinary business.
At the same time Lev Tolstoy observed the soldiers, he saw their authorities:
The governor sat at a table eating something while he chatted tranquilly about the
weather with some acquaintances he had met, and on all sides officers bustling
noisily about in red uniforms trimmed with gold. One sat finishing his bottle of
beer. Another stood at the buffet eating a cake and brushing the crumbs off his
uniform before he threw his money down with a self-confident air. Another
sauntered before the carriages of our train, staring at the faces of the women.
All these men on their way to murder or to torture the famishing and defenseless
ones who provide them their sustenance had the air of men who knew very well
that they were doing their duty, and some were even proud, they "gloried" in their
How can this be?
All these people are within half an hour of reaching the place where, in order to
provide a wealthy young man with three thousand rubles stolen from a whole
community of famishing peasants, they may be forced to commit the most
horrible acts one can conceive, to murder or torture innocent people, their
brothers. And they see the place and time approaching with untroubled serenity.
How can this be?
I know all these men. If I don't know them personally, I know their characters
pretty nearly, their past, and their way of thinking. They certainly all have
mothers, some of them wives and children. They are certainly for the most part
good, kind, even tender-hearted fellows, who hate every sort of cruelty, not to
speak of murder. Many of them would not kill or hurt an animal. Moreover they
are all professed Christians and regard violence directed against the defenseless
as base and disgraceful.
Lev Tolstoy felt deeply the tragedy of well-meaning people caught in wrong
situations not of their own making. But he also recognised that everyone, finally,
is responsible for what he does:
A man cannot be placed against his will in a situation opposed to his
conscience. . . . If you find yourself in such a position it is not because anyone has
forced you into it, but because you wish it.
For this reason, if what you do disagrees with what you believe and your heart
tells you, you must ask yourself--if you keep on doing it and justifying yourself--
whether you are doing what you ought to do.
Multitudes do not walk with Christ simply because no one has made a start in
doing so. Everyone waits on everyone else and thinking everything must be done
together. About this, Lev wrote:
The idea is promoted that men should not walk on their own legs where they want
and ought to go, but that a kind of floor under their feet will be moved somehow,
so that on it they can reach where they ought to go without using their legs. For
this reason all their efforts ought to be directed, not to going so far as their
strength allows in the direction they ought to go, but to standing still and
constructing such a floor. . . .
Men in their present condition are like a swarm of bees hanging in a cluster from
a branch. The position of bees on the branch is temporary, and must inevitably be
changed. They must start off and find themselves a habitation. Every one of the
bees knows this, and desires to change her own and the others' position, but no
one of them can do it until the rest of them do it. They cannot all start o!ff at
once, because one hangs on to another and hinders her from separating from the
swarm. Therefore they just continue to hang.
It would seem that the bees could never escape from their position, just as it
seems that worldly men, caught in the toils of their wrong conception of life, can
never escape. And there would be no escape for the bees, if every one of them
was not a living, separate creature, endowed with wings of its own. Similarly
there would be no escape for men, if every one of us were not a living being
capable of seeing life like Christ saw it.
If no bee tried to fly, no others would stir themselves, and the swarm would never
move. In the same way if no man tried (without waiting for other people) to live
like Christ told us to live, humanity would never change. But only let one bee
spread her wings, start off, and fly away, and after her another, and another, and
the clinging, inert cluster becomes a freely flying swarm of bees. In the same
way, let one man look at life as Christ taught him to see it, and after him let
another and another do the same, and the spell of wickedness upon them will be
Men seem to think that to set the whole world free like this takes too long and
they must find some other way to set everyone free at once. That is as if the bees
who wanted to fly away would think it took too long to wait for all the swarm to
start one by one, and as if they thought they had to find some way for every bee
to spread her wings at the same time and fly at once to where the whole swarm
wanted to go. But that is not possible. Until a first, a second, a third, a hundredth
bee spreads her wings and flies on its own accord, the swarm will not take off and
find a new life. Till every man makes the teaching of Christ his own and begins to
live in accord with it, there can be no solution of the problem of human life, and
no discovery of a better way.
After discovering the Sermon on the Mount, Lev rejected violence. He came to
see that mob action and coercion lead to violence, and that all three are wicked.
Good people mistreat one another simply because "everyone else does it," he
wrote. No one remembers who started it and no one takes it upon himself to stop
it. "Social wickedness is like a wicker basket, all woven together. One cannot tell
where anything starts or anything ends. We all know it is made of individual reeds
but we cannot tell where they come from nor where they go." Because of this, Lev
concluded, societies as a whole become guilty for the violence and injustice they
tolerate. "Even the bystanders are guilty for not saying anything."
Wickedness, Lev came to see, is tightly bound to submission. Men, too cowardly
to act on what they believe and know, find societies just as cowardly and
irresponsible to submit to. They hope submission will make up for their lack of
At the same time, authorities out to advance themselves at the expense of the
helpless, wickedly appeal to religious sentiment to get what they want.
"Submitting to us," they tell the people, "is submitting to God. If we all work
together (that is, if
you do as we say) everyone will be the better for it." But that is
a lie. Submission itself can be the basest wickedness and sooner or later, someone
must rise to challenge it.
"What drives us to the false conclusion that the existing order is unchanging and
that we must therefore support it," Lev asked, "when it is so obvious that the only
thing making it unchanging is our continual support?" He fervently hoped that
more individuals would soon dare to disobey false authorities to walk with Christ.
"Finally conscience does speak and it must speak. Surely some soldier will be the
first one to drop his gun and say, "I will not shoot!" Referring again to the soldiers
on the way to Ryazan, he wrote:
It is true, they have all passed through that terrible, skilful education, elaborated
through centuries, that kills all initiative in a man. They are so trained to
mechanical obedience that at the word of command: "Fire! All the line! Fire!"
and so on, their guns will rise of themselves and the habitual movements will be
performed. But "Fire!" now does not mean shooting into the sand like in military
school. It means firing on their broken-down, exploited fathers and brothers
whom they see in the crowd, with women and children shouting and waving their
arms. Here they are--one with his scanty beard and patched coat and plaited shoes
of reed, just like the father left at home in Kazan or Tambov province, one with
gray beard and bent back, leaning on a staff like the old grandfather, one a young
fellow in boots and a red shirt, just as he was himself a year ago--he, the soldier
who must fire upon him. There, too, a woman in reed shoes and
(kerchief), like his mother left at home.
Is it possible they must fire on them? No one knows just what each soldier will do
at the last minute. . . .
Christ's Greatest Opponent: The Church
The success of Christian churches, Lev Tolstoy believed, has not been in bringing
Christ to the people. It has been in obscuring Christ:
Strange as it may seem, churches have always been institutions not only alien in
spirit to Christ's teaching, but even directly antagonistic to it. . . . With good
reason have all or almost all so-called sects of Christians recognised the church
as the scarlet woman foretold in the Apocalypse. With good reason is the history
of the church the history of the greatest cruelties and horrors. . . .
Churches are not, as many people suppose, institutions with Christian principles
as their basis that have just strayed somewhat from the correct path. As bodies
asserting their own infallibility they are institutions opposed to Christianity. Such
churches and Christianity not only have nothing in common. They represent two
principles fundamentally opposed and antagonistic to one another. One represents
pride, violence, self-assertion, stagnation and death, the other, meekness,
penitence, humility, progress, and life.
Proud churches that have become Christ's enemies call the friends of Christ
heretics. Lev wrote:
Strange as it may seem to us who have been brought up in the erroneous view of
the Church as a Christian institution, and in contempt for heresy, the fact remains
that only in what was called heresy has any true movement, that is, true
Christianity, existed. And that only as long as those movements did not petrify
into the fixed forms of a church as well.
Heresy is the obverse side of the Church. Wherever there is a church, there must
be the conception of heresy. A church is a body of men who assert that they are in
possession of infallible truth. Heresy is the opinion of the men who do not admit
the infallibility of the church's truth.
Heresy makes its appearance in the church. It is the effort to break through its
petrified authority. All striving after a living understanding of Christ's teaching
has been done by heretics. . . . It could not be otherwise.
Not only do churches call true believers heretics. They promote heresy (the heresy
of division) themselves. Lev wrote:
While believers were agreed among themselves and the body was one, it had no
need to declare itself a church. It was only when believers split into opposing
parties, renouncing one another, that it seemed necessary to each party to confirm
their own truth by ascribing to themselves infallibility. The conception of one
church only arose when there were two sides divided and disputing, who each
called the other side heresy, and recognised their own side only as the infallible
Not only have churches never bound men together. They have always been one of
the principal causes of division between men--of their hatred for one another, of
wars, battles, inquisitions, massacres of St. Bartholomew, and so on. And
certainly, churches have never served as mediators between men and God. Such
mediation is not wanted, and was forbidden by Christ who revealed his teaching
directly to every man.
Not the least of the church's wiles against the Gospel is its maintenance of un-
Christ-like traditions. Lev Tolstoy wrote:
Far from revealing Christ, churches obscure him from the sight of man by setting
up dead forms in his place. . . . To expect to know what Christ taught by looking
at churches who only keep outward forms of Christianity is like expecting a deaf
man to know how music sounds from watching the musicians' movements."
The Church's Greatest Opponent: Christ
The Gospel, if left to itself, will undo the church. Lev wrote:
A man has only to buy a Gospel for three kopeks and read its plain words to be
thoroughly convinced that the church leaders who call themselves teachers in
opposition to Christ's commands, and dispute among themselves, constitute no
kind of authority, and that what the churchmen teach us is not Christianity.
Let the church stop its work of hypnotising the masses and deceiving children,
even for the briefest interval of time, and men would begin to understand Christ's
teaching. But this understanding will be the end of the churches and all their
influence. For this reason they will not for an instant relax their zeal in
hypnotising grown-up people and deceiving children. This is their work: To keep
themselves going (and this they believe their religious duty) the churches
continue to force misconceptions of Christ's teaching on men, and do what they
can to prevent the majority of people from understanding what he said.
The churches cannot but persecute and refuse to recognise all true understanding
of Christ's words. They try to hide this fact, but in vain, for every step forward in
following Christ is a step toward their destruction.
An Incomplete Understanding
"The less men understand what they are talking about," wrote Lev Tolstoy, "the
more confidently and unhesitatingly they pass judgment on it."
Everything we understand from the Bible, he believed, is partial. But only true
followers of Christ will admit that:
The follower of Christ does not claim for himself nor for any other that he
understands Christ's teaching fully and fulfils all of it. Still less does he claim it
for any group of people.
To whatever degree of understanding and perfection the follower of Christ may
have come, he always feels his imperfection and strives toward understanding
and living out the teachings more completely. To claim that one (or the group to
which one belongs) is in possession of the perfect understanding and fulfilment of
Christ's word, is to renounce the spirit of Christ himself.
The easiest way to get around Christ, Lev Tolstoy believed, is to make claims of
antiquity and authority. But much authority (for as ancient and well established as
it may be) is totally false. He illustrated this with the story of a Molokan boy
before a military tribunal:
At a table before the zertzal--the symbol of the Tsar's authority--in the seat of
honour under the life-size portrait of the Tsar, sit dignified old officials, wearing
decorations, conversing freely and easily, writing notes, summoning men before
them, and giving orders. Here, wearing a cross on his breast, near them, is a
prosperous-looking old priest in a silken cassock, with long gray hair flowing
onto his cope, before a lectern adorned with a cross and a Gospel bound in gold.
They summon Ivan Petrov. A young man comes in, wretchedly, shabbily dressed,
and in terror, the muscles of his face working, his eyes bright and restless, and in
a broken voice, hardly above a whisper, he says: "I . . . by Christ's law . . . as a
Christian . . . I cannot."
"What is he muttering? asks the president, frowning impatiently and raising his
eyes from his book to listen.
"Speak louder," the colonel with shining epaulets shouts at him.
"I . . . I as a Christian . . . " And at last it appears that the young man refuses to
serve in the army because he is a Christian.
"Don't talk nonsense. Stand to be measured. Doctor, may I trouble you to
measure him. He is alright?
"Reverend father, administer the oath to him."
No one is the least disturbed by what the poor scared young man is muttering.
They do not even pay attention to it. "They all mutter something, but we've no
time to listen to it. We have to enrol so many."
The recruit tries to say something still: "It's opposed to the law of Christ."
"Go along! Go along! We know without your help what is opposed to the law and
what's not, and you soothe his mind, reverend father, soothe him. Next: Vasily
And they lead the trembling youth away. And it does not strike anyone--the
guards, or Vasily Nikitin whom they are bringing in, or any of the spectators of
this scene, that these inarticulate words of the young man, suppressed at once by
the authorities, contain the truth, and that the loud, solemnly uttered sentences of
the calm, self-confident official and the priest are a lie and a deception.
No matter how cruelly false authorities oppress it, Lev Tolstoy believed that as
long as some people walked with Christ, conviction for truth would survive. He
They may subject the follower of Christ to all manner of external violence. They
may deprive him of bodily freedom. But they cannot force him, by any danger or
threat of harm, to perform an act against his conscience.
They cannot compel him to do this, because the deprivations and sufferings
which form such a powerful weapon against other men have not the least power
to compel him.
Deprivations and sufferings take from other men the happiness for which they
live. But far from disturbing the happiness of the follower of Christ, they only
make him more conscious of doing God's will. . . . Therefore the Christian, who
is subject only to inner divine law, not only refuses to obey external laws when
they disagree with the divine law of love (as is usually the case with state
obligations), he cannot even recognise the duty of obedience to anyone or
anything whatever. He cannot recognise the duty of what others call "allegiance."
For the follower of Christ the oath of allegiance to any government whatever--the
act on which men build political states--is to renounce Christ. Everyone
renounces Christ who promises unconditional, ongoing, obedience to human
laws, made or to be made. The follower of Christ, in contrast, commits himself
only to obeying in every circumstance the divine law of love within him.
