Pelagia Arkhipovna was born in 1893 in a peasant family in the village of Berezovo, Gorshezhensky region, Voronezh province. Her father was the precentor in the church choir of the local church. For the rest of the time he cut and sewed short sheepskin coats for people and looked after the house.
The closest relatives of this family were pious people. Pelagia's grandmother, Martha, went twice to Jerusalem. Her husband, Pelagia's grandfather, Cosmas Vasilyevich, became a drunkard in his youth. Martha persuaded him to go to Fr. John of Kronstadt. He went to him, took communion and returned home a different man. The church now became for him the most important thing in life. At that time he was still young. He raised his son Archippus, Pelagia's father, in the faith. Archippus first became the psalm-reader and then the precentor. His wife, Pelagia's mother, Alexandra Trofimovna, was also a believer. She went on foot to the opening of the relics of St. Joasaph (or as the peasants called him - Yesafy) of Belgorod. She died at the age of 45.
Pelagia's parents had six children in all - Pelagia, Alexander, Andrew, Gregory, Paul and Martha. Pelagia was the eldest, while Martha was the youngest. (Later four of the children died and only Pelagia and Martha remained.) The whole family worked together. Pelagia's mother and the oldest of her children made hay, and bound and stacked the sheaves. They worked barefoot. Archippus Kuzmich was a God-fearing man. Fearing to be late for the beginning of a service, he would deliberately choose to make hay in no far distant places, so that as soon as the bell began to ring he could immediately give up his work and go to the church.
The church where they went had two altars, the Pokrovskaya and the Akhtyrskaya. Archippus taught his daughters to sing and put them on the kliros - until then only men had sung there. He would bring The Lives of the Saints back from church and give it to his children so that they could look through them and read them. However, Pelagia never learned to read.
Her mother, Alexandra Trofimovna, was also illiterate. She taught her children by instruction:
"Daughter, this is a sin and that is a sin..."
That was how the children grew up as believers.
Although Pelagia was illiterate, she was the cleverest of the children. She was very beautiful and dressed well. Although they were not wealthy people, her father was well known in the town as the precentor.
Before the First World War they had two horses and began to get richer. But the revolution came and activists took away one of the horses. However, the horse did not let them ride her, and Archippus was forced to lead her.
Before the revolution Pelagia married. This marriage was not happy. Her father- and mother-in-law were atheists and her husband also mocked God. Before this Pelagia had had a fiance - the cousin of her husband - a good, believing person. But he drowned in the sea when he was swimming - he had cramp in his legs. And his brother seduced Pelagia and became her husband.
The priest who served in their church was called Fr. Valentine. His father and grandfather had been priests before him. In 1927 Metropolitan Sergius issued his "Declaration". Fr. Valentine signed it. When the chanters in the church heard about this, one of them - a bass, the cousin of Archippus Kuzmich - stood up and declared that the priest had renounced God. Soon the authorities again brought Fr. Valentine papers to sign. But he tore them up - both the new ones and the ones he had signed earlier. After this they took him away and no-one saw him alive again.
In Fr. Valentine's place they sent a renovationist priest to the church and the church began to be considered red.
Pelagia's father continued to go to this church and took his youngest daughter, Martha, there. Martha did not go there long - in this same year of 1927 she married and left the area.
Pelagia was a very believing person and paid careful attention to what was happening in the Church. Some kilometres from their village there was a women's monastery and she regularly ran to the nuns and asked their advice - could she now go to the church. They answered her:
"Sister, the times are such that it is impossible to go to church anymore. There is no true faith there."
And they exhorted her not to take a Soviet passport. Pelagia tried to persuade her father and sister to go along the same path, but without success.
During the war she lived in a cellar in the kitchen-garden. After her house had been bombed by the Germans, she lived for a time in a hollow, in a hut overgrown with trees. Next to her there lived other people, including her father. The Germans came into this hut, but did not touch anyone.
Pelagia had seven children. Three of them were taken to the front, where two of them were killed. After the war the remaining younger children went to the children of another Orthodox Christian woman living three kilometres from Berezovo. There they bumped into a mine and two of them were killed. So after the war there remained to her only two sons - the one who returned from the front, and her youngest.
