He Showed Himself Through Cigarettes
A continuation of an interview with a Russian dissident, Alexander Ogorodnikov
In the last issue, we told the story of how Alexander Ogorodnikov, an atheist, found his way to God and to the Church. At first the devout Christians could not believe that he was genuine. But they accepted him and then he began to spread the Goodnews fearlessly-resulting in many strange events. One of which we recount here.
What happened after your first Communion that day in Moscow?
My friends also started going to church and participating in church life. But we encountered a new problem. It seemed to us that the church as an institution was not ready to accept us. The priests were afraid of us, and not only the priests. I went to a church of Kazan and when I entered an old babushka tried to push me out. She thought that since I was a young man, I must be a representative of the government or the Konsolmol [the young Communist association] who had to come to provoke them in order to shut down the Church. At that time young people did not go to Church. She was protecting their church against me, or my kind. It was not easy to stay! But when the old women saw that I went to confession and I received communion, they all cried. At the end they all came and they wanted to kiss me and thank me. It was a powerful experience - they saw a new generation coming into the church.
Place for us
We young people found ourselves in a very complex situation. It was difficult to find a place for ourselves inside the church. There was no living community and no education. We were trying to find out what were the possibilities, what could we do in this world as Christians, as Orthodox Christians.
In this kind of schizophrenic situation, we could only pray while we were in church, and then it was like leaving our belief in a kind of waiting room. It was difficult for us to understand because the reason we came to church was because it was truth, but outside the church we had to go on living as Soviet citizens. This being torn apart was very difficult. We came to church because here was the True Light. That’s why we started the Christian Seminar Retreat, because we couldn’t live with this church which was silent.
Search for Kitezh
The Seminar helped us to start a living Christian community and also to educate us in Orthodox belief. Then we started to travel all over Russia in what we called our search for the invisible town of Kitezh. Kitezh is a fabled place miraculously preserved under the waters of the Svetloyar Lake where the old way of life and worship has continued without pause. According to the legend, occasionally Kitezh rises from the water and appears to the devout. To “search for Kitezh” is a way of speaking in metaphors about the search for holiness. Little by little we were discovering the spiritual life in Russia. It was hidden, but it started to open to us. We didn’t want to remain just a small intellectual circle of Orthodox youth. We found monks and nuns who helped us. Now today we can openly talk about this, how in the Ukraine, at the Pachaiev monastery, they helped us in other ways. They gave us money and helped us buy a house for the Seminar. We declared that house to be kind of free territory, not part of the Soviet Union, a liberated territory. Of course, the authorities paid us back and they declared us to be forbidden zone, we were actually provoked, persecuted
One day I was called to Moscow by the KGB. Five strong men from the KGB put me in a car and drove out of the City. The car stopped in the middle of the forest and I was thrown out of the car. They put me against the car and encircled me, holding guns in their hands. At that moment, someone in a black suit came toward us out of the forest, walking in our direction very slowly, and the KGB men opened their circle and stood to the side, The man in black said, “You are free.” But when I tried to get through the circle of the KGB me, they wouldn’t let me pass. So I said to the man in black, “I can’t go, I can’t get out.” He made a gesture, and then I was able to force my way out with my shoulders. And I walked away, all the time waiting for a shot in my back. I didn’t know where I was – a very dark wood.
Then behind me I heard footsteps. The KGB men again surrounded me, one on the left, one on right, one in front one in back. They said, “Now we’ll look for a place where we can shoot you.” I understood that this is the blind force of evil, which in this world you can never hide from. They brought me to a certain place, then one of them took out his gun and said, “Get down on your knees.” I responded, “I kneel only in front of God.” Then he fired a shot, but over my head. After that he said, “We don’t want any new martyrs."
After, this incident, for a certain time they left the Christian Seminar in peace, but before long once again they were looking for ways to frighten us. There were times when we had to flee over roofs. We had to invent all kinds of conspiracies, not because we were hiding guns or narcotics, but spiritual literature. So we were actually forced to behave in that way.
To emigrate or be jailed
Yet all this time we were living with the constant feeling of the presence of God. There were many miracles that saved us. But finally there came a moment when I was arrested and was brought to Lubianka, the KGB headquarters in Moscow. They told me, “It is time you put an end to behaving as a hero. You have one month, we give you the possibility to leave, get out.” I said, “Why should I leave, my country? I was born here, why I should leave?” they started shouting me, “We give you one month. If you don’t emigrate in that one month, then we will arrest you and you will never get out again, you will die in prison. You will die forgotten and deserted by all.”
