Things I Learned from Fr Sergei Oviannikov

By Jim Forest

One of the many things Fr Sergei and I had in common is that we had both been in prison, in my case in America back in the late sixties for an act of protest against the Vietnam War, in his case in 1973 for acts of disobedience while he was in the Soviet army.

In a conversation Nancy and I had with Fr Sergei at our home in the summer of 2017, he recalled that his first few weeks as a prisoner were not difficult. “I was with other people and we had good discussions,” he said, “but when we walked to work together, we were followed by a soldier with a machine gun. That was not so pleasant!”

But in that period he learned an important lesson. “I realized that we are always being followed by such a soldier even when we were living our ordinary lives, only usually he is invisible. In normal life you don’t see him, but somewhere inside of you he is controlling what you think and what you say, controlling your behavior. You become your own guard, your own censor. You learn to follow the rules of the system.”

What, we asked him, is the system attempting to achieve? His answer: it is intended to keep us in a state of fear.

“I shared this thought with another prisoner,” Fr Sergei recalled. “He told one of the jail administrators what I had said and this resulted in my being put in solitary confinement. I was there three months. This was hard. You can do nothing. You cannot really sleep — the floor is wet. You cannot read — there are no books. You cannot write — no paper, no pencil. You have four walls and that’s it. Light comes in but the window is too high to look through it. All you can do is think.”

But trying to think proved not so easy. He crashed into a stone wall within himself.

“I realized I didn’t know how to think. I had the idea that thinking is an easy thing. I used to be a physicist so I thought about physics, about laws of physics, about formulas. But after a few days, perhaps a week, these topics were exhausted. Finished! Then you have to really think, but I didn’t know how. Then something happened. I began to think about freedom. What happened next is very difficult to describe. Maybe I can say there was a kind of light. I heard the words ‘freedom is in God.’ But — a big but — I knew nothing about God! I didn’t believe in God!”

At this point in our conversation, Fr Sergei laughed. In fact all three of us were laughing. How do you find freedom is in God if all your life you have been taught that God is a fairy story?

“But it seems God believed in me,” Fr Sergei continued. “I experienced joy. Only much later did I realize that it is comparable only to one thing, the joy you experience on the night of Pascha — Easter night. Finally I came to realize that the state you enter on Pascha night is intended to be the natural state of the human being. In fact many people experience this joy at the all-night Pascha service.”

Fr Sergei had his first experience of Paschal joy while in solitary confinement, a situation that makes one think of the tomb in which the body of Christ was placed after his crucifixion.

And what is Paschal joy? Really it is indescribable, Fr Sergei said, but one of the main hallmarks is that you are instantly freed from an inner prison that has held you captive since childhood, a state of fear which is so normal, so ordinary, that you become aware of it only when you are doing something of moral value but which , if you dare to do it, may well get you into serious trouble.”

“In that cell I lost my fear,” said Fr Sergei. “I realized if they sent me to a labor camp with a long sentence it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because I was free. Of course gradually I came to realize freedom is not just given — you have to take responsibility for it. You have to do something about it every moment of your life.”

This event within a small prison cell in a military prison was the most important border crossing in Fr Sergei’s adult life.

Once out of prison and back in civilian life he managed to get a Bible — not easy in those days — and began to read the Gospel. “This was the real beginning of my life,” he told us. And then he began his search to find his place in Christianity, which was not easy. “It was the beginning of the seventies,” he said. “Not many churches were open and churches were watched closely.”

One clear sign of how free of fear Fr Sergei had become was his engagement in a movement that called itself the Christian Seminar. It had informal groups both in Leningrad and Moscow. Mostly composed of students, participants debated scripture, theology and church history, and not just from Orthodox sources. Not everyone involved became a believer and still fewer embraced Orthodox Christianity, but Fr Sergei was one of them. Another who did so was Alexander Ogorodnikov, a prisoner at the notorious Perm 36 from 1978 until 1987. He has come to visit our parish several times.

After six years at the Physics Institute in Leningrad, in 1980 Fr Sergei began theological studies at the seminary in Leningrad. Ten years later he was ordained a priest by his spiritual father, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, in London. From London he came to Amsterdam.

Anyone who was active in this parish in the years Fr Sergei was serving here will have his or her own memories of what he was like — advice given in confession, conversations they had with him, stories and jokes he told, encouragement he gave. Probably everyone will remember what he said in some of his sermons.

One of his frequent themes in sermons was freedom — svoboda. It was a rare sermon in which that word did not find a place.

“Freedom is such an important topic,” he told Nancy and me. “Freedom is what we lost in the Garden of Eden. It’s at the center of the story of Adam and Eve. After eating the forbidden fruit they tried to hide from God. God said to Adam, ‘Where are you?’ And Adam responded, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid.’ This is the first time in the Bible we hear about fear. In place of freedom Adam and Eve got fear. Human nature was damaged. All of us are damaged. We are not born in freedom but there is the chance to find the way to freedom. We have to pass through the difficulties of life, but the chance is quite big. We have somehow to be reborn in freedom. Christ is awaiting our freedom. Christ wants only free people. Of course he accepts many other people too, but he wants free people.”

At the end of that conversation, Fr Sergei reminded us that Christ is often described as a physician. “Perhaps the most important thing he does is heal the heart and open our eyes,” he said. “One consequence is that we become capable of seeing beauty. We must open our eyes, but not only our eyes. We must enlarge our hearts. Otherwise we see beauty only partially or not at all. If the heart is too narrow, the beauty that we see will seem ugly. What you see depends on you — on you and your spiritual condition.”

It is two years since Fr Sergei’s death but our memories of him help keep him present. May he help us overcome all the fears that constrain our love for each other, blind us to the beauty that surrounds us, and keep us from becoming free people.

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12 January 2020
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