Blessed Varenka (Barbara Pavlovna Shulayeva) was born in 1914 in the village of Maidany, Pilninsky Uyezd, in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, Russia, into a peasant family. The family worked on weekdays and went to church on Sundays. Varenka, who was no different from other peasant children, also went to church with her parents.
But once, when she was thirteen years old, she saw in her sleep a church and a woman in monastic garments, and many people around her. The eyes of all were directed upon her; they went up to her reverently and received her blessing. And Varenka very much wanted to receive her blessing. She got up after the others - there were nuns there, as well as priests - and went closer and closer to her. Finally she came up to her and asked:
"Give the blessing."
"No, I only bless the weekdayers, who go to church on weekdays."
And such sorrow gripped the heart of the girl, she so wanted to receive her blessing, that from that day she began to go to church every day. And so that people should not laugh at her for going to church every day like a nun, Varenka wrapped her face in a scarf and went to the church through the kitchen gardens.
Some time later, she for the first time fell asleep in a special way and slept for several days. In her sleep she saw the habitations of Paradise and Hell and what awaits a man after his death.
"Do you remember," she said to her mother on awakening, "when I threw up my hands? That was when I saw a woman who was being flayed with iron combs. Then she was thrown into a boiling cauldron, and I was frightened."
Sometimes she told people what the Lord had been pleased to show her.
Matthew Leontiev died in Maidany, and since it was a time of famine his relatives did not want to have a funeral repast on the fortieth day. When Varenka fell asleep she saw him standing up to the knees in a fiery river.
"Tell our people to help me," he said.
Varenka told this to his relatives, and they had a funeral repast. After this she saw him again in her sleep, but he was now standing on the bank.
The news of her unusual gift spread among the Orthodox, and they began to come to her so as to learn the lot of their dead relatives. An old woman called Olga lived in the village. She was extremely poor and weak. She had a wattle fence which was rickety; she cut wood with a mattock, and her courtyard was always covered with snow - she didn't have the strength or time to clear it because she still had a horse and cow, without which not one peasant household could survive. She had worked all her life and her life had been hard. And when she died Varenka saw her soul in Paradise.
Sometimes when they asked her about something, she did not reply immediately, but only the next time she woke up.
A few days before she would go to sleep, an Angel would appear to her and warn her not to leave the house in case she fell down somewhere with nobody to look after her.
When she fell asleep she became as if dead, so that the limbs of her body grew numb and became immobile.
Once in the church after the end of the Liturgy, Varenka said to Anastasia Astafyeva, with whom she was friendly:
"Let's go home, I'm going to fall asleep now."
"I haven't yet gone up to the cross," she replied.
"Quick," said Varenka hurriedly.
And indeed they hadn't reached the square before Varenka began to fall asleep. They had to go for a sledge to bring her to her house.
Sometimes while she was asleep she would describe in detail what she was seeing at that moment. These stories were written down and filled a thick notebook. But during the persecutions, for fear of the atheists, those close to her threw the notebook into the stove.
These revelations took place regularly in the course of almost ten years. She said that she had seen the Mother of God, that she had been led by St. Nicholas, that there is a fiery river which every soul must pass over after death, and she showed a place on her hand which had been burned to the bone when a drop from the river fell on her.
The authorities heard about Varenka. Members of the Komsomol used to come to her house while she was sleeping, they even beat her in the hope of awaking her and 'uncovering the deception'. Then doctors began to come from Gorky (Nizhni-Novgorod); they gave her fast-acting injections with the same aim as the komsomolites. They injected her with such strong doses and so often that when she woke up she couldn't raise her hands.
But, whatever they did, the atheists were unable to break her sleep. Then they decided to take her to a hospital so as to continue their experiments there. Once they had already come to the girl and were trying to lift her, but they found her so heavy that they couldn't tear her away from the bed.
"It doesn't matter," they said. "Tomorrow we'll come with the car and take her together with her bed."
After their departure Varenka woke up, and her mother, bitterly complaining that she could do nothing, told her what the doctors were intending to do. On the same day Varenka got her things together and left the house. And for the next several years she wandered round the holy places of the Volga region, sometimes alone, sometimes with some friends.
Varenka was a member of the Catacomb Church. She refused to have a passport or to take the pension which they imposed on her. When Metropolitan Sergius' declaration was published in 1927, she went round the churches reproaching the priests who accepted the declaration. Once she even rebuked a bishop, although he became very angry. A certain sergianist priest Ioann from Nizhni-Novogorod greatly venerated her and used to visit her. He always wanted to give her communion, but she said:
"I've already corrected myself" (that is received communion, for she did not receive communion in the sergianist churches).
