Surviving as a Christian

The more experience I was getting in these trips, the more humble I was becoming. Sometimes I would meet all locals and baptize about sixty people… Once in a while a lot of people would come to service, or I would go to school and tell both students and teachers a lot, which made me feel good. I would do ‘the whole program’ and leave feeling satisfied. Six months later I come to this village again and it looks like everything was in vain. The only good thing is that they greet me like someone they know.
By Priest Leonid Tsapok | 09 November 2010

Source:  NoGa Creative Union  



SS. Peter and Paul Day, summer 2001. Many-hour flight over the entire country to Anadyr, the capital of Chukotka, different climate and time zone, sadness over parting with friends and favourite school, and vagueness of the future… Six years ago I was a young priest, a graduate of Moscow Theological Seminary, who appeared in confusion before the eyes of Diomid, bishop of Anadyr and Chukotka. After many years spent far away, my hometown Anadyr seemed to be a foreign land, and the outskirts of Chukotka sounded frightening. My first meeting with the governing bishop did not make me more optimistic either. That day he served evening service all by himself, without sextons or assistants. For forty minutes he was turning his back to me, not noticing my timid attempts to get his blessing. Finally, I heard: “Ah, so you came, you did not run away. That’s great! Well, then you are going to become the senior priest at Lavrentiya…”

So I Went

So I went there. Not alone though, but with my mother. It took me one hour and a half to get to the very eastern area centre of the district. The name of the area is quite simple – Chukotsky, it comes from the name of the region. Five thousand people, six villages scattered throughout the vast territory. Eighty per cent of the entire population is Chukchi people. No plants, only one road that does not take you very far anyway – it only connects two villages of the area. To get to the main land one needs a plane or a helicopter. All this place has is two sealing farms and infrastructure required for living. Almost a reservation, a pass required to both enter and leave the place. My mother and I were looking through the window of the plane, below there was boundless tundra, lakes, rivers and hills. No one was waiting for us in Lavrentiya, no one invited us… We did not even know whether anyone needed us there. I asked my mom: “What are we going to do with Chukchi people? I have never dealt with them before”. My mother has worked for Anadyr narcological dispensary for many years and she knew about Chukchi from her life experience – not from books. She gave me a wise answer: “We are going to treat them to sweet tea and they will like us”.

The local administration gave us the abandoned building of the former village council. Windows were knocked out, roof – partially demolished, heating system – just hopeless. We furnished a small room, now we use an oil heater and conduct services. Only two people came to the service on the first holiday – Transfiguration Day. On Assumption Day my mother and I were the only people in worship. But in September several people came – several women. I am beginning to understand peculiarities of local life – it is summer, time of vacations. Half of Russian population of the village go to the main land for vacation, and the other half substitute for them. Most Chukchi people do not go anywhere and do not come to church either.

So it is time to check my mother’s missionary technology – treat Chukchi kids to tea and cookies (kav-kavka in Chukchi). They bring us boards, straighten nails, and help us in construction. They drink tea with great pleasure. Several boys and girls, their younger sisters. Their parents drink, situation at home is just terrible but they are cheerful and joyous just like all kids. We show girl Olesya children’s Bible and a picture depicting the Garden of Eden. She looks at palm trees and says: ‘grass, deep grass’. She calls a crocodile a rat; all other animals are dogs to her. She has never seen trees in her life. We turn a page and see outcast Adam and Eve warming themselves by the fire. Olesya’s eyes are showing more interest now. She asks why they were cast out. My mother thinks a minute and then answers – they got drunk with vodka, which is very bad, so this is why they were cast out! Olesya does not understand – her parents are always drunk, and their guests are drunk, too… Why is it bad? Well, it’s a real challenge to explain something like this!