The follower of Christ not only stops short of promising allegiance to any other
man (because he does not know what that allegiance will require of him), he
cannot promise to do anything definite at a certain time, or to abstain from doing
anything for a certain time. He never knows in advance what Christ's law of love
may suddenly require of him. To obey that high law is the purpose of his being!
alive. If he would make any other unconditional commitment to the laws of men
he would plainly show that the law in his heart is not the only one in his life.
For a follower of Christ to promise obedience to men, or the laws of men, is just
as though a workman bound to one employer would promise to carry out the
orders of others. One cannot serve two masters.
The follower of Christ is independent of human authority, because he
acknowledges God's authority alone. His law, revealed by Christ, he recognises
in himself, and voluntarily obeys it.
Patriotism, Lev Tolstoy believed, is a terrible farce. It moves men to loyalty to
something that does not exist. He wrote:
In countries that have a state religion, they teach children the senseless
blasphemies of church catechisms, together with the duty to obey their superiors.
In republican states they teach them the savage superstition of patriotism and the
same pretended obedience to governing authorities.
Even if we must suffer, it is better to get sent into exile or prison for the cause of
common sense and right than to suffer for defending such foolishness and wrong.
It is better to run the risk of banishment, prison, or execution, than to choose to
live in bondage to the wicked. It is better to suffer for right than to be destroyed
by victorious enemies, and stupidly tortured and killed by them in fighting for a
cannon, a piece of land of no use to anyone, or for a senseless rag called a banner.
Signs of Spring
Lev Tolstoy's fascination with coming to life from death (as portrayed in his book
, "Resurrection) involved far more than what most Russians thought.
There are times when a higher truth, revealed at first to a few persons, gradually
gains ground until it has taken hold of such a number of persons that the old
public opinion, founded on a lesser order of truth, begins to totter and the new is
ready to take its place, but has not yet been firmly established. It is like the
spring, this time of transition, when the old order of ideas has not quite broken
up !and the new has not quite gained a footing. Men begin to criticize their
actions in the light of the new truth, but in the meantime they continue to follow,
through inertia and tradition, what once represented the highest point of their
These men are in an abnormal, wavering condition, feeling the necessity of
following the new ideal, yet not bold enough to break with the old established
Such is the attitude in regard to truth, Lev Tolstoy believed, of most who profess
to believe in Christ. But he felt certain that great changes, either for better or
worse, would soon come:
No one can stand still when the earth is shaking under his feet. If we do not go
forward we must go back. And strange and terrible to say, the cultivated men of
our time, the leaders of thought, are in reality drawing society back with their
subtle reasonings--not back to paganism even, but to a state of primitive
Most people simply have not dared to follow Christ. "Everyone waits on everyone
else," Lev Tolstoy wrote, "but let us accept the truth that surrounds us on every
side and forces itself upon us. Let us stop lying and pretending that we do not see
this truth and we would find at once that hundreds, thousands, millions of men are
in the same position as we--that they see the truth we do, and dread as we do to
stand alone in recognising it. Like us they are only waiting for others to recognise
Only let men cease to be hypocrites and we would see at once that what holds us
in bondage, and is represented to us as something stable, necessary, and ordained
of God, is already tottering and is only propped up by the falsehood of hypocrisy
with which we, and others like us, support it."
We fear to let go of what we have because we do not know what we will get. We
fear to walk with Christ because we do not know where he will take us. But
regarding fear, Lev Tolstoy wrote:
If Columbus had thought like this he would never have weighed anchor. It was
madness to set out to sea, not knowing the route, on an ocean no one had sailed,
to reach a land whose existance was doubtful. But by this madness he discovered
a new world."
The Seed Was The Word
After several hours spent at Yasnaya Polyana, Ivan and Fyodor felt like their
heads were spinning. Lev Tolstoy returned with the mushrooms he had picked and
they ate together before the boys set out, in evening sunlight streaming through the
poplar trees, for Tula. They questioned some of what they had heard and read, but
After our conversation with Lev Tolstoy I became more firmly convinced that the
salvation of the world is in the simple teaching of Christ--not in parts of his
teaching but in his teaching as a whole. I became convinced that salvation is not
in the highest and most clever interpretation of what Christ said, but in his
teachings themselves. I became convinced that the wonderful content of the
Gospel will be understood not by philosophers but as it is revealed to humble
childlike hearts by the Holy Spirit--and it struck me as never before that the
teachings of Christ cannot be separated from the example of his life as a man.
Thanks to the teaching of Christ as it came through Lev Tolstoy, Russia's
"underground" church became stronger than ever. Communities took shape in outof-
the-way places. Untold numbers began to eat and dress simply, and to work in
harmony with God's creation. The Spirit Christians in particular (both Molokans
and Dukhobors), took seriously his call to walk in the way of peace. With Christ,
and those among them who got baptised in his name (the Evangelical Christians),
they dared withstand every false authority--of church, government, or society--to
claim the promise of . . .
This name means "lit up clearing in the woods."
Sofya also got legal rights to all the books he had written and began ambitious
publishing projects, using the money to maintain a lifestyle Lev no longer supported.
Quoted by Lev Tolstoy in The Kingdom of God is Within You
All citations in this chapter from The Kingdom of God is Within You
He used the term "the church" in its Russian-Byzantine sense of referring to the official
national religion. Old Believers, Spirit Christians, and other "sects" were not considered
part of "the church."
A world without politics, without international boundaries, without violence,
without poverty. Why not?
Cannot all men see how unnecessary these things are? Cannot all men see how
greed is the reason they exist, and how much better we could live if no man
claimed anything as his own?
The questions Lev Tolstoy planted in Russia caused serious people everywhere to
ask serious questions. One of them was a young military officer named Pyotr.
A son of Prince Aleksey Kropotkin, Pyotr had served as a page in the tsar's court
at St. Petersburg before he began service in Siberia. There he had much time to
think and observe. Everywhere he saw misery, cruelty, and injustice. He saw how
the Russian church and government oppressed the poor. Then he saw the lives of
exiled Christians and became fascinated with them-the Bespopovtsy (priestless
Old Believers) in particular. "Who needs priests?" he began to ask himself. "Or
for that matter, anyone to tell him what to do or believe? Anyone to stand between
him and God, or between him and his conscience?"
The longer Pyotr thought about human beings, all on one level before God, the
more the lifting up of any kind of authority seemed wrong. Even God, when he
walked among men as Jesus Christ, did not lift himself up above the rest.
In his careful way, Pyotr began to research society as far back as one can go.
Everywhere he saw that Charles Darwin's "survival of the fittest" theory was a lie.
Societies (and consequently life, both animal and human) have only survived
where co-operation, not individual advancement, was a priority. Pyotr made notes
on the Russian communities he came across, not only of the nonconformists, but
of the ordinary peasant villages, of primitive tribes, and of communal societies
among nomads. "Cooperation, not conflict, must become our goal," he wrote. And
after a trip to Switzerland where he visited a watch-makers' commune in the Jura
Mountains, he concluded, "Our hope lies not in correct nor powerful government.
All forms of government and coercion are evil.
Our hope lies in decentralized,
nonpolitical, cooperative societies after the example of Christ and his disciples
where everyone may develop his creative faculties without the interference of
rulers, priests, or soldiers."
"Scientific anarchy," he named his understanding of the Gospel and promptly
landed in jail.
For two years, tsarist officials kept Pyotr Kropotkin in strictest confinement. Then,
in a daring plot his friends and secret supporters in high places helped him escape.
In exile he wrote
Words of a Rebel, Mutual Aid (his masterpiece), and Conquest of
Shared Lives at Vertograd
Just out of college, Ivan Prokhanov faced the same questions as Pyotr Kropotkin.
He drew similar conclusions and for a short time the Lord allowed him to put
them in practice.
A wealthy woman, the widow of the poet and social reformer Nikolai
Alekseyevich Nekrasov, and two of her nieces joined the St. Petersburg
fellowship. For years she had been a friend of Lev Tolstoy,
and with Fyodor
Sakharov and others, she shared Ivan's enthusiasm for living like the Christians
described in Acts two and four. Then a door opened.
Through his Mennonite friends in St. Petersburg Ivan learned of a tract of land for
sale at Vertograd in the Crimea.
After serious discussion and prayer the
Nekrasovs, Fyodor with his new wife, and Ivan settled there. Ivan wrote:
We let the account of the early Christians guide us and tried to live according to
the example of the Apostles: "No one said that any of the things he possessed was
his own, but they had all things in common." At Vertograd all we had belonged to
everyone. Our spirits strangely rose as this knowledge-even as persons we
belonged to others-grew upon us. In a sense we lost our "selves," our freedom,
and individuality. But as we did this in accordance with the early Christians'
example and with Jesus' teaching on self denial (Matt. 16:24) great joy filled our
hearts and we were in the brightest spiritual state imaginable, all the time.
From the beginning, a stream of visitors converged upon the Vertograd
community. Some stayed and much work got accomplished between daily
meetings for worship and prayer. But renewed persecution, and Ivan's return to
the Caucasus after his father got arrested, forced everyone to leave. Under threat
of arrest, Ivan himself left Russia secretly, through Finland, in the winter of 1895.
A Weed Flowing Upstream
While Ivan traveled west, Lev Tolstoy, taking a break from his writing projects at
Yasnaya Polyana, traveled north. There, in Russian prison camps, he saw with his
own eyes what he had heard of torture, starvation, and forced labour under
inhuman conditions. For hardened criminals this would have been bad enough.
But to Lev's consternation, he found many of the prisoners humble, innocent
people-like Maksim Gavrilovich Rudometkin of the Molokan Pryguny, who had
survived nine years in the dungeon at Solovets on the White Sea.
Lev and Maksim talked to one another. They discovered their common beliefs
about voluntary poverty and nonviolence. For the first time in years Maksim could
talk freely with someone who understood him and when the time came for the two
men to part it was hard. But good news came soon. Through Lev's influence
Maksim got transferred to a somewhat better prison at Suzdal, in Central Russia.
In the north, Lev Tolstoy also met a Dukhobor leader in exile: Pyotr Vasilyevich
Verigin, of an old Spirit Christian family from the Molochna River. A man over
six feet tall with black hair and a full beard, Pyotr impressed Lev Tolstoy with his
sincerity and common sense. "We are like the
plakun trava," Pyotr told him. "No
matter what they do to us we will keep on going the direction we have chosen. We
will follow Christ."
Lev Tolstoy knew at once what Pyotr meant. The Russians had a legend about the
plakun trava, a weed that floats against the current, upstream. "You are right," he
answered. "And if you keep on doing so, more will follow until the world turns
around and goes the other way."
In his places of exile in Shenkursk and Kola, Pyotr Vasilyevich, not only read Lev
Tolstoy's books with interest, particularly
The Kingdom of God is Within You. He
wrote instructive letters to his family and fellow believers in Armenia. He
encouraged them in brotherly community, urging them to overcome the last
remnants of selfish ambition, and to stop hiring non-members to work for them.
"Whatever those labourers produce, they deserve to take home with them," he
said. "If you make a profit on their labour the accusation of James 5:4 stands
against you. If you do not make a profit on their labour, why hire them at all?"
Pyotr also wrote about self denial and abstaining from foods:
All creatures get their life from the same power that gives life to man. Why
should they not have the same right to live? To destroy those creatures for the
sake of gluttony is reprehensible. . . . Drinking alcoholic beverages and smoking
tobacco is not only unnatural for a Christian, but is also unnatural for any
man. . . . In the Gospel it is said: "Do not live oneself up to drinking wine because
it leads to dissolution." And about smoking tobacco and the harm it does, I have
no need to explain. It is one of the lowest levels to which a man can fall.
But by far the most of Pyotr Vasilyevich's instructions had to do with alternative
military service. During Aleksandr III's rule the Mennonites and Spirit Christians
who remained in Russia gradually agreed (against their true desire) to do Red
Cross or forestry duty instead of going to war. They might not have disliked it as
much had their boys not been forced to wear uniforms and carry guns, even
though it was said they did not have to use them.
Pyotr Vasilyevich wrote:
In his teaching, Christ condemned and destroyed the basis for military duty. That
is how I understand the life and teaching of Christ. And I believe that we as
Christians should refuse military service altogether. I find it my responsibility to
tell you that you should refuse to serve as soldiers and take no part in any military
actions, even if it they are non-combatant. Whatever weapons you have acquired
while drifting away from Christ's teaching-rifles, revolvers, swords, daggers-
should be gathered in one place and, as a sign of non-resistance to evil by evil
means, and to obey the commandment "You shall not kill" they should be
destroyed by burning.
The Spirit Christians in the Caucasus took Pyotr's counsel seriously-and suffered
On April 2, 1895, on a Day of Resurrection, a young believer in noncombatant
service, Matvey Lebedov, refused to parade as commanded. Ten boys serving with
him, immediately dropped their guns and followed his example. Their officer was
furious. "We will show you who is in charge," he screamed at them. "Go fetch the
The rosgi, bundles of prickly acacia rods appeared at once, and the soldiers laid
Matvey face down on the ground without his shirt. Working in rhythm, one man
on either side, they flogged him fifty times, until bits of flesh flew with the blood.
Then they threw him into an unheated cell for the night.
The next boy, Mikhail Sherbinin, they flogged the same way, but like Matvey he
showed no sign of weakening. The officer, rapidly losing face, grew desperate.
"Flog him on the other side, the brute!" he shouted. The soldiers turned him face
up and gave him another fifty lashes. But Mikhail would not give up. The officer,
in blind rage, threw him against a nearby gymnasium horse, breaking his ribs.
Then they hurled him into a cell where he got a high fever and died.
