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900 Days In Hell: The Church shared the burden of life under siege with its people

Mikhail Shkarovskiy

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At the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, foreign policy circumstances made it necessary for Soviet authorities to abandon their plan to totally destroy the Russian Orthodox Church in the country. Looming war forced government bodies to re-evaluate the role of the Church within the country and in the international arena. However, its position remained tragic, many prohibitions complicated its activity, hundreds of priests languished in prisons and labor camps. Towards the end of the 1930s, only 4 ruling bishops remained at liberty in the Soviet Union. By 1941 in one of the country's largest dioceses, Leningrad, only 21 Orthodox temples survived; monasteries and educational institutions were closed; there was no church press. Severe burdens of war and a city under siege increased these difficulties.

During this period, the Leningrad diocese was headed by the well-known churchman, Metropolitan Alexiy (Simansky), later Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. In the encircled city and its northern suburbs, there remained under his rule the St. Nicholas Episcopal Cathedral and the St. Prince-Vladimir Cathedral and the following churches: St. Nicholas - Bolsheokhotinskaya, St. Job cemetery - Volkovskaya, St. Demetrius - Kolomyazhskaya, and the Savior - Pargolovskaya.

The Savior/Transfiguration Cathedral, St. Seraphim Cemetery and the churches in the Lisy Nos settlement, administered by Protopresbyter Alexiy Abakumov, belonged to the renovationist movement. Moreover, one working Josephite temple remained in the city - Holy Trinity in Lesny, served by hieromonk Pavel (Ligor). The total number of Orthodox clerics in the city did not exceed 25.

The Church calls for the defense of the Homeland

Since the first days of the war, the Russian Orthodox Church was devoted to the defense of the homeland. Already on June 22, 1942, the Patriarchal Locum Tenens, Metropolitan Sergiy (Stragorodskiy), addressed a message to the faithful. It was read in Leningrad's temples, and people departed for the front as for an ascetic feat [podvig] with the Church's blessing. On June 26, the head of the diocese, Metropolitan Alexiy, wrote his appeal to the clergy and faithful "The Church calls for the defense of the Homeland". His sermon given on August 10 gained special renown. It referred, first of all, to a Russian's patriotism and devoutness. At this time the Leningrad Metropolitan's authority and influence were so great that on October 12, 1941, the Patriarchal Locum Tenens, in his will, appointed him his to be successor.

At Metropolitan Alexiy's suggestion, Leningrad's parishes started collecting donations for the city's defense. The Metropolitan supported the believers' desire to donate existing parish savings to this cause, at times these were very significant savings. The parish council of St. Prince-Vladimir Cathedral offered to open, at their expense, an infirmary for wounded men and sick soldiers, and on August 8 transferred 710 thousand of the 714 thousand rubles belonging to the parish community.

However, concrete charitable activity was forbidden even after the war began. Parishes were allowed to transfer money only to public funds: the Red Cross, defense, and others. This restriction did not dampen the enthusiasm of either the faithful or the clergy. Parishes refused to make all but the most necessary expenditures. Warm articles for soldiers were collected everywhere; the faithful donated food for the sick. During the first days of the war, St. Nicholas Cathedral allocated 385 thousand rubles, and by the end of 1941 all of Leningrad's parishes gave a total sum of 2 million 144 thousand rubles.

Camouflaged Cupolas

From the end of June 1941, people began to noticeably fill the temples. During this period it was necessary to adapt the schedules of divine services to military conditions: morning services began at 8 am; evening services at 4 pm. Many young clerics began serving in the army, the home national guard, or in defense construction. Those left behind studied fire-prevention and anti-aircraft defense in the event temples were shelled during services. One invaluable defensive technique was to camouflage the cathedrals which could become reference points during air strikes on the city. In August the gold cupolas began to be encased in sacks or painted in camouflage colors.

On September 8, the ring of the blockade closed. Artillery bombardment of the city began. The St. Nicholas, the St. Prince - Vladimir Cathedrals, the Spiritual Academy's former building which then housed a hospital, were all bombed. Nevertheless, divine services continued to be held daily in working temples. Initially, when an alarm sounded, the congregation would go to shelters. But soon, after people became used to the shelling and bombardment, services often continued uninterrupted.

