A Priest on a Train
I’m writing this on a train going from Moscow to St. Petersburg. For the first couple of hours, until we reached Vyshniy Volochok, a Christian Orthodox priest sat next to me.
I debated myself lazily and silently: I was curious to find out what he thinks, but wasn’t sure I had the energy to carry on what would probably be a surreal and depressing conversation. I prepared a question—”What do you think of that new military temple?”—but kept it to myself for the first hour and a half.
Finally, he said, “Next stop is mine.” I asked if he wanted to trade seats—he’d be closer to the door then—using the polite, formal version of “you,” вы. He agreed and started his Orthodox small talk:
— You know, nobody used вы in the old days. Peter the First brought this habit from the West. There’s a simple test for what is appropriate: how do we address God?
— Exactly. Same with the Tsar.
I thought: I’m in this conversation already, so what the hell.
— You’re a priest, aren’t you?
— Do I look like one?
— The hat gives it away.
I used the line I’d prepared:
— I recently visited the—what should we call it—Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces.
He frowned and shook his head.
— What are you feelings about it?
I laughed with relief, thinking, maybe he’s one of those actual Christians that attempt to serve God and people despite how corrupt their institution is.
— Ok. Thank God.
And after a pause:
The Russian spasibo—”thank you”—comes from spasi (“save”) and Bog (“God“), which usually is interpreted as “may God save you.” But my priest had a different theory.
— Spasibo means “may God save…” whom? Why do we say it? In the old days, people said it when meeting somebody unpleasant, somebody who made them uncomfortable. It meant, “may God save me from this person.”
In retrospect, I think I used the word correctly, whichever theory is right.
— That temple is pure Satanism. And the Patriarch is serving liturgy with Catholics now, where is that at? There are many good priests now that have stopped mentioning him in their service.
— You don’t say.
— Yes, there’s a part where you’re supposed to say, —and he started the trance-inducing Orthodox chanting, — “Let us pray for the great lord and father of ours, the holiest Patriarch...”
— So they skip this part, huh?
— They do.
— And the reason is, — I was hoping it’d be his condoning of the war, or corruption, or getting too close to state power, — his contacts with Catholics?
— Of course. They are Satanists. They kill babies.
I raised my eyebrows.
— They do, I know this for a fact. They even have this game where they gather some kids in a large park and tell them, “Run as fast as you can.” Then they wait a little and start the hunt. If the kid runs away, he is free; but if he is caught, they kill him and bury him right in that park.
I thought, “his problem with the cathedral must be different from mine.”
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— Could you say more about that temple? What makes it Satanic?
— There’s plenty of stuff. The iconography is not up to the canon, the mosaics, the way it is built. And they keep the clothes of a certain prominent Nazi there on display. Are you aware of this?
— I’ve heard. Haven’t seen them myself.
Hitler’s clothes really are on display, but not in the cathedral itself—there is a WW2 museum next to it. Both are parts of a larger complex called The Patriot Park.
I spent maybe 20 minutes in that museum, but left without seeing the whole exhibition—I was hungover and on a small dose of mushrooms, so all the flashy multimedia about the war and all the Z-themed souvenirs were a little too much for me to handle.
— And what do you think about the whole… — I struggled to find the right words — business of mixing Soviet WW2 stuff with Christianity? All the war imagery?
— The whole thing is a part of their preparation for the arrival of the Antichrist. The military personnel is forced to take part, they follow orders. But don’t fret. There soon will be a new Orthodox Tsar, I know this for a fact.
I thought, “He knows a lot of things for a fact.”
— People from all over the world will come to Russia to convert to Orthodox Christianity. I spoke with a staretsat Mouth Athos, who saw the new Tsar himself.
— Did he describe him, say what his name was?
— I asked that question as well, and the starets did too; he said, “What is thy name,” and the Tsar said, “It is not yet time for people to know it.”
I knew there were two more questions I had to ask him.
— And how do you feel about our current ruler?
— NormalnoHe’s fine. — He paused. — You mean Putin, right?
— Yeah, him.
— He’s not actually Putin, you know. His real family name is Rasputin, and that says a lot. That’s a fact.
— I’ve got this watch from him.
The watch had the Russian coat of arms, Putin’s signature, and the phrase “of the President of the Russian Federation” on its face. I didn’t understand why it started with “of.” It seemed there was a word missing. Maybe I didn’t take a close enough look.
— I know somebody from his security detail. I got him and his wife married, here in Volochek. His father, a retired general, was at the ceremony, and he looked so gloomy and stern. I walked around him in circle while burning the incense; I said, “You need a lot of God’s grace, to make you look less upset.” He still remembers this, still mentions it to his son. “That’s what a priest should be like! In Moscow, they just pass you like you’re not even there.” So then, a while later, the security guy gave me this watch and said, “A gift from the boss.”
I prefaced my last question with “I’m not sure if I want to ask this, because I have a suspicion for what your answer might be.”
— What are your thoughts on the war?
— It was necessary. If you just look at who we’re up against… All these Satanists, amerikosy. They say it openly: they don’t care how many Ukrainians die.
Mercifully, the train conductor approached us: “Which one of you are in seat 25? To Vyshniy Volochek?”
I gestured towards the priest.
— Your stop is coming soon, please be ready.
We sat in silence for a moment.
— Are you baptized?
— I am.
I was baptized at age five. It was becoming fashionable in the 90s, and my grandma was for it. My parents, good Soviet people, did not seem to care one way or another.
About a year before dying, my father shared with me: “Maybe I should get baptized.” I was surprised.
— How come?
— I don’t know. Grandma’s baptized, you guys, — he meant me and my brother, — are too. And I got skipped over.
I shrugged, and that was the end of it.
My mother was baptized in 1953, at 3 months of age. She was dying, and the prevalent wisdom—this was in a Ukrainian village—was that she had to be baptized before it’s too late. My mom says Ukraine, especially rural areas, has always been more magical than Russia. People there have a real faith, whether it be in God or superstition.
So her mother allowed to bring her baby to a local priest, and waited at home in despair. The moment the priest sprinkled some holy water on the dying infant, she reached out her hand and grabbed the priest by the beard. When she was brought home, it was evident she was going to be okay. She looked happy.
People gathered to celebrate this. They drank and sang songs.
Soon though, a woman appeared, crying and wailing: “Woe is us,” “What a misery.” Everybody gathered around her.
— What happened?
— Stalin died!
— Oh God, to hell with your Stalin! I thought something bad happened! Galya’s alive!
Back on the train, the priest asked me:
— Do you wear a cross?
— I do not. I don’t go to church either.
— You don’t go to the temple. A temple is a building. A church is…
— A community of people.
— A community of people who share the faith, of which Jesus said that “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”
— Well, either way.
— It’s very important to wear the cross, because it protects you from demons. It’s been proven now: most people who commit suicide either have no cross on their neck of tear it off right before killing themselves. I’ll pray for God to get through to you.
— Please do.
— And next time we meet, I’ll check if there’s a cross on your neck.
— Can’t promise you that.
— Keep in mind, I served in the spetsnaz
The train arrived at his station. He got up and picked up his bag.
I wished him the best.
He wished me the best too.
Since that conversation and until I finished my second whiskey at a St. Petersburg bar, imaginary flees were jumping over my body.
Plural/formal form of “you,” pronounced as “vyh.”
Singular/informal form of “you,” pronounced as “tyh.”