The other boys suffered likewise, but the Spirit Christian communities sensed
more clearly than ever the challenge to let the light of Christ shine above the
darkness of war and violence. On June 28, 1895 believers gathered from every
direction to a high place above the village of Orlovka in the Caucasus. It was the
time of the yearly love feast but everyone sensed that this gathering would be
unusual. From all the villages men and boys brought the guns and other weapons
they had acquired. On top of the hill they piled them up and covered them with
twenty wagon loads of wood and coal, soaked in five hundred litres of kerosene.
At the stroke of midnight, with more than two thousand believers standing in a
circle around the "mountain of arms" they threw a burning torch onto the pile and
a great flame roared up amid the sound of victory songs and joyful prayers to
The fire, strategically placed, lit the summer night, and could be seen from many
hours' travel in every direction.
The Spirit Christians had made their point and retribution was immediate.
Persecuted But Not Forsaken
After the burning of arms at Orlovka (and shortly afterward at two other locations)
tsarist troops arrested five thousand Spirit Christians. On horseback, Cossack
soldiers swept into their villages, rounded them up, and drove them into exile.
The Spirit Christians sang as they left all their earthly possessions behind:
For your sake, Lord, we enter the narrow gate.
We leave our worldly lives, our fathers and our mothers.
We leave our brothers and sisters, our people and tribes.
We bear hardness and persecution, scorn and slander.
We are hungry and thirsty. We walk with nothing,
For your sake Lord.
The Cossacks tried to drown out the Spirit Christians' singing with obscene songs
of their own. Wherever they could they captured more and mistreated them. One
of their many victims who described to Lev Tolstoy's investigators what
happened, Aksenya Strelayeva, said:
Four of us women were walking from Spaskoye to Bogdanovka when a hundred
Cossacks overtook us. They brought us to the village and led us one by one into
the yard of the coach house. There they stripped us (throwing our skirts over our
shoulders) and flogged our bare bodies. In the yard stood some Cossacks and
many other people. They flogged us so, you could not count the strokes. Two of
them held us and four flogged. Three of us stood through it but one they dragged
about so that she could not stand. We received many insults.
An old woman, Anna Posnyakov said:
The soldiers came to us during the day-twenty of them. They called my son
Vasya, twenty-four years old, into the yard . . . and brought a whip. After they
had flogged him three times they raised him up and when they saw he was still
breathing they flogged him more. When they stopped he was barely alive. His
whole body was jerking. Then they flung him into the coach house.
At midnight they came to arrest my other son. We said, "We are all the same.
Arrest us all! We will not let him alone." Two of the women in our house had
little children whom they took up in their arms. . . . The soldiers almost strangled
the children by trying to tear us from them. Then they dragged my son and us
along with him. . . . They also flogged Vasya Kolesnikov until his boots filled
Even unconverted Russians looked on in dismay. A military officer stationed in
the Caucasus wrote on March 7, 1897:
Having heard that some Dukhobors were being transferred from the Elisavetpol
prison to that of Nukhin, I went out to meet them at the military post. I shall never
forget how they looked. Along the high road, muddy with the melting snow,
moved a crowd of well-grown healthy men in sturdy clothes. They slung their
sacks and coats in soldier-fashion over their shoulders. Their faces were calm and
good-tempered, their movements measured, and their conversation peaceful.
Surrounded by an escort of soldiers with rifles, there were thirty-six of them, for
the most part middle-aged men, though some were quite old and grey, and others
young beardless boys. The expanse of steppe and fields which for a long time
they had not set eyes on, the bright sunshine, the open air, and the sight of other
men and of free life evidently had a cheering effect on the captives. The stifling
city prison was forgotten for the moment and each was glad merely to breathe
fully and freely, to stretch his cramped limbs, to enjoy the new scene, with the
walls of the prison court no longer around him.
It was just this that went through my heart as I looked at them. . . . Other
bystanders also stared at the captives in astonishment and consternation, for
everyone in that part of Russia knows the Dukhobors well. "Why are they taking
these people to prison?" they asked one another. "What have they done? What is
their crime? . . . I took leave of them and returned home pensive and sorrowful.
All told, tsarist authorites banished four hundred families to swampy lowlands
along the Black Sea, or to Yakutsk in Siberia, seven thousand kilometres away.
Under torture and brutal mistreatment, many of them perished within a year. But
they did not lose faith and the Lord Christ in whom they trusted did not forsake
them. Through the efforts of Pyotr Kropotkin (who had visited Russian
Mennonites in Canada) Vladimir Chertkov, and English Quakers, more than seven
thousand five hundred Spirit Christians got permission to leave Russia and made
their way through British Cyprus to Canada. Lev Tolstoy paid for their way with
the sale to the rights of his newest book,
Resurrection, printed in England.
Cast Down But Not Destroyed
Tsar Nikolai II (married to Queen Victoria's granddaughter) censured
and made it illegal to distribute it in Russia. The Orthodox church
excommunicated Lev Tolstoy for his criticism of "God-ordained authority." But
Lev remained serene. He had "left the church" at his conversion years before, not
bothering to discuss it with church officials because he neither saw them as
"officials" nor what they represented as "the church." He wrote: "I believe in God
whom I understand as Spirit, as Love, as the Source of all. I believe He is in me
and I in Him."
At the same time, as repression grew worse, the numbers of believers
mushroomed. Ten years after the burning of arms in the Caucasus nearly a million
Spirit Christians lived in that region alone. In secret they circulated the
Spirit and Life
written by Maksim Gavrilovich Rudometkin (presumed to have
died in jail at Suzdal) and other Pryguny leaders. Like Pyotr Vasilyevich's
writings, it encouraged believers to free themselves from violence, even senseless
violence against animals, and called them to live in brotherly community.
Along with a rapidly growing number of Spirit Christians and disciples of Lev
Tolstoy, the Stundists flourished "underground." Particularly true was this of
southern Russia (the Ukraine), where Adolf Abramovich Reimer grew up in a
village along the Molochna River.
Adolf and his family belonged to the Mennonite
Brüdergemeinde. His mother was
a daughter of Martin Kalweit, the converted Lutheran who brought believers'
baptism to the Molokans in the Caucasus. And like the children of many other
believers, Adolf grew up knowing poverty and persecution. People still made fun
of Stundists and all the more so if they were poor enough to collect match boxes
along the street, like he did, to turn in at the store for one kopek.
Adolf did not worry. As a child he had learned to love the Kingdom of Heaven.
By the time he was fifteen the elders had baptised him and he preached regularly
in a Ukrainian village not far from Halbstadt, where he lived. Then he taught
school in the village of Tiege and married Sara Goosen.
Soon after their wedding Adolf held his first baptism. Four Ukrainian boys and a
girl had turned to Christ. To evade the police, they hurried to a creek behind Tiege
in the middle of the night. They celebrated communion with bread and wine and
before five in the morning everyone hurried home.
Through such activities the "underground" church kept on spreading, with no
central organization and in political unrest and fear, throughout Russia. Not the
least among what hastened its spread was the Trans-Siberian Railroad, opened
between Chelyabinsk and Vladivostok (9,288 kilometres) in 1905.
A foreign critic laughed at the railroad, "rusty streaks of iron through the vastness
of nothing to the extremities of nowhere." But to Russian believers it opened the
way to far more communication than had ever been possible. Large numbers of
Siberian Old Believers became baptised. Molokans from the Caucasus found their
way east along the railroad, to the Amur River. Mennonites from Khortitsa and
Molochna also settled along the railroad in remote farming colonies, and some of
them thought of a unique way to bring the Scriptures to the people.
Russian law could not censure the Bible. Neither could it class an honest sale
"propaganda." So in all mills along the Trans-Siberian railroad owned by
Mennonite Stundists or people friendly toward them, they placed Russian New
Testaments to sell for ten kopeks. It was impossible to keep the racks full.
Travelling messengers, like Jakob Kroeker (whom his parents dedicated to the
work of Christ after he ran into the blade of a scythe on their south Russian farm),
Pavel Pavlov (Vasily Pavlov's only surviving son), Martin Thielman, Mikhail
Timoshenko and others, travelled thousands of kilometres every year. Wherever
they went, more came to Christ and received baptism for remission of sins.
Back in St. Petersburg Ivan Prokhanov (now with a wife and two children) still
found time to write hymns. Along with other hymns he adapted from
"underground" sources he published them in a small book he called
Harps). Along with this he and the St. Petersburg believers kept publishing
, the newsletter that eventually became Khristianin (The Christian) under a
clearly stated purpose: "We will publish nothing but Christ. . . .
Khristianin is to
be a call to Russia's millions to come directly to Christ, the only mediator between
men and God. It is a call to break down walls between men by bringing them to
God's community in Christ." Heinrich Braun, Ivan's friend from college got
involved and before long, the owners of a print shop at Halbstadt on the
The Molochna printers, putting out a German paper called
of Peace) had become interested in doing work in Russian. Ivan saw an open door
and the St. Petersburg believers met with those from Halbstadt to establish a
Christian publishing company. More books and papers appeared at once.
When the question of a name for the new publishing work came up, Ivan looked
about the group-baptised Molokans, Mennonites, and Russians of widely varied
backgrounds but one belief in Christ-and said, "Let us call it
Rainbow)." Everyone understood, and in the light of unity in Christ, the Russian
believers went out to meet . . .
Pyotr Kropotkin, believing prisons to be "nothing but schools of crime" advocated
correction, not by force but the power of persuasion and example. He believed children
should learn not so much from books as by observing and doing, especially outdoors.
Lev Tolstoy published his first works in Nikolai Nekrasov's paper.
A Mennonite group, influenced by the "Temple Movement," had decided to emigrate
to Palestine and put their property up for sale.
Hans Brandenburg, in his book The Meek and The Mighty wrote: "Ivan Prokhanov . . .
wanted to show Russian intellectuals who were influenced by socialist thought, by means
of an example, that a voluntary communism based on the gospel was not impossible. This
is reminiscent of the
Bruderhöfe that came into being in Germany and later abroad
through Dr. Eberhard Arnold."
His escape involved ten weeks of hiding in a secret room in a Helsinki castle, waiting
for the harbour ice to break. He spent his time writing and composing tunes.
Cited in an anonymous tract, About Verigin's Tomb, Grand Forks, British Colombia.
This was a slight adjustment of his decision--made at the time of his conversion--not to
receive any more royalties or payment for what he wrote.
Under constant persecution, some Molokan families began to escape Russia on foot,
through Turkey and Iran, to Panama, Mexico, and the United States. They carried
Maksim Gavrilovich's original writings with them, baked into a loaf of bread, and
founded the first
obshina (Molokan community farm) in the United States. After publicly
burning a gun in downtown Phoenix and suffering much for their nonresistant stand
during World War I, the Molokans became recognized there as a "Historic Peace
Church." They have kept their simple Russian-language worship services and their plain
clothes--the rubashka, the kosinka (head covering for women), etc--for meetings, and
keep to some degree their traditions about food. But they have declined in numbers. In
recent years there has been a revival of the Molokan movement in the Molochna River
area of the Ukraine.
The Lion and The Bear
On November 20, 1910, Lev Tolstoy died as he would have liked-a Russian
believer "on the road."
Conflict between his and Sofya's ways of life had grown until he quietly left the
house before daybreak, on a cold morning in the fall. His daughter Aleksandra and
one disciple (a doctor) left with him. He put a note of apology on the table and
wished Sofya well.
That Lev Tolstoy had become one of the world's most famous men no one any
longer denied. Messages of support, after his excommunication, had poured in
from every country to where his books in French, English, German-all major
European and even African and Oriental languages had gone. Thomas Edison had
sent him a phonograph to record him reading
I Cannot be Silent! Literally millions
of books and tracts either quoted him or consisted entirely of what he wrote.
Russia censors saw to it that most of his later writings did not get circulated,
except in the "underground," but a journalist commented: "We have two tsars,
Nikolai II and Lev Tolstoy. The difference is that Nikolai cannot do a thing with
Tolstoy and Tolstoy is all the time shaking Nikolai's throne."
All over the world, lives were being changed.
But Lev Tolstoy felt his work was
done and all he longed for was "the desert," a place where he could be quiet and
disappear. With this, he longed to return to his Christian roots and talk with a
starets: the old celibate, Yosef, at Optina. But he did not get there.
On the train from Tula to Ryazan where he had watched the soldiers years before,
Lev turned sick. The doctor said he had lung infection (pneumonia) and advised
him to get off at the Astapovo station. A railroad official gave him a bed where he
died a week later.
A New Age
By the time Lev Tolstoy died, the evangelical movement in Russia (Stundists,
baptised Molokans, Christians according to the Gospel) had grown very large,
both "above" and "underground." Yet as it grew, it became apparent that not all of
it was evangelical nor directed by the Spirit of Christ.
Aleksey Shchetinin, the son of a Caucasian peasant became converted in the early
years of Tsar Nikolai II's rule. He met with believers in the Caucasus and tried,
for several years, to live what he believed was a pure moral life. But like
Kondratiy Selivanov of the Belye Golubi he found the struggle with his passions
overwhelming and began to look for a way out.
He found it, not in castration, but in "holy passionlessness." Only when a man is
incapable of sinning morally, Aleksey came to believe, does the white dove of the
Holy Spirit alight on him. And it stays with a man, only until his capacity returns.
The immersion of baptism is not in water, Aleksey concluded. Nor is it a once-ina-
lifetime experience. Baptism is immersion in sin, and takes place over and over.
Every time a person "goes under" in sin, and recognises it, God's grace saves him.
A group of followers gathered around him and spread quickly through Russia.
They called themselves the
Novyi Vek (people of the New Age) and by 1910
Aleksey lived in St. Petersburg to direct the movement there.
The Novyi Vek lived for a day or more in unlimited debauchery. Then, for as long
as they could, they lived "in the Spirit," praying, worshipping God, fasting, and
helping the poor. They trusted in their own visions and prophecies and professed
the gift of healing. One of them, a man from Siberia named Grigory Yefimovich,
became especially known for his healing powers.
