Pilgrimage to Russia: Part III–Sergeiev Posad, Radonezh, the Killing Fields

I appreciate everybody’s patience. My mind is still swimming from all the memories and my notes are a jumble of orthographic poultry-glyphs. In addition, I find that my memories are dynamic giving my writings regarding this pilgrimage a stream-of-consciousness type of narrative. Thoughts and observations interject and I sometimes feel the need to insert them. This means that the flow is not entirely chronological. Forgive me.

Anyway, the first night in Moscow we were free to wander on our own. Fr Ilya suggested a meander down the Arbat, a lively promenade just a few blocks from our hotel, on the other side of the Foreign Ministry. He assured us we’d find a lot of restaurant venues and so we did. After about a half a mile of walking, about a dozen of our party decided on “The Tajj [sic] Mahal.” It advertised as Indian but in reality it was much broader than that. Sushi, Chinese, Central Asian –the works. It helped that the menu was a glossy with photos. I chose an Uzbeki dish of lamb stew with noodles. Uzbeki you say? I can cross that off my bucket list. Delish. I’m Greek so I know lamb and it did not disappoint.

The walk back was needed and I imagine everyone went to bed pretty much exhausted and full. A note about the Arbat: for those Russophobes who think Russia is all grim and repressive, a walk along the Arbat will put those notions to rest. It was (as mentioned) lively and there was all sorts of activity going on: poetry readings, jazz saxophonists, folk singers, artist painting on canvases, political discussions –the gamut. Avant garde to be sure but not the Star Wars cantina type of degradation you would see in a major Western city. Not for the last time did I notice the prettiness of Russian women.

Up and at ’em! Once we gorged ourselves on the mother of all breakfast buffets, loaded onto the bus, put on our headsets and left for Sergei Posad, the monastery of St Sergius of Radonezh. Because I found myself getting up early again (around 4:00am) I couldn’t help but cat-nap in the bus so I lost a lot of the scenery. I was told it was charming. Anyway, we pulled up to the monastery and piled out.

First, a diversion: the photo for this post was from the day before, at the Donskoy monastery. It’s a rather large frieze, I’d say about 12 feet high and maybe thirty feet long and it depicts the blessing that St Sergius gave to Grand Duke Dmitri before he went to fight the Tatars. This is an idealized version of what happened here at Trinity Posad some seven centuries earlier.

What struck me about this monastery were two things: the relics of St Sergius and the tomb of Tsar Boris Godunov. Boris’ tomb is outside one of the cathedrals (I believe it was dedicated to the Holy Trinity) whereas St Sergius is located inside another one (Christ the Saviour? I forget. Any corrections would be appreciated at this point.) Anyway, a sign outside the latter church told us that it was built in 1440 if memory serves. That was a good fifty years before the discovery of America. Think of it.

Anyway, as we were lining up to venerate St Sergius’ tomb, Taras (my wonderful friend and our unofficial tour guide) told us that it’s customary to read an Akathist to a saint while waiting in line to venerate relics. That’s a good idea as the line took a good 40 minutes minimum, more than enough time for an Akathist. Unfortunately I didn’t have an Akathist with me and my internet coverage was basically kaput so I couldn’t access my “Prayer Always” app. I just said the Jesus Prayer every now and then.

On the way back to Moscow, Fr Ilya and Taras had a surprise planned for us. We were to stop at Taras’s parents’ dacha in Radonezh. It was a little bit out of the way so our stay could only be brief. Being a flexible lot, we were up for the diversion.

Radonezh reminded me very much of Pyrgos Trifilia, my father’s village in Messenia: streets lined by trees, colorful houses edged by gardens and very close to each other. The roads very narrow and we had to abandon our bus and walk about three or so blocks to their dacha.

Mikhail and Nadezhda, Taras’ parents had a spread of champagne, vodka, cookies and chocolates waiting for us. His sister Anastasia and her two precocious sons, Misha and Sasha were visiting their grandparents there for the summer. (They live in England.) I imagine we were the talk of the town, what with some thirty people showing up in the mid-day.

It was a complete and total delight. Our hosts couldn’t have been more gracious. It was too bad we couldn’t have stayed longer. On the way back to the bus I told Taras: “soon.” We both understood what I meant.

Our schedule was tight. Our next stop was Semkhoz the spot where Fr Alexander Men’ was assassinated by some thug back in 1990.

Fr Men’ was a somewhat controversial figure in his day. Born into a Jewish family, his mother had him baptized at 6 months old in the underground “Catacomb” Church. A brilliant intellect, Men’ wrote several books and was very popular in Christian circles, including Protestant and Catholic ones.

Semkhoz, where he lived is heavily forested and one Sunday, while walking to the train station, he was assaulted by an unknown assailant who hacked him with an axe. Seriously wounded, he ran back to his house (perhaps a hundred yards) where to his wife’s horror he finally collapsed. Though his case was investigated, there was no official finding.