When he died she wept very much, because she knew what happened to him after death. Once the Lord showed her all the renovationists and Metropolitan Sergius. They were in a dark place and their hands were bound.
Once the priest Peter sent her the Holy Gifts. He put them in a specially adapted icon. When they came to arrest Fr. Peter in the house where he was hiding he suddenly had a heart attack and died.
In 1936, when she was only just twenty-two, she went with some friends to the elder Ioann Ardatovsky, who was famed throughout the region for his righteous life and gift of clairvoyance. He said to her:
"Go to Sarov - it's not far from here."
But her friends did not want to accompany her; they were in a hurry to go home. And so she, fearing that her mother would worry about her, did not go to Sarov.
"I'd better go home first, to warn Mama."
She left the house to go to Pilna, where she lived, fleeing persecution, with the Opariny sisters. She left them with the girl Damasha, and went to the station to go to Sarov. Six policemen were lying in wait for them in a remote place. One of them had been her persecutor for a long time; his name was Gavrilov.
Varenka understood that they wouldn't let her go. And she prayed to the Mother of God.
The policemen beat her mercilessly, kicking her and hitting her with iron rods; they beat her in such a way that her face was turned into a purple mask, and blood poured from her ears and mouth. When they were preparing to dishonor her, the Mother of God defended her - an invisible force stopped them from approaching her.
They retreated, and took the girls to the police-station, but they did not abandon the thought of punishing her. When Varenka asked for a drink, they gave her instead, in the guise of medicine, some arsenic powder in the water. But Domasha, who was being kept in the police-station together with Varenka, stealthily poured away the arsenic, and gave her water. The policemen were waiting for the poison to work, but when they saw no signs of her being poisoned, they said:
"Well, you're a tenacious one. Probably a saint."
From that time Varenka was deprived of the use of her legs, and spent the next 40 years until her death lying down. She had control only over the upper half of her body.
"There's my Sarov, my disobedience," she would say.
Her falling asleep also stopped. But now she was persecuted by the authorities, so she couldn't stay long in one place, and had to go from place to place, whatever the weather. In the winter they transported her in a basket attached to the sledge.
One night when the weather was bad Varenka fell out of the basket into a snowdrift, and they didn't discover it immediately. They returned, but wandered round the whole night, having lost the way.
Varenka had to suffer not only from the atheists, but also from those close to her. At first she was looked after by Annushka, who was nicknamed Handless, and by Nyura. When Annushka didn't like something she beat the sick Varenka cruelly, while Nyura soon married, taking all Varenka's things except her icons and the bed on which she lay. Soon the house in which she lived with her husband burned down. Then they built another one - and it also burned down. Only then did the mother of Nyura understand that the Lord was punishing her because of the sick Varenka, and she came to ask forgiveness for her daughter.
Finally, Varenka managed to buy a small, but well-built house on the money collected by the Orthodox. Many people visited her, some sought her prayers, others - her spiritual advice. The authorities noticed that many people were visiting her, and when they found out why they decided to evict her. They began to demand from the former owner of the house that he return the money and take back the house. Frightened, the former owner agreed. But God is not mocked. The next day the former owner died, and the house remained Varenka's.
Once Darya Zaikina came to Varenka, sat with her for a while and then got ready to leave. But Varenka asked her:
"Don't go. There are so many evil spirits in the house..."
And she covered her head with the blanket.
"Varenka, look at me," said Darya.
"I can't open my eyes, they're so terrible."
At this point a woman arrived, began to pray and said:
"Go where you came from."
But the demon replied in a coarse masculine voice:
"None of us are there now, we're all here, on earth. Whoever has no straps we do whatever we like with." Then he said, turning to Varenka: "Drop it, take it off."
And Varenka replied: "I won't drop it, I won't take it off."
(They were talking about her prayer-rope and cross.)
Twice the demon repeated this, and twice Varenka replied. Suddenly he said with hatred:
"Ugh, what a hunk of bread you are! You've hung up an internal lock, otherwise I'd wear you out completely!"
Then he lifted her up and shook her strongly.
The demon tormented her for days, trying to frighten her.
"Mother of God," she cried, "help me!"
At that time many demons came to the house, trying to frighten her. And they retreated only when the Queen of Heaven herself appeared and placed an epitrachelion on her head. At the appearance of the All-Holy Mother of God the demons disappeared in a puff of smoke.
