Archimandrite Benjamin, the last superior of the Solovki monastery, was born in 1868 or 1869 in a peasant family in Shenkursk uyezd, Archangelsk province. He finished six classes at the Solovki theological school. He was tonsured and ordained to the priesthood in Solovki monastery. In 1912 he was appointed superior of the St. Anthony of Siya monastery with promotion tothe rank of archimandrite. In 1917 (according to another source, 1918) he was
appointed superior of the Solovki monastery in place of Archimandrite Joannicius. He was a delegate to the Local Council of the Russian Church in 1917-18.
This was the beginning of the time of troubles, and Archimandrite Benjamin and the brotherhood had to endure many hardships. The cheka of Archangelsk province robbed and looted the monastery, while many slanders
against it appeared in the press. In 1920 the monastery was closed and Archimandrite Benjamin was arrested and sent into exile for three years.
In the reminiscences of F.P. Kononov, who worked for several years on Solovki during the last years of its existence we read: "... A commission
arrived in Solovki which removed the church valuables and arrested Archimandrite Benjamin and Hieromonk Nicephorus and exiled them for three
years. They were in a camp somewhere in Archangelsk province. They were not compelled to do labour there. After three years they were released. They arrived in Archangelsk and lived there with one admirer. Then they decided to settle in the wilderness sixty kilometres from Archangelsk on the shores of the fish-rich Layats lake. (According to another source, they lived first
near the village of Izhmy and Lodma, and then by Lake Volk.) A former novice of Solovki monastery helped them to settle in. He constructed a hut for them and brought in food and kerosene. Archimandrite Benjamin and Hieromonk Nicephorus set off for the wilderness. On the way, in the village of Lodma, they ordered shoes from a cobbler and cotton jackets from a tailor.
"Two young lads [from the Komsomol] learned who these desert-dwellers were. They decided that the superior must have some gold. With the aim of
seizing the gold the lads went up to the monks.
"Hand over the monastery gold!"
"Not even our buttons are made of gold," replied Fathers Benjamin and Nicephorus.
"The lads did not believe them. But they did not find any gold. They
found an axe, a saw and some nails. They boarded up the doors and windows
with boards. They found a supply of kerosene. They poured this kerosene onto the walls and set the hut in which the desert-dwellers were living alight. Afterwards they found only a small bone from them...."
According to one source, this took place on the second day of Pascha, 1928.
(Sources: Russkij Palomnik, Nos. 11 and 12, 1995, pp. 77, 85; Protopresbyter Michael Polsky, Noviye Mucheniki Rossijskiye, Jordanville, 1949-57, part I, p. 211; Za Khrista Postradavshiye, Moscow: St. Tikhon's Theological Institute, 1997, p. 237; I.I. Osipova, "Skvoz' Ogn' Muchenij i Vody Slyoz", Moscow: Serebryanniye Niti, 1998, p. 285)
Igumen Antonin, in the world Alexander Pavlovich Chubarov, was born in June, 1875 in Astrakhan. He struggled in the Simovo monastery and became its superior before its closure. In 1925 he was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment without right of correspondence. He died in December, 1926 in the Golgotha Crucifixion skete on Anzer island.
A former prisoner in the Solovki camps recounted the following story
"While I was in the Solovki camp, one prisoner who worked in the fishery suffered very much from eczema on his legs. He sorrowed greatly about this for a long time, and then, finally, on entering the church of St. Onuphrius which had been kept open for the freelabour monks to worship in, he saw a
coffin with a deceased monk lying in it and said with tears:
"'O Lord, if this now reposed monk has been pleasing to Thee, accepthis prayers for me, a sinner, and cure me of my illness."