Grigory had gotten converted at eighteen. A year later he married and lived with
his wife until they had four children. But his search for the truth and his struggle
with himself did not end. For some time he felt total continency was the only way
for him to please God. He travelled to Mount Athos in Greece and to Jerusalem.
But it did not work. Then, on his return to Russia he met the Novyi Vek.
Recognised by now as a starets (even though he was not old) Grigory became the
friend of an Orthodox bishop in St. Petersburg and through him got a call to a
place he never expected to see: the bedroom of Tsar Nikolai's only son.
Trouble for Everyone
The tsarevich, a six-year-old named Aleksey, was a special child. The first son
born to a reigning tsar since the 1600s, he had haemophilia. When he started to
bleed, nothing it seemed would stop it, and his mother-a lonely woman, not well
liked at court but passionately fond of him-would turn hysterical. Tsar Nikolai,
in tears himself, now consented during a bad bleeding spell to call for Grigory. He
came and stopped the bleeding.
The relief of the royal family knew no bounds. Was this the cure to Aleksey's
problem? The hope of the Romanov dynasty? Grigory Yefimovich assured them
that it was, and that the child's life depended on him. But relatives of the royal
family, and all St. Petersburg society looked on with horror.
"The man is evil!" they whispered among themselves. "He is a sot, too filthy for
words to describe!"
Rasputin, "the debauched one," they began to call him. But
Nikolai and his wife would not hear of it. Discontentment led to rebellion, and
when war broke out with Germany in 1914, the situation grew serious.
Grigory "Rasputin" did not like the St. Petersburg believers and the more his
influence grew the more complicated their situation became. In 1913 they were
able to begin a full term Bible School with Ivan Prokhanov and Adolf Reimer as
teachers. Nineteen students enrolled: Latvians, Mennonites, Georgians, Ossetians,
Ukrainians, and one Byelorussian. But its days were numbered.
After Tsar Nikolai left for the front and put his wife, with Rasputin as her closest
advisor, in charge of Russia tougher laws against refusal to bear arms sent
believers to Siberia, to jail, or to the firing squad.
Khristianin and all other Raduga
projects got shut down. When Adolf Reimer's wife Sara wrote a letter to her
mother on the Molochna, describing the disorder in Petrograd (St. Petersburg's
new name since the beginning of the war) and expressed her joyful hope for the
prompt coming of the
großer König (Great King) Rasputin's men intercepted it.
They took what she wrote as a reference to Kaiser Wilhelm and threw the Reimers
into jail. Ivan Prokhanov also faced a court hearing, but a new development kept it
Prince Feliks Yusupov, the young husband of Tsar Nikolai's niece, and a number
of his friends believed the time had come to save Russia. On the evening of
December 16, 1916 they invited Rasputin to Prince Feliks's home for a friendly
visit. They served him poisoned tea cakes and wine. But Rasputin did not die.
Only the glitter in his eyes told that he knew what they had done. Frightened,
Prince Feliks drew his revolver and shot him. Instead of dying, Rasputin lunged
for the prince with a terrible cry and chased him outside. On the courtyard other
conspirators shot Rasputin, but the bullets seemed to have no effect. In desperation
the men fell on him, tied him up and pushed him through a hole in the ice on the
Aleksandra, fearing the worst for the tsarevich, went wild with grief. But her own
days were numbered.
For two months following Rasputin's murder, the people of Petrograd lived in fear
and hunger, until on March 8, 1917, thousands poured into the streets crying,
"Bread! We want bread!" Tsarist officials ordered troops to fire on the people, but
they refused to obey and Petrograd fell into the hands of Bolshevik
revolutionaries. Tsar Nikolai abdicated his throne and the Bolshevik (later
) leader, Lenin, took charge.
soviets--communal organizations somewhat patterned after Pyotr
Kropotkin's ideals--took over factories, schools, and stores. But they did so in a
violent godless way, and all of Russia's problems continued or got worse. The
hungry wanted food. The poor wanted jobs, and peasants shouting "peace, land,
and bread" (the Bolshevik slogan) went wild. Terrible looting and murders took
place in Russian cities day and night.
With Tsar Nikolai's fall, Orthodoxy as a state religion ended and Russians, for the
first time in their history, rejoiced in complete religious freedom.
Petersburg, believers rented the Ternichevsky Hall, with seating room for a
thousand. But it could not nearly hold the multitudes who came. After a few
weeks Ivan Prokhanov led a crowd, singing, from there to the Chineselli Circus
where he spoke to three thousand people.
Even that did not suffice and they
began to meet at the Marine Horse Drill hall in the city. It held ten thousand
Those who believed, like Lev Tolstoy, in the reality of the Kingdom of Christ also
rejoiced in Russia's "new day." Since 1909 a two-story building on Newspaper
Lane in Moscow had served as their meeting place. It housed a vegetarian
restaurant, a library, a large meeting room, and a publishing house. After the
Revolution every one of its rooms buzzed with activity. Lev Tolstoy's writings,
censured for years, now appeared in cheap Russian editions. Everywhere young
people helped to collate, staple, and pack them. Shipped to all provinces of Russia,
with the periodicals
Renewal of Life and True Freedom, their influence changed
thousands of lives.
Immediately following the Revolution "Societies of True Freedom" (groups of
seekers committed to living like Christ) sprang up in Kiev, Tsaritsyn, Vitebsk,
Vladimir, and other places throughout Russia. Those who belonged to them did
not worry about particulars of Christian theology. They had no time for issues of
"orthodoxy" or sectarian disputes. Only conscious of their inner call to walk with
Christ and with one another they sought to bring all Russians back to living in
peace with creation and Christ in simple community. When fighting broke out
again in October, 1917, members of these "Tolstoyan" societies risked their lives
to rush out among the soldiers of both sides with the tract,
Brothers, Stop Killing
Conviction on Trial
Evangelical Christians, Molokans, Mennonites, and Tolstovets all hoped for a
speedy end to the revolution and the opportunity to live in peace. They all
wondered: Would the Bolsheviks be more kindly disposed to Christ's defenseless
example? Lenin, it was said, spoke well of Lev Tolstoy.
They got their answer promptly. Five young believers fell before Bolshevik firing
squads for refusing military service. In another case, three who said they could not
fight were ordered to dig their graves. The Bolsheviks then took them out
individually. They stood the first boy to the wall. "This is your last chance," they
said. "Change your mind now or we will shoot."
The boy calmly told them, "Go ahead. I will die but I will not kill."
The Bolsheviks told him. "Alright, if you are that convinced you may fill up your
grave and go free." Then they brought the second boy.
"Look," they told him. "Here we buried your companion. Shall we bury you too?
Now is your chance to decide."
With the calmness of the first he also stood for what he believed. They told him to
fill up his grave and go. Then the third one came. When he saw the mounds of
earth above what he supposed were the dead bodies of his companions he began to
waver. "Perhaps I will serve in the army," he told the officials.
"Then you are a hypocrite," they shouted at him. "You believe what you do only
as long as it suits. We have no use for the likes of you!" They shot the third boy
and filled his grave themselves.
For some time Lev Tolstoy's best known disciples (Vladimir Chertkov, Ivan
Gorbunov-Posadov, and others) could influence the Bolshevik government to
make it easier for believers to get conscientious objector status. But by 1920
around one hundred Christian boys had fallen to the firing squad for not bearing
arms, and the true nature of Russia's new government had become apparent.
A Trip in War
From their home near the Ministry of the Interior in Petrograd, Ivan and Anna
Prokhanov heard shooting nearly every night (usually from between one and two
in the morning) as revolutionary tribunals executed people in groups of a hundred
or more. Within its first year, Russia's Communist government officially executed
one million eight hundred thousand people, including the tsar and his family.
Then, under threat of death himself, Ivan decided to send his wife and sons,
Yaroslav and Vsevolod, to the south.
They left on the train for Moscow and Kharkov on May 13, 1919. Yaroslav was
seventeen and Vsevolod fifteen. From Kharkov they took another train to
Aleksandrovsk (Zaporozhye) and the Molochna River colonies.
Everything had changed. Heavy shelling during World War I had destroyed
factories and farms. Fields stood empty in the spring with no grain to plant nor
horses to plow them-nor young men left to work. In the cities old people and
children in rags sat among emaciated corpses, calling for bread. Worse yet, by the
time the Prokhanovs reached Alexandertal on the Molochna colony (where the
Adolf and Sara Reimer lived) the whole region was in the throes of civil war.
From the south White (tsarist) troops fought the Red (communist) army, and
bands of anarchists attacked wherever they could. The Molochna villages, in a
terrible state of destruction and famine, teemed with soldiers. Adolf and Sara
Reimer welcomed the Prokhanovs but they had never seen Adolf so busy, or so
earnest about his calling. "The time is ripe," he told them. "There is a great
harvest. We must work fast for the night is coming!"
Every Lord's day Adolf spoke two, three, or four times. He spoke to distressed
and thoroughly confused colonists. He spoke in peasant villages and in army
camps. When the White front moved back over the Molochna he got permission
from a general to speak to over a thousand soldiers at once, many of them standing
to listen in tears. Then when the Red army approached he got permission to speak
to them too. A contemporary reported that he gave the soldiers "the simple Gospel
of Christ the Crucified One."
On the Molochna, Anna Prokhanov and her sons learned about another group of
believing young people: the "tent evangelists": Andrey Ivanovich Enns (a soldier
who had gotten converted), Sergey Yushkevich (a Latvian), Yakov Dyck from the
Crimea, Yekaterina Fehderau, Rosina Rosenberg (a converted Jewish girl), Luise
Hübert Sukkau, Vladimir Golitsyn, and Danilo Astakhov.
After the revolution these young Christians had conducted street meetings in
Moscow and visited military camps. Red Cross workers had given them five tents
and they now travelled from village to village, holding meetings to call men and
women everywhere to Christ. With the help of a youth group from the Molochna
village of Rückenau they set up a tent at Panyutino, a railway junction northwest
of the colonies. Large numbers of Russians, Germans, and even Jewish settlers
from the area came to their meetings night after night. But the Prokhanovs could
Amid the hunger and disease at Alexandertal, Yaroslav had turned deathly sick.
With many prayers Anna watched him pull through. When the front moved back
over the colony and the White army was again in control, they escaped by train to
Rostov on the Don, and from there south to the Caucasus.
The escaped just in time.
The White army soon lost control and the anarchists, under a young man named
Nestor Makhno, took over with a vengeance. Flying a black flag they rode from
village to village plundering, raping, and killing without mercy. Two months after
Anna and the boys left, they fell on Dubovka (Eichenfeld). A number of
Mennonites from this village had taken up arms to defend themselves, but a great
longing to return to Christ had overcome them. They had called for the "tent
evangelists" and the anarchists found them in their schoolhouse, having a meeting
For a little while the Anarchists listened to Yakov Dyck speaking. Then they
locked him into a room with Sergey Yushkevich, Vladimir Golitsyn, and three
other men. They told the women to make them a big meal. After they had eaten
they called the men out to the barn one by one. Their bodies were found,
recognizable only by their clothes. Eighty three people, including Regina
Rosenberg and Luise Hübert Sukkau, lost their lives in Dubovka that night. Danilo
Astakhov was one of the few men that escaped.
Murder and Chaos
On their arrival at Vladikavkaz, Anna and the boys found the Caucasus in no
better shape than the Ukraine. Muslim mountain tribes, forbidden before the
revolution to have guns, had taken to fighting and plundering again. Long before
they reached the city they saw the ruins of burned buildings and farms grown up
in weeds. When they got there it was dark. They had eaten nothing. After his
sickness, Yaroslav was a "walking skeleton" and the boys suspected that Anna
herself felt sicker than what she let on. They arrived at their grandmother's house
(Stepan Prokhanov had died nine years earlier) and Anna lived until three in the
morning. It was July 30, 1919.
They held a quiet funeral among their Molokan relatives and friends. The boys
traveled further, across the mountains to Tiflis, to other relatives. There Red
soldiers shot Martin Kalweit when he came to speak to them. They also shot his
son-in-law Abram Reimer and grandson Jakob Reimer. Adolf, his other grandson,
died from typhus in Kiev where he and Sara had gone to minister to four large
congregations of believers. Adolf's last words were, "Lord Jesus, how simple is
your Gospel, and your grace how large!
The winter of 1919-1920 was cold but little snow fell. In Petrograd Ivan slept all
winter without heat in a small rented apartment. He slept with his boots, overcoat,
and fur cap to keep from freezing. He considered himself fortunate to have dry
bread and tea made from frozen carrots to eat once a day. Twice he fell
unconscious while speaking to believers in a meeting, but to remain in Christ
awareness had never been easier and the Kingdom of Heaven grew rapidly.
At the close of 1919 a group of "Stundist" leaders managed to hold a meeting in
Petrograd. Not many could come. The fighting had drawn so close they heard
volleys of cannon throughout the day and, with a curfew at six, those who
attended simply spent the evening in prayer and slept on the floor in the room. At
this meeting the brothers drew up a statement on their feeling about war:
Because the shedding of human blood for any civil or military reason is a crime
against our consciences and against the teaching and spirit of the Holy Scriptures,
and because it is impossible for Christians to carry arms or to make them for
military purposes, or to study military affairs . . . we believe it our sacred duty to
openly refuse military service in all its forms.
Committed to walking with Christ-the King David Christ who, though he may
have to suffer for a time and flee, overcomes the lion, the bear, and all giants that
arise-Russia's believers walked bravely on toward a . . .
Outstanding among them the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi, a young East Indian lawyer
in South Africa.
The new Bolshevik law stated: "Freedom of religious and anti-religious propaganda is
guaranteed to every citizen of the republic."
The title of his message was "Spiritual Resurrection."
"Herr Jesus, wie ist dein Evangelium so einfach, und deine Gnade so groß!"
