Children in thick-rimmed glasses rush around the yard, play table tennis, do beading and study according to the latest curriculum to keep up with their sighted peers. Priest Valery Yukin takes care of the correctional school, and the children adore him, but without them his beautiful church in the village of Dudino would not have been revived. What is most important thing when you are communicating with non-believing teachers, how to talk with children about faith so that they understand you, and what should a priest think about when restoring a destroyed church?
Children rush around the school yard. They shout, laugh, wave their hands, hang on the parallel bars. Surrounding me, they asked me about the camera: are the lens detachable, how much does it cost? Most of them wear glasses with thick lenses. On the counter there is a detailed three-dimensional map of the courtyard with signatures in Braille. This is Tver Correctional School No. 3 for visually impaired and blind children.
A lesson starts. In the courtyard I am waiting for Father Valery Yukin, a priest of the Church dedicated to the Ascension of the Lord in the village of Dudino. He has been taking care of the school for 12 years. Finally, his car pulls up in the parking lot.
“If only you knew what kind of children we have here,” says the priest. He is short, but strong, slightly plump, in a black hat and with a wavy beard. “They study well, they make crafts, they know prayers by heart. They dance and sing. We go to military units with concerts. Once a general began to cry at the concert and said: “And my grandchildren only good with their iPhones.”
It Gets Easier to Live and Work
After the lesson, the children rush to hug Father Valery, surround him, and ask questions.
“We are not all believers here,” Victoria Tatarinova, the school’s director, tells me. “But Father Valery is such a bright person that his visits fill us with joy for a week in advance. It gets easier to live and work. We are grateful to have him here.”
Father Valery talks with children about faith in a simple and understandable way.
“Where is it better, in paradise or in hell?”
“In paradise,” the children answer.
“And why? Because God is in paradise. And Satan is in hell. Do you know how the word “satan” is translated? As an opponent to God. Do you know why God did not destroy Satan? This is the question the angels asked God. Because He loves you and me so much that He made us free. He gave us the freedom to choose from good and evil. To choose to seek good or evil. To seek God or Satan. The path to God consists of patience, mercy, compassion, and love for one’s neighbor. It consists of praying for those who offend us. And the path to Satan is the opposite.”
“And I was in the church with my mother on Sunday and told the priest about my sins,” a boy of about ten said.
“This is a confession,” Father Valery noded. “This should be done regularly. Although I am a priest, I also make confessions. Before each service, before celebrating the Divine Liturgy. I kneel in front of another priest and repent. Sometimes I feel sad, because I again could not do something, something did not work out for me again. But we must continue to fight. This is the very struggle between good and evil.”
The break ended and the beginning of the next lesson sent the children back to their classes. But the teachers also have questions for the priest. Mostly personal, so Father Valery talks with them one by one in a miniature chapel, equipped by him on the second floor of the school. Then he took part in the teachers’ council, communication with all teachers. They often ask him where it is better to place icons at home, about the severity of priests, about pets, how often to take Holy Communion, how to deal with despondency, etc…
You Won’t Think That The Child in Front of You is Blind
The school is well equipped for blind students. On the floor there are voluminous tactile markings, on the walls there are voluminous signs and names of classrooms in Braille. There are huge textbooks in the classrooms, relief maps on the walls. There is even a volumetric globe for tactile study. It looks like a cozy life-size dollhouse. It is believed that the best period in the life of children with disabilities is at school. Because everyone around them is the same, they talk “in the same language” and are in their element.
“We now have 52 students in our school, who study according to the 12-year system,” said Victoria Tatarinova. “In classes from 1 to 8 children. Now I have three first-graders who study in three different classes, 1 person each. The fact is that the nosology of diseases is different for them and a different approach is required. It used to be that children were simply considered to have a poor sight, but now diseases do not go one by one. Blindness is combined with cerebral palsy, deafness, and many other pathologies. We have 11 children who are totally blind. There are children who have only light perception. There are children with vision minus 19, minus 10, and the best seeing student has minus 2.”
“They can’t run around the school like crazy with the rest, can they?”
“Maybe they don’t run, but they walk very confidently. You will not even think that the child in front of you is blind,” Victoria Vladimirovna smiled. “We teach children to navigate the school perfectly. They know all the stairs, corridors, turns and classrooms by heart, so they will find any corner better than you and me. And they read a lot, and work on the computer, and go in for sports, and even weave with beads.”
Those who do not want to invest their souls in children simply do not work at the school, the director assures.
“You know, a boy graduated from our school a few years ago – Sahib. He is from an Azerbaijani family that runs a chain of restaurants here in Tver. In the process of teaching Sahib, his grandfather came to Father Valery and asked him to baptize him. Father Valery asked him why he needed it. The man replied, “Because your God is love.”