The winter of 1941 began early and was extremely severe. Electric power had all but ceased; public transportation stopped; many buildings were without heat. In temples the temperature fell to zero; oil in vigil lights froze; more and more people starved to death. Archpriest Nikolai Lomakin, testifying at Nuremberg, said that around St. Nicholas Church at Bolsheokhotinskoye Cemetery one could daily see 100 to 200 coffins, with a priest serving funerals. All of Leningrad's clerics, including Metropolitan Alexiy, had to be constantly engaged in this mournful activity.

During the siege, divine services were conducted in all of Leningrad's working churches -- but in January-April 1942 St. Seraphim Cemetery Church was closed. Bodies of the dead were stored there.

Liturgy under bombardment

During the entire time of the siege, services were conducted in overcrowded temples. It is impossible to estimate the exact number of Leningraders who attended divine services, but numerous eyewitness accounts survive. Thus, a parishioner of St. Prince-Vladimir Cathedral later recalled: "The choir members sang in coats with their collars turned up, wrapped in scarves, in felt boots (valenki), and the men even in skufias....In spite of fears, attendance at Cathedral services has not declined, but rather increased. Our services were without abbreviations or haste; there were many communicants and confessors -- with whole mountains of notes requesting prayers for health or repose -- and never-ending general prayer services and panikhidas.

Metropolitan Alexiy, in his September 8, 1943 report to the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church also indicated: "We can note everywhere, and especially in places close to military action -- particularly in Leningrad -- the increase of prayer, the increase in the people's donations through God's temples -- the growth of feats of prayer and sacrifice. The shadows of death are borne in the air of this heroic city-front; messages about victims of war arrive daily. The victims of this war are often -- constantly -- before our eyes...."

Leningrad fought back not only with weapons, but also with the Church's prayer, the power of collective ardor. During Divine Liturgy special prayers were added for victory to our troops and for those languishing in enemy captivity. A special Prayer Service, sung during the War of 1812 at home, was "for deliverance from adversaries". Later, in 1943, the command of the Leningrad front, led by Marshal Leonid Govorov, were present at some divine services in St. Nicholas Cathedral.

Death in the temple

Metropolitan Alexiy did everything he could to have divine services continue. Disregarding shelling, frequently on foot, he went to Leningrad's temples, spoke to the clergy and lay people. During the days of the siege, he served the Divine Liturgy alone, without a deacon and himself read all the notes for the commemoration of the living and dead. Despite the constant shelling and bombardment, Metropolitan took up residence in the Cathedral.

Starvation did not spare the clergy. In the St. Prince-Vladimir Cathedral alone, eight members of the clergy died during the winter of 1941-42. In St. Nicholas Cathedral the choir director died during the service; Metropolitan Alexiy's cell attendant, the monk Evlogy, did not survive the hungry winter.

I.V. Dubrovitskaya, a ballerina of the Kirov Theater, wrote about her father, archpriest Vladimir Dubrovitsky of the St. Nicholas Cathedral: "There was not a single day during the war that my father did not go to the temple. At times he shook from hunger; I cried begging him to remain at home, fearing that he would fall somewhere and freeze in a snowdrift, but he answered: 'I don't have the right to become weak, daughter dear. I must go to lift the people's spirit, console their grief, strengthen and encourage them.' And he went to his cathedral. During the entire siege, whether during shelling or bombardment, he did not miss a single service."

Priests and their people in the city under siege shared a single destiny. In the temples there were groups of people who helped each other to live, to survive. Without the support of city authorities, the basement of the Savior-Transfiguration Cathedral was equipped as a bombproof shelter for 500 parishioners and inhabitants of neighboring homes. Boiling water and a supply of medicine were available; in case of need, it was possible to spend the night. Those in need were given money, firewood, candles, oil for lighting, and other necessities. Building materials had been stored in the cathedral since pre-war times, and stoves for heating apartments were built for parishioners from iron sheets; plywood and cardboard were allocated to replace window panes which were knocked out during a wave of explosions.

