Path to Orthodoxy: Rescued from Death Row

“…I saw the Convent, entered the Convent’s yard, and talked with some people there. I thought, “I could stay here for some time…”  
My journey to God began when I spent my summer holidays in the village where my grandmother lived. She used to walk to a church in Logoisk every Sunday, and she would always take me with her. My parents were Communists. My father was a militia officer, and my mother was a boss in a project institute. Maybe they did believe in God but they could not practice their faith openly. It turned out that I found myself in jail. I was sentenced to death for stealing extremely large amount of state property. It was a felony in the Soviet times, and now it is considered to be a legal business. My father abandoned me in order to rescue his career, and my mother divorced him because of that. I was only 22, I had finished my army service not long before and had got married. 
      And then I was sentenced to death. Nowadays priests are allowed to visit prisons and talk with prisoners; they can give presents to the prisoners for the feasts, but in those times they were only allowed to visit those on death row. When a priest entered my cell, I did not care who came to me. “Desperate” is a weak word to describe how I felt. I was simply overwhelmed and numb. I wanted all this nightmare to vanish so that I could go to the different world as soon as possible. It was because the conditions in the death row were inhumane. There were no hygiene facilities in jail altogether. Toilet and refectory were all in one room. One had to sit around in handcuffs all the time, being under permanent control. Usually, there are two prisoners in a cell but in the death row, you are alone in your cell. The priest gave me a pocket-size Bible; or maybe, it was not a Bible, I can’t be sure now. And he said, «Read ‘Our Father,’ ‘Hail, Mary,’ and the Creed. Ask God to help you.” I made an appeal against the sentence, and my mother wrote to the High Court. I started to pray. It was not because I believed in God: I simply believed that a priest would not lie. This trust was ingrained in me since my childhood: my grandmother had taught me that I could always trust priests. My appeal was allowed in three months. They changed my sentence to fifteen years, and one month thereafter, there was a second hearing of my case, and I was sentenced to nine years in high security. I had spent four years in jail when the construction of churches was finally allowed in prison camps. A room for a church was allocated in our prison camp as well. I went there, lit a candle, thanked the Lord, and that was all. And then, there was prison, prison, and prison… If a person is a believer, he is alone there. 
     Nowadays one can practice his beliefs openly, and there are priests who visit the prisoners. I do not know how people would react in those times if anyone admitted that he believed in God. That guy would not survive, they would mock him to death. I do not recall being drawn to the church at that time, like I am now. For instance, when I was waiting for a parcel, I would pray, “Lord, help me to receive it soon!” I would also pray for my mother to come and to be protected from evil. “Lord help me!” And I would always say, “Thank You, Lord.” Naturally, I had faith deep inside my soul. When I was released, I attended church services together with my mother. I divorced my wife. I started stealing things. If only one gets jailed once, it is highly likely that he will be jailed again after the first term. You get to know people in jail, you become a part of their community, and there is a very specific community in prison. I was in jail seven times, twenty-five years in total. Each time I was released, I spent a month or two at home, drinking and stealing, and then I went back to prison. I had no time for God. Last time I was released in 2005, I went to a substance abuse treatment centre in order to have my name removed from their register. 
I saw the Convent, entered the Convent’s yard, and talked with some people there. I thought, “I could stay here for some time.” Besides, local militia officers started to pay too much attention to me. Whenever someone stole anything, they would come to me. I was about to be jailed again. They would arrest me for no reason. At first, everyone comes here in order to save their bodies. Some people hide from the militia, some try to escape cold and hunger, some try to get rid of alcohol addiction. One needs time in order to be able to understand anything. Father Andrew used to say, “If we have no money, God will give it to us.” I thought, “What are you talking about, Father? Who will give money?” And then I saw that a church was built. Where did they get the money from? Then they built the dormitory. 
It took me three or four years to finally understand that Father Andrew was right. Now everything is fine, I am an acolyte in the church. Sometimes I do not feel like going to church — maybe, it is because of my age, or because of something else. It is hard to stand for one and a half hours. Sometimes I stand during the entire service, murmur the chants to myself along with the choir and do not even notice how time flies. Everything is fine, praise be to God. I do not want to return to my past life. When I feel like drinking, I come to Father Andrew and say, “I need to see my doctor. Please give me a sick leave for three days.” I leave the metochion, drink some wine, and come back. Father Andrew knows, of course, that I lie to him but he allows me to go. Recently, I decided that I do not need those drinking days-off anymore. Again, this might be because of my age…
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