All of Varenka's spiritual fathers died in prison. One of them was the Catacomb priest Fr. Vyacheslav Leontiev, who was shot in 1937. All the nearby churches were closed, and she began to beseech God to send her a spiritual father.
And in a subtle sleep after prayer she heard a voice saying:
"A priest will come to you on the day of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God in the guise of a stove-repairer. His name is Philip - don't let him go until the end of your days."
She came to. "What was that?" she thought. "Probably a demonic illusion" - and she made the sign of the cross all around her.
Again she lost consciousness, and again she heard the same voice, repeating the same words. On coming to, she again made the sign of the cross all around her. And she lost consciousness a third time, and the same thing happened again.
It was the 21st - the day of the Vladimir Icon. A peasant workman knocked, called himself a stove-repairer and asked:
"Don't you have anything to repair?"
She remembered her dream and asked:
"And what is your name?"
It turned out to be Philip.
"Well, come in then, and stay."
It was the priest Fr. Philip Anikin. He had served in Kulatky (Ulyanovsk region), and had been in exile on Solovki. He recounted how, on the first day of Pascha, they were being escorted from work. They stopped in the middle of a wood and immediately began the Paschal all-night vigil service. There were many bishops, priests and deacons. At first, when the priests stopped, the guards shouted at them, but then they fell silent and the service went off without incident. At the end they began to exchange the paschal kiss. And even the guards, who usually abused the prisoners, began to exchange kisses with everyone.
Before being released, Fr. Philip asked one of the Solovki bishops to bless him. And to his question, "what should he do now?" the bishop replied:
"Wherever you find one of the Lord's sheep, feed him."
Fr. Philip began to go to the cemetery to pray. The authorities heard about it, and they wanted to arrest him. His spiritual children sent him to Ashkhabad, but he had to escape from there, too. He lived secretly with his matushka.
Fr. Philip's son, Ivan, was imprisoned for eight years in Archangelsk. He wrote: "Papa, there are people like you here, and they give us what you give us (i.e. communion)." Soon he died from hunger.
Then Fr. Philip went to Shumerlyu, in Chuvashia, a place where dekulakized peasants were settled. Under the guise of a stove-repairer he would go from house to house serving. And very many people came to him. When the war began and they began to open the churches, many went into the Soviet churches, but he did not go, and many left him. In his last years Fr. Philip used to sit most of the time on his bed - he could no longer use his legs.
In Sergach the church had been destroyed, and many believers from the town and nearby went for church services to Varenka. On great feasts and at Pascha up to 70 people came to her. When there was no priest there would be services at Varenka's according to a "catacomb typicon" which took place quite openly. The authorities knew about them but did not touch her. Varenka was too well-known, and she knew everything in heaven and on earth (in all she had spent 101 days in heaven at various times).
In spite of her weak health, she was a great faster. During Holy Week she ate nothing. Once at the beginning of the Great Fast her novices brought her some soft white bread and began to persuade her to eat it. She obeyed and ate a little piece, after which her ulcer became worse and she ate nothing during the whole of the Great Fast. Her head was constantly aching, and her liver was also painful. So as to relieve her sufferings somehow, she artificially made herself vomit, but she never complained, and was always joyful.
She knew the day of her death in advance. A week before her death the Mari Protopriest Gurias gave her communion, and it was he who buried her. The day before her death she ordered the bath to be stoked up, and when they took her across the courtyard she asked them to stop so that she could look at the starry sky and the snowy earth for the last time. She died on December 1/14, 1980, and was buried in the cemetery at Sergach. When they took her past the church, everyone sensed that the space around became many-colored. Obvious miracles took place during the burial.
Twice a year, on her anniversary and at six months, up to 100 people gather to serve a pannikhida. Many believe that earth from her grave heals illnesses. In her house there live the two women who assisted her during her life, strictly keeping the testament Varenka gave them, serving the whole cycle of services daily. They do not think about food or material needs. Once when they had run out of peat for the stove, a lorry full of peat with some driver whom they did not know came up and unloaded some briquettes. God does not abandon His people!
(Sources: Hieromonk Damascene Orlovsky, Mucheniki, Ispovedniki i Podvizhniki Blagochestiya Rossijskoj Pravoslavnoj Tserkvi XX Stoletiya, Tver: Bulat, 1992, pp. 224-228; Pravoslavnaya Zhizn', N 1 (1574), January 1/14, 1997, pp. 8-12).