"On returning to his place in the fishermen's barracks, and wishing to change the dressing on his leg, he suddenly saw that his eczema had disappeared. In his great joy he told his neighbour and fellow-worker, Bishop Sophronius of Selenginsk, about this, and the latter told all of us clergy, who were nearby. The monk who had been buried that day was our fellow-prisoner, Fr. Antonin, from the Simonov monastery in Moscow. In 1925 he had just begun his term of imprisonment, and he could not endure it. Because of his weak health, he was given the job of sweeper of the courtyard in Solovki. God had given me the joy of meeting him often in the courtyard, of sitting and chatting with him, and of seeing how he was wasting away from his illnesses. The unfortunate elder had caused inconvenience to his neighbours in his cell because of his illnesses and the abundance of liceon his body, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief when he went into the hospital. There he departed to the Lord, having trodden his way of the cross in a fine manner."
Source: Protopresbyter Michael Polsky, Noviye Mucheniki Rossijskiye,
Jordanville, 1949-57, part I, chapter 26; Za Khrista Postradavshiye, Moscow: St. Tikhon's Theological Institute, 1997, p. 99)
During the time when the executioners Dzerzhinsky and Bahrman were in charge of Solovki, there was exiled a priest by the name of Uspensky and his son. The son soon got a job as a guard. He would escort groups of prisoners from one camp to another; apparently his cruelty earned him the trust of the NKVD. One winter, during a blizzard, he had to escort a group of prisoners which included his own father. Already old and sick, the father could not
walk straight through the deep snow; he would often stumble and fall and apparently slowed the procession. Then the depraved son ordered his father to step aside into the bushes, and there he shot him. The shots echoed through the forest, and the Solovki blizzard, to the singing of the north winds, buried the new hieromartyr in snow-white vestments. The next spring, they
discovered the body of the archpriest with a bullet in the back of his neck. It was incorrupt, the holy relics of a saint.
But the son Uspensky, having performed such an abomination, was rewarded by the NKVD bosses with a promotion and for a while enjoyed their confidence. For the next several years he was the chief in the Bear Hill camp and all
concentration camps beyond the Onega Lake, until he was shot in the Yezhov purge.
(Source: I.M. Andreyev, Russia's Catacomb Saints, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press, 1982, pp. 401-402)
The clergy exiled to Solovki usually spent some time in the Transfiguration cathedral in the Kremlin, and then in the sixth company. Among them was Fr. Nicodemus. He came from Poltava region. Stooped, approaching 80, he was nevertheless fit and healthy for his age. He had been imprisoned because he did not fulfil the new rules of the Bolsheviks concerning witnesses for weddings, doctor's certificates for funerals, etc. He had been sent first to Kemi, where they took away his pectoral cross, epitrachelion, riza and kamilavka, leaving him only with his Gospel. He wore a red army hat with the red star cut out. This didn't put him out.
"The people say that you can recognise a priest in bast matting. Besides, everyone knows me. And I'm not wearing bast matting, but good material, I bought it in Kiev.
As night was falling, the prisoners, starving and exhausted after a long day's work, asked Fr. Nicodemus to tell them a story. They meant by that a story from the Bible. Every evening there was an attentive crowd in frontof the old altar. The prisoners interrupted the story-telling with critical or enthusiastic remarks (Fr. Nicodemus was a very good story-teller).
They particularly loved the parable of the Prodigal Son. Identifying
themselves with him, they wanted to know the story to the last detail. Atthe point that the son returned to his father, only sobs and sighs could be heard all around. Some animated opinions were expressed: some found the father's loving behaviour in receiving the rogue again unacceptable. Others, putting themselves in the place of the father, wondered whether the return of theson would have given them joy.
The next day, after work, Chirayev wanted to meet the story-teller. He was sitting on his bed, on the third level. A ray of sunlight was playingon his face, and one could see the pleasure this gave him:
"What sunshine today, what happiness!"
They started up a conversation. The father wanted to know the life of Chirayev. On learning that he had ten more years of his sentence to serve, he said to him:
"My son, don't be sad, you are still young, you have the whole of your life in front of you... Only thank God."
"Why the devil should I thank him? How can I be happy with this dog's life?"
