Siberian God-mother

by Jim Forest

In the thick birch woods south of Novosibirsk, Siberia’s largest city, is Akademgorodok — literally, Academic Town. Founded in the fifties by Soviet Academy of Science as a major research center, it accommodates the Institutes of Nuclear Physics, Biology, Economics, Pure and Applied Mathematics, and Organic Chemistry, and numerous similar establishments. The campus of the science-oriented University of Novosibirsk is located here. John Le Carré’s novel, The Russia House, fearures a free-thinking, vodka-soaked nuclear physicist from this scientific enclave.

It was taken for granted by the founders that Akademgorodok would be forever free of the “superstitions of religion.” In the past two years, however, religious life has sprung into the open, including a vital Orthodox Christian parish formed in Akademgorodok by scientists and babushkas together.

In 1991, when I was taking a Russian course at the university, I took part in the first Liturgy. It was Troitsa (Holy Trinity) Sunday, a day in June. Lacking a church building, the parish, plus various curious on-lookers, met for an outdoor service on the edge of the woods. We stood — part of the time kneeled — for several hours despite increasingly heavy rain. By the end of the Liturgy everyone was soaked to the bones, collective baptism by total immersion.

No one has played a larger part in bringing the church into being than Natasha Gorelova, a mathematician and geologist. The greatest treasure of my month in Akademgorodok was getting to know her.

She was born in a Siberian mining town. Though baptized as an infant, she never entered a church again during her childhood. As a student at the State University in Moscow, she was awarded the Lenin Prize. In 1971 she was sent to Akademgorodok where she did post-graduate work in cybernetics at the Computer Center. Still at the Computer Center, her present work concerns applied mathematics. She is the mother of three. Her son, 19, is a university student. She has two daughters, ages 13 and 10.

I asked her what was behind her conversion.

“It is typical for my generation. I always knew that God exists. I don’t remember any night going to sleep without praying, even as a Young Pioneer in summer camp. I remember if I didn’t pray before going to sleep, I would wake up in the night with a kind of shock, realizing that I had left this world without praying, though I didn’t use the word praying until I was an adult. I came to God without difficulty, but there is a distinction between coming to God and coming to Christ.

“When I was 25, I understood that I couldn’t survive anymore the way I was. Perhaps it was because of being born in Russia and the fate of this country — realizing the suffering of this country, the killing and murder, the terrible things that happened. I realized I couldn’t go on living in the same way. I felt depressed and thought about suicide. It wasn’t that I had bad luck. I was fortunate. I had a good husband, good friends, good children, interesting work. I had successfully defended my thesis.

“I was reading a lot of existentialist writers then and some eastern philosophy. These writers were explaining the world as best they good and perhaps even their explanations were quite correct, but they didn’t show the way out, only

another impasse. By my education I was a mathematician both professionally and in my thoughts. Reading all these things I was always aware of errors in logic. For example I came upon the statement that you cannot interrupt suffering by suicide because you will only be reincarnated in another life even worse than the present life. But I thought if I don’t remember any previous life, then I won’t remember this life in another life. In effect this “reincarnated self” will be someone else suffering, not me. So why bother about it?

“Then, while working on my doctoral degree, I happened to read about Christ in a book about cybernetics. The author, explaining positive and negative feedback, used a saying of Christ, `If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other cheek to him as well.’ He said the statement is quite sound and can be explained mathematically. If someone strikes you and you hit back, the consequence is that you only increase the amount of evil. If you want to reduce the amount of evil, you decrease it by refusing to repeat evil actions.

“I decided to test it. In Russia that’s easy to do! You know our buses and how crowded they are. So when someone shoved me or put his foot on mine, I didn’t say something offensive, only, `Please, why don’t you move to this side?’ or `Please sit here’ — speaking without sarcasm, in a kind voice. I saw how the tension in the bus immediately went down. I understood from my experiments that you can reduce the stress in a line or a crowd by refusing to respond to aggression with more aggression but instead with kindness. That was my first step to Christ. I began to think of the Gospel as a very wise book. The Resurrection of Christ, however, was something that I couldn’t understand.

“At this point, I accepted the formula: If the truth is not Christ, then I don’t need any other truth. Then I was thinking about what Christ said, `Knock and the door will be opened, ask and it shall be given.’ I decided to knock on the door until it opened. But I still didn’t know any believers. I had only books. My friends couldn’t understand why I was so preoccupied with these religious questions. They assumed it was a phase that I would eventually get through.”

In searching for a place within Christianity, it wasn’t clear what Church to join. Her first Bible she a gift from Baptists, her reading about liturgy and sacraments drew her intellectually to Orthodoxy. However becoming Orthodox seemed out of the question.

“I couldn’t imagine that I would find myself among babushkas with their covered heads, so old. Then while in Moscow, I went into an Orthodox church. Once inside, I was amazed at the care for me offered by the babushkas, the old women I had looked down upon.

“It was they who opened the way for me. The first time I was blessed to receive communion, they were waiting for me to approach the chalice. When I didn’t, some of the old women took me by their hands and brought me to the priest and so I received the holy gifts. Afterward they were all around me, kissing me, kissing my dress, crying. I had never before experienced so deeply my unity with the people around me and my love for them. It was in this way that I found out what the eucharist is, what communion is. From that moment on, I have loved babushkas! And from that moment I was a believer.”