Red Sky at Sundown
Do you remember, my quiet one, our long walks through the forest-through the
forest of that dying August? The silvery trunks of the birch trees stretched up like
palms, with their gold-green crowns fresh-dipped in blood pressed close to the
red and purple aspens. And the fine-textured hazels branching over the surface of
the land like green gauze. A holy solemnity breathed beneath the vaulted arches
of that cathedral.
Do you remember our deep-searching conversations, my distant but always
present friend? The Holy Spirit, and the teachings of Christ against what is
opposite to them-that was what interested us most. And we walked along
through the cornfield near that forbidden grove, intoxicated by the blazing sunset,
rejoicing that the question had been settled, that we had both arrived separately at
the same conclusion. Then our thoughts flowed like the blazing streams of the
firmament and we caught each thought with half a word. The roots of our hair
tingled with an inspired, cold, yet flaming rapture. Shivers ran up our spines.
Do you remember, my like-minded brother, the bulrushes in the black creeks?
We stood silently on the steep bank and listened to the mysterious whispers of the
evening. An unspeakable, exultant secret grew in our souls. Yet we did not say a
word about it, speaking to one another only by our silence. And then . . .
Now it is winter outside. I am working beside a lamp and the evening light in the
window is blue and grand, like Death. And as if faced by death I am tracing the
whole past once more; once more I am stirred by an otherworldly joy.
Pavel Aleksandrovich Florensky, the young Russian who wrote this introduction
to an article sent to a friend was one among many who saw a red sky in the
1920's. One among many to ponder spiritually inspiring times in the past,
imminent death, and the joy of eternal life. And after he wrote this, Pavel was one
among untold millions to disappear in the Gulag, "his identity a nameless number,
on a list that later got mislaid."
Yet for the time being, during the 1920s, Russian believers did what they could.
By 1921 foreign relief organizations had come to the rescue of Russia's starving
millions. Lenin introduced a new economic policy and for a time it appeared that
the revolution had indeed brought changes for the better.
Seeing nothing but open doors, the believers in Petrograd (after Lenin's death, the
city became Leningrad) mailed out fifteen thousand monthly copies of
and their Bible School grew to accomodate over two hundred students at a time.
For lack of teachers no more could be accepted and those who came could only
stay one year to make room for more.
In the years following the first graduation in 1922, four hundred and twenty
students who completed their classes at the Bible School went out as full time
evangelists. But the Russians' hunger for the truth was so great that far more than
"trained missionaries" had to do the work. Andrey Petrovich Sukkau of Samara in
the Saratov region was one of them.
Boots from Jesus
Andrey attended a Mennonite school for seven years as a child. He married young
and began to farm. But when he met Christ it became clear to him what he needed
to do. He sold his farm and set out with his wife and children to bring the message
of Christ to the villagers. Wearing a rubashka and cord belt he learned how to
thatch straw and plaster mud walls with his hands. From the Saratov region he
worked his way through peasant villages in Orenburg and Tashkent, to the city of
Ufa, and eastward through Siberia.
Everywhere he went, Andrey found the people so anxious about their salvation
they made it hard to work among them. In low-ceilinged stuffy rooms, packed to
where people sat on the furniture and in the windows, he often spoke about Christ
until ten in the evening, only to have them beg with tears to keep on longer. Even
at midnight or two in the morning they sometimes begged him to keep on to the
break of day.
On Days of the Resurrection he normally spoke to crowds of villagers in the
morning, to young people in the afternoon and during the night he got
On a cold day (38 degrees below zero) in Siberia a messenger brought Andrey a
telegram calling him to come at once to a far distant village. A congregation of
believers had fallen into disunity and wanted Andrey to come and restore peace.
He hesitated. The cold was murderous, and he had only poor clothes. "Lord
Jesus," he caught himself praying, "If you want me to go, please send me a pair of
The next morning, still undecided what he should do, he saw a horse and sleigh
coming down the snow-covered street. A man he did not know called out, "Is this
where Andrey Petrovich lives? Someone has sent him this pair of boots."
Andrey was ashamed, not so much for what sounded like a selfish prayer, as for
how much its direct answer startled him. He went at once to the village and after
three days of common fasting and prayer the division was healed.
Evangelical believers came to know far northern Russia through an unusual
"accident." An itinerant carpenter, a German speaking Baptist, who used his trade
to spread the Gospel, had his wallet stolen while traveling east on the Trans-
Siberian railroad in the fall of 1917. After that he went to sleep and missed the
station where he had planned to get off. Without money and not knowing where to
go he wandered into a large village.
It was the Lord's day. A group of refugees from Volhynia (Russian territory taken
by Austria-Hungary during the World War) had camped in the village and some
believers were holding a service among them. In the service, the carpenter met a
newly married man, Ivan Peters.
While stooking grain the week before, Ivan and his wife had discussed what they
should do. "Should we leave our work on the farm and go out among the people?"
they wondered. "If so, when should we start, and where?"
Their answer came from the carpenter. He told them about people in the far north
to whom the Gospel of Christ had never come. With Ivan's sister Yelena, a young
man named Vanya Kehler, and several others, the Peters set out for the east. This
is the story in their own words:
Our brothers accompanied us to the train station with prayers and singing on May
24, 1918. It was during the revolution, and some bridges in the Ural mountains
had been bombed out. Soldiers at Zlatoust held up our train for two weeks until
we could proceed to Chelyabinsk. After a night in the train under constant
bombardment as we crossed the front into territory held by the tsarist army we
travelled on again and came to Tomsk. Here we met with believers. They gave us
copies of the Gospels in Russian and helped us get passage on a river steamer.
The steamer headed north to the Narym region. In Tomsk we had learned that a
believer lived about 450 verst north of the city. We asked the Lord where we
should get off the steamer, and soon discovered that the believer's brother was on
board with us. He told us exactly how to get to the man's house. The believer and
his wife received us with great joy. They told us about the Ostyaks that live on
the smaller tributaries of the Ob River. It was time for the yearly market and
many of them had come on rafts with their families, to trade animal pelts and fish
for flour and clothes.
At this place we bought a large covered raft and loaded our family with all our
belongings onto it. None of us had any navigating experience and we needed to
learn how to steer with a rudder. This voyage was especially hard because of the
plague of mosquitos. The mosquitos came upon us in thick black clouds. At first
we tried to slap them and chase them off, but we soon became weak and tired,
especially the children. We travelled on the raft four days and nights until we got
to the Ostyak camp of Sayspayevo.
No one took us in. They were afraid of us because the authorities had warned
them that we might be criminals on the loose. So we had to sleep among the
mosquitos on the raft, moored to the side of the river. But the next day, when they
cast a big net into the water they let us help to pull it in and freely shared the fish
After that we found a place to stay. Semyon, an Ostyak fisherman and hunter,
lived with his young family in a larger house. One half of the house was not done.
We offered to finish it for him for the privilege of staying there for the winter.
In the name of Christ we took up the work and the fear of the people was soon
overcome. We began to love one another. They came to trust us so completely
that when they left for several weeks to gather hay they let us use the whole
house. They learned to love the truth and were soon singing Christian songs with
In one of the biggest houses at Sayspayevo we began to hold regular meetings. A
group of children let themselves be convinced to learn how to read and write. But
it was bad to live here with our family because of the immorality. After nine
months at this place some of us felt we should move further north into the taiga.
We built ourselves a wooden house without nails or glass, for such could not be
found here. We put cow stomache over the windows. From this place we
travelled through the entire region, on horseback, on foot and on snowshoes in the
winter. In the summer we travelled much by raft. Vanya Kehler and I did most of
this traveling while the rest stayed at home.
We worked among both Russians and Ostyaks in the region, giving the few
Gospels we had to those who loved the truth and who could read. The first joy in
our work came with the conversion of a Russian neighbour who could read and
who studied the Bible. His two grown daughters also got converted. But their
mother was against them and persecuted them shamelessly.
Both in the Narym and Surgut regions we also found Old Believers who got
banished to Siberia over the last three hundred years. They live in isolated places
along the tributaries of the Ob river, far removed from roads and civilization.
They hold the old traditions, such as not eating with outsiders and keeping their
dishes clean. They spend much time in prayer and fasting and there are many
good-living people among them. They work hard, raising cattle, tending bees, and
farming, so that many of them live comfortably. A number of them have gotten
baptized and are serving as witnesses for Christ among their own people.
For two years we stayed in the Narym region without hearing from anyone. No
letters nor supplies came here from the outside, so we soon depended on the work
of our hands. The great change from living on the steppes to living in the virgin
forest required much learning and experiment. We began to earn our living by
cutting lumber into boards and making furniture. Most people tanned leather and
made their own footwear, so we also became tanners and shoemakers. The Lord
gave grace for everything. Since no cloth found its way into this place, the people
plant their own flax and make their own linen. My wife and sister learned how to
make linen sheets and clothing for the family. Many times until late the whirring
of their spinning wheels could be heard in front of the fireplace. We had no lights
for lack of oil. Besides the spinning, my wife also taught our children how to read
When the Ostyaks left on long periods to fish or hunt for cedar nuts we went with
them. We worked all day. Then in the evening large crowds would gather around
a fire. We would sing and I would speak to them. Some of them would stay until
late at night to learn more about Christ. We made smoke with rotten wood to
keep off the mosquitos. Dressed only in linen clothes during the cedar nut
harvest, or during the ice fishing when it was thirty or forty degrees below zero,
these meetings took place every night.
After five years the Lord enabled us to make a long trip. We travelled around one
thousand five hundred verst in seventy two days. Many we met heard the Gospel
for the first time. Some asked us to write down the words of Christ. They could
not read but they said traders come through sometimes and could read the words
On our trip we met difficulties not only through the wickedness of some, but also
the great swamps and the snow. We found our way through the forest along the
Chezhabka and Vasyugan rivers. Our only horse had to haul our tents and
supplies through the deep unbroken snow. We walked either ahead or behind
him. But when we came to the Ob river we could both sit on the sleigh and ride
along on the ice, if the cold did not keep us from it.
After traveling a thousand verst we came to some believers who had heard of
Christ through a shoemaker from the Chumensh region. The meeting gave us
great joy. We stayed here ten days and fasted and prayed together. One brother
who had lived in a comfortable two story house, but who had given it up to live in
the north and work among the people decided to join us with his own horse and
sleigh. He accompanied us for the remaining five hundred verst and stayed with
us for some time at our home.
When we came back the women told us that someone wanted to buy our house.
He wanted to pay us with grain which was worth much. So we took it and bought
a raft capable of holding 300 pud. By May 2, 1923, with the Lord's help, we had
a roof built over the raft. We loaded our family and belongings, the supplies we
needed, some sheep and chickens onto it. Before we left we had numerous
meetings with all the Christians. Some begged us to stay, but we told them: "You
have already heard the Gospel, and others need to hear it too." So, after five years
in the Narym region we travelled north along the Parabel and Ob rivers until we
came into the Surgutsky region.
The water after the spring breakup was higher than it had been for thirty years.
For long distances the forest stood in water. The trip took a month and ten days.
Storms from the north caused high waves and the river carried many houses with
it. On such days we had to tie our raft in a sheltered place among the trees. But
one storm caught us unawares. We could not stop when it got dark and were
carried along at the mercy of the waves so high they threatened to tip our raft
over. God helped us where no human hand could come to our rescue, and after
traveling five hundred verst we came to Aleksandrovsk where we decided to
settle. During the first days at our new home we made a vegetable garden because
it was already high time to plant. Then we visited the believers within a radius of
about fifty verst and invited them to our first meeting at Melipulsky where we
Fifty verst north of Aleksandrovo my wife and I and a single sister stayed for
some time in an Ostyak camp not far from the village of Lower Pasyol. We
stayed with a young woman that could read Russian, in a tiny, very smoky house,
heated by a small stove and that had only two small windows and a door. Her
ninety year old grandparents lived with her. The old man still made sleighs, and
the old woman spent her time spinning nettle fibres into fish nets.
The Ostyaks are peace loving people. In the Narym region most of them have
joined the Old Believers. But in Surgut and elsewhere they still worship a god
they call Torim and live in constant fear. They also worship the water god Yukur,
and the forest god Lunkur. They offer horses to their gods, hanging the horse's
hide in some out-of-the-way place on a tree, and eating its flesh together. Deep in
the forest they make wooden enclosures in which they set up carved statues, and
make offerings to them. But they freely say: "Our gods do not help us. Who
knows whether your God would do any more?"
These people line their fur or leather boots with soft grass instead of wearing
stockings. They use soft pieces of Cheremucha bark for handkerchiefs. Instead of
diapers they dry white rotted wood and stamp it into powder. They pack their
babies into wooden boxes filled with this wood powder, and wrap them up,
It did not take long until the young woman, a gentle and quiet person, loved
Christ very much. She read the Gospels and translated them for her people. She
learned how to sing Christian songs and we gave her a copy of the Gospels and a
small songbook to keep. She greatly appreciated these gifts.
Our work in the Pasyol area was not fruitless. The Lord brought about an
awakening and the number of those who believed rose to more than twenty. From
that place we travelled two hundred verst to Surgut and another forty werst to the
west to bring the Gospel to other villages and Ostyak camps. We walked long
distances on foot because our horse could not pull us. On some days it was forty
or forty five degrees below zero. But the Lord was good to us. In the old Russian
town of Surgut it took two weeks for us to get permission to have a public
meeting. First we had to consent to hold a debate, but after prayer and fasting the
Lord opened the door for us and we had large meetings. The whole town was
stirred and numerous people dug a Bible or a copy of the Gospels out of some
chest to see whether what we said was true. We found a believing sister living in
Other people we met here were the Tungus, who belong to the Mongolian race.
They worship spirits and even the devil, yet one learns to love them. They come
from the east, from the Yesey river, following their reindeer herds from swamp to
swamp. They live in leather tents all year and survive from hunting and fishing.
North of Surgut, up toward the Arctic Ocean live the Samoyeds and the Siryans.
