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42. Eugene Vagin
Russia's Catacomb Saints
A FEW WORDS ON THE
CATACOMB CHURCH IN THE USSR
Eugene Alexandrovich Vagin was one of the founders and active members of the “All-Russian Social-Christian Union for the Liberation of the People,” a small group of people in Leningrad who tried to return to the Orthodox and national roots of the Russian people and dreamed of the liberation of Russia from Communism (but with no practical plan for this). In 1967 the Union was uncovered by the KGB and its members were arrested and sent to concentration camps. After serving out his term, Vagin emigrated to the West, where he actively works to inform the Russian emigration and the West of the state of affairs in the Soviet Union.
How many? Are there many of them? This is a constant (and natural) question when there is talk of “dissidents,” of the persecution of the faithful, of prisoners.
I personally was acquainted with and spoke with approximately twenty representatives of the groups of the so-called Catacomb Church (I speak here exclusively of Orthodox Christians, not touching on the Roman Catholics and Uniates, who also have their “catacombs”). Together with them, if one includes the names of those whom they mentioned or told about, the number exceeds a hundred.
Here is what especially interested me in the accounts of the True Orthodox Christian Wanderers (one of the Orthodox Catacomb groups). For the most part, in accordance with their religious concepts, they live without documents, do not handle Soviet money (on both of which they see the seal of antichrist). Both by the character of their mission and out of practical necessity, they are obliged constantly to be wandering: to go from place to place, to hide from the authorities. And constantly and everywhere they find people who actively sympathize with them: who help them materially, hide them in case of need, participate in common prayers. This is that good soil in which the seed of preaching is cast, which brings forth a hundredfold for every word. This more than anything else disturbs the atheist authorities. This is evidently why the show-trial was staged in Alma-Ata at the beginning of the 1960’s against a group of True Orthodox Christian Wanderers headed by Mina Bogatyrev (described in the Soviet journal Science and Religion, 1964, no. 7, p. 24), whom I met in the Mordovo camp in 1968-69...
To give a “panorama” of the present situation of the Catacomb Church in the Soviet Union is difficult for many reasons. First of all, of course, I have at my disposal only a part of the information on this question. Further, I do not have the right even to name all the names known to me. In concentration camps, members of the True Orthodox Church conduct a successful and fruitful work in attracting new people into their ranks; for the most part the converts (who are not always and exclusively young people) become secret adherents of the Catacomb Church. And of course, it would be foolish and premature to indicate the geographical regions where True Orthodox believers settle with the aim of being close to each other. Without doubt, some of these regions are known to the KGB, but I think by no means all of them are.
The question of the hierarchy of the Catacomb Church is a very important one. From various persons, including the late A.S. Dubina, who died in a camp last summer, I have heard the dramatic account of the aged Vladika Seraphim who lived in the 30’s in the Kharkov region. He lived literally “underground”— in a specially-furnished cellar of a farm house. Here there were regular Divine services of the “Tikhonites” (the adherents of Patriarch Tikhon), and here also Vladika died. His body remained incorrupt many days, and news of this became widespread that it came to the NKVD also. A party of Chekists made a surprise attack and conducted a search; they dragged the body of Vladika Seraphim from the cellar and took it in a wagon no one knows where.
Friends of mine in the camps related to me how during the war an aged bishop blessed them not to take weapons into their hands and defend the "conquests of October." They did not mention his name. For this refusal their whole group (seven men) was sentenced to be shot, and only by the repeal of the “extreme measure of punishment” (replaced by 25 years in camp) were they saved from death.
Hieromonk Michael Vasielich Ershov, whom many also called “Vladika,” was not a bishop. He died in a camp hospital (Tengushev district, Barashevo station) in 1974 on the day of the Holy Trinity, and evidently was buried in the nearby camp cemetery. Recent information from the USSR about Hieromonk Ershov, that supposedly after 43 years of imprisonment he was placed in a Kazan psychiatric hospital, is evidently based on a misunderstanding — evidently this was someone else. Incidentally, I do not know of another believer with such an astronomical term of confinement in a camp!
I do not doubt that there are bishops in the Catacomb Church even now, although the number of eight to twelve mentioned, it seems, by A.E. Levitin Krasnov in one of his interviews seems to me to be exaggerated. But there is something else that deserves special attention: I know for sure that among the hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate there are those who actually sympathize with the True Orthodox Church. This assertion may sound paradoxical, because the TOC as a whole renounces the hierarchy of the “Soviet Church” and even forbids its adherents to visit the Divine services in “their” churches. However, the position of individual Catacomb Christians is softer, and it may be, more far-sighted.
