Between the devil and the deep blue sea – nationalism and Orthodoxy

Relations between church and state can sometimes be fraught, but sometimes they can also be unhealthily close. I was reminded of this when I read this article on the site of entitled The Kremlin’s Elder – how the Russian government fell in love with mysticism. is an initiative of independent investigative journalists in Russian that has been publishing some remarkable stories about corruption and cronyism, particularly involving the circle around Putin. This month the Russian government has declared it a banned organisation, confiscated all its financial assets and declared all its journalists to be foreign agents.

I was drawn into reading the article because I recognised the photograph of the Elder referred to in the article’s title: I had seen him during my visit to the Orthodox monastery of Optina Pustyn back in 2002.

His name is Starets Iliy (Elder Elijah) and he struck me then as being a remarkable man. According to my friend Dima who took me to the monastery on pilgrimage, Elder Iliy, like many Elders at Optina and at other monasteries in Russia, has the spiritual gifts of insight and foresight. I have written about my visit to Optina Pustyna at length in the following older posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

The article depicts him as a spiritual adviser to government officials who consult him for spiritual healing and advice about their futures. Since 2009 he has also been the spiritual adviser to Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. He is very anti-Communist and brands non-believers as Satanists.

I recall from my visit to Optina Pustyn that the monastery shop sold leaflets about the dangers of non-belief, including one called Meditation – the route to hell. However possibly a more serious reason for this is the terrible event at Easter 1993 when three monks were killed by a “satanist” who broke into the grounds. He attacked and killed one monk outright with a large knife and then attacked a second who managed to give the alarm by ringing the bells. A third monk, alerted by the bells, came out to see what was happening and was also attacked and killed. All three monks are now buried next to each other in the monastery’s grounds and celebrated as ‘new martyrs of the faith’. So, you can see that for the monks who experienced this attack, unbelief can literally be a matter of life or death.

The article points out that Putin has met the Elder on several occasions and that the Elder is a big supporter, attacking opponents of the regime and asking people who visit him whether they pray for the President. It points out that this closeness to Putin is probably why other government officials frequent the Elder, as it provides another means of accessing ultimate power.

The original Russian article gives some interesting biographical information about Elder Iliy that is not translated into the English version. Born Aleksey Nozdrin, on his mother’s side of the family they were not poor, but under Stalin they were branded as kulaks and driven out of their home. His grandfather later died of hunger.

In 1941, at the start of the Second World War in Russia, his family was living in a tent. He came to Christianity through hearing a Tatar praying. There are various ‘miracles associated with his younger years. For example, in 1943 returning home from staying with his godmother, he was passed by a German vehicle that went over a bump causing a door to open and a map case to fall out. The occupants of the vehicle were so drunk they didn’t notice. The future Elder took the map case home and showed them to a Russian prisoner who looked after the Germans’ horses. This prisoner somehow passed the maps to the Russian army where they ended up in the hands of the Russian Commander, General Rokossovsky, and helped him take out Germain fortified areas during the Battle of Kursk.

Another miracle dates back to the late 1940s when he and his brother worked as hired workers and were paid in bread. At the station on the way back home the bread was stolen from them, so they returned home empty-handed. Aleksey cried and prayed for a long time in front of the Kazan icon of the Mother of God. He then went out into the street and saw on a white cloth a piping hot loaf of white bread.

After leaving school he served in the army before going to a technical college and then on to the seminary at the Church Academy in Leningrad. It was here that he got to know the future Patriarch Kirill. In the picture below, taken with fellow students at his technical college, the future Elder Iliy is standing in the back row on the right hand side:

Алексей (Илий) Ноздрин в техникуме (первый справа в верхнем ряду).

On becoming a monk he took the name Iliyan and claimed to see devils flying through the air. In the mid 1970s he was sent to the monastery of St Pantaleimon (then a run down monastery with a few Russian monks) on Mt Athos, where he served as a confessor until the late 1980s. On his return to Russian he ‘took the great schema’, in other words he took a vow to observe the most extreme ascetic practices (the highest level of monkhood), assumed the name Iliy and became a confessor at Optina Pustyn. Many ordinary people started going to him then to ask for help and also a lot of politicians and people from the underworld. I remember seeing him at Optina Pustyn in 2002 being asailed by people seeking advice wherever he went. I thought he looked ill and very tired.

In 2009 he moved to Peredelkino to become Patriarch Kirill’s confessor / spiritual advisor. That’s when he started to attract visits from government officials. The Elder can apparently take a lighter view of his reputation as a miracle worker. One evening, popping into the church he saw several people standing around and announced in a loud voice ‘Let there be light!” To the astonishment of those standing around suddenly there was light. The Elder was standing next to the light switch.