"Don't speak like that, don't speak like that. No joy comes from the
devil. Only sadness and despair come from him. But from God comes joy and
"One is not a man here, one is nothing, just a protoplasm."
"I a nothing, a protoplasm?! I am a child of God, no-one can take that dignity from me. God has placed me in the middle of a community which I must protect."
He spat on the earth in indignation. Chirayev retorted:
"What a fine parish you have - these thieves, these filthy bandits, dressed in rags, covered with lice and starving, these fallen officers, these shipwrecked clergy, what miserable pariahs!"
"So that you may know once and for all, this is the most beautiful parish I have ever had. Look: what splendour, three levels!"
He pointed to the camp beds superimposed on top of each other.
"Christ would be proud of this community. Do you think that it was only the scribes who went to Him? No, it was the wretched ones, the starving, the crippled who sought healing, the blind, the epileptic, the possessed, the
sinners, the thieves, the peasants and the fishermen. Do you think that they thought that God had come to bring them salvation? No, my little one. They had heard that an extraordinary man was going round the country healing the blind and the paralytics, and cleansing the lepers. No! They went to Him to see what kind of man He was. They listened to Him and some began to understand. With the eyes of the body they saw nothing extraordinary. However, some had the eyes of their souls opened. It was the same as withthe lepers; He had cured that one of his ulcers, but hundred by His preaching. What a fool you are! You've read the Scriptures only with your carnal eyes and your materialist spirit."
"What miracles are you talking about? No-one here needs to be healed, we don't have lepers any more!"
"You say that we don't have lepers any more! You see nothing, look around you. Who is lying down over here, who is dragging himself along over there, who is coughing? All of them are lepers who are asking for forgiveness. They don't know that they're asking for it, but they're doing it without words. And not only here, it's the same throughout the world. Everyone is hungering and thirsting for the word of salvation which comes from God."
Big tears flowed out of his shining eyes and stopped, clinging to his white beard. Seizing Chirayev's head, the priest turned it towards the frescoes blackened by the smoke. One could only see one figure prostratedon the ground and another with his hands raised to heaven in thanksgiving. It was the father with the prodigal son.
"Look, open your eyes, rejoice!"
Fr. Nicodemus had arrived in Solovki a few days earlier, in a convoy. They had spent nine days in a train. In the railway carriages there had been cages which each contained three people. They were so crowded that in order for one to move the two others had to change position. The guards patrolled between the cages.
In Fr. Nicodemus' cage there was a robber and a Muslim Tartar. During the night the priest read and chanted the services in a low voice. He murmured the evening hymn: "Now that we have come to the setting of the sun, and behold the evening light, we praise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God..." The Tartar understood immediately. Although he did not understand
Russian, He nevertheless began to pray in his way. The thief was silent, crouching like a rabbit. He had stubbed out his cigarette-end in his pocket. Fr. Nicodemus continued to pray: "From my youth have many passions warred
against me. But do Thou Thyself defend and save me, O my Saviour... In the Holy Spirit every soul is given life..." At the words during the Great Doxology, which he said in a soft voice: "O Lord God, Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy on us...", the thief immediately made the sign of the cross.
Fr. Nicodemus said to Chirayev: "And so we have served God for nine nights, for one can serve Him anywhere. God has said: 'There where two or
three are gathered together in My name, I will be in the midst of them.' But we were three! What joy that gave me! We couldn't move, we were frightened of speaking out loud, but the spirit was free and this silent communion withour neighbours was magnificent."
"But they didn't understand your prayers!"
"Why should they not have understood them? They prayed all the same,
that means that they understood. They understood with the heart."
No one knew his surname, but that was unimportant. The priest-consoler was known everywhere. He told stories in a wonderful way - stories from the Bible and the lives of the saints, but also simple, real-life stories from his former parishes. One day, a commissar was passing the night in the barracks.
"Pope, I want to bring a woman here for the night, what do you thinkof that?"
"What do I think of it? In my seventy years I have seen many things;you are young and full of passion, if you cannot do without her, do as seems best to you."