During the time of high water in the spring of 1924 we traveled on our raft to visit
the new Christians two hundred verst north on the Ob river. On this trip the Lord
blessed us with a great catch of fish. We salted the fish and packed them into
wooden crates we made for the purpose. Then the Lord answered our prayers and
the first steamer that came by took us and our salted fish to Tobolsk. From there
we travelled on a smaller steamer to Tyumen where the believers welcomed us.
We sold our fish and were able to pay for our train fare to Orenburg. There we
had a happy reunion with the brothers but our sixteen-year-old daughter died on
this trip. Now we are back in the north and pray that the Lord would yet awaken
Why should thousands, even millions, die without having seen the Light? Has the
grace of God become scarce? No, there is a scarcity of messengers, of the
knowledge of God's plan of salvation, of true love and compassion, and of a
longing for Christ's coming again. Dear brothers and sisters, shall not the tribes of
the north rise on the day of judgment and accuse us for not having been more
prompt in obeying the call of Christ?
It is our responsibility, those of us who are the people of God in Russia, to work
as long as it is day. Let us work in holy zeal to pay off our debt to our unbelieving
neighbours so that we may go out with free consciences to meet Christ on the
great day when he comes again!
The words you have just read are the last known record of Ivan Peters. He sent
this letter south to Slavgorod in Siberia in the fall of 1925, but the "sky was red"
and like Andrey Petrovich Sukkau and innumerable others he disappeared into the
twilight of the Siberian winter leaving no trace behind him.
While the Peters struggled to build the Kingdom of Heaven in the far north, those
who desired to build it in central Russia faced no lesser obstacles.
Central Russia, after its Revolution and Civil War, lay in shambles. But in joyful
contrast to its devastation, Boris Mazurin, Yefim Serzhanov, a Zavadsky family,
two girls from Ryazan, and a handful of others discovered new life at
Shestakovka, near Moscow, in 1921. Like Lev Tolstoy, they believed in peace and
life together. Like him they wanted to live simply. And that, under the
circumstances, was not difficult.
The "Tolstoyan" community at Shestakovka began in a huddle of abandoned
buildings. Without tools, without seeds, without money, and nothing to start
farming with than a team of seventeen-year-old horses and a dilapidated military
cart the future could have looked grim. It did look grim, in fact, to everyone but
the serious-minded, dedicated young people who set out to turn the teachings of
Jesus Christ into action.
The Shestakovka people began by dismantling an old log building, cutting it up
for firewood, and trading it on the streets of Moscow for food and supplies. From
this they went to raising vegetables, cutting hay, and eventually selling milk to a
government hospital. The community prospered at once. Within a few years
dozens of others like it took shape and soviet officials noted with alarm how they
surpassed in every way-in production, in morale, and in self sufficiency-what
their collective farms had accomplished.
What soviet officials watched with growing uneasiness, Ivan Prokhanov saw with
unbounded delight. Travelling through Russia he visited new communities and
house churches everywhere-in the Don region, in the Caucasus, and in the far
south along the border with Iran. "Everywhere," he reported, "I heard people
praying in their own language. They confessed that they had been robbers,
immoral sinners or atheists. But everywhere they rejoiced for having found
Christ." In Odessa and Kiev, congregations of believing Jews took shape. And in
Turkestan, Christian believers were asked to speak in mosques.
Only one thing troubled Ivan. Hundreds of new believers lived and sought to bring
up their families in Russian cities. With this in mind, and remembering what had
begun to happen at Vertograd, he wrote:
I feared it would be impossible for believers to realise the Christian way of life in
the cities, with their many vices and irregularities and their fixed way of doing
things. Perhaps some time the Holy Spirit will enable us to fully conquer and
reshape these cells of the old life, but in the beginning it seemed to me that a
suitable place should be found where our ideal of a new life could be realised in
the form of a standard city, with standard villages and standard agricultural and
In a careful plan to be published in
Khristianin, Ivan (making use of his skills as
an engineer) described what he had in mind: a new city for believers in Russia. He
proposed to call it
Yevangelsk, City of the Gospel, or for its novel plan, City of the
From a large round park, over a mile in diameter, the streets of Yevangelsk were
to radiate like sunbeams through surrounding urban and agricultural areas. Its only
law was to be the Sermon on the Mount. Its only residents, members of the
evangelical Church. Along the wide streets of Yevangelsk, bordered with fruit
trees and many flowers, hospitals, schools, meetinghouses and dwelling places-
all neat but modest, and none more showy than the rest-would stand. No
firearms, no guns of any kind should ever enter Yevangelsk. Its people would live
from the industry of their own hands, sharing what they produced, and in the land
around it, believers would farm. If Christ would truly remain in the centre of the
city, and the life of its society would revolve around him, their example would
lead to more and more Christian cities throughout Russia and, Ivan believed,
throughout the world.
Some Soviet officials, remembering Pyotr Kropotkin and perhaps feeling a touch
of remorse for their bloody revolution, showed interest in Yevangelsk. They had
already allowed a group of Molokans, returning from America, to begin an
in Central Russia. And since the idea did not seem incompatible with their
ideals they even suggested a site for Yevangelsk at the foot of the Altai Mountains
near the border between Siberia and Mongolia.
In August, 1927, Ivan left with great anticipation for Siberia. He met crowds of
believers in every city along the way: Kazan, Yekaterinburg (later Sverdlovsk),
Chelyabinsk, Omsk, Novonikolayevsk (later Novosibirsk) and Barnaul.
Everywhere the believers rejoiced with him as he showed them the officially
approved plans for Yevangelsk. From Barnaul two brothers accompanied him
south to great empty plains at the foot of the mountains where the Katun River
flows into the Biya. There, with the brothers and local Soviet officials at his side
he dedicated the centre of the great Sun City to Christ and planted three oak trees.
It was September 11, 1927. Ivan felt lightheaded. Was this the greatest moment of
Christianity in Russia? The beginning of a new dispensation for Christ's
Kingdom? But the sun, a ball of red, was going down.
A New Law
Not nearly all Soviet officials felt pleased about Yevangelsk and the fast-growing
Christian community interest in Russia. They were not afraid of it being
"visionary" or "impractical." They were afraid it would work!
In a few years nonconformed believers had grown to perhaps five hundred
thousand baptised members. (Some thought more.) All over Russia, they had
become a familiar sight-neatly but modestly dressed families, women with their
heads covered and bright-eyed well-trained children, singing on the streets,
holding open air meetings or passing out literature. They did not drink or smoke.
They lived frugal lives and worked hard.
"Are these people already doing what enlightened atheism is to accomplish?"
Russians began to wonder. Particularly the "League of the Militant Godless" and
the head of the Communist party, Yosef Stalin, looked at nonconformed
Christianity with alarm. Then, on April 8, 1929, the Communist party passed a
new law to govern religion.
Under the new law, Muslims, Christians, and Jews could meet as "religious
societies" and the state would provide them with buildings-only after twenty or
more people had applied and the local soviet had given its approval. Unregistered
meeting places would be closed down. Minors could no longer be baptised nor
subjected to religious propaganda. Pastors and teachers could speak only in the
registered building of the congregation to which they belonged.
Sixteen of Leningrad's seventeen evangelical meeting places closed down at once.
Food and ration cards for ministers were withdrawn. Raduga fell into state hands
and got closed down. All evangelism became illegal. And as in times that
Russians remembered only too well, streams of people flowed east and north into
prison camps in Siberia.
After the Communist takeover several million people (including twenty-five
thousand Mennonites) had emigrated from Russia. Now emigration was
impossible. People simply became "un-people" as they disappeared into the Gulag
(the prison camp system) and their relatives feared to speak of them lest they get
in trouble and sent off too.
Tens of thousands of believers died in the camps. Working unreasonable hours,
without proper food or clothes, taking turns to lie on one another to keep warm in
concrete rooms without toilets or beds, the camps were meant to kill. Separated
parents and children usually did not hear from one another again.
During the dry years of 1932 and 1933 some Spirit Christians escaped on foot, by
night, into Persia. From there they walked the full length of Turkey, found their
way from Constantinople to Argentina, and walked across the Andes to Chile. But
most could not escape. Perhaps as many as seven million people starved to death
in the drought, but the Soviet government refused to admit a state of famine or
accept relief from the outside.
On October 6, 1935 Ivan Prokhanov died in exile, in Berlin.
After Sergey Kirov a Communist leader got assasinated in the mid1930s, a great
purge began. Yosef Stalin's officials arrested, interrogated, tortured and sent to
prison camps perhaps as many as twenty-five million people. In some camps
officials shot a dozen, or as many as thirty people a day, to keep the rest fearful.
Possibly ten million died-among them train loads of people set loose in far
northern meadows "to graze"-while those at home applauded (out of fear) the
end of the "enemies of the people."
Children learned to spy on parents, husbands and wives on each other. Some who
dared keep Bibles hidden did so with the knowledge of no one else in the house.
Ten or twelve-year sentences for "religious offence" were rare. Believers usually
got twenty-five years in the Gulag, and that was a death sentence. Even to pray
silently before a meal could bring it upon one.
After a Mennonite funeral on the Molochna where an ex-minister dared to speak
to the family about God in their back bedroom (a legal activity), he was reported
by a neighbour for having left the door open a crack for others to hear. Neighbours
reported one another if they heard a snatch from a Christian song. Only in
registered meeting places could God be mentioned, and those in most Russian
towns had disappeared.
Then things got worse.
On June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler's army invaded Russia. During the first two days
the Germans shot down two thousand Soviet planes. They sprayed retreating
troops with machine gun fire, and under incessant bombing, city after city fell.
A man named Willi used to help us on the farm, when I was a little boy, in
Canada. He had been a Nazi soldier and we listened to him with wide eyes when
he told stories: "After weeks of bombing, Kiev fell. We moved rapidly ahead. The
Crimea fell, then we got to the Volga. In our first year in Russia we lost one
million two hundred and fifty thousand men, but the Russians lost many more. At
first we had it good. We went from farm to farm. When they had dinner ready we
shot the people, stacked up the bodies, and sat on them to eat their food. Then we
got to Stalingrad. . . ."
Willi saw, from one point of view, what all Russians had to see during the second
World War. By 1941 the Germans had cut off supplies from Leningrad. Perhaps a
million died from starvation in that city alone.
Then, as tanks rolled in from Axiscontrolled
Poland and Austria-Hungary, Stalin ordered the evacuation of the
German colonists from the Ukraine. Soldiers hustled six hundred and fifty
thousand people, Lutherans, Catholics, and Mennonites east to Siberia and
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of young men from Tolstoyan communities still
existing in Siberia lost their lives for refusing to carry guns. But the tide turned at
Where the Moravians had planted their peach trees and mustard fields at the
Sarepta colony, the city now called Stalingrad
had become an industrial
metropolis. Not only the Red army, but its factory workers, women and children
struggled to defend it against the Germans. The battle lasted seven months, until
General Friedrich Paulus (disobeying Hitler) surrendered in February 1943 and the
Germans, like Napoleon years before, began a hasty retreat. Winter roads were
bad. They suffered from hunger and disease. With them, in open train cars, on
foot, or in long caravans of skinny horses pulling wagons, the Germans who
remained in the Ukraine (including the Khortitsa and Molochna colonists) fled
Stalin's troops caught up with most of those who survived, and sent them to
On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide and Germany fell. Russia had
not fallen, but its suffering was comparable. Newspapers said twenty million
Russians had died in the war. The number was too large to comprehend. The
people were stunned. Silent among the ruins.
For many there was no way to turn, but to Christ . . .
The Pillar and Ground Of Truth
The Russian city of Biysk now stands on this location.
The siege of Leningrad lasted nine hundred days-the longest siege in modern history.
Risen and Forever alive
Seeing the signs of spring after long, snowy, winters, no Russian could doubt that
life springs from death. Tikhon Zadonsky wrote:
Winter comes, the earth is covered with snow, lakes, rivers and marshes freeze,
opening highways on water that one needs no bridges to cross. This is the Lord's
kindness. He serves our need. Let us bless the maker of snow .
But winter passes and spring comes! All nature that died in the cold comes back
to life. Let us bless the Lord of Resurrection! Spring breaks out. Spring opens up
a treasurehouse of gifts from heaven. The sun shines and it gets warm. Delightful
scents fill the air. The womb of the earth brings forth life. The fruit of seeds and
roots appears for the benefit of all. The grass, fields of wheat, and the woods put
on new garments of green. They adorn themselves with flowers and the fragrance
of life. Springs flow again and rushing streams gladden our ears as well as our
eyes. The singing of birds, a great harmony of all voices, rises about us. Cattle,
out of the barn, spread through the meadows to rejoice in what the Lord sets
before them. They frolic and feast to thank him for his mercy. All things under
heaven change. All become new! All living things, both plants and animals, shine
with the beauty of the one who made them.
In the winter every tree looks alike under snow. In the spring, they break out in
different blossoms and leaves. So with us when we will arise. Now it is hard to
know who is good or evil, but in the Resurrection all will be clear. Like trees
getting leaves in spring the goodness concealed in the hearts of the saints will
show in their bodies. Their bodies will awaken in glorious vestments. They will
be like the body of Christ. But just like dead grass and branches stay dead and
ugly, so sinners will stay dead. Whatever we were inside will be known.
Now is not the time to praise or judge men. It is time to look forward to the
Resurrection promised by God. Then the bodies of the faithful who have slept
like seeds from the beginning of the world, will sprout. They will arise and clothe
themselves with beauty. The Lord will crown them (marry them). They will
radiate like brides and blossom with the promise of bearing much fruit.
Corruption will put on incorruption. Looking to this, let us sow in faith and hope
so we may reap with unending joy!
Christ the victor over hell, cold, and darkness, brought life out of death in Russia.
At the beginning of Stalin's purges there were several hundred thousand
nonconformed believers in the Soviet Union. Ten years later there were half as
many. Forty years later there were five million, or more.
