29. Abbess Antonina

Russia's Catacomb Saints

29Abbess Antonina
Comemorated March 1 (†1929)

Then shall they begin to say
to the mountains, Fall on us;
and to the hills, Cover us.

Luke 23:30

he following is an eye-witness account of a true member of the Catacomb Church, Natalia V. Urusova, who herself endured a bloodless martyrdom in the years since the Revolution up to the end of the Second World War. Her crime was that she was a firmly believing Christian, belonged to an aristocratic family, was a monastically oriented “Josephite”, and the mother of several mar tyred sons.
IN THE VLADIKAVKAS, not far from the railroad station was a convent dedicated to the Holy Icon of the Iviron Mother of God. I used to visit this monastery every day. I became very close to many nuns, but especially to the kind-hearted Matushka, Abbess Theophania. She was not highly educated and evidently came from a peasant family, but she was a wonderful humble soul.
It was early in the year 1922. One day I came to her and she said to me: “I want to share with you a secret, about which no one knows save for myself, the nun who is the treasurer, and my cell-attendant [rassaphore nun]. Come, let us, go.”
Abbess Theophania conducted me through several rooms, and in the last one—from which a spiral staircase led to the attic—there was sitting another abbess. I instantly understood that she was an abbess because she was wearing a gold cross. She was unusually attractive, not only in her friendliness and spiritual loveliness, but in her rare outward beauty as well. She looked very young and one could never have guessed that she was already forty. For three months, despite the freezing cold of winter, they had been hiding her in the attic and only rarely would bring her down to this room so that she could get warm. The secret was well kept. Only the cell-attendant would ascend to the attic when she brought her food and other necessities. Soon I too became very close to her for we had much in common and we became quite attached to one another. She was well educated and from a good, noble family.
It was not long before she told me her story. She was the Abbess of a women’s convent in the town of Kizliar in the Caucasus. In the beginning of the Revolution, when the plundering of monasteries was a common occurrence, a crowd of Bolshevik bandits broke into their convent destroying everything, robbing, and shooting to death several nuns who resisted. When for a short time the White Army took the town of Kizliar, somebody unknown indicated to them the persons who had destroyed the monastery and killed the nuns. The murderers were shot by the Whites. When the White Army retreated and the Bolsheviks took control of the town, they began to search for the person who had told the Whites. The Abbess, totally innocent, was accused and sentenced—an act of pure revenge. However, the Lord helped her to flee and at night she walked to Vladikavkas, to this convent where Abbess Theophania hid her. All over the whole of the Caucasus there were posted proclamations and “wanted” posters: “He who will show the whereabouts of the former Abbess of Kizliar Convent, Antonina, will receive a reward of 3,000 gold rubles.”
For a whole month and a half I had the good fortune of seeing Abbess An tonina almost every day. Once, on a freezing cold night, when there was an unusual amount of snow, at one o’clock at night someone knocked at my window. Everyone woke up frightened. Who would knock at night except for the GPU? I lifted the cur tain and couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw Abbess Antonina in a white sheep-skin coat; on either side of her stood the nun-treasurer and the cell attendant Anfisa. “Hurry up, hurry up. Open and hide Matushka.” They came in. We turned off the lights so as not to attract attention and what did we hear? We heard the following incredible, obvious miracle of God.
Just a few days before this, about which I had no idea, a certain young girl came to the convent, calling herself a daughter of the noble Troubetskoy family. With tears she begged the Abbess to receive her, stating that her father and mother had been killed and their estate robbed, and she remained alone in her grief. She played the part so well that she managed to gain the confidence of the Abbess who, in the simplicity of her heart, not only accepted and was very kind to the girl, but soon even confided to her the secret of Abbess Antonina. The girl disappeared at once—she was an agent of the GPU looking for Matushka Antonina. That same night the convent was surrounded by militia so that no one could escape. They broke in to search, demanding that the abbess be surrendered. When the cell- attendant ran upstairs to inform Abbess Antonina about this, she said: “Well, what can we do? If it is pleasing to the Lord that they find me, let it be so. But if it is not His will, He will close people’s eyes, and they, seeing will not see. Come, we shall go out in front of them.” The nuns put the sheep-skis on her and the three of them went down the stairs and simply walked out of the convent gate before the very eyes of all the RetArmy soldiers. They had not gone far when they heard the commander shout, “Who just went out of the gate? Who was led out?” The Red Army soldiers answered, “We didn’t see anybody.” “What do you mean, retorted the angry commander, “someone just left in a white sheep-skin coat accompanied by two nuns.” Everyone denied it and only thought that the cormmander was imagining things. They searched everywhere, turned everything upside-down and were forced to leave empty-handed. A miracle!
