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Book Forum: Biography   |    
Father Arseny, 1893–1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father ? Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:2124-2125. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.12.2124
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Houston, Tex.

Translated by Vera Bouteneff. Crestwood, N.Y., St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998, 279 pp., $15.95 (paper). • Translated by Vera Bouteneff. Crestwood, N.Y., St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001, 244 pp., $14.95 (paper).

At a time when psychiatry and medicine are recognizing the place and importance of the spiritual in the lives and therapy of our patients, the unprecedented revelations of carnality pursued or suborned by many of our ecclesiasties may threaten our valuation of this important human element. If sectarian corruption, corporate larceny, and triumphant materialism provoke despair, a personal example of the mysterious operatives of faith, selflessness, and spirituality might be restorative. Father Arseny’s tale is the saga of an individual who lived out his priestly vows and ideals while subjected to some of history’s most focused malignity. Through spiritual strength, personal virtue, and selfless perseverance, he surmounted persecution and barbaric imprisonment. In the bargain, he provided physical and spiritual salvation, hope, and inspiration to countless others. Piotr Andreyevitch Streltzof was an art historian who, on becoming a priest-monk, accepted the name "Father Arseny." His new calling brought him the growing enmity of Lenin’s Bolsheviks (1), who arrested him in 1933 and 1939 and sent him to the intolerable Soviet prison camp where he remained until 1958. After his release he continued to serve his religion and his fellow man until he died in 1973.

These two volumes are records from letters and stories, testimonies from the Soviet-era Russian underground collected by "servant of God Alexander," a man who knew Father Arseny in the prison camp but who wishes otherwise to remain anonymous. The compendium had for many years enjoyed an extensive circulation within the Russian religious underground, bringing Father Arseny renown and a wide cult following. The individual pieces are written by people who met and were deeply affected by Father Arseny before, during, and after his time in the prison camp. There is a touching and compelling urgency to the narratives; each attestant desperately wants us to know Father Arseny. Though the collection is knitted with rugged threads of religiosity, the strong leitmotivs of Father Arseny’s adaptability, survival, probity, and above all, his faith, transcend any narrow sectarian context. We feel not so much that we are reading a biography as experiencing an encounter with a very remarkable person.

The first volume compiles the disparate articles into three sections, in turn converging on Father Arseny’s experiences in the prison camp, his benevolent and compassionate ministry, and people he so affected that they became his "children" and followers. The first section, written in often novelistic style ("The darkness of the night and the cruel cold paralyzed everything. Everything, that is, except the wind…. Encountering an obstacle, the wind would throw clumps of snow, pick up new ones from the ground, and move on ahead…to nowhere") evokes the bitter unrelenting chill of the legendary Russian winter as it deepens the pain of the heartless, inhuman prison regimen among the hapless inmates. The Soviet state’s purpose was to exploit the inmates’ labor and hasten their death through overwork, starvation, beatings, trauma, and disease. Official Bolshevik atheism and anticlerical dogma meant special enmity toward Father Arseny. Survival under these conditions suggests the miraculous, by whatever name.

The camp life is graphically depicted; political prisoners resided with common criminals, who beat them as savagely and relentlessly as the sadistic guards. The poorly clothed, starving inmates were forced into hard daily labor in even the most punishing winter weather. Minor infractions brought disproportionately harsh punishment: solitary confinement in small metal sheds, additional beatings, withheld rations. All of this cruelty will be familiar to readers of other first-person accounts and official revelations of the routine atrocities of the Soviet era. What redeems the book and astonishes the reader is Father Arseny’s response. Even when barely able to move about, and often from his own sickbed, he ministered selflessly, blessed and prayed for the other prisoners, nursed even those ill and injured who had abused him, refused to retaliate in kind, prayed for his oppressors, and shared or gave his short rations to those he saw as even needier. His decency and goodness, his love for others, and his unwavering devotion to his priestly ideals won converts and believers. Many of these converts, particularly guards and officials, kept their feelings of awe and respect concealed, but others became openly ardent and evangelical on behalf of Father Arseny and his faith. After his prison release, Father Arseny lived with a family in a small Russian village and continued his officially forbidden ministries. The town’s terrifying and corrupt Police Inspector was eventually transformed by his meetings with the priest, left his lucrative official position, and ultimately risked his own imprisonment by requesting final confession and communion for his dying mother.

The second volume, A Cloud of Witnesses, contains 16 additional first-person contributions, material that became available following publication of the first collection. These are statements and recordings by priests, poets, a psychiatrist, a secret service agent, and "ordinary" people who experienced Father Arseny’s transformational and inspirational influence on their lives. Well-known academic psychiatrist Dmitri Melikov was deeply moved by Father Arseny’s insightful compassion, perspicacity, and feel for humanity. Melikov regularly returned to him for consultation. These accounts of Father Arseny’s life, career, and death complement and substantiate the stories in the first volume. After his death, members of what had become Father Arseny’s large international following arranged for a small commemorative monument at his burial site in Rostov. It has become the destination of international pilgrims to this day.

Inspirational though they are, one naturally wonders if there could actually have been a man as flawless as the one depicted in these books. The stories come close to falling within the genre of hagiography, the "Saints’ Lives" that formulaically tell of boundless charity, torture endured, ideal Christian love, unimaginable human kindness, and inspired patience in the midst of squalor and the worst of our vices. The stories of Father Arseny presented here share the quality of iconic art that characterizes the emotionality of Russian religious feeling, the radiant aura within which the saint is depicted at perfect spiritual peace. This artistic quality binds the form to the content of these narrative jewels. Perhaps we would feel better informed if some of these sketches depicted Father Arseny’s inevitable personal weaknesses to complement his otherworldly virtue, rendering it more credible for those tending toward a decent skepticism. Surely other thoughts, feelings, and fears must have competed with the saintly virtues if this was indeed a man. Nevertheless, one of the emotional functions of spirituality is the refuge it provides from our most difficult realities. For the interested reader these records of a triumphant spirit and benevolent, victorious life will be a revivifying and moving encounter.

Volkogonov D: Lenin. New York, Free Press, 1994


Volkogonov D: Lenin. New York, Free Press, 1994

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