This occurred in in the final days of perestroika, when things were thawing in the Soviet Union and people were still finding their way out of the Soviet morass. It was thought by many that the KGB did the deed, others blamed ultra-conservative elements within the Russian Orthodox Church. Yet others blamed extremist Jewish factions who did not take kindly to apostates. Anyway, the case is now cold and the pressure for his canonization grows by the year.

Men’, because of his Jewish background, elicited much jealousy during his career. Fr Ilya told us that in his time, someone of his ethnicity being an Orthodox priest was unique, however now, it’s not uncommon to find men of Jewish background in the Orthodox priesthood or even in the episcopate. Taras contributed that he had heard rumors that there was a subset of Jewish Orthodox priests who had Levitic ancestry to which they pointed to with pride.

Anyway, he was buried on the spot where he was first attacked and his grave has become a shrine. Right next to the grave is a charming parish church with a gleaming white exterior and icons reminding me of the Egyptian frescoes one finds in Late Antiquity.

Another aside: one of the things I noticed about Russian iconography is that in the newer churches, one sees a preponderance of the neo-Byzantine (for want of a better word) style of icongraphy –bright colors, vividly-decorated clothing, etc. It’s the kind you see in some of the newer Greek churches. In the past, I’ve talked about the “creativity that the Gospel can unleash” and I saw that in spades in Russia. If a church was being reconstructed or refurbished, the Russians have decided to honor its original iconographic intent, hence the reliance on the so-called Academic style (i.e. realistic) of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. The designers of the newer churches however do not feel beholden to historical accuracy and are experimenting with more modern Greek styles as well as Coptic-like frescoes.

Anyway, we had a delightful lunch there and then departed for Moscow.

This was fascinating. We drove into a –not a valley exactly–but definitely into a forest somewhere on the outskirts of Moscow. The first thing we saw was a gleaming white, modern church. Fr Ilya told us that it was dedicated to the new-martyrs of Russia.

One of the interesting things about it (and which we’d see in many of the newer churches) was that it was built on two levels: a “crypt” church in the basement and another one on top. We went into the lower level first and it was here that I saw yet more creativity. In the narthex were the photos of some of the thousands of victims that were killed here, right next to where the church was presently standing.

There were all kinds of people: young, old, men, women, teenagers, ordinary people. This shook me. These were ordinary people, about as guilty of “anti-revolutionary activity” as my toy dog. Denny went to the crucifix which was located to the left of the altar and knelt. Later I noticed that he was shaking. Due to the combination of exhaustion and an overwhelming sense of grief, I had to find a seat, and so I did and stared at the frescoes on the west wall of the narthex. There, written in neo-Byzantine style style were two frescoes on each side of the door: one of Judas Iscariot receiving thirty pieces of silver and one of him hanging himself on a tree. The only inscription was the word “IOUDAS” in Greek.

Nothing else.

After visiting the upstairs church, we walked across to the actual killing fields itself, where a large cross was erected over a mound. We said a molieben for the victims. Then we went further along and entered a small, rustic chapel built of wood. It was very lovely and for my money, what is emblematic of what a parochial church should be.

What’s my take-away from this? Don’t compromise. Patriarch Sergius Stagorodsky thought he was doing the right thing by accommodating the Bolshevik regime. He was a fool. The official Church of the interwar period was a moral sham by design and he couldn’t (would’t?) see it any other way. Moscow went from nine hundred churches in 1918 to thirty churches right before World War II. That was the level of destruction that Lenin and Stalin visited upon the Church. There is no doubt in my mind that if it hadn’t been for the German invasion in 1940, Stalin would have completed Lenin’s program of obliterating the Church. Anybody who tells you otherwise is either lying or delusional.



  1. Yes, George.

    It seems you got a taste of the . . . reality there. Russia has time to grow more saintly. Let us not delude ourselves here that we know exactly what that even looks like anymore. We have our prejudices and we have historical accounts but some people are making this work in real time, given the hand they are dealt. And we can too. Right here.

    God is coming to all of us. Sooner rather than later. Get ready. Clear out the stable with the Law of God. Prepare the feast in the Holy Spirit through the mystical theology of the Church.

    And keep the Faith.

  2. Sergei Kalfov says

    The church in Butovo was consecrated by both MP and ROCOR clergy the Saturday after the Act of Canonical Communion was signed by Patriarch Alexei and Metr Laurus in May 2007. That was a pretty emotional service with the two hierarchs consecrating the church. Also, fyi, in the lower part of the church, the altar on the right (of three altars) was/is dedicated to St John of SF and Shanghai. The icons along the walls of that lower church are those of the martyrs of Butovo by the date of their martydoms. Some have a couple of saints, whilst others may have a multitude.