Lost Mobility due to Pandemic
During the pandemic, Father Valery only visited the Tver School No. 3. Before that, on the contrary, more often the children from the school traveled with the priest. He not only organized these trips and accompanied the children, but provided them with a comfortable bus. The school has its own PAZIK bus, but you won’t get far on it: it is shaking on the road and hard for children.
The schoolchildren visited Moscow, went to the Tretyakov Gallery, to Sergiev Posad several times, and participated in the Paschal Joy festival. They traveled to military units with school performances.
“We constantly traveled to Dudino,” says the school’s director. “Starting from the time when Father Valery was only beginning to restore the Church of the Ascension of the Lord. It’s been 11 years already. First, they removed old planks from there, cleared the foliage. Then they took out the garbage from the church. When a garden appeared on its premises, they began to help harvesting potatoes. Of course, we have not brought much benefit, but it is very useful for our children to work. We have a small problem: when guests or sponsors come to us, they feel sorry for all our children, give them gifts, and they are already used to it. They already ask: will there be gifts? It’s very good to do a little work for a change. And, of course, we were present at the opening of the church, went to the liturgies. It was always like a holiday for both the children and us. Unfortunately, we have not been to Dudino since the beginning of the pandemic. We ask Father Valery every week, but he cannot get permission for this yet.”
The village of Dudino and the Church of the Ascension of the Lord in it were really revived thanks to the visually impaired children.
12 years ago, Father Valery, being still a deacon, was asked to work with disabled children.
Then he began to take care of the Tver school №3. And he immediately saw that the children had absolutely nowhere to go to rest. Then he decided to organize a summer camp-sanatorium for them, with a good view and a river, with a swimming pool, farm products and medical personnel.
He asked the diocese to give him a church, any old one that has fallen apart, near which it will be possible in time to set up a camp for the children. A month later, Father Valery was ordained a priest and appointed rector in Dudino. However, the camp is still in the project.
Table Tennis and Blind Typing
After his visit to Tver School No. 3, Father Valery had promised to come with me to Dudino and show me the restored church. The last time I visited him was 4 years ago, when instead of the entrance hall, the middle part of the church and the altar, piles were sticking out of the ground, and the services were performed in a small corner. But more than two hours had passed since the beginning of his visit to the school, and no one was going to let the priest go. I went out to wait for him in the yard, where the children surrounded me.
It turned out that one of them, Zhora, has 5 siblings, and his mother recently bought a passenger GAZelle (a van). It turned out that Artyom’s dad had a Honda in order to ride more comfortably and faster. Another boy decided that he wanted a camera like mine. The next one said that the coolest teacher in their school teaches literature, because she has the tenth iPhone. And the latter one, having examined ordinary white headphones in the ears of a passing woman, giggled softly: “Look, she has EarPods, only with wires.”
“Would you like me to show you table tennis for the blind?” said Vladimir Polevoy, a tall teacher, who completely blind. “Come with me.”
We have many children, including those who are totally blind, who win prizes in this sport. And I train them.
Vladimir Polevoy himself went blind at the age of 5. He studied at this very school and graduated with a gold medal. Then he graduated with honors from Tver University. He has been teaching computer science, music and tennis for 14 years. He provides children and teachers with the latest software to help the blind keep up with the education of the sighted. In addition, he is a master of sports and champion of Russia in table tennis for the blind.
Vladimir confidently walked along the corridor in front of me, went down the stairs, turned right, left, and we entered a small gym. Table tennis for the blind, showdown in English, is played at a long table fenced with a high side – like a giant table hockey. On two opposite ends of the table there are 20 x 10 cm holes. They play wearing masks to equalize the chances for the blind and visually impaired. They use special rackets and a special heavy ringing ball: to determine its direction by ear. The goal is to roll the ball into the opponent’s hole.
When I asked him how difficult it is to teach blind children, Vladimir Polevoy smiled.
“We teach them according to the general education program, which is no different from the program for sighted children. A huge number of fixtures are now available. First, a blind child is taught touch typing. Then, which is very important, computer literacy. Not the easiest process, because instead of using the mouse, we have to memorize keyboard shortcuts. Like Alt + F4 – to close a document or program. Well, then the child can use braille displays, braille printers. When I was still studying at the institute and I needed to read a book, I scanned it and printed it on a Braille printer. It’s not that hard. And today there are even consoles that allow the blind to use a smartphone. Although, all these gadgets cost hundreds of thousand rubles. We have them, but it is a big question whether the children will be able to afford such gadgets after school.”
