I am reading Kolyma Diaries by Jacek Hugo-Bader. Subtitled “A journey into Russia’s haunted hinterland” it recounts the author’s exploits along the Kolyma Highway from Magadan to Yakutsk. The vast and extremely inhospitable area around Kolyma used to be part of the Gulag. Now it is home to former prisoners, the descendants of prisoners, some local indigenous peoples, gold prospectors and a motley collection of other people – some of whom the author strikes up conversation with as he hitches his way along the Highway.
Hugo-Bader, a Polish journalist, doesn’t give any hint of his own religious persuasion (if indeed he has any.) Yet he relates without comment a story that made a lot of sense to me. During his journey he meets Fr Igor Terentyev, an Orthodox priest who ministers to an 800-plus km stretch of the Highway from Omsukchan to Ust-Nera. The priest tells him, “Here the impossible happens every single day.”
Fr Terentyev, who carries out his ministry in a church that was once a former administrative office and then a dental clinic and which is dedicated to St Nicholas the Wonderworker, told the author the story of two hunters who had come to him for baptism. They had related to him that once, through an accident, they had been stranded without any equipment in a temperature of 40 degrees below zero and were resigned to freezing to death. One of them remarked, “If I get out of this alive, I think I’ll bloody well get baptised.” Almost immediately an elderly hunter, surprisingly well equipped, slid down the slope towards them; he lit a fire, fed them, helped them change out of their wet clothes, then disappeared the following morning after telling them “not to forget their promise”.
They searched, but couldn’t find any footprints in the snow from where this mysterious hunter had come. At the first opportunity they went to Fr Igor for baptism. He lit up his little church and they saw an old icon of St Nicholas the Wonderworker. “That’s him!” they said. Unsurprisingly, I believe that this is a true story of supernatural intervention. Our late parish priest once told a similar story about himself, when he was once in danger climbing in the Lake District. Angels and saints are all around us, if only we have eyes to see them.
To descend to the more mundane, Aid to the Church in Need recounts the hopeful apostolate of another Orthodox priest, Fr Igor Pokrovskij, who does prison ministry in Nizhny Novgorod. The priest described his efforts to establish a chapel in a local prison where, in the last 16 years, he has baptised nearly 400 inmates. He has noticed the change in the prisoners after their conversion. His biggest challenge is “encouraging the imprisoned to confess their guilt so that they can convert”, he says. He tells them, “I have the authority to absolve you of your sins in [God’s] name. But to enable me to do this you must confess your guilt before God. This is essential if your soul is to be healed from sin.”
He believes that the “brokenness” in the prisoners’ lives can make them more receptive to grace and to God. “People whose lives run smoothly often think they don’t need God” he remarked. The state of soul of convicts in a Russian prison are not so different from our own, it seems.