In those years it was almost impossible to emigrate. Only 1, 500 Jews emigrated in one year. What we understood is that once you were willing to speak, you had to be willing to pay the price. We had to prove that Christianity is not an abstracted idea, but that it was real life. And so we decided that I would go to prison. After me 13 others were arrested. There was a kind of systematic arrest of every new leader that came after me. I must say that all of us behaved very bravely in prison. Nobody surrendered...
Before I was imprisoned, I knew that I would have a difficult time in prison. I like being free, I liked good food, I liked all these things. I was afraid. I thought I would not be able to lead a worthy life in prison. In prison you have to constantly fight for your own rights and for the rights of the other prisoners. But finally when I was imprisoned, I discovered my own depths, and not only inside of myself, but in every man. This was such an elevation, it lifted me spiritually, but also it gave me strength. There are many stories I could tell you, but I’ll tell just one.
In the Habarosk prison
This was during my stay at the Habarosk prison. I was being held in a large cell shared with many others. It was the plan of the KGB on this occasion to break me with the help of the real criminals. The door was closed. I heard the lock slam in place, leaving me with about forty men, half-naked, all with tattoos.
As I entered the cell, I said, “Peace be with you” It was strange for them to hear these words. They looked at me in amazement. At that time I did not wear prison clothing. I still had my own clothes. And they said, “Take your clothes off.” And they threw some old rags at my feet, which I had to put on.
I answered, “I can give away my own clothes only to those who really need them, not if you force me to.” They started yelling at me, and they were at the point of violence. The leader of this group, a man sitting on a top bunk, said, “You will be sleeping near the toilets.” The place where the worst criminals sleep, the pederasts. You find this pecking order in every prison. The pederasts are considered subhuman. Most of them are not real criminals, but victims themselves. What happens to them is that they are violated, used sexually as a punishment.
Proof of His presence
The men in the cell were getting ready to attack me. Then one of them asked me, “You said ‘Peace be with you,’ Are you a Christian?” and I said “Yes” He replied, “We heard that if a Christian prays to his God, then a miracle occurs. So please prove to us that you are a Christian and not somebody trying to make an impression.” In prison it is very important that you take responsibility for everything you say. And I accepted this challenge.
They said, “We are the scum of the earth, everything is negative as far as we are concerned. We have nothing, not even cigarettes to smoke. And our ears have become thick because of not smoking. So if you really are a Christian, please pray to your God that we get something. Pray to your God that He will bring us something and then we will believe that He exists.”
Praying for cigarettes
I said, “I'm convinced that the miracle will happen, but for this we have to pray all together.” That was my condition. I went to the center, or in the middle of the room. And I made them all get up from their beds, because it is our tradition to stand in front of God as a sign of respect. And they all got up. They were all smiling and they thought it was kind of a game, and they would beat me up in the end. So I said, “Please listen carefully to the words of the prayer. And those who are able to, repeat them. And the other who was not able to repeat the words, just listen.” And I started to pray.
After one minute I started to feel by the skin of my back that something was going on. You have to realize that in this atmosphere of hatred and cynicism and neglect, for the first time these high words of prayer were heard. A devout atmosphere of silence came into the room. And when I ended the prayer, the smiles from their faces had gone, and they were full with a new feeling. It was the first time in their lives that they heard these words, and it probably had touched their hearts. And in this complete silence I showed them with my hands that they could sit down. And at that exact moment, a small window in the door was opened, and cigarettes were thrown through the hole in the door.
God can show Himself through cigarettes
We don’t know His ways. Before the prayer I had told them smoking is a sin, but that God will show this miracle to show His Love. Their Creator loves them despite their sins, and because of this love, He will show his miracle even in this way, not withstanding that the behavior is sinful.
I tell you this story just so you will know how my heart was burning when I was in prison. I understood it was not an ordinary imprisonment. It was a kind of mission. And I tried to make something out of this.
Finally, when the KGB or authorities understood how dangerous it was to keep me together with other prisoners, I was isolated completely. And then I understood also how wise that was. Because while I was living in the world, my prayer was not strong enough, and I did not have the peace to think. I was very much involved fighting the system, and in a certain sense this influenced my spiritual life. And I understood it was necessary for me to be in isolation. Of course, it was very difficult for me. I had no contacts with the priests; I couldn’t receive Communion.
When you say it was necessary, do you mean it was God’s will?
Yes, For instance one day I felt that I absolutely needed to confess, and I started to pray to several saints, and when I directed my words to St. Seraphim, I had this physical feeling that an epitrachelionwas touching my head. And literally this heavy feeling was lifted from my heart, and I felt as if I was born again. And I think that I had the strongest experience of gratitude during isolation. And that is the reason why sometimes I long to be in isolation again.