Her conversion has touched many lives. She counts more than forty god-children, among them archaeologists, biologists, mathematicians. She takes pride that baptism wasn’t just a pious

gesture in their lives but that all are attentive church-goers.

I asked how the local Orthodox community came together.

“It began with some young people. Some were students, some had recently graduated. Somehow they knew about me and asked me whether I would join them and to help them organize a community. I was surprised. I asked them, `Why is it that I don’t see you in church?’ If some old women asked me to join their community, of course I would join. But I said I didn’t want to join a community just for the sake of going to meetings. It was a kind of wide ecumenical group, a religious discussion group. Some thought of themselves as Catholic. Some were curious about religion but more in non-Christian religions — the Hare Krishna prayer and Hinduism. But most were drawn to Orthodoxy. Those who weren’t finally left the group. When it was Orthodox, Father Boris from Novosibirsk became their chaplain. They had the community officially registered with the Council for Religious Affairs.”

I wondered what she thought of ecumenism.

“I am not against it. But for me, I feel like someone in a forest fire, running for my life to escape from the fire. I don’t stop and look at all the trees and bushes and fallen logs. I just run. I am running for my salvation. If you have the truth already, you go forward within that truth. I don’t think I have to change the world. All I am trying to do is to change myself. I am trying to do it even though I don’t seem to make much progress. As Saint Seraphim said, `Pray to the Holy Spirit and forgive everyone and you will be saved.’

“This way of thinking was different from the point of view some of the young people had in the community in the beginning. Some had the point of view that first you have to change the world and the church hierarchy, then you can change yourself. For me that was only politics. I didn’t want to come back to the things that I had left behind years before.”

I asked her how public worship started.

“In January 1990 we celebrated Theophany, the first time we were allowed to have a public service. It wasn’t a Liturgy but the solemn blessing of water. We built a little shelter and set it up behind the House of Scientists in the center of town. It was a cold day, more than 30 degrees below. Many came to receive blessed water. Father Boris’ hands were nearly frozen. By the time we finished, the water had ice in it. Ever since then, we have celebrated most of the important events on the church calendar. We put notices up on the doors on shops and publish announcements in the newspaper, `The Orthodox Christian Community of Akademgorodok named after All the Holy Saints of Russia invites you to such-and-such event.’ ”

I asked how local atheists respond to this outbreak of religion in Akademgorodok.

“Some stick with the old slogans, but you see in general quite a change in attitude. In May 1990, the Town Council voted 63 to 1 in favor of our request to build a church, though where it would be was a harder question to resolve.”

I asked her if she was troubled that the Orthodox bishops had often failed to stand up to the government during periods of persecution.

“I never expected anything good from the human part of the Church. I was sure that anything existing officially in this country couldn’t be good. In such a situation, from the human point of view, the Church couldn’t be good. So I had no expectations. But after becoming Orthodox I kept meeting good people. I never permit myself to judge those people in the Church whom I don’t like. Maybe their cross is even heavier than mine. Maybe their destiny is even more difficult, more complicated.”

I wondered if there were a link between the local church and Pamyat or other anti-semitic groups, for I have often encountered anti-Semites in the Christian community in the USSR.

“None. In fact many members of the church come from Jewish families and are targets of anti-Semites. Pamyat is like a lynch mob. One member of our group helped organize a meeting of Memorial, the organization to honor victims of Stalin. The meeting was in the theater of the House of Scientists. Almost a thousand came. But the meeting was disrupted by Pamyat. Their slogan was, `There was no Stalinism, only Judeo-Fascism.’ The Pamyat people came up onto the stage and stood behind the speakers like partisans of the Soviet type. A veteran of some of the prison camps tried to speak but they wouldn’t let him. Some spat on the man. Many in Pamyat are active in anti-drinking campaigns. Because of this you sometimes hear, `Better sclerosis of the liver than such a memory.’ ” [Pamyat means memory]

Our talk ended with Natasha serving a meal.

“It isn’t very good,” she said apologetically. “I can cook or speak but not both at the same time. I consider myself a bad housewife. The story about Mary and Martha is one of my great consolations.”

Unfortunately I haven’t yet been to the newly built church in Akademgorodok but a few days ago received a letter about it from Sophie Koulomzin, whose autobiography, Many Worlds (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press), I have been reading lately. Sophie was born in Russia in 1904, but has been living in the west since the Bolsheviks took power 1917. After a lifetime of teaching, writing and translating, she was able to visit Russia this year in order to take part in a conference on spirituality held in Akademgorodok.

“As you can see from the enclosed photos,” she wrote me, “the church is really lovely and quite special — not a restoration of an old one but something new in a town where there never was a church before. It stands in the woods and is built from logs cut right on the spot. Inside and all around there is the intense smell of fresh wood. It is not quite finished. The icons are not hand-painted but printed in paper and mounted on boards — good reproductions of ancient icons, not horrible 19th century religious art. Services are well attended, a mixture of babushkas plus many students and faculty from the various institutes. Every Saturday about 50 people are baptized, adults and children. Every Thursday there is a preparatory talk for those getting read for baptism. The priest, Father Boris Pivovarov, is assisted in his teaching work by several woman, one of whom is Natasha Gorelova.”

[written in the summer 1991]