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March 20, 2013

Ivan Pavlov Remembered the Easter of His Youth

By John Sanidopoulos

It appears that even atheists today have a hard time giving up on their former religious traditions, as it was reported this past week where they continue to see some of the benefits of Great Lent even after they have lost faith. In reading this report, I was reminded of another famous atheist who could not altogether abandon the religious traditions of his Orthodox Christian upbringing, especially that of Great Lent and Easter - Ivan Pavlov.

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936), a brilliant Russian physiologist, is most famous for winning the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1904 for his research in conditioned reflex. Before his rise to scientific fame, however, he was a Seminary student in line to be a priest from a devout Orthodox family of eleven children. For six generations, since the time of Peter the Great, the Pavlov men served the Russian Orthodox Church as clergymen. His father, Petr Dmitrievich Pavlov, and his two brothers, both named Ivan, all graduated from seminaries and served parishes in Russia. His father was a respected clergyman who served the Nikolo-Vysokovskaia Church in Ryazan, about 200 miles from Moscow, and his mother also was the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest.

Ivan was tutored at home until he was eleven, and then entered Ryazan Theological School to prepare for the priesthood. Within a few years he was one of the school's best students in all subjects except for singing, and from there entered Ryazan Theological Seminary in 1864 at the age of fifteen. Here also he excelled in his studies, and his father believed that he would be the first of his sons to serve the priesthood of the seventh generation.

Yet the climate of Russia was changing, and Radical Journals at the time were promoting ideas from the West that ran counter to the Tsarist establishment. Young minds like Pavlov's became fascinated by these ideas. The pubic library contained books that were banned from the seminary, among them was the new translation of Darwin's Origin of Species and Sechenov's Reflexes of the Brain, which inspired the young Pavlov to abandon Seminary and his childhood faith.

Yet even until his later years of life, Pavlov could not fully abandon the religious traditions of his youth. Ivan remembered with fondness the bright joy of the Easter holiday of his childhood years. During Great Lent his family would prepare by fasting for the forty days of the Great Fast and attended Church services. For these forty days he lived solely on toast and bliny pancakes. Hungry and weak, they exalted in the festive holiday following the Great Fast. "During the fast," Ivan later recalled, "the weather was gloomy and the church melodies were mournful. Then suddenly there began the bright, joyous Easter with its clear sunny days, with exuberant, cheerful melodies, and with an abundance of tasty treats."

In his later life - long after he abandoned his religious faith - Ivan always rejoiced at the Easter holiday and insisted upon celebrating it.