From Darkness to Dawn
By 1952, when Yosef Stalin died, Russia had gotten deeply involved in a "Cold
War" with western non-Communist countries. Communication with the West,
already bad during Stalin's rule, further disrupted by the war, now became
unthinkable for most Russians who simply "disappeared" from Western sight
behind what some began calling the "Iron Curtain." But isolation for Russians was
nothing new, and in their silent suffering unknown to the rest of the world, more
and more found Christ.
One generation in Russia, during Stalin's rule, had grown up virtually without
seeing or hearing about the Bible. But deep in the "underground" a seed remained
to sprout after his death in a springtime of revival.
Little by little the news began to leak out. Here and there someone pulled a Bible
from its hiding place. Neighbours learned of it and came walking long distances
from surrounding villages to hear it read. In the dark, crowded into small houses
where someone read in hushed tones by candle light, they marvelled at the simple,
beautiful words of Christ.
Walter Sawatsky describes what happened in one Siberian village as typical:
A young man had spent the winter working in Vorkuta on the Arctic Circle in
order to collect the extra salary paid for working under severe climatic conditions.
In Vorkuta he encountered believers who had just experienced a dramatic
awakening. The young man heard the preaching and was converted. Before
returning to his home in the spring, he managed to obtain a Bible. Although no
announcement was made on the day he returned to the village of Waldheim, that
evening curious neighbours gathered in his home until all three rooms were
packed to overflowing. Young Jacob rose to his feet, opened his Bible, and
laboriously read a few verses. Closing the book, he managed another two or three
halting sentences that scarcely hinted at a sermon. Then, his thoughts exhausted,
he suddenly fell to his knees and uttered a simple but staggering prayer: "Lord, I
pray to you that each person gathered here will be converted tonight. Amen."
In the silence that followed, a woman from the adjoining room pushed her way
through to young Jacob and asked him tearfully, "Help me to pray." Without
further ado he dropped to his knees again and she began calling out to God to be
merciful to her, a terrible sinner. Within a few seconds all in the house were on
their knees and screaming to God for mercy. Jacob found himself calming the
people and telling them that God could hear them without their screams.
Jacob's prayer was answered literally. In fact, herdsmen in the pasture heard the
shouting, came to see, and stayed to experience their personal conversion. Others
ran home to awaken relatives with the words, "Come quickly, the entire village is
getting converted tonight."
Soviet restrictions could not curb the power of the evangelical revival. From
Siberia to Kazakhstan to central Russia, the Ukraine and Moldovia the movement
spread like a fire. Unordained evangelists speaking the words of Christ and people
praying simple prayers rediscovered forgiveness from sins. But with the joy it
brought came the trial of persecution.
More of The Antichrist?
During Wold War II, when Stalin relaxed his pressure on Russia's churches to win
their co-operation against the Germans, he allowed (or perhaps forced, as many
believe) the evangelical leaders who remained, or whom he had just released from
jail, to meet in Moscow. Among them were leaders both of the "Evangelical
Christians," the group to which Ivan Prokhanov had belonged, and Baptists.
Beginning with Martin Kalweit, Baptist missionaries from Germany had been
active in Russia before the revolution with good results. Now, in this remarkable
meeting, the two groups merged to become the "Evangelical Christian Baptists."
The Stalinist government provided them with an office, a large central meeting
place in Moscow, and the necessary funds to re-establish their publishing work
and eventually a minister's training school. The "Christians According to the
Gospel" joined the union and so, eventually, did most of what was left of the
This new government supported union of churches, together with a suddenly
rehabilitated Orthodox church, flourished. Stalin's officials helped congregations
to register and install legally approved pastors and regional leaders. Throughout
Russia thousands of meeting places (many of them Orthodox churches) opened
their doors again.
For some time, spiritual revival and this new church organisation seemed to go
hand in hand. But a significant minority of believers did not trust it. Small
congregations throughout Russia either failed to get their registration or else did
not want it. Then, when Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, attempted to check
the revival and church authorities co-operated with him, it suddenly seemed like
Russia had slipped back three hundred years-to Nikon, Tsar Aleksey, and the
"year of the beast."
In 1960 the state-recognised leaders of the Evangelical Christian Baptist church
sent a letter from Moscow to all congregations admonishing people to comply
with the 1929 laws forbidding the religious education or baptism of minors. The
letter discouraged "unhealthy missionary tendencies" and counselled leaders to
"terminate decisively" the drive to make new members by keeping baptisms to a
minimum. It stressed the duty of Christians to support their rulers and stated that
obedience to these instructions would be the "measuring stick of loyalty" to the
church and to the government.
Reaction to the letter was immediate and as deep as Russia itself. Thousands of
believers, from old men with beards to young parents and teenagers, responded
with holy zeal. The clash was total. Those who left the "church" considered its
leaders agents of Antichrist. Those leaders in turn said nothing as Soviet police
closed down hundreds of meeting places, beat up the faithful, set dogs on them as
they worshiped, took their children, banished their leaders, or interrogated,
imprisoned, and tortured them to death.
Yet even greater than this wave of persecution, in which Nikolai Khmara died,
was the wave of joy that came with it.
Back Into The "Underground"
On August 13, 1961 a group of brothers met in secret in the village of Uzlovaya
near Tula. They began to co-ordinate the work of the unregistered, illegal, and
consequently "underground" groups of evangelical believers in the Soviet Union.
In a few years that movement involved more than three thousand secret
It all came back. To descendants of the Spirit Christians, Old Believers, and
Stundists, it seemed more than familiar. Somehow, it seemed right and brought
with it a strange kind of joy.
Playing cat and mouse with the police, believers met in basements, in barns, and
in the woods by night. They gathered like their grandparents, in small houses in
rural areas. The "Stranniki grapevine" revived and top secrets flashed-no one
said how-from one end of the Soviet Union to the other. More than this, they
published literature. A leader in the movement, Gennadi Kryuchkov described
how they did it before a Soviet court:
The method of doing it is very simple-I knew it while I was still a child. You
take gelatine, glycerine and glue, mix them together and pour the solution on
glass. Then you make an impression. Any boy or girl who wants to do something
for God can do it. There are dozens of believers using this method to publish
literature . . .
Some believers used ingenuity even further. With the wringer rollers off washing
machines and bicycle parts they made real printing presses. One of them, designed
for quick disappearances, fit into five suitcases for transport. Young people
stripped bark from trees to make ink and entire congregations helped to buy small
quantities of paper in bookstores, to avoid detection. On thick stationery (the only
thing available) one secret press the believers called
Khristianin produced a
newsletter for the "underground" congregations-along with the Gospels,
, Ivan Prokhanov's hymnals, and forty thousand New Testaments
laboriously stitched together and bound by hand.
One of a steadily growing number of imprisoned believers, N. P.
in the mid 1960s:
Now blood flows again, Siberia is another Coliseum. . . . Long ago they used to
build churches over the martyrs' graves. And what have persecutions given us
now? Everywhere new congregations stand as a result of them!
Called to Walk on Thorns
During the 1980s, while harassment of believers in the Soviet Union continued, a
friend sent me a recording. It sounded strange in the peaceful Russian Mennonite
village in Mexico where we lived. Someone had secretly recorded a meeting
broken up by the police and a house search in Siberia. One heard the believers
singing, a high-pitched wavering Russian song, while the police kept interrupting,
barking orders on a megaphone, telling them to disperse at once. During the house
search one heard the same shouted commands, the sound of furniture moving,
scuffling, rumbling and when they began twisting arms to extort information a
child began to cry.
The crying of the child (his father had already spent years in a prison camp and his
mother got arrested shortly afterward) quickly rose to unmasked screams of terror
-continuing on and on, but gradually weakening among the babble of angry
voices, loud knocks, and excited conversation as he grew hoarse.
The cries of this child raised serious questions for me-and for Christians
throughout "the West."
Were they necessary?
Is it ever
necessary to refuse to conform and bring such suffering upon one's
companion and little ones? Could not the Christians of the Soviet Union have
made the few "minor adjustments" necessary to avoid it? (Most Evangelical
Christian Baptists did, and lived through the post-war Communist period
undisturbed.) On the other hand, is it
necessary to live in peace like the rest? Must
we live where the "right" to our personal freedom and to believe what we choose
How do Christians best point the world to Christ-by identifying with the world
as far as possible, or by standing in stark contrast to the world even in
As I saw how my fellow Christians in the west faced the predicament of Russia's
believers-some with sentimentalism and scandalous fund-raising propaganda,
and others with cool scepticism, thinking they were probably "fanatical"-it
became obvious that we had no clear answer to this question ourselves. Yet our
survival as Christians may depend on it.
In 1966 a leader of the unregistered "underground" believers, Georgy Vins,
on trial in Moscow. After two grueling days of standing in court and suffering
interrogation most of the night he finished his final address (guaranteed to him
under Soviet law) with a poem:
Not for robbery, nor for gold
Do we stand before you.
Today here, as in Pilate's day,
Christ our Saviour is being judged.
Once again abuse resounds,
Again slander and falsehood prevail.
Yet he stands silent, sorrowfully
Looking down on us poor sinners.
He hears the sorry threats.
He sees the trepidation of those
Whose hands have gathered tears,
Of children, wives and mothers.
Forgetful of history's lessons,
They burn with desire to punish
Freedom of conscience and of faith
And the right to serve the Lord.
No! You cannot kill the freedom of belief,
Or imprison Christ in jail!
The example of his victory
Will live in hearts he saves!
A silent guard binds round
The friends of Christ with steel ring,
But Christ himself inspires us
To stand serene before this court.
No rebel call has passed our lips,
No children offered as a sacrifice.
We preach salvation constantly,
Our message leads to holy thoughts.
We call upon the Church of Christ
To tread the path of thorns.
We call men to a heavenly goal,
We challenge perfidy and lies.
And so we stand before you
Or rather, have been forced to come.
So you may learn the ways of God:
That sons of his stay true to Him.
Fresh trials now and persecution
Will serve alone to strengthen faith,
And witness God's eternal truth
To generations still to come.
With Georgy Vins, numberless believers in Russia stood on trial for their faith
after persecution increased in the 1960s. Like him, they discovered the shock and
loneliness of having the whole world turn against them-even "respectable"
friends, relatives, and Christian churches. They learned how it feels to be
considered "fools for Christ's sake." But they knew the secret of the Old Believer
Avvakum, of Matvey Dalmatov, the Shore Dwellers, Nil Sorsky, the Strigolniki,
and Nikolai Svyatosha, and like them walked . . .
Soviet Evangelicals (reference to be completed)
N. P. Khrapov spent a total of twenty-six years in jail. This is an excerpt from his song:
"Greetings! Radiant people of Christ!"
During the trial, at which he suffered constant mockery and abuse, his mother stood
outside on the steps of the court building, praying for him. From Blagoveschensk on the
Amur River east of Mongolia, she was a sister of Pyotr Sharikov, tortured to death for his
Christian beliefs in 1938. Her father also spent years in prison. Her husband, Pyotr Vins,
with whom she lived in exile several years, had died alone--of starvation--in a prison
camp on Siberia's Magadan coast, two thousand kilometres northeast of Japan. Her
father-in-law, Jakob Wiens, (Georgy's grandfather) had grown up among the
at Blumenau on the Molochna.
Shortly before this, the Soviet paper Izvestiia published the story of a woman who
murdered a child in ritual sacrifice as a result of the "fanaticism" inspired by the
The Pilgrim's Way
Thirty years before the Bolshevik revolution a monk in the Mikhailovsky
monastery in Kazan came across a strange manuscript,
Stories Told by a Pilgrim,
and published it. The stories, told by an unidentified Pilgrim, had been written
(with what seemed like numerous later additions) by someone to whom he had
told them in the Siberian city of Irkutsk.
The Pilgrim had come from the government of Orel, south of Moscow. Orphaned
as a child he had gone to live with his older brother at his grandfather's inn. His
grandfather could read and studied the Bible every day, but his brother was a
rebellious boy and got into drinking. One night when the two of them lay sleeping
on the back of the clay stove his brother pushed him off and he broke his arm.
The arm shrivelled up and he lost the use of his hand. Seeing that he would never
work like other men, his grandfather made special effort to teach him what he
could from the Bible. After the accident, his older brother left, so before his
grandfather died he became heir to the inn. His grandfather had found a young girl
to be his wife and they lived happily in the fear of the Lord.
No sooner did the grandfather die however, than the older brother broke into the
inn, stole the money, and lit it to cover up his tracks. Crippled and penniless, the
Pilgrim then had to depend on his wife's sewing and knitting for support. Many
days, with nothing else to do, he would sit beside her and read from the Bible
while she sewed by hand. Both of them would cry and seek God. They fasted
often. They went to church and kissed the ikons. Every night they would fall on
their faces, not once but hundreds of times, to pray. "Yet we did it," the Pilgrim
wrote later, "like clowns going through the motions because we did not know the
Lord in our hearts."
After two years his wife turned sick and died. Not knowing what to do, the
Pilgrim took dry bread in his bag and set off on foot for Kiev to visit the graves of
the sufferers: Boris and Gleb.
Along the way, and wandering from there eastward, he asked many how he should
come to really know Christ. Some told him one thing, some another. One evening
he met an old man, a starets, who told him about the Jesus Prayer. From that time
onward, things began to change.
As he prayed the Jesus Prayer throughout the day, the Pilgrim from Orel
discovered what it means to "live in repentance." He discovered the indescribable
joy, the change of perspective, and the heavenly light that comes in constant
awareness of Christ. He told the man from Irkutsk:
And this is how I go about now, never ceasing to call on the name of Jesus. At
times I walk as much as forty verst a day, but I do not feel like I am walking at
all. I am only aware of Christ. When the cold comes through to me I begin to pray
more earnestly and I get warm all over. When hunger overcomes me I call more
often on the name of Jesus and I forget my wish for food. When I turn sick and
rheumatic pains afflict my back and legs, I fix my thoughts on Christ and do not
notice the pain. If anyone does me harm I have only to remember Christ for the
injury and anger to pass away and for me to forget it all.
