Special Theme Edition on the Current Ukrainian Crisis:   Volume 22, No. 3  (Summer 2014)

The East West Church &  Ministry Report has issued a special theme edition examining the impact of the current Ukrainian crisis on the church and ministries in Ukraine and Russia.

This theme issue is now available in pdf format in English,  Russian, and Ukrainian.

Read more about the East West Church & Ministry Report  in EnglishRussian, or Ukrainian 

Sacred Space Reclaimed

Alexander Smirnov

In the summer of 1989 I was drafted into military service. By the end of July that year I found myself in an Air Force boot camp in the city of Vyshni Volochek, between Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Our camp was located on the territory of a former Orthodox convent. Much later I learned that more than 1,000 nuns resided there prior to the Bolshevik Revolution.

By the time of my service, pride in the military was all but lost. My company was stationed on the second floor of the former living quarters of the nuns, opposite the skeleton of the main cathedral. And just to the right stood another, once magnificent, church. Both the church and the cathedral had lost their bells and were stripped of paint and plaster to the bare red brick. Heavy, ancient wooden church doors hung somewhat loosely, which tempted me to sneak a look inside through the cracks. The courtyard between the buildings was turned into a parade ground where we draftees spent endless hours under the watchful eye of a perpetually angry drill sergeant.

The purpose of boot camp, it seemed to me, was to occupy any given soldier every minute of every day. Our rare moments of rest were usually spent smoking in a little hut right next to the main cathedral. The fall of 1989 was warm, long, and particularly beautiful. The former convent occupied the top of a hill from which one could see for miles. I remember feeling almost pain that I had to turn away from the beauty of the forests on fire with every fall color and the endless blue of the sky to the grim reality of boot camp life, which was manifestly bleak and dull. I was, however, in for a surprise.

Once, a sergeant ordered several of us to retrieve items from storage in the nearby church. After unlocking the church doors to let us in, the sergeant left us to ourselves in the semi-darkness of the former sanctuary. Once we found what we were looking for, we decided not to hurry back. Instead, we began to explore this unfamiliar terrain with mixed feelings of awe and adventure. A few narrow rays of daylight worked their way through holes in the roof. In the odd silence of the vacant, despoiled church, we tried to joke, but the echoes of our words actually frightened us. We next came across a very thick iron chain hanging from the roof. Its far end disappeared in the thick darkness somewhere under the cupolas. I thought that perhaps a huge chandelier once hung from this chain. We could think of nothing better to do than to swing from this chain. As I climbed up, a fellow soldier grabbed the free end and pulled it as far toward the door as he could before letting go. I was flying through the darkness, breaking the silence only with the squeaking noise of the chain. When my eyes finally adjusted to the dim light, I began to see vague images on the frescoed walls, still visible if one was close enough. I cannot explain it, but suddenly I felt a strong urge to exit the church as soon as I could. We bolted out almost in a panic. Afterwards, we completed boot camp and received orders to redeploy.

In May 2006, my wife and I accompanied a friend from Moscow to Saint Petersburg for a long holiday weekend. On the way, our conversation turned to our days in the military. Since we were making good progress, we decided to make a stop at the site of my boot camp in Vyshni Volochek. As we drove up, I could not recognize the place, now restored by Orthodox nuns. On top of the hill, gleaming in the sun, stood a beautiful ensemble. As we entered, with no people in sight, I saw that our parade ground had reverted to a beautiful courtyard with attractive landscaping. And a picturesque little chapel now stands on the very spot of our former “smoking hut.” The main cathedral and the adjacent church were freshly painted. As we continued to explore the grounds on this beautiful, sunny day, we came across several nuns on horseback plowing a small field. They invited us to take the plow, but we politely declined. I did not add to my popularity when I explained that I had served in the military there. An older nun pulled out a set of keys with a sorrowful sigh and waived us toward the chapel. She opened the door and allowed us to enter. I was struck by the beautiful work of restoration. Our escort suggested that repentance was in order, as she commented on the chaos the military had left after returning the convent to the church in the 1990s. Inside the chapel we found two tombs of nuns who had glorified God with miracles and healings. We bought candles, made a contribution, and prayed. As we left, I continued to turn back to look at the restored convent’s beautiful domes set against a backdrop of blue sky. It was a wonderful feeling.

I did not have the opportunity to enter the church in which I had seen frescoes of the saints and of the Lord. Still, they may have had something to do with the way I felt as we departed my boot camp, restored to its sacred purpose. ♦

Alexander Smirnov is assistant to the president of the Russian-American Christian University, Moscow, Russia.