41. The Catacomb Church, 1979

Russia's Catacomb Saints


The Catacomb Church, 1979
Translated from Possev, a monthly magazine published in Frankfort-am-Main October, 1979, pp. 140-46.

A Russian emigre in Bulgaria before the Second World War, with a degree in theology and philosophy from the University of Sofia, A. A. Cbernov was arrested by the invading Soviet army during the War for his anti-Soviet Political activities and spent 35 years in the USSR, 15 of them in prison camps and 20 literally "underground," before being allowed to leave the country quite recently.  In his 20 years of "freedom" he was in close contact with the Catacomb Church of Russia, and his information on it given in this interview is the most recent we have from an actual member of this Church.
Question: How did you enter into the Catacomb Church?

Answer: I became acquainted with representatives of this Church in the camp in the 1940’s.  They were in prison for their faith, but it was according to the same Article 58.   Of the Soviet Constitution for “anti-Soviet activities.”   With their help, I left the camp (in 1955) I was already able to get into contact with the Catacomb Church, and I went underground.  If I had not done this they would not have left me in peace, but as it is for twenty years I was able to do something.

At the time I entered the Catacomb Church, my conception of life in the Soviet Union was totally non-existent.  After all, I had never been outside of prison in the Soviet Union, and I had no idea what life was like there.  In the Catacomb Church was completely hidden, and I lived literally within four walls.   I was never under the open sky, and the sun never shone on me.  I learned about life outside gradually, from the accounts of others, and during the times I was being transferred to new places.  I often had to be transferred: with the least suspicion of danger to me I was immediately transferred a great distance away, as a rule, from one republic to another, some thousands of kilometers from my previous hiding place.  I was very much protected because of my theological education, since such people in the Catacomb Church have always been and are in short supply.

Question: Tell us, please, a few words about how the catacomb Church arose.

Answer: The Catacomb Church appeared together with the Soviet regime, when the first priests and bishops were executed without trial, when they began to destroy the churches, when Christians began to give refuge to those who were being sought by the persecutors.  Patriarch Tikhon understood that the majority of the bishops were threatened by death; after all, where could one hide metropolitans, archbishops, and bishops who were known to everyone?  Therefore, recognizing that the Church could no longer remain entirely open, Patriarch Tikhon at almost every service ordained bishops, even in small cities.  It is considered that under him there were ordained about one thousand bishops Ed. Note: This figure seems high, even if it were to include all the bishops ordained in the 1920’s and 30's. Probably not many more than 300 bishops are knowrt to us by name from this period, although, of course, we have almost no information whatever about the secret ordinations of this period.   They could lose themselves in the midst of the people and place a beginning for the Catacomb Church.  When the official Church began openly to cooperate with the Communists (in 1927), then for the Catacomb Church there was no longer any possibility of communion with her.

Question: How is the Catacomb Church organized?

Answer: It is easiest to imagine this in graph form: There is a large circumference and its center.  The circumference is the immense multitude of points or cells of the Church.  Between these cells there is no contact, but they all have a connection of ideas with the “center,” in some form or other.
Question: It is interesting that this is similar to the structure of the NTS (political party) in the country: the same cells, although the center is abroad.  This kind of organizational system of underground organizations in a totalitarian land we call “molecular,” founded on the spontaneous arising of points of opposition in the country.

Answer: Probably this happens somehow by itself, if one decides to act in the underground.  Cells in the Catacomb Church are also formed without any kind of initiative from the center.  A man, simply comes to the conclusion that the official Church is not the Church.  It is created by the Party, penetrated by the KGB.  He begins to pray at home. Thus, a "house church” arises, just as in Apostolic times when the Church of Christ was persecuted.  The Holy Apostle Paul in his Epistles writes just these words: “the house church” (Rom. 16:5). The whole Catacomb Church is precisely an immense multitude of “house churches.”  Each one of them is most concerned with how to be secret and unnoticed.

This whole mass of cells lives a varied life: there are those who are just beginning, but there are also real monastery sketes where the services go on ceaselessly the whole day long from year to year.  I was able to be in some real underground churches.  Sometimes such churches are built in caves.  There are some groups in which the members of the Catacomb Church lead a most ascetic way of life, and the regime itself, when it uncovers them from time to time, is astonished by the way these people live.

In the Catacomb Church there are strict rules of security.  In short, this is a large underground organization which has been acting in the USSR for sixty years already.  Of course, one cannot speak about it as some kind of unchanging organization, always the same.  Everything changes with the course of time.  Gradually its membership changes, and its rules change also — they become all the time more drastic.  The Catacomb Church strives outwardly not to manifest itself at all, to preserve itself; therefore it is not so easy to find it, and in the West, I think, very little is known about it.  In any case it is a large group of people into which the regime is not able to penetrate.  But attempts are made to do this.  Knowing about the lack of priests in the Catacomb Church, the regime tries to send to us its agents under the appearance of priests.  For example, there have been cases where such ones have tried to pass themselves off for people who received the priesthood from Metropolitan Philaret of New York.

But despite the lack of priests, the Catacomb Church is not dying out, as Father Dimitry Dudko thinks.  In a letter published earlier this year in Possev, Fr. Dimitry wrote, not that the Catacomb Church is “dying out,” but more simply that it has too few clergy to take care of the needs of the Orthodox population of Russia. (Ed. note.)  The skeleton of it remains the same — and knowing the history of the Ecumenical Church, one should not under estimate this.   When the priests did not hold their ground, then it was monasticism that preserved the truth.  Let us hope in God.  All our hope is only in God.  My strength is made perfect in weakness (II Cor. 12:9).  In the Catacomb Church is the remnant of Holy Russia, which, despite all its attempts, the Soviet God-fighting regime has not been able to annihilate up to this time.

