How a Famous Holy Trinity Icon Prompted Prayer Amid Communism — and the Holy Spirit Can Cleanse the Soul of Atheistic Lies
BOOK PICK: Priest’s memoir offers ‘tales about people who were striving to be good, to bring joy to each other and learn the meaning of life.’
Here are some of the impressions most of us held about the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s: overcast skies and long lines of freezing Russians waiting in line for meagre rations of food.
To add to the grim picture, there were lurking KGB agents ready to pounce on citizens who said the wrong thing and brave souls willing to risk life and limb to escape to freedom.
Underneath this depressing veil, however, there were ordinary people who tried to do the best for their families and be good to their friends. There were even those who never forgot the kingdom of God was bigger than the Kremlin. They were like rays of pure light in an officially atheistic state.
In How I Became a Man: A Life With Communists, Atheists and Other Nice People (Ignatius, 2022), author and Catholic priest Father Alexander Krylov takes readers on a tour of Soviet life in a small city of 40,000 souls in the “picturesque” Ural Mountains, about 1,240 miles from Moscow.
“These tales of a youngster who wanted to grow up to be a man are typical of many other human beings who lived in the Soviet Union and tried to come to understand their reality,” Father Krylov writes in the introduction. “They are tales about people who were striving to be good, to bring joy to each other and learn the meaning of life.”
What makes this memoir remarkable is Father Krylov’s ability to recall life in a totalitarian state in an almost whimsical manner. Whimsy and totalitarian are two words rarely seen together.
What comes through all of this is his maternal grandmother’s unwavering Catholic faith, practiced in the most difficult of situations — with no churches or priests.
“She was a staunch Catholic, and yet she saw an ally in every human being,” he writes.
Father Krylov’s grandmother, an ethnic German, baptized him when he was just seven days old at home. It would be 20 years before he walked into a Catholic church. But it was this influence, once he was in Germany, that drew Krylov to the priesthood.
Those families trying to pass along faith to their children took a great risk. It meant working against the intention of the state. In the Soviet Union, children were seen as the vanguard who would influence their parents and perpetuate communism to the next generation.
Religious families also had to be creative. At Easter, an altar was created by his grandmother that consisted of holy cards and a prayer book. Most important, though, was the bowl of water.
“When a priest somewhere in the world blesses water, then he blesses our water too — my grandmother was firmly convinced of it.”
Yet, in school, the abiding message was that God was a myth — and the true cosmic power was the human intellect. His kindergarten teacher told them that when Yuri Gagarin, the first Soviet cosmonaut, went into space in 1961, he saw no evidence of God. Case closed.
“Therefore,” his teacher said, “only stupid, uneducated people believe in God.”
It only got worse. A classmate of his, Vitya, told the class that the Russian festival called Pascha, the feast of Easter, would soon be celebrated.
The teacher reacted so violently that it was clear to the children that this topic was never to be broached in public again.
“When she heard Vitya’s answer, she became much redder in the face and began to scream. I had never seen such rage before and wanted to hide under a desk.”
Looking back, Krylov understood his teacher’s scream was one of fear — and being afraid that the school authorities would think she taught such topics as Easter.
While religion plays a role part in How I Became a Man, there were also the ordinary things that are universal to children everywhere.
He writes about his single-day experiment with cigarettes. He was told by a playmate that smoking would allow him to grow up faster. Then there was the shame of being caught playing hooky so he and his pal could go to a movie, showing that children could find a way to be free.
But Father Krylov’s fondest memories are of his visits to Moscow. Coming from a remote area, he was thrilled by what the big city had to offer: the joy of eating “the best ice cream in the country … and the best chocolate.”
He recalls the unimaginable thrill of being photographed with the world-famous clown Oleg Popow. And given there were not churches in his hometown, he was deeply impressed by “the many churches with fantastic onion domes and subway stations that looked like cathedrals.”
But two incidents, when put side by side, show that how no matter the magnitude of state propaganda, the Holy Spirit can cleanse the soul of atheistic lies.
He describes a trip to Valdimir Lenin’s tomb, a kind of secular shrine for true communist believers. Krylov was not impressed; rather, he sensed something sinister.
Then he happened upon Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Holy Trinity at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
“It is difficult to say exactly what it was about this old and, at first glance, somber depiction of three angels that spoke to me as a boy, but I remained standing in front of the icon and even prayed secretly. My intention was that the grown-ups, too, would find their way to God sometime and that all people would be allowed to pray.”
A child will lead them.