It Happened On The Train
An interview with Russian dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov
Alexander Ogorodnikov was born in the Soviet Union in 1950. At age 17, he was a lathe operator at a clock factory. Three years later he began philosophy studies at the University of the Urals in Sverdlovsk, only to be expelled in 1971 for “a dissident way of thinking”. He then went to Moscow where he studied at the Institute of Cinematography. He founded the Christian Seminary in 1974. From 1978 he was a prisoner, finally released at the order of Gorbachev. Since his return to Moscow, he founded the Christian-Democratic Union of Russia and the Christian Mercy Society, a group assisting the hungry and homeless with a special concern for children and adolescents. The group following conversation with him was recorded in Amsterdam on April 25 following the Liturgy at St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church.
I was born in 1950 in Christopol, a town in the former Kazan government. We were raised in such a way that by the time we were 14 or 15 years old, we were ready to give our lives for Communist ideals. We were convinced that all these churches, which were only attended by old women, would sooner or later disappear together wit their babushkas.
A look backward
When the Bolsheviks took over Russia in 1917, they fought the Church not only because it was an institution of the Czarist regime, but because the Church was storming heaven. Did you know that in 1923 there was really a trial – a revolutionary tribunal that brought God to court? God Himself was tried! Lunacharsky and Trotsky were the two commissars who led the process and during this process they sentenced God to death. This was not a carnival – it was absolutely serious. God and the Church had to be crushed. In many of his letters Lenin stressed the importance of getting rid of priests. The whole fight against the Church and religion was carefully planned and very fierce. In 1932 there was the 17th party congress which not only produced a five-year plan for the economy but a five-year plan for achieving an atheist society. The plan was that by 1935 the last church would be shut down, and that by 1936 even the word “God” would have disappeared from the language!
I won’t describe for you all the horrors and all the tortures, and how many bishops, priests, monks and ordinary believers were buried alive or killed in other ways. What I want to stress is that to a great extent the Communists succeeded in converting Russia to Communism. And yet for all their success, hundreds of thousands of people defended the Church and became martyrs and the Church was not destroyed. The Church displayed a unique, quiet belief. Many priests went underground. In the 30’s, there were only three bishops still not in prison. Probably in the whole Soviet Union, in the 30’s just before the war, only 50 churches were still open. Thanks to this war, the fate of the Church shifted. People returned to belief. Stalin invited Patriarch Sergei to come from his small house on the edge of Moscow to live in the former embassy of the German Ambassador – one day in a log cabin with no telephone, the next in a mansion in the heart of Moscow. Many churches were re-opened, and two theological schools.
Still, though the Church had survived, when I was a boy we had no living contact whatsoever with the Church. None. Most of our generation came from atheistic families. One of my grandfathers was a commissar who died for the ideals of the revolution. Nonetheless, I was raised as normal Soviet child.
Long Road to Belief
In our school, there was a map of the world with flags marking every new country converted to Communism. We were singing revolutionary Cuban songs, and we were ready to die for Cuba or for any of these countries. How we moved from that attitude is something of a mystery. In the beginning it was just a kind of clash with reality, because we looked at real life and saw it didn’t match all those high ideals we were taught. First we thought, “Well, we live in the provinces. Maybe it takes a little longer for all these ideals to reach us,” though later, in Moscow, I could see the very same problems. Finally I was expelled from university because of my growing doubts about materialistic ideology.
When I had been expelled from the university I was attending in the Urals. I managed to get to Moscow and enter the institute. It was a kind of miracle that I was accepted. In that period one of my fellow students gave me a copy of the Gospels, though for a long time I didn’t read it. It couldn’t even touch it. The guy I shared my room with kept this money hidden in the Bible because it was a book that nobody dared to touch.
One day, as part of our lessons, we were invited to a hidden place where forbidden films were kept by the film institute. You had to go by train to get there. By this time the New Testament was the only book I possessed that I hadn’t read, but that day I had it with me. There on the train I opened the book and started reading, immediately I had this very strange feeling. On one side my mind knew or told me that this is just a legend or fairy tale. But from my heart there arose a different feeling that became stronger and stronger that this is actually the truth, I couldn’t rationally understand that feeling. At that moment the conductor came into our carriage. Of course we didn’t have a ticket. We were all protesting students -- the film school was more or less the only place where dissent was tolerated. The way we dealt with these situations when we didn’t have a ticket usually was to start arguing with the man, saying things like, “Don’t touch the guy because he is in Nirvana, and if you touch him he will die, and you will be responsible.”
But for the first time in my life, I did something that rationally I couldn’t understand. I took out my money and wanted to pay. And wanted to pay also the fine for all of us. It was very strange, but I understood that the Gospels had done this to me.
At last we arrived and we walked through the woods towards the restricted cinema, first passing through several security posts. The first film we were shown was The Gospel According to Saint Matthew: it was a real shock for me. It helped me overcome all my irony and to accept the Savior, Jesus Christ. The background of the film was that Passolini, and Italian communist, who had stayed some night in some hotel, had the Bible on the bed next to him, read St. Matthew’s Gospel, and decided he wanted to make a film that would simply show every scene from this Gospel. He decided not to use professional actors. He found people on the streets. Jesus Christ was played by a Spanish student he happened to meet. After seeing this film, I started preaching to my colleagues. They were amazed because I had been such a cynical man, and here I was promoting the film as being the truth.
Christian outside the Church
Thanks to this film, I became a Christian and searched for a Christian way of life. I was a Christian outside the Church. I didn’t know what the Church was. I took my Bible with me and went to look for people thinking similar thoughts. Many people I met became the core of that Christian Seminary. This was the summer of 1973. We felt that we were missing something, that there was a mystery hidden somewhere, but we couldn’t touch it. The Church was far from everything we knew, but finally I made a big effort and went to church.
First time in the Church
It was a big church near the center of Moscow. I was amazed it was so crowded. It amazed me that so many of those attending the Liturgy were from the intelligencia. Despite there being so many people, I was able to walk toward the altar right through the crowd. I saw a bishop was celebrating. I didn’t understand what exactly was going on. Almost everyone was crying, I couldn’t understand why, but I was also crying, and when the bishop came out to serve communion, a certain power pulled me toward the chalice. I so happened, without thinking about fasting. I hadn’t eaten the whole day. Even the day before, I had been fasting. It was by accident. And I received Communion. After that I found out that it was Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, a bishop in London, who gave me communion. He happened to be in Moscow at that moment.