The Catacomb Church

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The Catacomb Church

An interview with Alexander Andreevich Chernov

From The Orthodox Word no. 88, September - October 1979
Translated from Possev, a monthly magazine published in Frankfort-am-Main, October, 1979, pp. 140-146
Translated and introduced by Fr. Seraphim Rose of ROCOR.

A Russian Emigre in Bulgaria before the Second World War, with a degree
in theology and philosophy from the University of Sofia, A. A. Chernov
was arrested by the invading Soviet armies 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 the Catacomb Church?

Answer: I became acquainted with the 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, when 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 I 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 I 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 1930's. Probably not many more than 300 bishops are known 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 easier to imagine this in graph form: there is a large
circumference and it's 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 he 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 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 it's membership changes, and
it's 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 it's agents under the
appearance of priests. Far example, there have been cases where such
ones have tried to pass themselves off for people who ave 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. (*Ed note: In a letter published earlier
this year is 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.) The skeleton of it
remains the same – and knowing the history of the ecumenical Church, one
should not underestimate 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 (2 Cor. 12:9). In the Catacomb Church is the remnant of Holy
Russia, which, despite all it's 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 to 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 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 phenomena of these last times, which is revealing itself in
a totalitarian fight against God. It is entirely understandable that the
USSR has created it's 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 it's 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 it's essence and it remains the creature of the Soviet
regime. The Catacomb Church does not recognize either the Soviet regime
or it's Church. These are precisely the two basic conditions that
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 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 it's secret reports for teachers (entrance was only by a special
ass), 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 – 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 petitions 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
workers ticket. But they will not accept any kind of Communist in their
group. For me, this limitation – membership in the Party – should not be
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 hi 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 top 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 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
the people abroad 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 assure you the Catacomb people are in the millions.