Babushka Baptists

In Siberia, Stalin survivors quench an ancient thirst

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My hotel costs five dollars a night. The plaster falls in chunks from the walls of its corridors, and from the Stalinist ceiling moldings. The night is close and humid. It is over 85 degrees. I lie on the bed and watch the full moon shining through a pattern of dainty flowers in the lace curtains. I cannot sleep. The sweat leaks from my chest and forehead. And this is Siberia.

Next morning, outside the big, unlovely cathedral, which in Stalin's day was a cinema, I found a coachload of pilgrims setting off for a rural monastery. They welcomed me on board. The monastic foundations were only just being laid, they said, and they were going to attend the blessing of its waters. In 1987 an excavator at the site—near the state farm of Rechnoi—had unearthed a mass grave, and the place was revealed as a complex of labor camps, abandoned at Stalin's death. The inmates, mostly intelligentsia, had died of pneumonia and dysentery from working the fields, and their graves still scattered its earth.

As our bus bowled through ramshackle villages, the pilgrims relayed the story with murmurs of motherly pity. They were elderly women for the most part, indestructible babushkas in flower-printed dresses and canvas shoes, whose gnarled hands were closed over prayer books and bead-strings, and whose headscarves enshrined faces of genial toughness. When a fresh-faced cantor began chanting a hymn in the front of the bus, their voices rose in answer like old memories, reedy and melodious, from their heavy bodies, until the whole bus was filled with their singing.

We reached a birch grove on the Rechnoi farm. It was one of those ordinary rural spots whose particular darkness you would not guess. As the babushkas disembarked, still singing, the strains of other chanting echoed from a chapel beyond the trees. It was the first of four shrines that would one day mark the corners of an immense compound. Inside, a white-veiled choir was lilting the sad divisions of the Liturgy.

In the south transept, still meshed in scaffolding, an unfinished fresco of the Deposition from the Cross loomed above us. It was almost complete, but the flesh tints were still missing, as if the artist were afraid to touch too closely on Divinity, and pots of pigment still lined the scaffold. So only the colored garments of the disciples semaphored their grief, while their hands and features were empty silhouettes in the plaster: here a face uplifted in dismay, there a blank caress on the unpainted body of Christ, which remained a ghostly void, like something the onlookers had imagined.

Sometimes, whimsically, I felt as if this scene were echoed in the nave where I stood, where around the great silence left by God the worshippers lifted their heads and hands, crossed themselves, and wept a little.

From outside came the squeal of bulldozers in a distant field. They were smoothing the earth of the labor camps into monastery foundations. I strained to catch the sounds, but our singing drowned them in the sad decrescendos of the Russian rite. And out of the mouths of these ancient women—whose sins, I imagined, could barely exceed a little malicious gossip—rose the endless primal guilt, “O Lord forgive us!” over and over, as if from some deep recess in the national psyche, a need for helplessness.

The sanctuary curtains parted on an incense-clouded region inhabited by a very small priest. His hair shimmered down his head like a Restoration wig and melted into a droop of violet-clad shoulders. As he intoned the prayers, he constantly forgot or lost his place until his chanting dithered into confused conversation, and three deacons in raspberry robes prompted his responses with slips of paper. The cause of his panic was plain to see: Enthroned beside him, giant and motionless, sat Feodosy, archbishop of Omsk. Around noon, a procession unwound from the church and started across the pasturelands toward the unblessed waters. It moved with a shuffling, dislocated pomp. Behind its uplifted cross, whose gilded plaques wobbled unhinged, the archbishop advanced in a blaze of turquoise and crimson, his globular crown webbed in jewels. He marked off each stride with the stab of a dragon-headed stave, and his chest shone with purple- and gold-embossed frontlets and a clash of enameled crosses. He looked huge.

I fell in line with the pilgrims following. It was oddly comforting. An agnostic among believers, I felt close to them. I, too, wanted their waters blessed. I wanted that tormented earth quieted, the past acknowledged and shriven. I helped the old woman beside me carry her bottles. My feeling of hypocrisy, of masquerading in others' faith, evaporated. As I took her arm over the puddles and our procession stretched out over the wet grass, Russia's atheist interlude seemed no more than an overcast day in the long Orthodox summer, and the whole country appeared to be reverting automatically, painlessly, to its old nature. This wandering ceremonial, I felt, sprang not from an evangelical revolution but from a simple cultural relapse into the ancient personality of the motherland—the hierarchical, half-magic trust of its forefathers, the natural way to be.