And so she was brought to me. I, of course, was overjoyed that I could hide her, although even in our place it was very risky for her, since we ourselves could be arrested at any time. I asked the nuns: “What shall I feed Matushka, for our meals are very poor?” The nuns answered, “We shall bring her meals twice a day, lunch and dinner.” They sat with us until morning. Abbess Antonina remained with us and they returned to the monastery. Soon they brought the food, which they continued to do twice a day in the course of the two weeks she lived with us.
No one could help but love her. The children just adored her, and even my husband, usually indifferent to so many things, respected her and conversed with her with unfeigned pleasure. In those days it was still possible to acquire for a cer tain sum a secret shelter in the mountains from the local hill-folk, known as the In- gush. The convent wanted to do that, but such an enormous sum of money was demanded that even if all the possessions of the convent—what little remained after the Bolshevik plunder—could have been sold, even then it would not have sufficed. We decided that she would stay with us and did not make any plans for the im mediate future, leaving her in God’s hands, as we had all come to love her very much. She, however, suffered terribly at the thought that if she were discovered, then not only she would pay severely for it, but we also would be forced to suffer. Her whole case, of course, was a miracle and sheer Providence of God. After all, ever since that night of searching for her in the monastery, in spite of all the hideous designs of the GPU investigations, no one had detected where and why the nuns walked twice a day carrying hot dinners.
Two weeks went by. Meanwhile I put up a gauze curtain separating a place in a corner for her in the only room, where there were already five children. There was a bed for her and a hanging lampada brought from the monastery which was always burning. Once I noticed that Matushka spent the whole night kneeling and fervently praying with tears. I could see through the thin curtain and I couldn’t sleep; I could not help but be affected by her sorrow. Early in the morning she turned to me and said, “Please do me a favor. Go to the Blessed Anastasia Andreyevna and, without saying anything else, tell her: Matushka Antonina is asking for your bles sing.’’
Anastasia Andreyevna, a righteous fool-for-Christ’s-sake, well known throughout all of the Vladikavkas region for her gift of clairvoyance, lived in a small hut located in the back yard of a good Christian. I went to her. She asked me what I needed and I told her that Matushka Antonina asked for her blessing.
“Yes, yes!” she answered. “Tell her that she should fear nothing; what she has decided and prayed about she should fulfill; yes, she should fulfill. She should go to the large red government house; yes, she should go!”
I told Abbess Antonina her answer and her face lit up...
“I decided to give myself up to the GPU today. I suffer terribly because you will have to answer for me, and even though I prayed, I still had fears and doubts about going through with this. But now, after the words of the blessed one, nothing and nobody can stop me.”
The children and I burst into tears. What could we hope for? The GPU—why, this was an unutterable horror! She left, having parted with us in tears, but with an amazingly tranquil face which became even more glowing and more beautiful than before. She was in her monastic garb and wearing the gold cross of an abbess. In spite of all the hindrances and dangers, she never took off her monastic attire. A little more than an hour passed. We all sat in silence, given over to grief and the thought of her fate. All of a sudden my eleven year old daughter, looking out the window, cried out: “Matushka Antonina is coming!” She came in full of such extraordinary joy that it is impossible to describe. And this is what she told us:
“I came to the house of the GPU. The guard on duty asked why I had come. I answered that I would tell and give my name only to the chief. Others joined, demanding subordination to the rules and regulations and that I should register. I said, ‘Tell the chief that I wish to see him and will not subordinate myself to anybody else.’ They went and reported this to him. He ordered them to inform me that no one was allowed to violate the rules of admission. I again insisted that I would talk only to him. At this time the door opened into the corridor and the chief himself peered out. Seeing me he said, ‘Come in.’ So I entered. ‘What do you want?’ ‘You are offering 3,000 rubles for my head. Well, I brought it to you myself.’ He was so dumbfounded that he’got up and said, ‘You, you are Abbess Antonina, and you came to us yourself?!!’ I said yes, and that I had brought my own head. He took out my photograph from his desk. I took from my pocket one just like it. He looked at me and said, ‘You are free, Go wherever you want’! As I was leaving,We said, ‘In a year’s time, according to the law, I will be obliged to give you some punishment’...