What is it that brings together church and state in these rather unhealthy relationships? I think this is particularly the case in Orthodox countries where often religion and nationalism go hand in hand. I am sure there are many reasons for this, but two stand out for me. The first goes back to Byzantine times when the Emperor was identified as God’s representative on earth and worked in close cooperation with the head of the church, the Patriarch. The interests of church and state largely coincided. That relationship was also transmitted to Russia and lasted really up to the eve of the Revolution, though probably during the last 20 years or so of that period the Church was showing signs of wanting to reform and modernise.

In the Soviet period, the Church survived on the ground partly ‘thanks to the babushkas’ as Solzhenitsyn said, but as an institution largely through endless tortuous accommodations, and at great cost to lives and faith. In the post Soviet area, there was a thaw: churches opened up, it was no longer a stigma to go to church. The state became a great patron to the Church, giving it back some of its old privileges, building new churches, increasing the number of seminaries and monasteries. In gratitude, the Church reverted to type and supported the state, encouraging people to vote for the government.

In Greece and other Balkan countries the church is associated with national identity. All through the long years of the Ottoman occupation, it was the church in Greece that kept alive the language and culture, becoming a focus for the development of a national identity when the new Greek state emerged after the 1821 Revolution.

Although we have a Church of England, established as a deliberate act of separation by a sulking monarch, it has never become the standard bearer for English identity. Perhaps because the monarch made themselves Supreme Governor (a heavily qualified form of Head of the Church), the national identification is with the monarchy, not with the established church. Not better, just different.

Yasnaya Polyana – visiting Tolstoy’s estate

This is one of the loveliest estates I have ever visited. Despite the number of visitors it receives, it is remarkably unspoilt and treated like a place of pilgrimage for many visitors. There are birch trees everywhere and lilac grows in profusion, especially around the manor house itself where the lilac scent is very strong.

Beyond the white and green post of the main entrance is a long drive (known as the preshpekt in Russian), lined with beautiful birch trees, leading towards the manor house itself. The lower park is called the English Park and the upper park the French Park. Walking up the drive there is a big lake off to the left and two old ponds on the right.

The first place we visit is Tolstoy’s grave. Since he was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901, he was not allowed to be buried in the churchyard at Nikolskoye Slovo. The grave is out in the forest surrounding the manor.

The grave itself is very simple and as he wanted it: a stone block with nothing on it to indicate who lies there. Some people have laid small bunches of flowers near it. As a mark of respect we stand there for a while, heads bowed in silence. However, keeping still is a big challenge as there are lots of mosquitoes and they are vicious, even by the standards of Russian mosquitoes.

On the way back we see a strange natural phenomenon where two trees, a birch and a lime, are growing together as if in an embrace.

You get the impression that Yasnaya Polyana is still a working estate, with vegetable gardens. orchards and stables.

The old coachman’s cottage from Tolstoy’s day has been kept and the interior shows what the living conditions would have been like.

The picture above shows an old Russian stove inside the coachman’s cottage with the little wooden ladder leading to a bedspace over it. As this was probably the warmest spot in the cottage it would normally have been reserved for elderly parents to sleep on.

On pilgrimage in holy Russia III: Optina Pustyn monastery

From the bus, you see it first across the River Zhizdra, its blue and golden cupolas glinting in the sun, the soft pastel colours of its buildings, its encircling wall. This is the monastery of Optina Pustyn, once one of the great powerhouses of Russian Orthodox spirituality, which has had a profound influence on Russian society and culture. Set deep in the Russian countryside, it is near the town of Kozelsk in the Kaluga region, about 200 miles south of Moscow.

Optina Pustyn was at the forefront of a revival in monasticism that took place in Russia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This was due to the influence of the Elders (startsy), monks of remarkable spiritual attainment who not only provided direction to the brothers but who also provided advice to ordinary lay people. Thousands of people, rich and poor, came each year to the monastery to seek help from the elders. Among these were some of Russia’s greatest writers Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. I will write a little about the Elders in a separate post as they are an interesting phenomenon.

Before the Revolution there were 300 monks here, but by a decree of the Bolshevik government in January 1918, the monastery was closed and the monks expelled. Many were arrested, tortured and exiled to the camps or subsequently shot. The monastery was blown up, looted and desecrated. During Perestroika, the Soviet government handed the monastery back to the Russian Orthodox Church in November 1987, just in advance of the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the Conversion of Russia in 1988.