I had already seen it everywhere. Markets, airports, and bus stations were staked out by babushkas selling religious pamphlets and prints of icons, nursing an offertory for the restoration of the local church or cathedral. Holy pictures dangled from the dashboards of taxis, decorated people's rooms. God had re-entered the vocabulary, the home, the gestures of beggars crossing themselves in the streets. Far away in Moscow, the Church was growing fat on concessions to import tax-free alcohol and cigarettes; here in Siberia, traditionally independent but conservative, this corrupting embrace of church and state was paying (I imagined) for our monastery. But the cross wavered and glistened confidently among the birches. Authority, as always here, was salvation. It sold peace in place of thought, as if these people were not worthy of thought.

Yet after the communist hiatus, what had God become? Was He not now very old? And hadn't He lost too many children? On a road beyond the trees a troop of young men and girls were watching us from their parked cars, without expression, as tourists look at something strange.

How had these devotees survived? For 60 years scarcely a church was open in Siberia; the priests had been dispossessed, exiled, or shot. Even the oldest pilgrims trudging through these meadows could scarcely have remembered the Liturgy from childhood. How had they kept faith?

“We had icons in my home, hidden in the roof.” The young priest was pasty and shy, with absent eyes. He had joined the procession late. “My father worked in the stone quarries of Kazakhstan, so we lived miles from anywhere. But parents pass these icons down to their children, you see, and my grandmother's family had kept theirs. That's how I came to God, through the icons, through my grandmother. Not suddenly, but out of the heart”—he touched his chest—“bit by bit. It's very simple. God calls you out.”

We reached a place where a silver pipe, propped on an old lorry tire, was spilling warm water into a pool. A blond deacon like a Nordic Christ planted the processional cross on the far side, and the archbishop, the priests, the acolytes and pilgrims, the babushkas with their bags and bottles, a few war veterans, and one mesmerized foreigner made a wavering crescent around the water's rim.

The unkempt celebrant, clutching a jeweled cross, was ordered to wade in. From time to time he glanced up pathetically at Archbishop Feodosy, who gave no signal for him to stop. Deeper and deeper he went, while his vestments fanned out over the surface, their mauve silk waterlogged to indigo, until he was spread below us like an outlandish bird over the pool. At last Feodosy lifted his finger. The priest floundered, stared up at us—or at the sky—in momentary despair, recovered his balance, and went motionless. Then, with a ghostly frown, he traced a trembling cross beneath the water.

A deep, collective sigh seemed to escape the pilgrims. Again the cavalcade unfurled around the pool, while the archbishop, grasping a silver chalice, sprinkled the surface with its own water, and the wobbly cross led the way back toward the noise of the bulldozers.

But the babushkas stayed put. As the procession glimmered and died through the darkness of the trees and the archbishop went safely out of sight, a new excitement brewed up. They began to peel off their thick stockings and fling away their shoes. They were ready. They tugged empty bottles (labeled Fanta and Coca-Cola) from their bags. Then they clambered and slid down the muddy banks and waded into the newly blessed water. At first they only scooped it from the shallows. It was mineral water, muddied and warm. They drank in deep gulps from their laced hands and winched themselves back to stow the bottles on shore.

Then it all went to their heads. Six or seven old women flung off first their cardigans, then their kerchiefs and skirts, until, at last, stripped down to flowery underpants and bras, they made headlong for the waters. All inhibition was lost. Their massive legs, welted in varicose veins, carried them juddering down the banks. Their thighs tapered to small, rather delicate feet. Little gold crosses were lost between their breasts. They plunged mountainously in. I stood above them in astonishment, wondering if I was meant to be here. But they were shouting and jubilant. They cradled the water in cupped hands and dashed it over their faces. Holiness had turned liquid, palpable. You could drink it, drown in it, bring it home like a bouquet for the sick.

Two of the boldest women—cheery, barrel-chested ancients—made for the gushing silver pipe and thrust their heads under it. They sloshed its torrent exultantly over one another, then submerged in it and drank it wholesale. They shouted at their friends still on land, until one or two of the younger women lifted their skirts and edged in. Bottle after bottle was filled and lugged to shore. But it was the young, not the old, who hesitated. The old were in high spirits. One of them shouted to me to join them, but I was caught between laughter and tears. These were women who had survived all the Stalin years, the deprivation, the institutional suffering, into long widowhood and breadline pensions. Their exuberance struck me dumb. Perhaps, in this sacred and chaotic water hole, the world seemed finally to make sense to them, and all this aching, weary flesh at last found absolution.

From Granta  (Winter 1998). Subscriptions: $34/yr. (4 issues) from Box 420387, Palm Coast, FL 32142-9913.