The Nuns of Shamordino: Prisoners of Solovki
Upon him who labors—
God sheds mercy; but he who loves
Elder Ambrose of Optina
God sheds mercy; but he who loves
Elder Ambrose of Optina
In the summer of 1929 there came to Solovki about thirty nuns. Probably the majority of them were from the monastery of Shamordino, which was near the renowned Optina Hermitage.
The nuns were not placed in the common women’s quarters, but were kept separately. When they began to be checked according to the list and interrogated, they refused to give the so-called basic facts about themselves, that is, to answer questions about their surnames, year and place of birth, education, and so forth.
After shouts, threats and beatings they were placed in solitary confinement, and were tortured by hunger, thirst, and deprivation of sleep; that is, all the usual means of pressure were applied to them. But the nuns remained unbending and even were bold enough—a fact very rare in the concentration camp—to refuse any kind of forced labor.
After several days, I, together with Prof. Dr. Zhizhilenko (who had been sent to Solovki because, while being the chief physician of the Taganka prison in Moscow, he had secretly accepted monasticism and had become a bishop with the name of Maxim) were called to the chief of the Sanitary Division. We were confidentially ordered to make a medical examination of the nuns with a hint as to the desirability of recognizing them unfit for labor so as to have an official bias to free them from forced physical labor.
It was the first time in the history of Solovki that the administration found itself in such a complicated situation. Usually in such cases they acted very severely and cruelly. After a serious beating of those who refused to work, they were sent to the punishment island of Anzersk, from where no one ever returned alive.
Why these rebel nuns were not sent to Anzersk we could not understand We gave this question to the chief of the Sanitary Division of the whole camp. He explained to us that the silent, restrained protest of the nuns was not in the least like the protests with which the administration was used to dealing. These latter protests were usually accompanied by a scene, shouting and hooliganism. But here, there was silence, simplicity, humility and an extraordinary meekness. “They are fanatical martyrs seeking sufferings,” the head of the Sanitary Division explained. “They are some kind of psychic cases, masochists, but one becomes inexpressibly sorry for them. I cannot endure to see the humility and meekness with which they bear the pressure. And it is not I only. Vladimir Yegorovich, the chief of the camp, also could not bear this. He even quarreled with the chief of the Intelligence Division and he wants somehow to soften and iron over this matter. If you find them unsuitable for physical labor they will be left in peace.”
When I went out to the barracks where the nuns were kept, I saw extraordinarily sober women, peaceful and restrained, in old, worn-out, and patched but clean monastic garments.
There were about 30 of them. Their age one could give as an “eternal thirty” years, although undoubtedly there were those both older and younger. In all faces there was something from the expression of the Mother of God, “Joy of All Who Sorrow,” and this sorrow was so exalted and modest that totally involuntarily I was reminded of certain verses of Tyuchev. Their meek appearance was of a spiritual beauty which could not but evoke a feeling of deep contrition and awe.
“So as not to upset them, I’d better go out, Doctor,” said the chief of the assignment who met me, who should have been present as a representative of the medical committee. I remained alone with them.
“Good day, Matushki,” I bowed down low to them. In silence they replied to me with a deep bow to the waist.
“I am a physician. I’ve been sent to examine you.”
“We are well. You don’t need to examine us,” several voices interrupted me.
“I am a believing Orthodox Christian and I am sitting here in the concentration camp as a prisoner for church reasons.”
“Glory be to God,” several voices again replied to me.
“Your disturbance is understandable to me,” I continued, “but I will not examine you. You only tell me what you have to complain about and I will assign you to the category of those incapable of labor.”
“We are not complaining about anything. We are quite healthy.”
“But without a definition of the category of your inability to work, they will send you to extraordinarily difficult labor.”
“All the same, we will not work whether it be difficult or easy labors.”
“Why?” I asked in astonishment.
“Because we do not wish to work for the regime of Antichrist.”
“What are you saying?” I asked, upset. “After all, here on Solovki there are many bishops and priests who have been sent here for their confession. They all work, each one as he is able. Here, for example, there is the bishop of Vyatka who works as a bookkeeper at the rope factory, and in the lumber department many priests work. They weave nets. On Fridays they work the whole 24 hours, day and night, so as to fulfill their quota extra quickly and thus free for themselves a time for prayer in the evening on Saturdays and on Sunday morning.”
“But we are not going to work under compulsion for the regime of Antichrist.”
“Well then, without examination I will make some kind of diagnosis for you and give the conclusion that you are not capable of hard physical labor.”
“No, you needn’t do that. Forgive us, but we will be obliged to say that this is not true. We are well. We can work, but we do not wish to work for the regime of Antichrist and we shall not work even though they might kill us for this.”
“They will not kill you, but they will torture you to death,” I said in a quiet whisper, risking being overheard; I said it with pain of heart.
“God will help to endure the tortures also,” one of the nuns said, likewise quietly. Tears came to my eyes. I bowed down to them in silence. I wished to bow down to the ground and kiss their feet.
To be continued…