Pascha in the city under siege

The first wartime Pascha was approaching. Metropolitan Alexiy's festal message stressed that this day, April 5, 1942, was the 700th anniversary of the slaughter-on-ice of German knights by St. Prince Alexander Nevsky, heavenly patron of the City on the Neva River [Leningrad]. Many people gathered for the Paschal service, though fewer than the year before. One of every three inhabitants of the city had died of starvation or cold. A mass evacuation began along the "lifeline route," through Lake Ladoga. It is important to note that practically all clergy remained in their parishes. Basically it was the retired priests who were evacuated.

The Hitlerites intended their most furious attack on Leningrad precisely for Pascha. The divine service was rescheduled for 6 in the morning, which prevented greater casualties. Instead of *kulichi* [traditional Paschal bread], many faithful brought little pieces of rationed bread to be blessed. The St. Prince-Vladimir Cathedral was seriously damaged during the city's Paschal night bombardment. Fascist planes not only bombed it, but also fired machine guns on low-level flights. The cost of the cathedral's damages from August 1941 to May 1, 1943 was estimated at 5 million, 514 thousand rubles.

In 1943 St. Nicholas Cathedral was especially frequently attacked. Once when it was struck by three shells simultaneously, splinters went into the wall of the Metropolitan's apartment. The bishop entered the altar, showed the splinter of a shell to the clergy and, smiling, said "See, death flew right by me. Only, please, don't spread this news. In general, it's necessary to speak less about bombardment... Soon all of this will end. We don't have long to wait."

Financial help for the front

The clergy, like all inhabitants, worked to defend the city; many were members of local anti-aircraft defense groups (MPVO). For example, an official note given on October 17, 1943 to Archimandrite Vladimir (Kobets) by the St. Basil's Island-area housing authority states that he "is a fighter in the domestic MVPO group, actively participates in all activities in defense of Leningrad, stands watch; took part in de-activating incendiary bombs."

The clergy also actively joined in raising money for the defense fund. By June 1, 1943 these donations totaled 390 thousand rubles. Metropolitan Alexiy gave 50 thousand rubles, and Protodeacon L.I. Egorovsky, who gave 49 thousand rubles, received a personal telegram of appreciation from Stalin.

By the middle of 1942 Leningrad's population diminished significantly, but the activity of the city's temples not only did not decline, it increased. Notwithstanding the fact that the income of St. Prince-Vladimir Cathedral dipped down to 501 thousand 82 rubles, by 1943 it increased to 922 thousand 656 rubles. Moreover, 701 thousand 137 rubles was given to the defense fund.

The sharp rise was occasioned by the December 30, 1942 appeal of the Patriarchal Locum Tenens, Sergiy, to begin raising funds for a tank column to be named for Dimitriy of the Don [Dimitriy Donskoy]. The necessary sum was raised within four months; it exceeded 8 million rubles, 1 million of which came from Leningrad's faithful. Donations were also made for an aviation squadron to be named for St. Alexander Nevsky. By Red Army Day 1943, the city's hospitals and infirmaries had over 600 critically needed towels, bandages, etc.

Metropolitan Alexiy twice telegraphed Stalin about what had been collected for the Red Army. On May 17, 1943, a reply telegram was published in the newspaper "Pravda": "I ask you to convey my sincere greeting and gratitude to the Orthodox clergy and faithful of the Leningrad diocese who collected -- aside from the previously contributed 3 million 682 thousand, 143 rubles -- an additional 1 million 769 thousand 200 rubles to build the Dimitriy Donskoy tank column. J. Stalin."

Warmer relations with the state

The patriotic activities of an overwhelming majority of the clergy and faithful of the Orthodox Church served as one of the essential reasons for the beginning of a significant change of the Church's relationship with the state. During two years of war, despite the lack of necessary administrative staff, an official publication and a legal status, the Church demonstrated its strength in the struggle against fascism and in many respects was able to expand and strengthen its influence throughout the country.

Serious changes took place in Leningrad. Even during the starvation-winter of 1941-42, Orthodox parishes were regularly supplied with the wine and flour needed for communion. However, during the first part of the war, church and state relations had not become a dialog. There were frequent recurrences of rough, administrative, violent actions towards Orthodox parishes.

In the middle of 1943, a whole group of factors led to the final normalization of relations between the Orthodox Church and Stalin's circle. Among these factors were: appealing to Russian national, patriotic traditions during the course of the war, as well as striving to neutralize the influence of fascist propaganda which portrayed Germany as the defender of Christianity in Russia.

