05 May 2011

Memories of Buzuluk

at work in the State Archives
Nansen photograph of famine
victims in Buzuluk
area of old cemetery where
mass graves are located
tractor tourist
church at underground cloister,
by Richard Kilbey
one of the cloister's
restored entrances
underground prayer cell
newspaper office in Sorochinsk
(American Friends office in '20s)
unusual monument in Buzuluk
cemetery (could it be a Friend?)
original (above) and Lyuba
Radchenko's translation
Friends House Moscow
has a limited number of
Sometimes (I admit) during morning prayer my brain skates perilously close to sleep, and occasionally slips over the edge. This morning, in my half-dream, I kept being tugged back to Buzuluk. Specifically to old Buzuluk--to 1921, 1922, then to 1929, 1932, 1937. I wasn't exactly recalling scenes or events; it was as if the soul of the city was asking for company, or for prayer.

In 2008, Judy and I visited Buzuluk for the first time, having heard for years about the role of British and American Friends headquartered there, carrying out a massive ministry of famine relief and economic reconstruction. I wrote about that first visit here and here; and last September I wrote about some related events in Samara and Buzuluk--the publication of a Russian language translation of Constructive Spirit; the Richard Kilbey exhibit in Samara, and a historical conference. We weren't able to get away for September's events, so I was eager to get back to the region to visit our contacts there again, and deepen my own understanding of those events of 90 years ago.

I'm not surprised that my unconscious is still meditating on what we saw and heard over the six days of our trip, April 26 - May 1. From the first moments of our arrival, our host and guide for the visit, historian Sergei Kolychev, was concerned to make history as concrete as possible. It began with our first steps off the train at Buzuluk's station--he greeted us and immediately pointed out the rails on which relief goods arrived in Buzuluk, and the location of the warehouses where they would have been stored.

As our bus left the station area for downtown Buzuluk, Sergei pointed to the road on which the earliest relief workers reporting seeing bodies lying, dead from starvation or disease. Later, on our last full day, he took us to the old city cemetery and pointed to the area where a mass grave held famine victims. In that same cemetery, bordering on the Tikhvinsky Convent, is the presumed burial place of the schemamonk Maksim, a blind, saintly elder of the church who died in 1937 in the custody of the authorities, refusing to the end to confess to false accusations of counter-revolutionary activities. There was one bittersweet element of mercy at the end of his earthly story, and it involved the spiritual gift of healing for which he had long been known. His prayerful intervention resulted in the healing of the prison director's wife, as a result of which he was allowed a Christian burial instead of the common grave into which most dead prisoners were dumped.

The monastery where he had served, Holy Transfiguration Monastery and its associated underground cloister (where we visited in 2008), had been confiscated bit by bit, and finally shut down completely in 1929--its facilities converted into a reformatory and its underground passages blown up. Although the prison remains, the underground cloister, capped by a new church building, is being restored--we revisited it on our third day in Buzuluk, and I was amazed by the progress made in less than three years. We walked through the restored passages and spent a moment in a freshly rebuilt chapel. Every single person who had been associated with that monastery, who had not renounced their faith, and who had not died earlier, was executed in 1937.

Thanks to Sergei Kolychev's diligence in putting us in these places, supplying us with their historical context, my appreciation for Buzuluk's Calvary Walk through the twentieth century deepened. He and another historian, Nikolai Makarov (who was a crucial guide during our 2008 visit) also accompanied us to the local office of the State Archives, where we saw a Russian translation of a 1923 film made by British Friends to raise funds for the Buzuluk work.

That film helped me realize something that hadn't really been clear to me before. Somehow the sheer scale of the tragedy had given me the impression that Buzuluk was an impoverished town. Yes, there was rural poverty in that part of Russia before the 1917 revolutions, but as the film revealed, Buzuluk was a modern, highly developed little city. Agriculture in that region had always been precarious, but pre-revolutionary regional governments had instituted grain banks as buffers for harvest failures. In one of our walks, Sergei pointed out the home of the man who informed Moscow that the Buzuluk region seemed to be well-supplied in grain despite 1920's bad harvest. The consequences were swift in coming: wholesale confiscations.

The archive office already has hundreds of pages of archival material from American and British Friends to help them in reconstructing those sad days. They asked us for help with some of the less legible handwritten photo captions; we promised to try. Sergei and Nikolai have a couple of longer-term goals--a memorial plaque, perhaps at the railroad station, for the Quaker relief mission; and a memorial book giving a full and well-illustrated account of that history in its full regional, historical, and spiritual context.

During our days in and around Buzuluk, we also revisited Sorochinsk, where we met again with the editor of the town newspaper, Liubov Mazylo, whose office is in the house used by American Friends during the famine relief mission. She and her staff interviewed and photographed us. Later, she reunited us with the priest of the Sorochinsk church, and took us to the machine shop of a local farm. We visited the village of Sukhorechka, which appears in some of Richard Kilbey's work. Sukhorechka's energetic and visionary priest, Father Anatoly, described his parish's plans to develop church grounds into a fruit grove for the whole community to enjoy.

On our way to Buzuluk, we spent a day in the Volga River port of Samara, Russia's sixth-largest city, known for its central place in Russia's aerospace industry. We visited the diocesan museum that had housed the Kilbey exhibition last September, and were glad to meet with its director Olga Radchenko, as well as with Lyuba Radchenko, translator of Constructive Spirit  into Russian. The museum gave a valuable overview of the geography, history, and Orthodox presence in the large Samara region. The museum also introduced me to a number of significant personalities, including the complex story of Metropolitan Manuil, whose contributions to church history were unique but whose tortuous lifetime of encounters with Soviet power reflects the experiences of millions.

"Demythologizing 'radical' Christianity."

Brian McLaren's "Open letter to Christian songwriters"--to which I'd like to add one personal comment: many songs would be greatly helped with the simple substitution of "we" and "us" for "I" and "me."

I was very grateful to be able to attend Canadian Yearly Meeting in 1987 to hear my beloved mentor Deborah Haight give the annual lecture for that year, which she entitled "Meeting"--and now I'm also grateful to have stumbled across the lecture again online--in PDF format here.

A Buddhist writer, Richard Eskow, wrote what might be the most Christian piece I've seen on the death of Osama bin Laden. Oh, but "what if torture works?"

YouTube has a new partner--Mosfilm, who made some of the all-time classic Soviet-era films, and who have promised to put as many of 200 films online, with English subtitles, over the next months. More background from Open Culture.

Rahab and Delilah, "The Hero and the Villain."

Sublime Oblivion's guide to the top ten blogs on Russia.

BBC News on the fiftieth anniversary of the flight of America's first astronaut.

Once again, blues from Brazil:

1 comment:

Raye said...

Johann, thanks. The story of Buzuluk is a timely answer and affirmation to something I was trying to sort out this very morning!