No one investigated where she went after leaving the GPU and no one touched us. She settled openly in the convent where she lived peacefully for another year. Later I learned that she was ordered to work for a year as a maid in a com munist hotel in the city of Rostov-on-the-Don. But even then she did not take off her monastic attire. Not a single communist, however, would demand service from her; all dealt with her without malice or insults; all paid her the utmost respect and would even slightly bow to her. In 1923 such things could still occur.
Some twelve years later, when I was in Kazakhstan in the city of Akhtyubinsk where I lived with my son who was exiled there, I met Archimandrite Arsenius who was also exiled there. He was a close friend of Metropolitan Joseph of Petrograd and through him I had the pleasure of meeting that holy hierarch. I found out that Father Arsenius knew well Abbess Antonina and he told me the following about her:
When her time of sentence was over, a group of twelve nuns formed a monastic community under her direction and went to the town of Tuapse with the aim of founding a secret skete high up in the mountains. In those days many monks from the ruthlessly destroyed monasteries hoped to settle in the mountains as her mits to avoid persecution from the Bolsheviks. But the minds of the GPU were sly; they placed their secret agents disguised as forest rangers all over the mountains, and one by one they discovered all the secret sketes and dwellings of these her mits—almost all of whom were shot on the spot.
When Abbess Antonina climbed up to the top of one high mountain, she met a monk from the skete where Father Arsenius was living. In that wind-swept, craggy wasteland, way up high and far removed from the world, she discovered a whole monastic settlement with caves and churches and enough provisions to live and serve God daily for some time. The monks there offered to help and at once set about digging out caves beneath the roots of huge trees, which became dweffings for the nuns. The monks lived in similar dwellings. They likewise constructed a church there and with joy helped the nuns in their needs. But this hidden community was not to last long.
Soon both sketes were discovered. Out of fourteen monks, only one, Father Arsenius who was the youngest, was spared and not shot as were the others; he was exiled for eight years to a concentration camp far away in outermost Siberia, and upon completion of these eight years, he was sent to a settlement in Alma Ata. At this time Abbess Antonina was also arrested with all her nuns. She was not shot on the spot but exiled to an unknown place.
And this is all that Natalia V. Urusova tells about this holy abbess in her manuscript memoires. However, Protopresbyter Michael Polsky, publishing this material in his seconed volume of The New Martyrs of Russia (p. 248), adds to her story from his own experiences in the south of Russia (VoL III, in manuscript, quoted below), giving a broader picture of the suffering Christians in the Caucasus and shedding light on the lives of martyrs hitherto unknown.
“In 1928, or in early 1929, a group of monk-ascetics was discovered in the Caucasus and executed by shooting. They were adherents to the teaching known as ‘Name-worshippers,’ originally expelled from Mt. Athos to the Crimea in about 1912. Their leader was Paul Dometich Grigorovich, a noble Kievan landowner who, after 20 years of monasticism, was drafted into the army where he held a high rank during the First World War. After the Revolution he returned to the Caucasus and was known as Father Panteleimon. The compiler of this book personally knew him as well as other ‘name-worshippers’ because in 1918, during the Civil War and the White Army movement in Kuban, a group of Orthodox missionaries con ducted several conferences with the adherents of this teaching with the aim of bringing them back to unity with the Orthodox Church. They hoped to accomplish this by conducting doctrinal debates concerning the Name of God. I was one of these missionaries. A whole list of dogmatic resolutions was developed and signed by both sides. The former name-worshipping monk Methodius was lawfully or dained hieromonk for those who rejected the heresy, and sent to them into the mountains. But unfortunately a disagreement soon sprang up among them. Father Methodius remained loyal to Orthodoxy and left the mountains. On his way back, at one of the railroad stations, he was shot by the Bolsheviks. In ten years’ time the rest of the desert-dwellers were also shot. They were described by the Bolshevik press as a dangerous, counter-revolutionary organization. In 1930 the writer of these lives himself wished to remain in Russia and live in the Caucasus, but having met the desert-dwellers and having learned more about their situation, he became convinced that to remain there would be impossible: all were kept under secret surveillance by the near-by village au It is true that some went deep into the impenetrable thickets of the mountainous heights and for a long time no one knew their whereabouts. But the story of Abbess Antonina shows how an end was put even to these last desert-dwelling ascetics of the Caucasus.