"Shall I bring you one, too?"
"No, my child, don't worry about me, I have been a widower for fifty
"Has the devil never tempted you?"
He replied: "Of course he has tempted me. Isn't a pope a man? We all
have human feelings, and it is the devil's task to tempt us. And so he tempts me and I respond with prayer."
They conversed like this for a long time. The commissar did not bring in a woman, but two packets of tobacco.
Another time, he was summoned for an official discussion. The commissar asked him:
"Answer me, minister of the cult, can you confirm that God created the world in six days?" he laughed sardonically.
"I confirm it, it is written in the Scripture."
"But modern science proves very clearly that that's impossible. Sucha process required thousands of years, not just days."
"But what days are you speaking about?"
"Ordinary days of twenty-four hours, of course."
"Hasn't science taught you that one day on the planet Saturn lasts two years? And what days does the Creator of the universe employ? Do you know
whether they are terrestrial days, saturnian days or days of some other planet?"
They called him secretly to come and visit the sick and the daying so as to say a prayer. All those who were heavy laden came to him in secret.
One day, a thief, a big, loud fellow who was always blaspheming, was
crushed by a tree. They called Fr. Nicodemus; he came, but a guard was already there who wanted to drive the priest away. Nicodemus said to him calmly:
"A man is dying, he needs a last word, that's not going to last a long time, step aside a little."
The chekist obeyed. The thief could no longer speak. Stretching out the three fingers of his hand, he indicated that he had killed three men. The
father gave him absolution and he died in peace.
He was a great connoisseur of the human heart. Like a woodcutter, he
went from one part of the camp to the other. Someone was despondent, so he sat down beside him and talked about everyday things. Without beating about the bush, he attacked the problem. He said:
"My child, pray to Saint Nicholas and the Mother of God of Tenderness and say to him: 'Your servant is suffering, he is sad, take his pain upon
yourself and intercede for him. Drive away my sadness, Saint Nicholas.' He will help you, but you must pray to him and remind him often. He has a lot to do. The whole world is asking for his help, at his age he could forget. But you remind him."
In the evening, when he was telling his "holy stories", as the thieves called them, the great, sombre church was full of people. He spoke a language which they understood. He told the stories with the aid of images, embellishing the scene so that one would have thought one was with Abraham under the oak of Mamre when the three visitors approached. He had himself
given the order to his wife to bring in the veal, and he himself had beenthe father of the prodigal son who was so moved by the return of his child.
Boris Shiryaev writes: "The face of the old priest shining with light stood in front of me and blotted out everything from me: both the rows of
hard-labour bunks, and the human mish-mash crawling on them, and the charred, smoky walls of the defiled, desecrated church."
Fr. Nicodemus never feared the wrath of the bosses, and never refused to carry out his pastoral duty. They led him secretly "to those women who wished to receive Communion. The rabble contrived to push him through the window
into the hospital to the dying, which was very difficult and dangerous."
It was inevitable that Fr. Nicodemus should receive the crown of martyrdom. At Christmas they had asked him to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in one of the barracks. Two guards entered unexpectedly:
"Again you are spreading your opium!"
Making the sign of the cross in their direction, he let them understand that the Holy Rite must not be interrupted. Then they led him into the death-cell, which had no heating. They stripped the prisoners of their outer clothing. The temperature in the ancient chapel was the same as outside, much lower than minus 20 degrees centigrade. To protect themselves from the cold, they piled up on the straw mattress, four lengthways, four sideways and four diagonally. Those who were on top protected themselves as best they could
with long strips of material. During the long dark nights, Fr. Nicodemus was right at the top, telling them his marvellous stories. On Holy Saturday, radiant with joy, they celebrated the Liturgy. After embracing and kissing each other three times, they heard Fr. Nicodemus tell the story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. The next morning, they did not wake up. Their bodies were already cold. He had shown each of them the way to his last hour, then he had had to go the way he already knew alone...
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