33. Boris Talantov

Russia's Catacomb Saints


Boris Talantov


N JANUARY FOURTH, 1971, in a prison hospital in the city of Kirov (formerly Vyatka), Boris Vladimirovich Talantov died, in his 68th year, of heart disease.  In the Soviet system he died in disgrace, as a political criminal, having been in prison since September, 1969, for writing a series of extremely outspoken and detailed accounts of the persecution of the Orthodox faithful by the atheist regime and by the leading hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate—a “crime” known in the Soviet Union as “anti-Soviet activities.”

The life of Boris Talantov is a “typical” Christian biography of Soviet times, culminating, in his last years, in an untypical boldness in speaking the truth concerning the religious situation in the USSR.  He is an example of the shocking truth of the statement made by the writer Anatoly Kuznetsov, who escaped from the Soviet Union and came to the West in 1968: “It is impossible to be a Soviet citizen and at the same time a 100 per cent decent human being.”  Boris Talantov was an honest man who kept the Orthodox faith to the end and his Christian conscience clean; and therefore there was simply no place for him in the Soviet system — except prison.

The chief events of his own biography were described by Talantov himself in his “Complaint to the Attorney General of the Soviet Union” of April 26, 1968 (English text in Religion in Communist Dominated Areas, August 15131, 1968).  The quotes that follow are from this document, in the words of Talantov himself.

Boris Talantov was born in 1903 in the province of Kostroma, in the family of a priest.  In 1922-23 he attended the Mezhov Institute in Moscow.

"My close relatives and I suffered greatly from the lawlessness and arbitrary rule of the state security agencies during the Stalin period.  My father was condemned by a troika (a committee of three secret police officials who sentenced their victims without hearing or appeal) in 1937 at the age of 62, and in spite of his age and illness was placed in the Temnikovskiye camps (Sarov Monastery), where the writer Yuli M. Daniel is now located.  On February 5, 1940, I submitted a petition to the attorney general of the RSFSR for his early release from imprisonment on the grounds of illness.  After prolonged red tape, the attorney general’s office informed me only on December 19, 1940, that my father had died in the camps on March 12, 1940.  The sole reason for his arrest and conviction was that he was a clergyman.  My brother Seraphim Vladimirovich Talantov, working as a hydraulic technician in 1930, at the age of 22 in the city of Vologda, was arrested and convicted without any cause.  He perished in concentration camps on the White Sea-Baltic Canal.  I myself from 1930 to 1941, due to my origin, was continually subjected to threats from the state security agencies.  In 1954, I was expelled from the Pedagogical Institute for religious convictions, though the cause was officially entered as invalid status.

Working without reproach, as the documents can show, for my whole life each day I expected that I would be arrested without cause—‘to rot in prison,’ or would be fired from my job with ‘blacklisting.’  Therefore, I held it my duty to write the newspaper Pravda a letter of protest against the tyranny and lawlessness of the state security agencies” (pp. 126-7).

This letter, the first of many documents to arouse the ire of Soviet officials against the author, was sent by Talantov anonymously on July 18, 1957.  “I do not know whether this letter reached the editor of the newspaper Pravda, but ultimately it reached the Kirov KGB (state security-political police, formerly GPU) Headquarters.  The latter, by studying the handwriting, established that the author of the letter was me.  On July 29, 1958, I was summoned to the KGB Headquarters, where in writing I confirmed my authorship and expressed the regret that due to faintheartedness I had not signed the letter.  On August 14, 1958, 1 was fired from my job at the Kirov... Polytechnic Institute ‘on my own wishes’” (p. 127).

Far from being intimidated by such pressure, Talantov wrote several other letters, now openly under his own name, which he describes as follows:

“I.  A letter to the magazine Science and Religion containing a refutation of one lie of anti religious propaganda.  It was sent on October 31, 1960, and has essentially gone unanswered.

“II.  A letter to the newspaper Izvestiya, “Mass Destruction of Monuments of Church Architecture in the Kirov Area,” sent February 19, 1963. The editor of the newspaper sent me nothing in response to this letter, but a Moscow lecturer in the summer of 1963, evidently on assignment of the editor, at a meeting in the city of Kirov recommended that I be subjected to forced treatment for my seditious letter, that is, placement in a mental hospital.

“III.  A letter to the newspaper Izvestiya, “The Soviet State and the Christian Religion,” received by the newspaper’s editor on December 19, 1966” (p. 127).

This last letter was an amplification of an Open Letter to Patriarch Alexy written by Talantov and signed by twelve believers of the Kirov region.  “The letter contained mainly a description of unconscionable actions of the local Bishop John aimed at setting church life in disarray.  Therefore, the believers requested the Patriarch to remove Bishop John immediately.  Among other matters, the letter noted that local civil authorities have, from 1960 to 1964, illegally and forcibly closed 40 churches in the Kirov area (53%), had the icons and iconostases in these churches set afire, plundered the church valuables, and had a number of churches completely destroyed without any necessity for so doing” (p. 123).