Her husband was a drunkard. He died after an unsuccessful operation. Before his death he repented to his wife:
"The doctors have cut me up because I reviled a godly woman..."
Pelagia continued to tell her father that he should not go to the red church. Archippus Kuzmich's wife had died by this time and he had married again. His new wife went to the local village soviet to complain about Pelagia that she was forbidding her father to go to the Soviet church.
Pelagia was arrested together with her sister-in-law Anisia (whose daughter had also been killed by a mine), and two other true believers from Berezovo. Pelagia was also slandered before the authorities by her niece. But Pelagia had a combative character and she went triumphantly to prison, telling the authorities what was true in the words of her niece and what was false:
"I don't deny this, but that is a lie!..."
Pelagia was imprisoned first in the prison of the town of Nizhnedivitsk, and then she was driven to the far north (to Yakutia, it seems). There she spent eight years in the camps. Later she told her sister Martha about her life in the camps.
In one camp where she was held the believing women used to meet for common prayer. Among them were two Orthodox young women who knew the services well. They were put as readers in the centre while the other women surrounded them in a tight circle. There were so many of these praying women that the camp authorities were not able to push their way through into the centre and stop those who were leading the prayers and chanting. But later they arrested the two young women and subjected them to the following torture. They laid them on the ground and covered them with a huge mound of snow. When they dug them out again, they were still alive, but one of them died shortly after. The other one survived, but the authorities were not satisfied with they punishment they had already meted out and sent her out of the women's barracks to that of the criminals. Somehow she managed to meet one of the women from the women's barracks and asked them to pray for her, saying that, although she covered her face with soot and took on the dirtiest work in the hope of making herself look unattractive, she was perishing...
The camp authorities, before letting her and the other true believers go home, drove a cart with passports on it up to them. Pelagia and those who were with her were indignant:
"Passports? Haven't we been in prison because of [our refusal to take] passports? But if that's the way things are, then we are again [ready to go] to prison!"
And they were again sent off to the camp zone for another term. And so they eventually released them without passports. She returned home to Berezovo. This place is very beautiful - the village itself and everything around it is full of birch-trees. She went and visited her younger sister Martha and persuaded her not to go to the red church anymore. Before her arrest Pelagia had been very thin, and always ate very little. But when she returned from the camps she was very stout and her hair hung down to her heels. Martha looked at her and concluded:
"A person gets to know God more deeply, and God gives him such strength!"
Pelagia told Martha some of her prophetic dreams. Their dead brother, Paul Arkhipovich, had taken part in the destruction of a church. Pelagia dreamed that she was going along a path and saw that the Lord had covered the body of Paul Arkhipovich with bricks in such a way that only his head remained free. "Is it difficult for you, brother?" she asked him.
"Oh, so difficult!" he replied.
She described another dream as follows: "I was running and running along a path made of sand of the most indescribable beauty. Some guides were standing by.
"'Where are you going?' they asked.
"I replied: 'I'm looking for Archippus Kuzmich."
"I heard them reply: 'Over there a beautiful little house had been prepared for him, but now it's in a decrepit state. But the house which had been prepared for him at the beginning has been handed over to his neighbour.'
(This neighbour had used bad language in his youth, and when he had died a very long tongue fell out of his mouth. But he had a sister in a monastery - she may have saved him by her prayers.)
"My father was lying on a stove with his face down and could neither turn nor breathe.
"He said to me: 'Polya, it's very difficult.'
"This was the punishment the Lord gave him for betraying the faith and beginning to serve in the red church."
Pelagia never went to the churches of the Moscow Patriarchate. She feared them more than fire. She called the red priests who served in them "godless batyushkas". They invited a red priest to the funeral of her son. Even then she did not go to the funeral, but stood at a distance.
Pelagia Arkhipovna died on May 25, 1990, at the age of 97. She was buried by her neighbour, a woman of eighty with the same convictions. Pelagia's son invited a red priest to her burial, but when he arrived he was driven away.
(Source: Priest Basil Redechkin, from the words of M.A. Trufanova, Pelagia's sister).
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