Christ in Camouflage

In the shadow of St. Petersburg’s golden-domed churches, in back streets among its palaces, bridges, and squares, Ivan Prokhanov soon made contact with fellow believers. But he learned, just as soon, that his contacts had to remain discreet.

Tsar Nikolai’s son had led Russia with an easy hand. Then a terrorist bomb took his life and a grandson, Aleksandr III became tsar. He made a tall man with little black spectacles on the end of his nose—Konstantin Pobedonostsev—his Oberprokuror. People called Konstantin the “Grand Inquisitor.” Like the new tsar he hated democracy and did all he could to keep Russia, the tsar, and Orthodoxy together.

It seemed only too familiar. By the time Ivan reached St. Petersburg, believers all over Russia had returned to meeting in utmost secrecy. Because their mail got censured, they reopened clandestine means of communication and everyone, everywhere, watched what they said. Spies abounded, even at secret meetings.

Ivan did not study long at the National Institute of Technology until he learned what one should not do. As much as mentioning “the working class” (a socialist term) or “repression” could lead to interrogation and arrest. One after another, Ivan saw his companions disappear from class and terrible stories circulated about what happened to them at the Petropavlovsky and Schlies­selburgsky fortresses. But like in grade school at Vladikavkaz, he counted it an honour to identify with the suffering followers of Christ.

Meetings in The Night

While street lamps came on along the Nevsky Prospekt, and jingling bells warned of swiftly passing sleighs with ladies almost invisible in furs on their back seats, Ivan found his way through St. Petersburg to the houses of his friends. Every Friday night they met at a different place. Every Saturday they informed the believers of the city where to meet on the Day of the Resurrection—a different time and a different place every week, to confuse those who tried to spy on them.

In the workshops of city craftsmen and in hidden rooms of palaces along the Morskaya Canal, they entered cautiously to meetings where they broke bread and shared the wine of communion. Sometimes they met in the coachman’s quarters of the palace of the Countess Shuvalov. It stood on the corner of the Moyka and Zymnia Kanavka streets in a beautiful part of the city. The coachman was a believer and the countess herself came to the meetings. At other times they met in government buildings, off hours. Ivan wrote:

Especially do I remember one meeting we arranged in a basement room occupied by a concierge in a military school. One approached the room through long dark corri­dors that made me think of the catacombs. The concierge stood at the entrance of the first corridor. The visitors came one by one, careful that no one should see them. The con­cierge passed only those he knew or who came with the recommendation of a known brother. In total silence he led us (perhaps twenty-five people) to his room. We did not sing for fear of being heard. After the meeting was over we all left one by one, with the same precautions.

The meetings were not safe. Everyone who attended did so at the risk of prison, torture, and banishment to Siberia. But no matter what it might cost, the St. Petersburg believers kept on making contacts and more and more seekers became part of their fellowship.


Ivan was not in St. Petersburg long before he heard and saw evidence of mass migrations from Russia to foreign lands. Aleksandr III and Konstantin Pobedonostsev believed in letting those go whom they did not trust. “Good riddance of bad rubbish,” they reasoned. And many who failed to trust them—Old Believers, Spirit Christians, Hutterites and Mennonites—only too gladly took the opportunity. Thousands found their way to Western Europe, North and South America. Others, no doubt remembering Hans Heinrich Jung-Stilling’s books, moved east into Tatar lands and Siberia.1

Back “Underground”

Those who could not escape Konstantin Pobedonostsev’s long arm for lack of funds and legal permission to travel could do nothing but stay behind and suffer—like Vasily Pavlov.

Converted as a young man at Tiflis (he worked for the Nikita Voronin, the tea merchant) Vasily was only married a few years when tsarist officials exiled him to the Ural Mountains. His wife could follow him but they lived in miserable poverty. Four years later, on his return to Tiflis, the same officials asked him to sign a document declaring he would stop preaching and baptising. He refused. Much against the authorities’ wishes, a crowd of relatives and friends gathered at the train station to see him off—this time to exile in the Kirgiz steppes south of the Aral Sea.

Once more Vasily’s wife and children followed him. But conditions were bad. She died of cholera. So did three of the chil­dren. One of his two remaining sons drowned in the Amu Darya River and Vasily took it as a sign that God wanted him to spend his life as an itinerant evangelist.

Hundreds of those to whom he preached got sent in turn—in box cars with no sanitary facilities, poorly fed, in chains, and with half-shaven heads—to Siberian and Armenian prison camps. Their leaving brought unspeakable hardship to the families they left behind. But nothing, perhaps, struck terror to the hearts of believing parents like the threat of having their children put out for adoption or placed in monasteries. A believing woman from near Yekaterinoslav in the Ukraine, described an arrest:

In the morning, people began to get together in our village. They came from all the surrounding villages and khutors. Some came in wagons and others with sleds because it had already snowed. Policemen came on foot and on horseback. We were surprised and started to ask what was going on. “They are going to take away the Stundists’ children,” they told us. A commotion began in the houses of all believers that had children. They arrested some of the men—Grigory Cherdak, Yevstakhy Likhogray, Grigory Volochay and others—and took them to the police office. . . .