The ‘Open Letter of Kirov Believers to Patriarch Alexy’ was sent abroad by some method unknown to us and on December 8, 1966, the BBC radio released its content.

“On February 14, 1967, I was summoned to the Kirov Headquarters of the KGB in regard to these letters.  At this point it was proposed to me that I officially repudiate my signature on the ‘Open Letter of Kirov Believers’ which had become well known abroad.  In a written explanation I pointed out that, as an author of the ‘Open Letter’ and of a letter sent to the editor of the newspaper lzvestiya, I confirm the genuineness of my signature to the ‘Open Letter’ and express my readiness to stand firm on the accuracy of what both letters contain... On the very same day a KGB official removed from my apartment my working flies consisting of outlines of various philosophical works with my commentary...

“Later, on February 25, I learned from a BBC broadcast that at the same time that I was confirming in the Kirov KGB Headquarters the genuineness of my signature to the ‘Open Letter of Kirov Believers,’ in London Metropolitan Nikodim had declared this letter to be anonymous and therefore not worthy of any credibility.  He made clear his readiness to swear to the truth of his statement on the Cross and the Scriptures... This assertion of Metropolitan Nikodim greatly distressed me, as an Orthodox Christian, since from previous correspondence with the Moscow Patriarchate I was convinced that Metropolitan Nikodim could not be in doubt of the authenticity of the ‘Open Letter.’  Therefore, on March 22 I sent to Patriarch Alexy a letter in which I refuted the assertion of Metropolitan Nikodim about the anonymity of the ‘Open Letter of Kirov Believers’ and confirmed the credibility of its contents.

“In addition to myself, the ‘Open Letter’ was signed by seven more citizens of the city of Kirov.  Early in April, they were individually summoned to the Kirov City Council in regard to this matter.  Here, inquiries were made by the secretary of the City Council, L. Ostanina, who labelled me ‘a dangerous individual with foreign connections,’ and threatened prison for anyone who signed any further letters of this kind.  In spite of the threats, all confirmed that they had signed the ‘Open Letter’ voluntarily and fully conscious of what they were doing....

“At the same time KGB officials bullied several believers who were petitioning to open a second church in the city of Kirov, accusing them of having ties with me, calling me ‘a dangerous political criminal.’  Finally, one lecturer at the Polytechnic Institute, where I had worked in 1955-58 as an instructor in higher mathematics, publicly called me ‘an enemy of the people,’ as was common in the time of Yezhov (Stalin’s chief of secret police at the height of the worst ‘purges’ of the late 1930s)” (pp. 124, 125).

Another result of these letters of Talantov was an article published in the Soviet newspaper Kirov Pravda on May 31, 1967, “which contained slanderous assertions, gross threats, and unwarranted insults aimed in my direction,” and which contained quotes from the personal archive of Talantov which the KGB had seized on February 14, 1967 — thus showing the close working relation between the Soviet press and the political police in the persecution of believers.  The tragic outcome was that “my wife, Nina Agafangelovna Talantova, suffering from hypertension, was unable to bear up under the threats and slanderous charges of the article, consistent in the style of the intimidating articles against the pseudo-enemies of the people of the Yezhov period.  On September 7, 1967, as the result of the traumatic experiences, she suffered a heart attack and died on September 16, 1967.

“On the day of her death, I wished to have the rite of unction performed for her, as she desired.  But the Dean of the sole remaining open Orthodox church in the city of Kirov, that of St. Seraphim, told me that the local authorities forbade the rite of unction to be performed in homes.  This deplorable case demonstrates that believing Christians in the city of Kirov are deprived nowadays even of those rights that they were given by J. V. Stalin” (p. 135).  Talantov himself was seriously ill at this time.

In a recent collection of documents detailing the “Persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church Today,” Patriarch and Prophets (edited by Rev. Michael Bordeaux, Praeger, N. Y., 1970), three other texts by Boris Talantov are given in English translation: “The Calamitous Situation of the Orthodox Church in the Kirov Region and the Role of the Moscow Patriarchate” (Nov. 10, 1966), which is very similar in content to the “Open Letter of Kirov Believers”; and a brief selection from two articles reaching the West in 1968 concerning the betrayal of the Church by the leaders of the Moscow Patriarchate (described further below).  Several other articles of his, including one on “Russian Society, 1965-68,” have appeared in the West in Russian in the periodicals Posev and the Messenger of the Russian Student Christian Movement in Paris.

