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June 12, 2013

Easter in a Soviet Prison Camp

By Archimandrite Nektarios Antonopoulos

Two years after the death of Stalin, in the era of Khrushchev, a post-stalin society began. Life in the camps had then become much better. The wind of some freedom had been felt in the camps. The faithful could pray and where there were priests they were allowed once in a while to liturgize.

At the camp that held Fr. Alexius Kympardin, an acquaintance had sent an antimension, and in this way, whenever they could, they were able to liturgize. Holy Week came and Fr. Alexius notified the imprisoned clergy and faithful to prepare to celebrate the Resurrection. The prisoners feverishly threw themselves into the preparations. Some sewed vestments, others clerical caps, and others made sacred vessels out of wood. On Holy Saturday the Commander called for Fr. Alexius and somewhat alarmed asked him what was happening, and why there was mobilization among the prisoners. Fr. Alexius explained: "Don't worry. Tomorrow is the feast of Pascha and the prisoners are preparing. There will be no fuss." The Commander was reassured.

The next day, when the time came, the paschal service began. It was moving to see the priests with their makeshift vestments that the prisoners had made from their own clothes and worthless scraps of fabric and linen - whatever they could find.

They went out to the lake, next to the shore, at around 11:00 PM and began to chant the Canon of Holy Saturday: "The One, who of old hid the pursuing tyrant in the waves of the sea,...." At that moment a wave hit the shore of the lake and drenched the prisoners. It was as if nature was elated and participated in the great feast. Instead of a paschal candle the prisoners held a burning piece of wood. The Service continued, and when the Canon was finished, just before midnight, all began to chant: "Your Resurrection, Christ the Savior,...." Then Fr. Alexius said the Gospel by heart - there were no liturgical books - and at 12:00 AM exactly he cried out the first victorious cry: "Christ is Risen!" With one voice all the prisoners responded: "Truly He is Risen!"

Everyone's eyes were full of tears, and their hearts leaped for joy. Their voices could be heard throughout the vast taiga. And then a flock of a thousand birds, as if awakened from slumber, flew over the prisoners. Immediately then the hymn rang out: "Christ is Risen from the dead...." The birds twittered and sang the hymn in their own language. The forest echoed with the song of humans and birds. All of nature participated in the joy of the Resurrection. "Now all things are full of light, heaven and earth and the netherworld. All creation celebrates the Resurrection of Christ...."

The Resurrection Service began on a simple table with poor vestments, with the wooden vessels and the burning pieces of wood. There was the Divine Eucharist, the acclaimed catechetical sermon of Chrysostom, and again "Christ is Risen!". There was a certainty that evil, corruption and death "had come to an end".

After the Divine Liturgy the prisoners sat at a common table. There were even paschal eggs there. Joy was written on the faces of all. Among the prisoners there was also a former journalist, who before the Revolution traveled to many places. He said the following emotional words to Fr. Alexius: "I have had the opportunity to celebrate the Resurrection in Jerusalem, Constantinople and other places. But nowhere had I felt such joy as today!"

When Fr. Alexius went to get the papers for his release from the camp, the Commander called for him and told him: "I have never met a man such as this. The Pascha we celebrated this year caused a great impression on me. I beg you, please pray for me also, that perhaps God would have mercy on me and lead me on His path."

Source: From the book Starets Seraphim of Vyritsa. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.