Late Fall of 2001

We fixed heating in the church building, broke walls in three rooms that used to be offices and made it into a worship room. Our main news is that Luba came. She is a young lady, graduate of church choir school. She is so brave that she was not afraid to come here. She wants to see Chukotka and do something good in her life, sing in worship in the middle of nowhere and teach others to sing. It was such a gift for us! By winter more people started coming to worship, we had around five people in Sunday liturgies. We started Sunday school for children who used to come for tea. Everything is almost the same, except for moral teaching before tea, reading from the children’s Bible and a music lesson for dessert. Someone has donated a piano, so now during polar night one can hear inspired singing coming from church windows: “To verkhom, to peshkom po userdiyu, my idem k prepodobnomu Sergiyu…” (Meaning in English: “Both on horseback and on foot we zealously walk towards Saint Sergiy…”)

These words bring tears to one’s eyes and create desire to come to Lavra. Also, we would like to believe that there, in the Kingdom of Heaven father Roman hears Chukchi children sing his song. They sing it with such inspiration even though they never saw Lavra, neither do they know who Saint Sergiy is. The meaning of the lyrics is not clear to them but they feel it is something good and pure. I try to tell them Lives of Saints, then look in their eyes and realize – it is useless. So we start learning something they would understand – a beautiful song about local land:

        “Inogda ot lyudey ya slyshu (Sometimes I hear from people),
        Chto u nas ne zhit’e, a gore (That our life is nothing but sorrows),
        Zlye vetry sryvayut kryshi (Wicked winds tear off roofs),
        Postoyanno bushuet more (And the sea rages all the time)…”


This poetic and true description of advantages and disadvantages of Chukchi life ends with the following words:

        “Inogda ot lyudey ya slyshu (Sometimes I hear from people),
        Budto zhizn’ u nas bez prosveta (That our life has no hope),
        No my znaem zemlyak s toboyu (But, brother, you and I know),
        Chto ne pravda, ne pravda eto (That it is not true, not true at all).”


They sing this song with pleasure, too, but less enthusiastically than the one about St.Sergiy. It looks like not all of them agree with the author. I ask children whether they like Chukotka. Girls giggle and boys shrug their shoulders. Well, kind of, yes, we like it. I realize that my question was stupid. How can they not like it if they never saw anything different in their whole life? But, of course, they would like to go somewhere else, too. Go to a place like on TV, to a different, beautiful life. 

History of Our Sunday School is not rich in educational victories. Chukchi kids are dirty, constantly hungry, all with lice, they wear old worn clothes, in winter they have light jackets on… Both in Seminary and Academy we were taught everything but the way to organize a Sunday school. But even if they taught us this, I do not think this knowledge would help me in such specific environment.

The half of the problem is that children come from families of alcoholics, and because of this they have some developmental delay. It is not surprising that they have difficulties focusing on objects, have no skills of assiduity and diligence, and are only interested in games and cartoons. All education is brought to nothing by their everyday life, their families and friends – all completely opposite to what we teach them. Conceived in drunkenness, born in drunkenness, grown up in atmosphere of irresponsibility and indifference… Souls crippled from their very infancy. It was very difficult to understand them and get used to the fact that these children had entirely different psychology; they came from a different world, different life we had no access to and absolutely no desire to enter.

Here is an example. Two girls of 12 years old became witnesses of a murder. Drunken guys tortured and killed a boy of their age who was their relative before their very eyes. Then they took the body outside and hid it in a snow pile by the house. What surprises is not that they did not tell anyone about this, even though a thorough investigation was conducted. What surprises is that no psychological trauma was noticeable in them. They kept coming to our classes; they sang, laughed and had fun just like before. Only a few months later one of them betrayed herself when speaking to a friend, so the crime was revealed. When I asked girls why they were silent about this, they answered simple-mindedly: “No one intimidated us. The guys just told us to keep silence, so we did”

Virtually never Russian parishioners’ kids came to our Sunday school. Even when they tried to come, they were not able to adjust themselves to the Chukchi team – they were too different. For six years we had three groups of students. The first one consisted of the most hungry and best singing kids, mostly girls of 9-12 years old. First Christmas carols in Lavrentiya were sung by them. What an effect it had! It was all people were talking about. They said that children of those bad parents sang wonderful songs in stores and offices, and recited poems never taught in school.