As a result of all these writings, Boris Talantov was arrested on June 12, 1969, and on September 3 he was sentenced to two years in prison for “anti-Soviet activities.”  In his final address at his trial, he affirmed the truth of his statements and his faithfulness to his religious convictions and bade farewell to his friends, since he did not expect to return alive from prison.  And so it happened.

For the faithful inside of the USSR, Boris Talantov is an inspiring example of Christian courage against overwhelming obstacles.  Here is how he is described by the Moscow intellectual Anatoly Krasnov-Levitin, who has himself suffered imprisonment for his outspokenness, in an article “Drama in Vyatka,” which was written at the time of Talantov’s arrest, and was then smuggled out of the USSR and published in Posev (October, 1969).

“I saw him only once in my life: a short little old man with a small gray beard, stooped, with a cheap little case in his hands, untalkative.  In appearance, a typical man from the back woods... When all the newspapers and magazines were filled with foul slander against believers, and the hierarchs sat in their places; afraid to utter a word in defense of the Church, — at that time the humble teacher from Vyatka battled for the Church.  He battled with the pen, writing striking letters to all fronts; he battled with the word, accusing the arbitrariness of the local authorities and the criminal connivance of the hierarchs.  It was difficult for him, an old man.  For in the provinces he was completely alone...  In the provinces people are more timid than in Moscow, the authorities are more despotic, arbitrariness is more cynical.  But it turned out that in this meek little old man there was an iron will, titanic energy and a great heart.  Diseases did not break him, nor difficult personal grief.  He is a hero, but a reticent, unobtrusive, quiet hero.  He gives his life simply, without affectation, without pose.  He speaks the truth in an even, calm voice, and with an even, quiet step proceeds to Golgotha.”

Thus Boris Talantov lived and died as a fearless confessor of the holy Orthodox Faith.  With his bold protests against the authorities of State and Church and their persecution of Orthodoxy, he stands at the head of those many believers whose heartfelt appeals and protests have reached the free world in the past decade: the believers of Pochaev, the two Moscow priests, Archbishop Ermogen, and others.  But in the depth of his analyses he surpasses them all, and indeed adds an entirely new dimension to their protests.

Boris Talantov is a philosophical thinker; indeed, he complains in one letter that his notes and commentaries on various philosophical works have been stolen by the KGB.  Applying his philosophical mind to the tragic experiences of himself and his fellow believers under the Communist Yoke, he has penetrated to the very root of the ‘illness” of the present-day Moscow Patriarchate.  The problem is not merely those injustices, persecutions, and lies against which the believers have boldly been protesting for the past decade, but is to be found most fundamentally in the very principles of “Sergianism” itself: the “concordat” which Metropolitan Sergius made with the Soviet Government in 1927.  Talantov sets forth these views in a special article entitled “Sergievshchina. (i.e., 'the Sergianist affair,' with a pejorative connotation), or Adaption to Atheism (the Leaven of Herod)”.   (The whole article is printed below, page 465; here only a few quotes are given.)

Decisively rejecting the generally favorable view of Metropolitan (Patriarch) Sergius that prevails in the West, Talantov states that “the roots of the serious ecclesiastical crisis which has now been revealed were planted precisely by Patriarch Sergius.”  The latter’s “Declaration” in 1927 was not at all merely “a forced declaration of the Church Administration whose aim was to preserve church parishes;” rather, “this address and the ensuing activity of Metropolitan Sergius were a betrayal of the Church.”  “Metropolitan Sergius by his adaptation and lies saved no one and nothing, except his own person.”  Sergianism “not only did not save the Russian Orthodox Church during the period of J. Stalin but, on the contrary, contributed directly to the loss of an authentic freedom of conscience and the transformation of the church Administration into an obedient instrument of the atheistic regime.”  Even during World War II, when some churches were reopened, this was not at all a result of the “Sergianist” compromise.  “The opening of the churches within narrow limits was not the work of Patriarch Sergius or Patriarch Alexy, but this opening was accomplished by the atheistic regime itself under pressure from the common people and for their appeasement.”

In another even more penetrating article, “The Secret Participation of the Moscow Patriarchate in the Struggle of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Against the Orthodox Christian Church” (excerpts in Patriarch and Prophets, p. 331; Dunlop, pp. 101.106), Talantov sets forth the purposes for which the Moscow Patriarchate has become “an obedient instrument of the atheistic regime.”  At home, “the Moscow Patriarchate and the majority of the bishops are secretly participating in the organized activities of the atheistic regime, directed toward the closing of churches, the limitation of the spreading of faith and the undermining of it in our country.”  Abroad, “by means of shameless lies and slander” the Patriarchate tries to cover up “the unlawful closing of churches, the oppression of believers and their organizations, and the secret administrative measures directed toward the undermining of faith within the USSR... Secondly, the activity of the Patriarchate is directed toward leading by means of deceit and lies the development of the Christian movement in the whole world along a maximally false path and by this to undermine it.”  As an example of the latter point he cites the demand of the Moscow delegation at the Rhodes Pan-Orthodox Synod in 1961, that the Orthodox “repudiate Christian apologetics and an ideological struggle with contemporary atheism.”  In sum, Talantov warns, “activity of the Moscow Patriarchate abroad represents a conscious betrayal of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Christian faith.  It has stepped forth on the world arena as a secret agent of worldwide anti-Christianity.

