A remarkable episode happened during my Orthodox Christian prehistory. It was it the late ‘70s; we lived in Leningrad on the Kriukov canal, just opposite the St. Nicholas Cathedral, and every year we would watch the Paschal celebrations from our window. Our friends would even come to our home that evening to watch it with us.
|The author’s drawing at age thirteen.|
Some people would not go near the cathedral, but would stand in front of it with lit candles, right under our window. They could not see the Paschal procession, but we could, above them from our window. If we opened the upper window we could even hear the singing. When I was thirteen years old I drew a little picture of the night, with a pale moon in the clouds, the corner of the cathedral, black figures, mysterious and dark, walking with their candles. For me it was like a Gothic romance. Incidentally, the people in the picture are not walking in the right direction, but I did not pay any attention to such details.
Two years later, or maybe it was three, I was returning from the Maryinsky theatre after a show one evening. By the crowd of people outside the cathedral and the lit candles in their hands I could guess that it was Pascha. I became interested and decided to come closer. The crowd was strange. There were excited teenagers trying to cause trouble, there were quiet ladies, and nervous ladies. At the time I could not have guessed that these people were mostly only curious spectators and not believers—just like me. But I well understood why they were hanging around—everyone knew that it was almost impossible to get into the church on Pascha. In order to get inside for the services one had to come in the morning and wait there all day, because in the evening they only allowed the old ladies inside. I supposed at the time that they did this so that no outsiders would come in to bother them. Now a lock hung on the gates that led to the church, and two policemen were standing next to it urging the people with what seemed to me rather mocking voices to go home and watch television. “The sixth serial is beginning!” they yelled into their loudspeakers.
Suddenly in the midst of this motley and rather unpleasant crowd I saw a group of very beautiful young men and ladies. I understood that they were foreigners, but that they were somehow out of the ordinary and special. There was some sort of light in them. They walked around the churchyard fence looking lost and obviously searching for something—as it turned out, the entrance. They seemed not much older than me, and I suddenly had a passionate urge to talk with them and find out who they were; what was that light in them? I did not know English, only French. There was very little hope that they would also know that less global language. But suddenly a miracle occurred. One of the girls noticed me and quickly approached me. “Parlez-vous français?” she asked. I learned that they were from Greece. “How do we get into the church?” the girl asked anxiously.
Then I made a terrible mistake. The thought that these young, beautiful people wanted to go to the church in order to celebrate Pascha alongside the old ladies never even entered my head. I assumed that they were tourists interested in the church’s interior and the ethnography of a Russian church service. “Unfortunately it’s not possible right now”, I said, “but when the service ends you can go in and have a look. Or perhaps tomorrow.” The girl looked at me with great surprise and walked away. Soon the clock began to strike twelve. The Greeks stood around the church and lit their candles. When midnight arrived, they sang the Pascal troparion. This was fantastical spectacle—a dark night, a bright circle, beautiful, inspired faces illumined by candle light, divine singing. Surrounding them in another tight and black circle were my compatriots, tense and absolutely perplexed. No sooner had our Greeks lit their candles than this circle formed, and the usual plainclothes individuals, who after fifteen years of my observation through the window I could easily pick out of the rest of the crowd, energetically pushed through to the front lines. I stood in the black circle, tortured to the point of tears by a longing to be there together with these young Greeks. I was experiencing personally the intense psychological power of a circle, whichI learned about scientifically only later. I just could not break out of that black circle.
The public gathered around the locked cathedral was, I repeat, strange. One of the women leapt at the Greeks, pushed the girls, blew out their candles and shouted hysterically, “Christ is risen, and you heathen are singing here!” The Greeks continued to sing. With every minute the feeling became stronger that they were standing firm in the name of Christ amidst a world at war with God. Even I could feel it physically, although I knew nothing about this at the time.
They finished singing and began kissing each other on the cheek with the Paschal kiss. “Christos Anesti!” They said as the kissed. I saw their shining faces and understood that their joy that was not an everyday joy, but something much higher. It even seems that I began to understand what it was that made them so different from us, and what that extraordinary light was, radiating from them on that Paschal night.
With this, they turned around and looked at us. “Christos Anesti!” they said to the black, anxious, fearful crowd of soviet people who encircled them tightly. No one answered. Not believing their own eyes and ears, they began to practically scream the words with hope, with dissatisfaction; perplexed, demanding, even threatening and begging—“Christos Anesti! Christos Anesti!” How badly I wanted to answer them! I even knew what to answer. But my tongue turned to stone in my mouth.
Then suddenly, out of the black circle a little old man jumped forward. He was nondescript, tiny, fidgety, and I think even a little drunk. He stepped up decisively to the Greeks and shouted, “Vo istinu voskrece! (In truth He is risen!)”
These young Greeks threw themselves upon him. They were exultant. They kissed him. They juggled him around in their embraces. What love they poured all over him! I don’t remember whether or not their candles were still burning, but that he had left our black circle and joined their radiant one was obvious and tangible.
I don’t remember at all how this episode ended—how everyone departed or how I came home. It was as if a curtain fell on the final phrase, “Christ is Risen!”—leaving me shocked and a dumb.