Good Reasons to Be Afraid
[Editor's Note: The following true story, which happened while the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, bears witness to the enduring presence of the Blessed Virgin in Russia.]
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 contradictions.
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 Moscow.
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 Saint Louis of the French for Mass, though often I would attend the Sunday Mass at the Commercial Office of the US Embassy. I also visited the Orthodox church dedicated to Our Lady of Tikhvin, where I stood with black-shawled old women as they prayed before 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.
Traces of Poison
I had made friends with members of the Socio-Ecological Union, especially Sergei Yufit, who was an organic chemist at the USSR Academy of Sciences. He had worked with the notorious Soviet General 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 Arkhangel, 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 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 word.
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 Kryuchkov, the Chairman of the KGB. The document was addressed to 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, 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 it.
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.
Get Me Out of Here
It then occurred to me that I was carrying not a newspaper article but something like a typewritten, armed grenade. I went down into the Pushkin Square metro station not seeing anything around me. A Russian friend who was experienced in certain matters had told me over the weekend, “Get rid of that document, fast. There’s a big guy who works in the basement of the Lyubyanka, and he charges twenty-five 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.
I’ve told this story to various people since. One priest from Baltimore, an excellent and beloved pastor, reacted this way: “That’s spooky!” A famous priest-scientist loudly drew in his breath.
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 granted.
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 Lyubyanka, and lit a candle. He told me that although an unbeliever, he sometimes lit a candle for a deceased colleague and friend.
Sergei Yufit 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 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 over seventy 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?
© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange
Pavel Chichikov is a Catholic writer and photographer who lives in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in Crisis, the National Catholic Register, Faith & Family Magazine, and other publications. He is also the poetry editor of Catholic Exchange, and a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Writing. He is the author of two books of poems. See Pavel's new book, Mysteries and Stations, here.