We know that the boundaries of the Church do not correspond with the boundaries of the State.  And therefore, the Catacomb Church looks with hope and expectation upon the Russian Church Outside of Russia.  When we hear a voice that says that perhaps there are no longer any bishops in our Church here, we reply: Well, we have a “gold reserve” of them there, outside of Russia.

Question: But still, is there any contact between these cells that gives anyone the right to speak of the existence in the USSR of a Catacomb Church as a certain unity?

Answer: Yes, without doubt. First of all, they are all united by the acceptance and evaluation of our times as the “last times.”  The USSR is a spiritual phenomenon of these last times, which is revealing itself in a totalitarian fight against God.  It is entirely understandable that the USSR has created its own “Church” also, in the image and likeness of itself.  The Soviet kind of “Church” serves only for deception and not for the satisfaction of the religious seekings of the people.  When the regime finds it necessary, this Church will cease its existence.

Question: However, most recently there have been changes in this Church.  And there are such worthy people there as Father Dimitry Dudko and tens of others.

Answer: The existence in the Soviet Church of Father Dimitry Dudko and certain ones like him is not an apology for it.  The Soviet Church has not changed in its essence and it remains the creature of the Soviet regime.  The Catacomb Church does not recognize either the Soviet regime or its Church.  These are precisely the two basic conditions which brought about the Catacomb Church.

Question: What in your opinion is the number of members of the Catacomb Church?

Answer: No one knows precisely, but I suppose that there are millions.  I will give you figures from the secret report of the Inspector of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR, E.N. Klimov, who is responsible for checking the atheistic activities of priests.  (Yes, that’s not a mistake: the atheistic activities of priests!)  About six years ago at one of its secret reports for teachers (entrance was only by a special pass), he cited two figures: 52 million parishioners in the official Church, and 48 million in the Catacomb Church.  How these figures were obtained, and what is meant here by the Catacomb Church, and whether the regime includes here various sects also — this I cannot say.  However, I consider that to divide parishioners thus into the Catacomb Church and the official Church is not entirely correct.  I know of one Moscow engineer, for example, who goes to services of the official Church but does not receive Communion, and when during the petitions they pray for the government, he reads his own petition for the opposite.  In real life the Catacomb and official Churches overlap each other, and it is impossible to make a boundary between them.

The most extreme section of the Catacomb Church is the True Orthodox Christians (TOC).  They received me entirely as one of their own, since I had no kind of relations with the regime and did not even have a single worker’s ticket.  But they will not accept any kind of Communist in their group.  For me, this limitation — membership in the Party — should not be a disqualification.  If one does not accept Communists, that means one only strengthens them in their own way and drives them away.  Father Vlassy, a Catacomb Schema-hieromonk, now reposed, related how through one spiritual son of his a highly-placed Party member appealed to him and asked him to come to give him Communion, and he even sent his own car at night for him.  In the house of this man there were splendid ancient icons and an icon lamp.  And this Party member said: “I entreat you, judge for yourself: if it is essential that I leave the Party, I will leave the Party tomorrow.  I know what this will mean for me.  But if it is possible — then leave everything the way it is, because in soul I am absolutely not a Communist.”

Question: Tell us, please, a few words about your last arrest in Kiev (in 1975).

Answer: In a few words, I was arrested for religious samizdat publications.  They found nothing on me, since I was arrested on the train, but they found at the house of P.P. Savitsky one of my religious-historical works.  At the interrogation I said the following: “Here you have the essence of my crime.  There is a law, and judge me according to this law, but I will speak only about myself and not about anyone else.”  And so they were not able to get anything from me, and I was again sent to camp.

If one were to compare the Soviet camps in the ‘50's and the ‘70’s, I felt better in the former — and not only because I was younger then.  For foreigners the conditions in camp are better than usual; but Russians are plagued the whole day long with loudspeakers: from morning till night, from day to day, one and the same Soviet songs.  This wears one out a great deal, since there is nowhere one can escape from it.
Question: How did you manage to get to the West?

Answer: First of all, this was a miracle of God’s mercy.  I, as a person without citizenship, being deprived in the Soviet Union of foreign citizenship, fought for more than a year to leave the USSR.  I wrote three times to Brezhnev something like this: “I’m not “yours” and I will never be yours.  You are sending “your own” out of the country and depriving them of Soviet citizenship.  With me it is simpler — you don’t have to deprive me of anything.  For you I am some kind of foreign body.  Give me freedom.  I have been deprived of freedom already for 35 years.  I’m already an old man and sick.  Here, I have no one, but there I have relatives. I have already been in camps twice.  Do I have to wait for the third time?

And I left chiefly for the following reason: There it seemed to us that abroad people were not understanding the situation of the Catacomb Church in the USSR.  The Catacomb Church is the antipodes of the Soviet Church.  I would wish to achieve this result: that outside of Russia, at least, there would be accepted some kind of official formulation of a different approach to the official Church on the one hand, and to the Catacomb Church on the other.

I have spoken with some highly-placed representatives of the Church Outside of Russia, but unfortunately I have not obtained a full contact.  But I will seek understanding, a creative discussion of sorts, if I am able.  I am a small representative of the Catacomb Church, but I am in great debt before her.  And I cannot give up these positions — after all, people there are living by them, and for them so many martyrs have shed their blood.  And I dare to assure you that the Catacomb people are in the millions.