It is said to be one of the oldest monasteries in Russia, though its exact origins are unknown and most of the buildings, carefully restored since 1987, date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Optina Pustyn is a large complex of buildings and includes five Cathedrals, the largest of which is the Cathedral of the Presentation of the Most Holy Mother of God in the Temple.

Before we go into the monastery itself we walk through the forest to the Hermitage where the monks have their cells. Passing through a gate in the surrounding wall we find ourselves in a large rectangular area bordered by the monastic cells. Within this area are  various buildings and a small church. It was here that the Elders of Optina Pustyn lived. The hermitage was closed in 1918 at the Revolution and the buildings turned first into a children’s home and then a rest home.

Back at the entrance to the monastery itself, I notice a sign saying no video filming. I ask a fellow pilgrim and she tells me no photography is allowed inside the monastery. I check with the people on duty and they tell me that photography is OK but no video. Feeling relieved but guilty, I furtively take pictures when my fellow pilgrims, especially Dima, are not around.

The churches are stunningly beautiful and have been well restored, some are still being worked on. But the overwhelming impression is one of peace and calm.

The graves of the monks are also within the monastery in amongst the Cathedrals. At the centre of the church buildings though is a small covered area behind a wooden fence.

This is where the monastery bells used to hang until the terrible events of Easter 1993 when three monks were killed by a “satanist” who broke into the grounds. He attacked and killed one monk outright with a large knife and then attacked a second monk who managed to give the alarm by ringing the bells. A third monk who, alerted by the bells, came out to see what was happening was also attacked and killed. All three monks are now buried next to each other and celebrated as ‘new martyrs of the faith’.

Graves of the three ‘new martyrs of the faith’

All of the elders, canonised mainly in the 1990s, have been re-buried inside the cathedrals. Dima leads us on a tour of the Cathedrals to reverence the remains of the elders. I join in  and feel like a real pilgrim now – perhaps this was what it was like in the Middle Ages to go on pilgrimage and venerate the relics of saints. Approaching each cathedral, we stop to cross ourselves and bow three times to the icon over the entrance. At each tomb, my fellow pilgrims approach one by one, make the sign of the cross, bow three times, then kiss the tomb and once again make the sign of the cross and bow three times. Some of the tombs even have a small piece of bone embedded in the glass top.

Probably one of the most venerated tombs is that of the Elder (now St) Amvrosy. The glass-topped tomb sits beneath a lit icon lamp hanging from a carved wooden canopy and next to the tomb stands a monk reading prayers aloud. The body is covered by a red cloth but beneath the cloth you can see the shape of the head. I join my fellow pilgrims here in venerating the relics, feeling a special connection with St Amvrosy.

On pilgrimage in holy Russia II: visions and springs

After the liturgy at Shamordino convent Dima leads us pilgrims down a walkway towards the holy springs. Sometimes it seems that the whole of Russia has sprung a massive series of leaks there are so many springs, often associated with a particular saint or holy man and each with specific healing qualities.

The walkway turns into a steep set of steps to negotiate a slope. We stop on a platform at the top of the slope to admire the view, whilst Dima tells us that it was here that the Elder Amvrosy from Optina Pustyn monastery had a vision of the Mother of God in the sky telling him to found a convent on this spot.

Site of the Elder Amvrosy’s vision

As I listen to the story, I come under attack from mosquitoes and I am swatting them away, when suddenly I brush my glasses off my face and over the side of the platform. I think I see something move where they hit the weeds and I crawl under the railing and drop down to the ground to look for them. Dima is still talking and, as I glance back up at the platform, several fellow pilgrims are watching what the curious Englishman is up to grubbing among the wormwood and nettles. Panicking that they are lost for good, I am just about to give up when I see them, slightly twisted and muddy where I have trodden on them during my search.

At the bottom of the slope is a chapel over a spring where people are collecting water in plastic bottles. A queue of people is waiting outside a sort of kiosk to bathe in the spring water. We press on though to another spring in the forest which turns out to be a standpipe with a trickle of water issuing from it. Apparently it is particularly good for eyesight.  Dima kindly gives me some of the holy water in a spare bottle for me to take back to my hosts.

By now the midday sun is scorching hot as we struggle back up the steep steps to the convent. All pilgrims are invited by the nuns to lunch in the refectory at long, heavy wooden tables with benches: a simple meal of macaroni soup, kasha (buckwheat), black bread and apple compote, book-ended by prayers. My fellow pilgrims tuck in heartily, but I am conscious of the large packed lunch back on the bus that Ekaterina, the wife of my host family, has prepared for me.