We were dreaming about the next Christmas. We thought we would go all over the village in dog-drawn sledges, with jingle-bells and stars, and praise Christ. Unfortunately, the next year there were different kids in our school and different songs, too. Every group of our Sunday school normally got united around the leader who would bring his friends there. And leaders would leave us sooner or later. Usually the reason was the same each time – stealing. It is our headache and major problem in relations with children. It was difficult and unusual to live in constant tension, with caution. Did someone steal money from a purse left in a pocket? Where is a tin of condensed milk from the refrigerator, or a bottle of Cahors wine from the offering table?

Once in a while constant suspicion would grow into a mania, and I would think sadly: “What a circus is this? Everything lost its meaning long time ago… it is not a temple but a den of thieves. The right thing would be to kick everybody out”. But if we kicked our students out right away without giving them a second chance (sometimes event third, fourth or fifth chance) we would not have a Sunday school. We had to tell some to leave, some would leave by their own wish after another recurrence, and some would just grow up and lose interest. Only during the fifth year of Sunday school’s existence the third group began learning and memorizing things, do dishes and, what’s most important, these kids deserved our credibility.

There Was a Very Comforting Scene There

Every winter, on Epiphany, our congregation would go to Lorinsky thermal springs. We would order a local bus – URAL truck with a cabin for people. About 40 parishioners, children and just friends would get together, have a great water blessing and bathe in hot water.

On one of such holidays, in the morning, during the Liturgy, weather started getting worse. Strong wind made snow drift, and, on top of that, the temperature was more than thirty degrees below zero. The bus came to the church building but there only were five parishioners there. The weather kept getting worse, so we almost decided not to go and have water blessed inside the church building. It was pretty sad – the holiday did not look like a holiday any longer. But then a crowd of kids covered with snow burst into the building – all students of our Sunday school. They looked at me with such joyous anticipation that we had no choice. It was quite dangerous and responsible to cover thirty kilometers of tundra in blizzard, but we went anyway. There were five adults and twelve children there.

At the springs we had great water-blessing in a dilapidated chapel. Frosted boys held gonfalons and icons, some girls tried to sing along. Fingers taken out of mittens would crook right away; voices became hoarse within first three minutes of the prayer service. Besides, all of us stamped our feet the whole time. But the festive feeling was greater than that of Easter! Afterwards, we spent an hour splashing in warm water, dipping all the time to warm up our heads. It only took a few seconds for our heads to get crusted over with ice and become overgrown with icicles. In spite of everything we experienced, no one even sneezed the next day.

Of course, at the time I had no doubt that the time and strength we spent for these kids was to good purpose. Only God knows whether they will make the most of our relations, whether our classes and tea will influence their life in the future, whether good seeds will be rooted in their souls and bring fruit. I doubt that we will be able to essentially change their life; it seems to be too hard and hopeless. But they did help us, for sure. They helped us not to become disheartened. In a secluded space of this drunken Chukchi village they were our support. Well, maybe, we have not taught them much but we treated them to tea. And it was pleasing to God; I have no doubt about this.

 I Was the Only Priest for Four Districts

So I began traveling through Chukotka. Summer 2002. Huge distances, aircraft being the only vehicle. Lavrentiya, Providence, Egvekinot, Cape Schmidt, plus other settlements. Every area centre has a congregation and premises for worship.

In Providence church meets in a former pharmacy building, in Egvekinot services are held ‘in a secular way’, in a redesigned two-room apartment. I received a warm welcome – to local Orthodox people a priest is a rare and dear guest. Normally, for the first few days many people come to confess, take Communion or be baptized. They ask to bless their apartments, or invite me to a school or hospital. But after three days they get less active, less people come to church; few people that come are regular parishioners. Three more days and you understand that religious needs of the settlement have been met for a month or two, so it is time to go home. 