A major turning point in a new state religious policy became the September 4, 1943 meeting which took place at Stalin's dacha with the participation of Georgiy Malenkov, Lavrentiy Beria, representatives of the NKGB. Questions of opening parishes, spiritual educational institutions, release of church publications, election of a new patriarch, etc. were decided at this meeting. Stalin and Molotov and Metropolitans Sergiy (Stragorodskiy), Alexiy (Simanskiy) and Nikolai (Yarushevich) summarized the results of the discussion at an official night-time reception in the Kremlin. In September 1943, a special state organ was created - the Council for Russian Orthodox Church Affairs, headed by Georgiy Karpov, a colonel of state security.

Radical changes in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church began immediately after the Kremlin meeting. A Council of Bishops was held on September 8. The 19 hierarchs at the Council unanimously elected Metropolitan Sergiy (Stragorodskiy) to be Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. These favorable changes also soon affected the fate of the Leningrad's clergy. Reprisals against clerics of the Moscow Patriarchate and the renovationists practically stopped.

From the autumn of 1943, Leningrad's clergy began to be recruited to take part in city public works. Thus, archpriest Nikolai Lomakin participated in the city and regional commissions on investigating the evils of the fascist aggressors. On October 11, 1943, for the first time in all the years of soviet power, 12 Leningrad clerics were awarded a medal "For the defense of Leningrad." Other changes took place as well. On December 14, 1943 Leningrad's Metropolitan was authorized to have a support staff, and on April 15 1944 a diocesan office was opened in the St. Nicholas Cathedral building.

The faithful marked the city's complete liberation with solemn observances and festivities. On January 27th, with the Metropolitan's blessing, Thanksgiving Services were offered in all temples. On January 28th, Metropolitan Alexiy, together with members of the commission investigating the atrocities of Germany's fascist aggressors, visited the Leningrad's liberated suburbs -- Peterhof and Pushkin. After witnessing the results of the barbaric destruction of palaces and temples, the Metropolitan wrote an angry article for the "Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate."

A New Patriarch

Patriarch Sergiy died on May 15, 1944 and according to his will, Metropolitan Alexiy became Patriarchal Locum Tenens. Bishop Grigoriy (Chukov) of Pskov, who replaced him as head of the diocese, was officially appointed to be Metropolitan of Leningrad in 1945. After Leningrad was free, the patriotic activities of the faithful increased further. During just the first three post-siege months, 1 million 191 thousand rubles was collected. Leningraders passionately supported Metropolitan Alexiy when on October 25, 1944 he announced the Church's Russia-wide fund to aid children and families of Red Army soldiers.

Metropolitan Alexiy was elected Patriarch at the Local Council held on February 2, 1945. His homily at the divine service at the St. Nicholas Cathedral on April 1, 1945 was devoted to the siege: "I remember how we served amidst the thundering explosions and the falling glass, not knowing what would happen to us in a few minutes... And I want to say: 'Beloved City! You had to undergo much hardship but now, as Lazarus, you arise from the grave and are healing your wounds; and soon you will be restored to your former beauty... May God's blessing be on this City, on my brother co-pastors of whom I have the fondest memories. All of them shared my labors, suffered much grief -- even more than I -- and now a great spiritual feat awaits them. And, let us pray that the Lord bestow his blessing on the Russian Church and on our dear homeland'".

Thus, the appeal to the Church in Leningrad, the city-under-siege, bore a particular character, much more significant than in the majority of country's other regions. The religious impulse played a very important role in defending the city. The churches which functioned throughout the siege actively supported the mobilization of fundraising and lifted the morale of Leningraders. City authorities could not have discounted this. Their policy began to adjust even before the government's fundamental change in course. The Church began to revive very rapidly during a time of difficult trials for the Russian people. It stood alongside its people during the inhuman conditions of Leningrad's siege, deservedly strengthening its authority and expanding its influence.

Translated by Nina Tkachuk Dimas

Mikhail Vitalyevich Shkarovsky, doctor of historical sciences, is a leading scientist of the Central State Archive in Saint Petersburg.

Read this article on the Orthodox News website (new window will open).

Posted: 16-Feb-05



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