Before we get back on the bus, Dima takes me to see the simple grave of Tolstoy’s sister, Maria,  which lies under a strange bifurcated lime tree. She became nun in the late 1880s, under the spiritual guidance of the Elder Amvrosy, and lived at the convent until her death aged 82 in 1912. Dima tells me that if Tolstoy had lived a little longer he would have come back into the Orthodox Church (he was excommunicated as a heretic in 1901). I think that’s unlikely as the divisions between Tolstoy and the Church were far too deep. But who knows? When Tolstoy left his estate for the last time before his death in October 1910 to become a wandering pilgrim, with nothing but the clothes on his back, he went first to the Optina Pustyn monastery for spiritual guidance and then came to visit his sister, Maria, here at Shamordino. From near here he took the train, intending to travel south to the Caucasus, but was taken ill and died at Astapovo station.

History suddenly doesn’t seem that remote.

From dream to reality

It’s a late Saturday morning in May, the temperature is in the high 20s and it’s my first full day in Russia. I am being driven through the streets of Tula by my host, Iosif, accompanied by his 18-year-old daughter. We are on our way to meet up with the rest of my group – English people of a certain age with an interest in all things Russian. Our friend, Natasha, who has organised our trip is married to an Englishman and lives in the UK, but was born and brought up here in Tula.

Iosif is driving a Zhiguli with regulation sticking door. I’ve noticed on my many trips to other parts of eastern Europe that cars have either a door that won’t open properly or an ominously large crack on the windscreen.

To be honest, I am in full-blown culture shock. For over 35 years I have been learning Russian, speaking Russian, reading Russian Literature and history, listening to Russian music, singing Russian folk songs, drinking Russian vodka and imagining what Russia is like. But now I am actually here for the very first time, as a 50th birthday present from my darling wife, totally immersed in the country with a family that doesn’t speak English. My brain is on overload and my ear has not yet got used to the speed of normal Russian speech.

Our party meets outside the Palace of Pioneers (Dvorets pionyerov) and makes its way over to the red brick walled Tula Kremlin. Today is the feast day of SS Cyril and Methodius, celebrated in Soviet times as the Day of Literacy, the formulators of the Cyrillic alphabet based on Greek. A small group of young people in peasant costumes are performing folk dances and small stalls sell craft items, books and pryaniki (honey and spice biscuits – a particular speciality of Tula). I’m attracted to a display of old artefacts: butter churns; an ancient Tula samovar (Tula is famed for the manufacture of these characteristically Russian items) studded with little medals showing all the fairs where it has been exhibited; and a pre-Revolution school textbook for teaching Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The land inside the Kremlin is an expanse of grass. At the Revolution the Bolsheviks destroyed the old churches and flattened the old cemetery, replacing it with a football pitch. The building that dominates the Kremlin is the Cathedral of the Dormition which dates back to the second half of the eighteenth century. In the Soviet era it was used as a warehouse and the huge icons on the walls and columns painted over. Slowly the painstaking process of restoration is taking place and the inside is full of scaffolding. The iconostasis apparently used to have so much gilding on it that it looked as if it were on fire.

I am stunned to see an icon of the Imperial family murdered by the Bolsheviks with a single candle in front of it. Dressed in medieval costumes they hold candles and have saints’ haloes round their heads; the Russian Orthodox Church has canonised them as ‘passion bearers’, martyrs who died in Christian humility, the lowest rung of sainthood.

Outside it’s so fiercely hot that I have to keep moving from shady patch to shady patch to keep cool. A concert is in progress, with music performed by the Yasnaya Polyana Ensemble, named after Tolstoy’s estate not 14 miles away. It’s a mix of light classics and Russian folk songs performed by baritone and soprano with surprisingly strong voices. People are just wondering round, sitting down to listen to the music and then moving on as the fancy takes them.

Back at the Palace of Pioneers we have a small welcoming party with songs and dances performed by enthusiastic children and even English poetry learnt by heart (“My heart is in the Highlands…”) performed by star students.

Outside whilst waiting for Iosif to pick me up, I cross the road to get a better view of the Palace and to take a photograph. It’s then that I see the year under pediment over the entrance: ‘1937’.

A chill runs through me on this hot spring day. This is the year that Stalin’s Great Terror reached its height. Under Yezhov, head of the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) the purges cut a swathe through all levels of Soviet society and cowered the whole population.  Millions of lives were rubbed out on a whim of a dictator, his gang of thugs and the party apparatus that kept it in power. Families of the condemned were split up and sent to the camps or the children placed in orphanages, becoming outcasts in their own society. The numbers involved in this state-imposed madness are almost incomprehensible, the suffering hard to imagine.

Today has been quite an introduction to the reality of this land of my dreams.