Moscow’s notorious Butyrka Prison, through which more than 200 of the 1700 Orthodoxy’s new martyrs passed on their way to death in Soviet times, again has an active Orthodox Church, and its priests say that an accurate figure of the number of Russians who died for their faith there may be much higher.
On the one hand, as archivists note, records for many of the Orthodox priests who were sent to their deaths by the Communist Party’s anti-religious policy say only that they were first confined in “a Moscow prison,” without giving further details. Many of these undoubtedly passed through one of the 434 rooms of the Butyrka.
And on the other, as Archpriest Gleb Kaleda, the first post-Soviet pastor at the Moscow prison pointed out, “if we canonized all the new Russian martyrs, then the Russian Orthodox Church would have more saints than do all the other Orthodox churches in the world taken together.”
But today, thanks to the efforts of the ten Orthodox priests whom the late Patriarch Aleksii II appointed, the jail has become “a forge of cadres” for the Church, with many of the prisoners there become advocates for opening new Orthodox congregations in other parts of the Russian penitentiary system (www.pravmir.ru/tyurma-novomuchenikov/
The Butyrka has a long and in many ways infamous history. Its first famous inmate was Yemelyan Pugachev in the late 18th century. After the 1905 revolution, it became the site of many executions. And in Soviet times, its cells, designed to hold 25 people, were often filled with as many as 170 prisoners.
Although the prison did not have plumbing until late in the 19th century, it did have an active Russian Orthodox Church. But that was closed by the Soviets in 1922, although some Orthodox services reportedly continued, albeit not be priests with the support of the state but rather by priests confined as prisoners.
With the collapse of USSR in 1991, the Moscow Patriarchate was able to formally re-open a church there – see its website, www.butyrka.st-nikolas.ru/
. Even before that happened, an Orthodox priest regularly visited the prison, met with prisoners, and helped their relatives stay in touch with them by dispatching letters and packages to their onward places of incarceration.
Archpriest Gleb Kaleda headed this church until his death in 1994, not only conducting religious services but visiting with prisoners, some of whom he succeeded in baptizing. He told others that he had “never seen such serious prayers” being offered as among those sentenced to execution, an experience that led him to become an activist against the death penalty.
But after Father Gleb’s death, the situation of the church in Butyrka changed. Some priests continued to visit but regular services stopped. Priests said they were too busy, but in 2005, then-Patriarch Aleksii II took the unusual step of assigning 10 priests at once to divide their time between their parishes and the Butyrka church.
As one of their number, Archpriest Konstantin Kobelyev notes, some prisoners attend the church simply because it offers them a change “to get out of their cells” for a time. But despite that, he continues, the priests visiting the prison attempt to speak to each prisoner there and in the cells and “about half” of those they contact become regular attendees.
Moreover, the priests involved say, the attitudes of prisoners toward Orthodoxy “has strongly changed over the last years.” Earlier, prisoners were skeptical about religious figures and “did not trust” them. “Now, crosses, icons and spiritual literature are found in the cells,” forcing the wardens to say that no prisoner may have more than ten religious books at a time.
But the prison administration is not totally opposed to this religious activity. Once the number of religious prisoners reaches “a critical mass” in any cell, then “the general situation [there] changes for the better.” That is a reality that the Orthodox priests working at Butyrka are exploiting as much as they can.
The priests say that they encourage the prisoners to ask for the opening of prayer rooms or even churches in the penitentiary facilities to which they will sent to serve their sentences. In this way, the Orthodox leaders say, the Butyrka which was once a source of new martyrs is now “a forge of cadres” for the Church.
Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia, he can be contacted directly at email@example.com. You can read all his blog entries at http://windowoneurasia.blogspot.com/