Where do Catacomb Christians conduct church services? From what has been told me I know that before the war they were conducted on the territory of the present-day Tatar ASSR in the open air, near springs in the forest. These Divine services assembled a multitude of believers. Participation in them was strictly punished: at times groups of the militia were posted at places of “assemblies” that had become well known. Therefore, these places had to be changed. At the present time most frequently they gather in the houses of “their own” people, in basement rooms especially furnished as house churches. Small monasteries of the same Catacomb type are also not rare.
In camp conditions we had to think up all possible means for performing public prayer. Most often we would pray under the open sky in groups of three of four people, as if walking, so as to attract the least attention. Sometimes we managed to assemble in a “productive zone,” in a large covered barracks after the end of work. This was possible only when working on the second shift, when the control was a little weaker and the supervisors appeared less often.
On the eve of great feasts — especially on the Bright Resurrection of Christ — we would gather in groups of eight or nine in auxiliary buildings, before wake-up time, for about thirty or forty minutes, no longer. At such meetings the Gospel was always read, usually by everyone present in turn; prayers were also read, and there would be a common table.
At prayers we unfailingly commemorated (these small commemoration books were given out to write “our own” names in) all the members of the murdered Royal Family, His Holiness Patriarch Tikhon, the murdered Metropolitan Vladimir (Bogoyavlensky) of Kiev, and we read a long list of “Tikhonites” who died and were martyred in prisons and camps. The lists of names varied, since we would commemorate the ones we knew personally. The members of our families and our nearest relatives were also commemorated. In prayers for the living it was suggested that we commemorate first of all our parents and spiritual father. I also came across lists with the commemoration of Metropolitan Philaret of the Russian Church Outside of Russia. Information about the “Karlovtsi,” 1 of course, is incomplete and not always precise in the camps (and in general in the Soviet Union); but on the whole the attitude of the True Orthodox to it is entirely well disposed.
What influence does the Catacomb Church have on the Orthodox faithful in general? People know about it, but not nearly enough: there is almost no information in the press, and in the Russian programs of Western radio there is almost nothing about this Church. Believers from among the educated youth — and these have become more and more in recent years — show great interest in the subject of religious persecutions; here they come across the question of the True Orthodox Church and wish to know more about it.
It should be noted that many young educated people are repulsed by the emphasized “anti-intellectualism” of the True Orthodox.
This “anti-intellectualism” sometimes takes the form of a conscious foolishness for Christ’s sake. I emphasize: conscious. I was told of this by one of the most remarkable Orthodox Christians whom I have had the pleasure of meeting — I mean V.V. Kalinin. He had spent already 25 years in imprisonment. His conduct was a radical denial of the whole style of life and thought bound up with the present truly diabolical political regime. And this form of conduct is by no means a simple “political protest.”
Monarchist sentiments, which dominate among the members of the True Orthodox Church, evoke sympathy in circles of young people: young people also are well disposed to them because they have voluntarily chosen for themselves the path of suffering, patiently bearing for decades the cross of martyrdom.
All of the True Orthodox to one degree or another are characterized by a feeling of national and spiritual exaltation. This is especially to be felt in the “Testament” of M.V. Ershov, published in Russian Life (July 7, 1977). All members of this Church, even the “uneducated,” are characterized by a special suffering over the fate of Russia, which is placed by them in the center of all the world’s events (this is often interpreted in a very original way, always in apocalyptic, eschatological tones). Their “Russianness” is not set aggressively against other nations and peoples, but is accepted inwardly and in confidential conversations, as a sign of a “special chosenness.” I have often heard in their midst the old proverb applied to the fate of Russia: “Whom the Lord loves more, He makes to suffer more.”
The religious “intolerance” of the members of the TOC is of a special sort. Thus, for example, they are absolutely intolerant towards the “Soviet Church.” For them it is the image of the harlot in the wilderness on the scarlet beast (Apoc. 17:2-3). But their attitude towards Catholics — their companions in suffering and brothers in faith — is not only deprived of any hostility whatever, but is distinguished by a special heartfelt warmth and good wishes. This is especially noticeable among the old prisoners who have suffered many common sufferings together with them. For us young people this was a great example.
1 A name given to the Russian Church Outside of Russia by its enemies, taken from the city in Yugoslavia which was its headquarters in the 1920’s and ‘30’