The Pilgrim described his experiences on the roads of Russia. He told of breaking
through the ice on a cold rainy morning, of meeting a wolf, of sleeping in a
guardhouse one night when runaway horses crashed with the tongue of a wagon
into a window and scared the guard's wife out of her mind, of false accusation, of
robbers, beggars, sickness, and experiences on the way with soldiers, the wealthy
and a lonely hermit in the woods. In all these things he said:
I would sometimes feel as though my heart was a fountain flowing over with joy,
such lightness, freedom and consolation were in it. Sometimes I felt a burning
love for Jesus and for all God's creatures. Sometimes my eyes overflowed with
tears of thankfulness to God for his mercy to me, a sinner. Sometimes my
understanding that had been so limited was given so much light that I could easily
understand and concentrate on things that up to now I had not thought about at
all. The sense of a warm gladness in my heart spread through my whole being
until God's presence everywhere became real to me. By calling on the name of
Jesus I was overwhelmed with joy and now I know the meaning of the words,
"The Kingdom of God is within you!"
From details in the story of the Pilgrim from Orel, it appears that he lived in the
time of Tsar Nikolai I, probably before the Crimean War. But his story did not
become widely known until the twentieth century. Then, in the context of what
happened during and after Communism it gradually became clear that the
Pilgrim's story is the story of all who believed in Russia and discovered the secret
of . . .
Some years ago a Mennonite church in Costa Rica called on me to interpret for a
visiting minister from Russia. All afternoon we travelled across the mountain to
where they lived. Deep down in the tropics, on Costa Rica's eastern lowlands we
found them, a crowd gathered in a meetinghouse among pineapple and cassava
fields. From all directions they had come: women carrying babies and leading
children along muddy, deeply rutted roads, young people and campesinos in their
best shirts, German colonists whose own ancestors came from the Ukraine, and
brothers of North American Amish or Mennonite background.
From half a dozen congregations they gathered to hear an Evangelical Christian
Baptist from Kazakhstan speak. They listened carefully. While translating the
brother's words from German to Spanish I watched the audience, crowded to the
back of the large auditorium and with people standing at the doors, absorb the
message. I saw the light in their eyes as the brother described Siberia (few Costa
Rican Mennonites have seen snow) and realised that strange things are happening
East meets west. North meets south. The Cold War is over and with easier travel,
more telephones and amateur radios, FAX machines, email, the net . . . we
Christians around the world find it easier than ever to know about and learn from
But do we?
My feeling is that we have all been eager to teach but slow to learn.
In the first chapter of this book I wrote that Nikolai Khmara, being dead, still
speaks. Now I am ready to suggest what he and untold numbers of Russians like
him, have to say:
We must flee from the world, not from sorrow and pain.
From the time Russia began, at Kiev, its government, social life, and state religion
have given serious believers only one option: flight. That option they have used
over and over.
But the more I learn about Russia's believers, the more I have come to see that
they did not flee to save their bodies. They fled to save their souls. Many times
that flight did not involve geography at all.
Jesus Christ fled the fashion, commerce, and politics of his day. Sometimes he did
it literally (going to the desert to pray). But usually he did it only in his mind and
in his actions. He refused to pay attention to what the world believed important.
He turned his back on wealth and fame. But when they seized him and took him to
the cross he faced it calmly, even though he could have escaped.
In the same way, believers in Russia turned their backs on what was easy and
pleasant, and willingly faced hardship and death. Doing this, the church survived!
Things" are traps.
At a language institute where I used to teach college-level students I learned much
about clothes. Every day I saw new outfits. No sooner did the buzzer go than bags
appeared from under chairs. Students rushed by twos and threes to the bathroom to
try on brand name jeans or tee shirts to go with major league caps and air pump
tennis shoes. Now we are in the United States. It is Christmas season. An eighty
page gift catalogue lies on my desk-spiral sliced boneless honey glazed ham,
monogrammed glass beer steins, a musical copper stove with lids on kettles that
lift as it plays
My Favourite Things, gold prayer cross pendants, chocolate cherry
fudge logs . . . while untold millions go hungry and a hurricane has just devastated
What, in our western world, has happened to self-denial?
Everything is for sale, more often than not "on special." Every day's mail brings
more gaudy fliers and bills. Shopping centres get larger and more numerous, and
everyone, it seems, has more money to spend.
What does the brother, with his house paid, a steady income, and a comfortable
savings account decide when he goes to buy a car? Does he buy the car he needs
or the car he wants? Does he even stop to consider whether he needs a car or not?
Does it occur to the overweight sister with a credit card in her purse, a vehicle at
her disposal, and time to go shopping, to deny herself of a tray of sugared donuts?
What does the youth in the sports department, with a wad of cash in his pocket
(after all, he earned it!), think he needs?
Trapped in money and things! If we think like the world, buy like the world, and
entertain ourselves like the world-would it be unfair if God let us spend eternity
with the world?
Unlike Russia's believers, we in the west seem to think it our "inalienable right"
not to have to give up things-neither good things nor bad.
Giving up a spouse after divorce and remarriage-unthinkable! Give up owning a
car-You must be crazy! Give up a television set, a computer, a trip to
Yellowstone, electricity in the house . . . If I would go on like this someone might
throw this book away. The very idea that something good can (and perhaps
should) be given up for Christ seems laughable, or even heretical, to many
Christians in America. But Matvey Semyonovich Dalmatov, Yefim
Pereyaslavsky, the "road Christians," and others like them even gave up their lives
for Christ, and the church survived!
The way of the world, not the way of Christ, is crazy.
Every so often while writing this book I would almost lose heart, thinking, "This
is so crazy no one will read it. Or if they do they will reject it outright." But
something in the "craziness" of the Old Believers and Lev Tolstoy began to speak
to me. What is crazy, Old Believers sitting to fish through the ice near the Arctic
Circle for refusing to get a birth certificate, or two hundred million Americans
sitting-with the end of time and creation upon them-watching Donald Duck on
Until recently I taught at a private high school in San José, Costa Rica.
students taught me what is "normal" in the 1990s. One day I came to a class early.
The other teacher had not finished and I listened to a row of fourteen and fifteenyear-
olds giving reports on different contraceptives, how to use them and how
great a risk of pregnancy each one involves. Virtually all students by that time had
experience in using them and talked about it. We had several
couples in class, and occasionally a maternity dropout. This, they told me, is
During the World Cup soccer games (France 98) our school was a madhouse. Ears
propped on hands more than likely concealed Walkman wires. Boys shaved their
heads to look like Ronaldo or died their hair yellow. Wherever I went-to and
from work on the bus, even from my preschoolers playing on the back patio-I
heard the Ricky Martin song. Crowds pushed up to store windows with TV
displays and for goals made by certain teams one had to hold one's ears for the
screaming, the roars, and the honking of horns as pedestrians went wild,
embracing one another, throwing girls into the air, or even trying to lift cars in the
euphoria. This, they told me, is "normal." Even something to laugh about.
A woman we know left her church to join a more "Spiritual" one. A reason she
likes the new church better is that she can wear jeans to services (in her former
setting she had to wear a dress). She can also cut her hair, wear ear rings, and paint
her face. All this, she assures us, is "normal" among Christians today, but to wear
a big head scarf with tassles, high shoes, and a black apron like she used to-why,
that would be
Russia's believers never thought the world was normal. Neither did they think it
crazy to act, look, or think in a radically different way for Christ, and the church
Christ's demands are not fanatical.
The world's idea of
things, and of what is "normal," has always made Christ, who
asks us to give up everything (like he did), look fanatical.
But what impresses me
is not the "fanaticism" of those who give up
things to find eternal life. It is the
narrow-mindedness and fanaticism of those who feel threatened by Christ's
example and crucify him again and again.
The early Christians refused to put a pinch of incense on pagan altars. For
preferring to die rather than co-operate in such trivial formality, people called
them "fanatics." They threw them into arenas with lions and bears and hung their
wives by one foot from trees.
Who was "fanatical"? Who made the most out of trivia?
The border between the spiritual kingdom of Christ and the material kingdom of
the world seldom runs along the lines of major issues. It runs through what most
people find possible to dismiss as "nonessentials." For the Old Believers that was
how to spell Jesus, or whether to report births and deaths. For the Molokans it was
whether to keep state holidays. For many in this century it was whether one should
be officially registered to hold meetings.
But in all their history some of Russia's believers refused to bow to outside
pressure, even in "nonessentials," and the church survived!
Resisting the world's way brings persecution.
The way of Christ constantly puts the antichristian world into perspective. It also
bothers the world.
If our way of life does not bother the world, is it not that we have become just like
Christ and his followers, because they have always resisted the world's way, have
always suffered persecution. The world's intolerance of nonconformity, pitted
against Christ's intolerance of worldliness, has never allowed for a middle ground.
Resisting the world and suffering persecution go hand in hand. That is true
True nonconformity (not just the wearing of a distinctive uniform) invites the
wrath of everyone: the world's government, the world's church, or whoever's
conscience gets pricked by it. Russia's believers did not fear to prick the
consciences of others, and the church survived!
Christ lives only with the nonconformed.
In the west, we handle the issue of nonconformity in two ways. The majority of
us, unlike Christ, shy away from visible nonconformity, thinking it must come
from legalism or a Pharisaical "holier than thou" attitude. We rationalise what the
world does as somehow compatible with the Gospel-making it "Christian" for
the immoral to continue in second marriages, the proud to live in style, and the
greedy to keep on making money as fast as they can. Nonconformity, some of us
think, is a matter of the heart.
The rest of us, unlike Christ, standardise nonconformity by drawing up lists of
rules on what to eat, what to wear, or exactly how to make our living. We think
Christians must come to a certain "balanced position"-not close enough to the
world to be "liberal" yet not so far away as to be "fanatical." To see someone else
not quite where we are makes us uncomfortable, as if a more nonconformed
lifestyle somehow threatened us, or our freedom in Christ.
In this area, Russia's believers may have the most to tell us. To them, no degree of
nonconformity looked dangerous and they did not limit it in any way. They
thought the opportunity should exist for everyone to go as far in following Christ
as he wants to. One cannot go overbalance, they believed, in following him.
If that meant living on bread and salt, sleeping on the road, or wearing nothing but
a long grey robe with a twine around one's middle, it was alright. Those who did
not go that far (for family or other reasons) did not feel threatened. Instead, they
looked up to those who reached higher levels of self denial, and the church
Being different is not enough. We must be like Christ.
We western individuals find it hard to decide on issues of nonconformity. As
groups we find it even harder. The world keeps changing and nonconformity-if it
is true nonconformity-must keep changing with it. We also change. That makes
everything relative, we think, and hard to decide. Yet everything must and will get
Russia's believers from Nikolai Svyatosha to Nikolai Khmara decided how to be
nonconformed by deciding to
conform to Christ. Doing this, the church survived!
Nonconformity begins with an awareness of Christ.
Nil Sorsky already knew that we become
detached from the world's things to the
degree that we
attach ourselves to Christ. He also knew that this takes place in
constant awareness of his presence. Wherever we are, while fully aware of Christ
we will not do, nor say, nor think what is wrong.
In 1968, at a meeting of the Poustinniki among their abandoned farms and spruce
trees at Combermere in northeastern Ontario, a question arose: "What if the Lord
would want us to live in the city? Could we do that and remain as close to Christ
as here in the woods?" Yekaterina, the woman whose memories of old Russia
inspired the community's founding, wrote in answer:
Suppose you were married and began expecting a child. Would you stop cooking
for your husband? Would you stop doing the laundry and the cleaning, or stop
going to meetings . . . ? No. You would go about your daily business. The only
difference between you and everyone else would be that you were carrying a
child. Your womb would be a Poustinia for the child, and you would carry him
wherever you go.
Now you are carrying Christ, and bring his presence with you. . . . You have, as it
poustinia within you. It is as if within you there was a little log cabin in
which you and Christ were very close. In this attitude you go about your business.
God forbid that everyone should become a recluse or a hermit! That is not what it
means to be a poustinik. . . . It means that within yourselves you have made a
room, a log cabin, a secluded space. You have built it by prayer-the Jesus
Prayer perhaps. . . . And because you are aware of Christ . . . you can bring him to
the street, and among people, in a very special and powerful way.
Quietness, and the Spirit of Christ living in a "log cabin within." If as much as one
noisy, active, western Christian can be brought into heavenly silence through the
message of the Russian believers described in this book, they will not have lived
their lives in vain.
Smallness and silence before Christ the King. A repentant attitude. This is
umilenie. This is koinonia. And awareness of Christ-beginning with such a
simple thing as calling on the name of the Lord-will not stop until it becomes an
awareness of the infinite. Then it is eternal life. A secret. A great mystery, hidden
from the wise and prudent. But Russia's believers discovered it-
Khriste, syne Bozhii, pomilui nas greshnykh!
-to survive Yosif Stalin, the
Bolsheviks, Rasputin and Pobedonostsev, Tsar Nikolai I, Peter the Great, Ivan the
Terrible . . . the Antichrist.
To survive we need more than to follow the example of Christ. We need to walk
with him. If we learn how to do this, our church will survive too.
A Roman Catholic school.
Luke 14: 33, "Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us!
Note on Names
For security and other reasons, Russian Christians often used initials or did not
mention the names of the people they wrote about. Some used pseudonyms. This
was the best thing to do in their time. But it was not the best for this story. It will
be hard enough for readers to keep a clear picture of who did what, without having
to deal with unnamed or partially named characters. I only wrote about real
people, but where names were missing I have supplied them, as follows. Should
anyone who reads the story know what the real names of these people were, please
contact the publisher. The names or parts of names I supplied appear in italics:
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