It is nice to come to such parishes – people meet you, find a place for you, feed you and see you off. It is even possible to collect some money for tickets. If you take scheduled flights, each trip costs at least ten thousand rubles. If weather is bad and flights get cancelled, you can wait for a week or two in a relative psychological comfort. You can serve, read books, and walk in the neighborhood… There may be few parishioners, but they all are Orthodox, they love and respect you.

National, heathen, Chukchi settlements are entirely different. There are few or no Russians there. For the first three days you just walk around the village and all people stare at you and treat you like an alien – a priest came! Chukchi children stare at you with surprise and ask: “Who are you? God? Then why are you wearing a skirt?” Drunken adults cling to you in the street, cross themselves in a wrong way (from left to right) and ask with a faltering tongue: “How can we… well… What do people do in your church? Be baptized, or something like that?”

When you come to such village for the first time, you have to stay at a stranger’s home. These people receive you at someone’s request and, as a rule, are shy in your presence. People talk about you; you become a subject of wide speculation… They argue whether you are a real priest, whether they should talk to you or not. Finally, after a day or two people start coming to you. They address serious questions, you learn a little more about them, bless the first apartment, and explain why it is needed, what kind of prayers those are and who you pray to.

God’s protection from evil forces is something every Chukchi understands. No one has doubts about existence of spirits in tundra. No one usually questions the fact that there is one God and He is the One to ask for help. They willingly bring their children to have them baptized, even though adults themselves rarely proceed to this sacrament. I do not seek after baptizing adults either when I see that they are not ready to become Christians and that their life is not going to change. The main task of my coming to such village is to let people get used to me. To convince them that I did not come to destroy their traditions and way of life and that I am not going to force anything on them. It is very important that people are ready to listen and are not aggressive towards you.

Before leaving I usually try to serve a Liturgy, most often to do this I have to ask for a room in the local club. I administer Communion to children and adults who show deep interest. I do not look at the clock during service. Books of the Apostles and Gospel are read by me in Russian since in such environment Church Slavonic is considered something entirely foreign. Russian people, even if they are far from the Church, can show respect to the language of worship, take it as something sacred, given to them by ancestors, as an incomprehensible, yet important part of their own culture. Chukchi people simply do not understand it and show no reverence for it.

 It is unreal to serve an all-night vigil in such village. All that can be done is prayer services and short requiems, the rest should be said in simple words. It is very difficult to work in such places. It is difficult because standard patterns of a priest’s conduct do not work here. I was ready to give them what most people need – services, confessions, conversations about problems. But these things interest them least of all. What is needed here is demonstration of faith in all its depth and simplicity – in clear words and specific deeds. There is no use in missionary trips, baptisms and sermons if you just go away afterwards and leave everybody at a loss.

Seeds of faith will only come up and give real fruit if an Orthodox congregation is formed. And the congregation will only be established if there is a person who can unite all these people. A priest has to go to all corners of the huge territory, so he can only come to every village two times a year at best. So I doubt that the priest can become such a person.

The more experience I was getting in these trips, the more humble I was becoming. Sometimes I would meet all locals and baptize about sixty people… Once in a while a lot of people would come to service, or I would go to school and tell both students and teachers a lot, which made me feel good. I would do ‘the whole program’ and leave feeling satisfied. Six months later I come to this village again and it looks like everything was in vain. The only good thing is that they greet me like someone they know.

Then I understand that there was no success at all since people do not care. Quality ‘work’ is not enough here. One should live here; this is a place where feats are required. This is where one can truly understand Christ’s words “You can do nothing without Me” by all heart – not by brain alone. If you get any results here at all, they are normally caused by miracle and require almost no participation of a priest.

