Late Soviet elders take a special place in the history of the Russian Church. These spirit-bearing people have suffered their full share of political repressions, and many have been through prison and prison camps. Yet despite the inhuman conditions there, they never renounced Christ. They preserved the freedom of the spirit and grew in their faith. They also shared their gifts of the Holy Spirit with their spiritual children, many of whom have joined the clergy. Archimandrite Seraphim (Tyapochkin) is one of these late Soviet elders. Serving in the small village of Rakitnoye in the Diocese of Belgorod, he acquired a following all across Russia.
Before the prison camps
Archimandrite Seraphim (in the world, Dmitry Tyapochkin), was born in 1894 in Warsaw Governorship to a family of the nobility. His father had the rank of court counsellor, and his mother was the daughter of the Prime Minister of the Polish government. Both his parents were church-going Orthodox, and Dmitry was drawn to church life from a young age. His father once brought him to a church service in a religious seminary. At the church, he was impressed by one icon. He stood praying before it for the entire service and then said that he wanted to become like the saint on it. It was an icon of the Venerable Seraphim of Sarov. For the rest of his life, the elder followed the example of Saint Seraphim and considered him to be his guardian angel. When he took his monastic tonsure at an advanced age, he asked to be given the name of this saint, and his request was granted.
On completing the religious seminary, he entered the Moscow Religious Academy in 1917, but could not complete it before the Bolsheviks closed it. He left to the South of Russia to teach at school, and there he met his future wife Antonina. They married at church in 1920 and Dmitry was ordained into the priesthood. They had a happy marriage, giving birth to two sons, who died in infancy from hunger, and three daughters. Despite the hungry years of the civil war and the divisions at the church, Father Dmitry did not charge for the performance of any church offices. In 1933, he lost his wife to tuberculosis and was left with three teenage children to take care of. That was the first time he seriously considered monasticism, but he did not follow up on his thoughts because it was still premature. “In our lives, we encounter sorrows. A husband loses his beloved wife, his closest, most reliable friend. My unfortunate bereaved brother. Christ is calling you. Go to Him, and He will comfort you, and restore peace to your soul.”
In 1934, the authorities closed his church, and he went to work as a guardsman in a fuel depot in Dnepropetrovsk. At night, he continued to conduct church services in secret for the faithful. He was offered to follow the example of many other priests who went to work in secular jobs, but Father Seraphim insisted, “It continue my service in these difficult times is my pastoral duty.”
In 1941, Father Seraphim was arrested and sent to a prison camp for ten years. His crime: religious agitation. But even in custody, he continued to serve in secret, reading from his memory. He heard confessions, gave baptisms, held commemorative services and even conducted church weddings. His fellow inmates made him an orarion and armlets from towels and embroidered crosses on them. Religious services were under strict prohibition. Violators risked going to the disciplinary cell. But the inmates loved Father Dmitry and guarded his secret. Inmates serving terms for criminal offences were keeping watch to keep him out of trouble.
In his letters, he wrote to his family how he was grieving and praying hard, as Christ did at the Garden of Gethsemane that the Lord would take His cup away from Him. He nevertheless endured with humility all the hardships of prison camp life, growing in the love for God and the people.
When his prison term was coming to an end, he was offered to renounce Christ quietly. But he remained loyal, like a true confessor. When the investigator asked him about his life plans after his release, he replied, “I am a priest, and I plan to continue my priestly service.” “If that is your plan, you might as well stay behind bars a bit longer,” judged the investigator and sent him into a lifetime exile to Siberia.
Miraculous comforts from God
Not far from Father Dmitry’s place of exile was an active church. One Easter, a deeply moving incident happened in the life of Father Dmitry. When he entered the church, its prior, Father Mitrophan, met him and invited him to the altar to serve the paschal service. As father Dmitry found out later, the prior had had a vision instructing him to invite in the altar a prison camp inmate, who happened to be a priest. Father Mitrophan continued to invite the exiled priest to help him serve, putting his life and position at risk.
When the administration learned about prisoner Tyapochkin’s service at the church, he was first offered to denounce God, and when he refused, he was exiled to the far North to cut trees. The conditions were so harsh, that for nearly all prisoners it meant sure death. Father Seraphim remembers: “Thank God I ever since childhood, I had learned how to eat little. I would eat a little with a prayer to refresh myself, while others were dying of malnutrition. I was so weak that I could not get myself to list anything. Then they said to me, “if you are a priest, guard the lumber against theft.” But where were the thieves? I realised that I was doomed to death, to be torn apart by wild beasts…” So when Father Seraphim saw several bears coming towards him and raising two crosses. The bears came, looked at him and walked away.
Life after prison
Father Dmitry was not released until 1956 when he was finally allowed to return to his family to Dnepropetrovsk. After his return, he approached several churches, but did was did not keep his positions because of his popularity with the people. In 1960, Father Dmitry was sent to the Diocese of Belgorod-Kursk and became the prior of the Church of Saint Nicholas in Rakitnoye Village, where he served for the rest of his life. Later that year, he took monastic tonsure with the name Seraphim.
They began to rebuild the church, starting with daily prayer. Daily prayer attracted volunteers willing to help with the construction and the painting of the walls. The prayers of Father Seraphim brought blessings to the church and the parishioners, but also to the broader community and surroundings – the factories and farms that worked without a hitch and benefited from good weather. Soon, a parish formed around their beloved spirit-bearing shepherd. But far more people began to flock to him from around the country.
Gifts of the Holy Spirit
The Lord bestowed on Elder Seraphim the gift of healing and far-sightedness. There are still living witnesses of his miraculous talents whom he had healed from incurable illnesses or guarded against sorrows or sin at critical moments in their lives. Multiple records and accounts of these miracles testify to the elder’s humility.
One day, Elder Seraphim was walking with the faithful to the church service when a young girl ran up to him and said, “Father Seraphim, please heal me!” He patted her on her cheek and said, “I do not heal, child, I only pray.” He said the same to many people, reminding them that the Lord was the doctor of the soul and body, and He granted healing to the sick according to their faith.
One day after Liturgy, a paralysed man was carried into the church on a stretcher. Father Seraphim brought a cross from the altar, prayed over the man, anointed him with the holy cross and made a sign of the cross. Immediately, the man felt energised, rose to his feet and walked out of the church supported by his helpers. He lived at the church for some time, attended worship every day, and was fully healed.
Father Seraphim knew that without God’s help, people remain blind to their sins, and see no need to repent, and so he prayed tearfully to God for every man and woman who came to him to confess. He never imposed any penance, but he always conveyed to everyone God’s love to give them the strength to transform. With the same sincerity and with tears he delivered his sermons, and with his words, the holy spirit reached the hearts of his listeners.
The Metropolitan of Irkutsk and Angarsk Vadim, his spiritual child, once walked into the altar during Cherubic Song and saw Father Seraphim in a divine raised slightly above the ground. Father Andrey Toropov and Hegumen Cosma (Elekhin) of the Holy Trinity and Saint Sergius Lavra shared similar accounts.
Departure to God
In the final years of his life, Father Seraphim was very ill. Several times, he stood on the brink of death but survived through the tearful prayers of his spiritual children.
Father Seraphim had visions of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker and Martyr Barbara.
During the Great Lent of 1982, he became ill again, and he realised that his days on this earth were numbered. He lay down, but he never stopped praying until his death. On 19 April 1982, he fell asleep in the Lord, in complete silence. His last words were these lines from the Cherubic Hymn: “And chant the thrice-holy hymn to the Life-giving Trinity, Let us set aside the cares of life.” Archimandrite Seraphim was buried near the Church of Saint Nicholas.