The Hardest Thing Is Done by Prayer
“I try to do as much as possible for these children,” Father Valery said in the car when we finally left the school and went to Dudino, 50 km from Tver. “In terms of faith, everything is fine with the children, they know all prayers, they go to services with their parents, take Holy Communion. It is more difficult with teachers – there are non-believers, there are doubters, and almost all of them are not practicing Christians. They don’t go to church. I try to mentor teachers. But very delicately, of course, so as not to pressure them, not to push them away. The main thing is to help them work with the children. It is very difficult for them. Without God’s help it’s a heavy burden. I pray for them, and God helps them.”
The work with disabled children did not take shape right away. Not only was the administration not too disposed to having the priest around, the icons in the school were forbidden, they did not trust him, so even at that time the children were regularly visited by representatives of other religious movements and sects.
“I told the teachers: “You can’t do that, fear God. Do not let sectarians visit our children, this is far from the true faith,” Father Valery told me. “But words didn’t help. Once I tried to reason with the sectarians, and they were almost ready to use their fists. The children saved me then. They surrounded me and said: “Leave our father alone, your eyes are evil.” Then I realized that words could not help the cause, and began to pray to Mother Matrona of Moscow. I prayed for a week. Then I came to the school, and the sectarians disappeared – and never came back. And the school, on the contrary, needs me more and more.”
Father Valery himself did not come to God immediately and not easily. At 24, he could not even imagine that he would become a clergyman.
Valery Yukin served in the army, in a tank corps, 4 years extra urgent. He wanted to become a soldier, but changed his mind and went to civilian life. He started looking for a job. His friends invited him to the gasoline business. A company that supplies gasoline to gas stations. By the age of 30, he bought 5 apartments, traveled a lot to different countries, practiced judo, went hunting, and in general, led an “elite” lifestyle. Until someone invited him to visit “a very powerful hermit.”
The hermit said something to the petrol tycoon, and another Valery Yukin came out of the cell. First, he began to restore the church in Tver. He began to help the rector during the service. After a while, his friends and business colleagues gave him an ultimatum: “Either you are with us, or with the Church.” Valery went out of business and devoted himself to the Church. He spent all his money on the restoration of the church. For five years he served free of charge and did not have much to eat. Then he was transferred to another church, assigned a salary, and sent to a seminary.
You Need to Think More about People
“When Father Elijah from Optina Hermitage blessed me to work in Dudino,” Father Valery recalls, “he said: “Your feat will not be in restoring the church. Although it is a good thing to restore the house of God. But your feat will be that the village people, who drink and are restless, will be reborn around your church so that the Russian land does not overgrow. How many people will you help, how many people will come to a new life through this church, such is your merit”.
So Father Valery always tried to think more about people than about the church. He prayed and worked. He organized a parish at the church, restored documents to many people “without a future”, gave them shelter and work. Today there are 26 people in the community, but sometimes up to 50. He built community houses, organized a Sunday school, a livestock farm, carpentry workshops, an apiary, a cheese dairy, found and restored old tractors, planted potatoes, and established trade in farm products.
He began to conduct services in the ruined church, but the winters in 2010-2011 were frosty.
During these two years, Father Valery went deaf in one ear and froze his hand, but this did not stop him and did not prevent him from asking the regional administration for land plots for his community members, so that in the future they could build their own houses. And he did not forget about the church. With the money from benefactors and part of the income from the farm, Father Valery spent 9 years restoring and finally rebuilding the church in the village of Dudino.
The Church of the Ascension of the Lord in the village of Dudino turned out to be beautiful. Any large city, including the capital, could be proud of this. Slender, sunny warm color, with paths of colored paving stones around. Near the temple there is a bakery, a refectory with a kitchen and the building of an icon painting school, which is about to open. The interior of the temple is unexpectedly spacious and light. Among the icons on the walls there is one special, old one, which depicts St. Nicholas the Wonderworker and the Prophet Elijah. This icon has already become famous in the area. On a string across it hang two dozen pectoral crosses. Praying in front of it helped many people to conceive a child, get rid of drug addiction, cure a disease, fulfill a vow…
“So, the church is finished, will you build a sanatorium for blind children now?” I asked Father Valery.
“We will have to wait a little with the sanatorium,” the priest smiled. “Two years ago, my Dean Father Pavel Sorochinsky called me over and asked: “Can you take another church? The Church of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos in the village of Pokrovskoe”. How could I not? It is the duty of every Christian to take care of the house of God.”
“Is this temple also destroyed?”
“It was destroyed, and now it is warm inside, it was consecrated, there are icons, services are conducted on schedule,” Father Valery answered with satisfaction. “In a year or two, God willing, we will restore it completely. And then we will begin to build a sanatorium. The governor has already assigned me a land allocation for the sanatorium. I even put a stage for the children there. Right on the Shusha River. It’s a very beautiful place.”
Photos: Pavel Orlov