An amazing example of the above-mentioned is how the Orthodox congregation in Enmelen village was started. I suppose this is the only case when a village congregation made of Chukchi people did not fall apart right after it was created. It is still healthy, in spite of almost complete isolation.

Zoya Oreshkina, director of the only store in Enmelen, lost 300 thousand rubles. Sale proceeds for a month just disappeared in the cross-country car, in tundra. She was taking it to the area centre, to Providence. An incredible incident… Where could money go in tundra? No one believed her, so the woman was accused of embezzlement, and an investigation started. Out of despair an ardent heathen who never cared for Christianity came to church. This is where I met her.

What could be done in this situation? We had a prayer service, lit candles and prayed in our own words. The next day the money was found. It turned out that an eight-year old boy who was in the same vehicle stole it. No one even suspected him. After this Zoya was baptized and went home happy. Two months later, when I was to Providence again, she called me to invite me to Enmelen.

This is a typical national village with 400 people. Little houses, furnaces, imported coal, dog-drawn sledges. Some people speak Russian, some – Chukchi. There was a surprise waiting for me at Zoya’s home. There I found a prayer room with about ten Enmelen inhabitants who came with a specific purpose – they wanted to listen to me. This is how a light of Orthodox faith was lit in this amazing place, and by the grace of God it did not die out!

There was a congregation of Pentecostals in Enmelen, so almost all people who started coming to Zoya’s came to Protestant worship services at least once before. And some used to attend those for quite a long time. Our parishioners successfully borrowed some elements of Protestant worship. Women would read acathistus and canons from prayer book, Bible and Lives of Saints, drank tea. They also prayed for different needs when they could find appropriate prayers in Slavonic, and when they could not find those they used their own words. Every time when I came we would have a Liturgy, everyone would confess and take Communion. During evening service every one present had to read out loud at least one prayer. During Sunday worship services a small room in Zoya’s house was packed. Adults would crowd round a small table that served an altar. Kids played in a back row, on the couch, and every now and then they cried and acted up. Ubiquitous dogs tried to get in the middle, barked and howled with indignation, and bit legs that did not let them get in the middle. It looked unusual but my heart rejoiced so much! I cannot find appropriate words to describe how comforted I felt!

I tried to come to Enmelen as often as possible, at least four times a year, especially in the beginning. Every trip would take from three to six weeks. Most of this time I had to spend in Providence while waiting for a helicopter or a cross-country car going my way. Time and again I would stop at other villages of the area (Chaplino, Noonligran, Sireniki) but nothing could compare with Enmelen.

Providence area had been actively developed by Pentecostal and charismatic missionaries. In every settlement they started their congregations long before the Orthodox did. What was almost a miracle to us was a usual thing to them. First preachers did not start congregations in small villages; they just selected right local candidates and sent dozens of them to their Christian centres (usually situated in the neighbouring Alaska) for education. As a result, one out of ten managed to go back to their home village and start a viable congregation there. Of course, it was easier for charismatic missionaries than for the Orthodox. This denomination seemed to be created for Chukchi since it complied well with deep archetypes of their religious consciousness rooted in shamanism. I think we should adopt the best of their organizational experience, even more so if life itself is telling us this is the right thing to do.

There are many other things I would like to tell you about. About missionary groups of students and priests of Moscow Theological seminary and choristers who came to our settlement three years in a row. About their concerts or places they visited. About development of our parish in Lavrentiya, or about amazing pilgrimage (first and the only one in the history of our eparchy) to the cross at Dezhneva Cape. About the only sponsor who has been helping our parish all these years – Swiss charity foundation ‘Faith in the Second World’. But it is impossible to tell about everything – readers will grow tired of so much information. So I am ending the story with a thought that is dear to me, even though it is not new:

In real life missionary tasks in remote places come to the most important thing – one should survive as a Christian. Not to fall or degrade, not to quench a light of faith, and not to become an alcoholic. The Lord Himself will add the rest to our weaknesses.


Photos by Konstantin Dyatchkov


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