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BY PAVEL CHICHIKOV
This is a very matter-of-fact true
story about the supernatural.
Moscow in the year 1991 was a city
in which great changes were maturing, and resistance to those changes was
assuming malevolent forms. It was a time and place of potentially deadly
I was there three times that year as an independent
journalist, once using a journalist’s exchange visa under the auspices of Izvestia, the government newspaper (which was
also undergoing great changes) and twice by the request of a new ecological
organization called the Socio-Ecological Union.
I lived in an apartment near the Taganskaya
metro station with a Russian couple. Lyubov Sergeyevna Loseva’s father had
been Sergei Losev, director
general of the official news agency Tass, and also
the head of the Communist Party Control Commission. He had died recently under
mysterious circumstances. Lyuba’s husband was Boris Sitnikov, a Tass correspondent.
When I arrived in Moscow after Christmas in December of
1990, I went immediately to St. Louis of the French, the only Catholic church
in Moscow at the time, just down the street from KGB headquarters. I walked
straight back to the sanctuary and fell on my knees before a statue of the
Blessed Virgin. Then I burst into tears.
There were good reasons for me to be afraid of being in
There was a sense of impending doom everywhere. An
attempted coup (the Russians use the German term putsch) would happen soon. Bullets would fly in downtown Moscow,
and people would be killed. A film director friend of mine had been called
before a group of old party functionaries because of a film he had made about
Stalin, and he had been ferociously denounced. I saw him when he came back from
the meeting. He told me: “They’re going to kill me.”
The KGB was still extremely strong on its own turf. There
were 28,000 plainclothes KGB operatives in Moscow alone. The secret police
controlled the traffic lights and the metro. There was nothing it could not do
or was not capable of, except in the end of saving the system itself.
When I left the church two young people in a pew at the
back were openly laughing at me. They were obviously “watchers.”
I returned to St. Louis of the French for Mass, though
often I would attend the Sunday Mass at the Commercial Office of the U.S.
Embassy. I also visited the Orthodox church dedicated to Our Lady of Tikhvin, where I stood with black-shawled
old women as they prayed to an icon of God’s mother and her Son.
I left Moscow hurriedly on the first day of the beginning
of the first Gulf War, after having interviewed Soviet officers at the Defense
Ministry newspaper, Red Star. But I
was back again in a few months.
I had made friends with members of the Socio-Ecological
Union, especially Sergei Yufit,
who was an organic chemist at the USSR’s Academy of Sciences. He had worked
with the notorious Soviet Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich on a chemical weapons project but was now
heavily engaged in documenting the poisoning of the Russian environment by
dioxins and other chlorine-based compounds.
With a group from the Socio-Ecological Union, we traveled
by train to Archangel, and then by helicopter to remote villages on the White
Sea, where Yufit acquired tissue samples from fish,
which have a tendency to concentrate dioxins in their fat and internal organs.
While on this expedition, Yufit
sometimes mentioned a document he had worked on for the Soviet authorities. He
hinted that it contained important information about the effects of dioxins on
public health, but when I asked if I could see the paper, he ignored me, as if
he had never heard the request.
Toward the end of that summer, after a social gathering, we
were seated in a car in the courtyard of an apartment building. Yufit was in the front seat. It was after sunset, and the
courtyard was dark. Suddenly, Yufit turned sideways
and passed a thin collection of papers over his shoulder. It was done without a
When I returned home I looked at the paper.
It was signed by three Soviet high notables, but the name
that stood out was that of Vladimir Kryuchkov, the
chairman of the KGB. The document was addressed to President Mikhail Gorbachev,
and it was a general statement about the effects of organic compounds of chlorine
on public health.
It was, really, an admission of grand negligence toward the
welfare of the people.
What was I to do with this paper? It occurred to me that I
was known at Izvestia, the Soviet daily, so I went there in
the morning and found myself sitting across the desk from the foreign affairs
editor, a sturdy young man with a redoubtable expression. I showed him the
document and explained that I wanted to write an article for Izvestia about
Without changing expression he told me to follow him to the
office of the deputy editor of the newspaper. There, he received permission to
proceed with the article.
It was a Friday afternoon, and he told me to deliver the
finished text to him first thing Monday morning.
I was in the lobby of the Izvestia offices on Pushkin Square on Monday morning at a quarter past eight.
The foreign desk editor walked in, accompanied by a few other people, and
frowned when he saw me. His face was as white as fresh snow. I gave him the
article, and he thrust it back into my hands.
“We cannot print such an article,” he said roughly. Then he
went on past the uniformed guard at the desk and up the stairs.
It then occurred to me that I was carrying not a newspaper
article but something like a typewritten, armed grenade.
When I realized how dangerous the document was, I felt it
very likely that I might disappear, or have an “accident.” I even phoned my
wife in the States and told her to expect that I might not be on the flight I
was supposed to arrive on.
I went down into the Pushkin
Square metro station, not seeing anything around me. A Russian friend had told
me over the weekend: “Get rid of that document, fast. There’s a big guy who
works in the basement of the Lubyanka (KGB
headquarters), and he charges 25 rubles a knuckle. You don’t want to meet him.”
The train for Taganskaya arrived.
I rode, still unseeing, and I began to pray. It was a very simple,
conversational prayer, addressed to the Blessed Virgin. “Lady, get me out of
here,” I kept saying, fervently, over and over again.
I reached Taganskaya and began to
ascend on one of those endlessly long Muscovite escalators, which begin from
the depths of the earth.
As I rode up, still praying, I began to hear the sound of a
flute, playing a familiar melody. I rose nearer to the music. It was Schubert’s
“Ave Maria,” performed with great devotion and feeling; or at least it seemed
so to me.
Just inside the subway entrance was an ordinary looking
fellow with a flute. Our eyes met as I passed.
This powerful sign filled me with peace and in the next
days I passed amazed through a remarkable series of events, receiving
unexpected help in my departure from Russia from people who had lived within
the system but not of it, and had grown to oppose it. They had somehow
preserved their souls.
As for me, it’s a memory to be rediscovered whenever I find
myself sinking into the kind of gray mood in which nothing could be more
improbable than an answer from a gracious and merciful infinite. I think of how
my year in Moscow began with a petition to the Blessed Virgin for safety and
comfort, and how, in effect, it ended at a certain point with that reassurance
I also remember now the time when Yufit,
the self-proclaimed atheist and rationalist, went with me to a little Orthodox
church just being renovated, near the Lubyanka, and
lit a candle. He told me that although an unbeliever, he sometimes lit a candle
for a deceased colleague and friend.
died last year. He had become well known among the international community
which concerns itself with the effects of environmental chemical pollution.
The document in question was published, along with the
article I had written, a few months later in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Gazette). My landlord and landlady had suggested
that I submit it there. I believe that the article had some small effect on
public realization of Soviet environmental irresponsibility. It may have even
had some political consequences.
I believe that we often forget that prayers are not dry
formulas we mutter to an abstraction, but winged messengers to the
transcendent, like doves, perhaps, and that there are beings and persons ready
to receive them — and answer.
How likely is it that at that precise moment, in a Moscow
that had been atheist for more than 70 years, and Orthodox before that for 800,
that a musician would be waiting for me, a desperate petitioner, at the head of
a very long escalator, offering a passionate Catholic hymn to God’s Mother?
Pavel Chichikov is a
photographer whose latest book,
and Stations, is available on Amazon.com.