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Women of the Catacombs, edited and translated by Wallace L. Daniel

28 May 2021

These memoirs witness to the endurance of faith, says Xenia Dennen

SOVIET propaganda claimed that religion would fade away in its vaunted “brave new world” where Marxism-Leninism held sway. But it did not. Why this was so, why Christianity survived persecution in the Soviet Union, is to a great extent explained by the lives and religious faith of those presented to us in Women of the Catacombs by Vera Iakovlevna Vasilevskaia (1902-75), whose memoirs form three-quarters of this book, by her cousin Elena Semenovna Men (1908-78), whose short memoir forms the remaining quarter, and by the Orthodox priests — Fr Serafim Batiukov (1879-1942) and Fr Pyotr Shipkov (1881-1959) — who are the focus of these memoirs.

The original texts were circulated as typescripts or samizdat (self-published) during the Soviet period, with a preface by the remarkable Russian Orthodox priest Fr Aleksandr Men (son of Elena), who was murdered in 1990. They are now presented in an English translation, with expert commentary and explanations in an introduction and footnotes by the editor, Dr Wallace Daniel, who also published a biography of Fr Aleksandr in 2016.

Part of the Russian Orthodox Church, which refused all compromise with the state during the early years of the Soviet regime, functioned in secret, preserving an intense form of Christianity which was extraordinarily powerful and attracted Vera and Elena, both Jews by birth, and led them to be baptised. The dangers faced by those who worshipped in this catacomb Church nurtured a faith that was unquenchable; indeed, persecution seems to have intensified this faith. In Vera’s words “Do not holy places, desecrated and ravaged, really become for us still more sacred. . .”

Both Fr Serafim and Fr Pyotr had the gift of discernment and belonged to an Orthodox tradition of spiritual guidance called starchestvo or eldership, which is best known to a Western readership through the character of Fr Zosima in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the presence of these two priests, Vera writes, you felt protected; their eyes could “see straight through you”; they sanctified their environment; “the very air, furnishings, and walls participated in the divine service”.

The socio-political background to the lives of Vera and Elena, both during the pre-revolutionary period and afterwards in the 1920s, 1930s, and during the Second World War, adds a rich texture to these memoirs. Vera, a highly intelligent, complex personality, who loves poetry and music, describes her school with its remarkable teachers and the anti-Semitism in society at the time. Her cousin explains how, despite violent opposition from her Jewish parents, she is drawn to Christianity and joins a group of Baptists in Kharkov, before she later discovers Russian Orthodoxy through Fr Serafim.

Vera, too, becomes interested in Christianity through conversations with “a seeker after truth”, who was not Russian Orthodox, but Lutheran, and whom she first met in 1917. She is eventually introduced to Fr Serafim by Elena.

Both women experience the double life that a believer has to live under a communist regime: Elena describes a demonstration when anti-religious songs were sung, and her relief when someone in the crowd sees her face and says, “I also believe in God.” Once for Vera, Passion Sunday fell on 1 May, when it was obligatory to join a May Day parade; she, too, experiences a painful tension and writes: “Having found myself among my comrades from work, I felt with special sharpness, the false pretences of my situation. . . I was seemingly with them, but in reality, I lived in another world”.

During a pilgrimage to Diveevo, the location of a convent founded by the 19th-century saint St Serafim, and closed by the Soviet authorities, Vera walked to where the saint had prayed deep in the forest. She noticed springs that had been filled in with earth and from which the water was starting to bubble up again. In Women of the Catacombs, we are shown how, like those springs, the Christian faith in a hostile Soviet environment could not be destroyed.

Xenia Dennen is a Russian specialist, and chairman of Keston Institute, Oxford.


Women of the Catacombs: Memoirs of the underground Orthodox Church in Stalin’s Russia
Wallace L. Daniel, editor and translator
Cornell University Press £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

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