It must be/mentioned that the greatest monastic attraction in this southern region was the famous monastery of St. Simon Canaanite the Apostle, better known as New Athos. In 1928 whatever remained of that veritable lavra of several hun dred austere monks was destroyed. In the relatively short time of its existence, since the end of the 19th century, the monastery had acquired great renown and posses sions; it was very well established and was an example to other monasteries throughout the whole Orthodox world. That year all the monastery property was stolen, everything was destroyed, and finally a group of 140 monks, who had managed to escape the first arrests by hiding in the mountains, was caught and taken to the Novocherkask prison on the Black Sea. The monks were interrogated, and upon their refusal to make a statement accepting the Soviet authority as beneficial to humanity, they were separated into groups and led to the torture chambers in the cellar of the NKVD building. There they were severely beaten and tortured. At night they were taken to a place in the Kosa region, seven miles out side the city of Novocherkask. They were lined up against a wall and shot. That wall was well known to all the inhabitants of the city.
All Orthodox Christians should remember these valiant servants of Christ who remained true to Him even unto a martyr’s death.
During the persecution of the Church and its clergy, in 1923 there came to the Caucasus a holy recluse. He appeared in the territory of Vladikavkas, in a deserted place 20 miles from a small railroad station by the name of Podgorny. He was from Central Russia but no one knows exactly where.
The territory where he chose to dwell was the foothills of the Caucasus. In a deep forest of gorges and cliffs, he dug a cave for himself where he lived and also had a small church. The altar table was hewn out of rock and there were a number of icons. It was all very poor and yet everything necessary for Divine Services was there. The recluse, Elder Makary, conducted services in this church. When the local people found out about him, they began to flock to him. There they would receive confession and Holy Communion, and the elder would also provide for their other spiritual needs. The number of his visitors constantly increased; within
short time he was receiving pilgrims almost every day.
Elder Makary was 65 years old, a genuine ascetic whom God glorified in answering his prayers and granting him the gift of clairvoyance: he would tell peo ple their secret thoughts and deeds. The elder would always meet his visitors about two miles away from his cave and would then conduct them to his dwelling. No one forewarned him about their coming—he would discern it in his spirit. True pilgrimages began to take place, people coming from the vicinity of Kuban and local towns. The believers found there spiritual repose and they felt that they were cared for. After all, there were almost no churches left in the entire area and people were as sheep seeking shepherds.
Father Makary lived in seclusion until 1928. In this frightful year the Bolsheviks decided to put an end to his church. They had known about it for some time but for some reason had never reached it. At last they came and arrested the holy recluse. They wanted to take him away secretly, but the believers found out about his arrest and rushed to see him for the last time. As Father Makary was walking away under guard, he blessed the people on all sides and bid them his final farewell. This holy pastor of the persecuted Catacomb Church was finally martyred in the far north.
After the Second World War, there circulated in Russian emigre circles a brochure entitled, “Why I Also Believe in God.” In it, the author, originally an atheist pilot, describes how he was commissioned to track down a group of monks and priests hiding way up high in the Caucasus. It must have been as late as the out break of the war. One day he spotted a ragged group of them on a high plateau. Upon seeing the plane, they began to run. The pilot clearly saw how they, apparent ly fleeing in the direction of their hiding place, were actually heading towards a wide chasm which separated them from the rest of that mountainous plateau. When they reached the abyss, they made the sign of the cross and, to the pilot’s utter astonish ment, they continued running in the air(!) until, having safely reached the other side, they disappeared from sight into the rocky cliffs. The dumbfounded pilot was instantly converted and came to believe in God Who had hidden his faithful slaves from the eyes of evil men but had allowed him to be a witness of this great miracle of Russia’s Catacomb Saints for the salvation of his soul.

Sources: Polsky, The New Martyrs of Russia, Jordanville, 1957, pp. 244-249 and Vol. iii, manuscript; N. Urusova, manuscript.