No critic of the Moscow Patriarchate from the Russian Diaspora has come to more drastic conclusions than these.  Within the USSR Talantov’s words are fully in the tradition of the “Josephite” bishops of 1927, and indeed they demonstrate that the warnings of those bishops over the consequences of Sergius’ “Declaration” were entirely justified and have been more than fulfilled.  One might, therefore, ask what Tantalov's position might be with regard to the “Josephite” or Catacomb Church in the USSR today.  He in fact mentions it in one of his writings. “The Slobozhanin couple brought up their children in the Christian faith and in their home promulgated the Christian outlook on life among their fellow villagers.  In their home believers, calling themselves members of the True Orthodox Christians, Wanderers, came to worship, sing hymns, and read the Bible.  Their only difference from other Orthodox Christians was that they did not recognize Patriarch Alexy and other bishops installed by him, viewing them as traitors to the Church.  In June, 1961, the People’s Court held M. L. Slobozhanin to be a parasite and exiled him to remote areas for a period of five years... At the end of 1962, the same court deprived Tatyana Sbobzhanina of parental rights and exiled her as a parasite to locations outside her district, and the children were forcibly placed in a children’s home” (“Complaint to the Attorney General,” p. 131).  It is clear that Talantov stands together with these persecuted “True Orthodox Christians” against the tyranny of the State and the official Church hierarchy.  As John Dunlop has noted (p. 123), on the popular level the boundary between the “official” and the “catacomb” Church is somewhat fluid.  The writings of Boris Talantov testify to the presence of a deep division today within the Moscow Patriarchate between the “Sergianist” hierarchy with its “Communist Christianity” and the truly Orthodox faithful who reject this impious “adaptation to atheism.”  Those in the West who affirm the possibility of dealing with the Moscow hierarchy because it is persecuted, without seeing its own persecution of the faithful, stand accused by the writings of Boris Talantov of betraying the true Orthodox Christians of Russia.

God alone knows the future of the Russian Orthodox Church, but we cannot but believe that one day it will again be free.  The writings of Boris Talantov point toward that day.  Though they were begun with the aim of correcting present-day outrages to Orthodoxy, their final conclusions are so radical and so profound that they totally transcend the immediate conditions that gave them birth.  They will doubtless be used as testimony at that longed-for Council of the entire free Russian Church, including the Churches of the Catacombs and of the Diaspora, that will finally judge the situation created by the Communist Yoke and Sergianism.

Boris Talantov was not only a polemicist and philosophical thinker; he was first and foremost simply an Orthodox Christian.  A letter written by him in the last month of his life in prison (Dec. 7, 1970) reveals a side of his Christian character that might easily be overlooked in his public writings: his patient suffering, acceptance of God’s will, and Christian love.  (Russian text in the Messenger of the Russian Student Christian Movement, Paris, 1970, No. 4, p. 168.)

“Receiving your letters was a great joy for me, because, having found out on October 2, 1969, about your great misfortune, the whole time I have been worried about you and have fervently prayed to God to deliver you from misfortune.

“I offer you and your friends my heartfelt gratitude for the great kindness which you showed me when I fell into misfortune.  Sincere and sacrificial love among us, Christians, is the seal of the fact that we are disciples of Christ.  The awareness of this in itself consoles and encourages us, no matter in what condition we may find ourselves.  For me, a sick old man, it is of course not easy to live out my confinement.  But here I have met several truly believing prisoners, who, being younger than I, have looked after me and helped me as their very father.  Likewise, believers in freedom also have comforted me by their letters, in which their sincere Christian love is evident.

“Since November 6 I have been in the hospital because of heart disease.  The eye doctor has diagnosed a cataract in both eyes and said that I must have an operation, or else total blindness will ensue.  But all these misfortunes have not broken my spirit and my faith: I can still write and read letters, glory be to God.

“I am in good spirits and with gratitude accept from God all my bitter trials.

“I fervently pray to God for your health and the health of all faithful Christians.

“May the Lord God preserve you from all misfortunes and troubles and grant His perfect joy.

"Your friend, Boris Talantov.”