“Now you Stundists,” began the priest who awaited them there, “up to now, as your shepherds, we have used words to persuade you to return to Orthodoxy. But from now on we will use force. We have received notice from the governor to “reconvert the Stundists using every means necessary.” You must give us a signature that you are returning to the Orthodox Church. Anyone who does not comply will have his children taken away. Come now! Sign!”

Not one of the men obeyed.

“Go on,” said the priest to the officers.

The men knew where the priest was sending them, but could do nothing about it for they were under guard.

A turmoil began throughout the village. A crowd of people with sticks in their hands, accompanied by police, went in turn to all the houses where baptised believers lived and took away the children, giving them to whoever wanted them. The children screamed and ran bare-footed through the snow from one street to another. They hid themselves in haystacks, but were found, put on sleds and taken to the administration office where the police sorted out who would be given to whom.

The children of my husband’s brother ran to us, bare­footed and without their over clothes. They wanted my hus­band to protect them. A crowd was chasing after them. My husband let the children into the house, but went out him­self to face the people. “Sign your agreement that you are returning to the Orthodox church,” said the village police­man.

My husband refused.

Then the policemen asked for the children. “I cannot give them up,” my husband said, and called to me, “Close the door!” I did so and put the hook down while he stood out­side to keep people from breaking it down. But they knocked him over, tied him up, and left him on the ground.

“Open up!” the policeman shouted to me.

“I will not,” I replied, holding the hook down with my hands.

“Break the door!” screamed the policeman. The people pushed and shook until the hook broke and several men burst into the room, shouting. I trembled with fear.

“Where are the children?” asked the policemen.

“You will have to look for them,” I said.

They hunted everywhere but could not find them. “Where have you hidden them?” they shouted, grabbing me by the arms.

The children had hidden themselves under the stove and in the attic. I could see I would have to give them up. I called them but they cried and would not come out. I had a hard time persuading them. The boys were nine and seven years old, the sons of Grigory Kuchugurny, and someone from Tarasovka got them. Grigory’s wife, Darya, was sick in bed with another boy, two years old. For a long time she would not let him go, but they tore him out of her arms. She got worse and died two weeks later.2

New Friends and Yury

Among the villagers many turned to Christ, in spite of per­secution, and were baptised. But Ivan found most of the boys at college afraid, or else unwilling, to speak of religion. Two excep­tions, Pavel Zavtschenko and Fyodor Sakharov began to meet with him to study the Bible and pray. Several other students from believing homes joined them and Ivan became friends with Heinrich Fast, a young Mennonite from the Molochna who had taken a position in St. Petersburg as tutor to the son of a tsarist officer. Heinrich and his new wife, Olga, attended the meetings. Olga was an intelligent woman and Ivan enjoyed visiting with both of them. But no one fascinated him more than her brother Yury, who had brought her to Christ.

Yury Gorynovich, the son of a Ukrainian priest, had been a nihilist. With his friends he had let his hair grow long and lived a wild life. They got into socialist terrorism, and while still in high school, Yury fell into the hands of the police.

His mother and father came to see him in jail. They cried and pled with him to cooperate with the police who had told him if he would inform on the rest of his group they would let him go free. Finally Yury consented and told the police what they wanted to know.

A short time later some of his friends took him for a walk. In a lonely place in a park they struck him down and poured sulphuric acid over his face. Thinking him dead they let him lie, beyond recognition. But he was not dead.

Someone found him and carried him to a hospital. Yury never knew the details. All he remembered was coming to, weeks later, missing both eyes, his nose, one ear, and part of his mouth. His right arm was paralyzed.

They sent him to St. Petersburg to a hospital for the incurably diseased. There he lay, so frightfully disfigured that no one could stand to look at him. He pled with the doctors to let him take poison but they did not give him any. Then Vasily Pashkov came.

Vasily regularly visited hospitals. Many were glad to see him, but Yury, in his slurred speech without lips, cursed him. He cursed God, himself, his parents, his friends—everything he knew or could think of, and the doctors who kept him alive.

Vasily did not insist. But his heart went out to the young man and he prayed for him. Within a few weeks a nurse from the hospital sent him a message to come again. Yury wanted to see him.

Vasily hurried back. It turned out that Yury had heard Stundists singing in an adjoining cell while in a Ukrainian prison. A seed had been planted. Vasily had watered it, and now it began to sprout.

Yury repented with all his heart, thanking God for what had happened to him. He left the hospital (always wearing a mask that totally covered his face) got married to a Christian girl and before the tsar’s assassination they started a home for blind chil­dren, sponsored by Vasily Pashkov.

Yury told his family members and friends about Christ. But nothing convinced more people of his conversion than when his “murderers” came to trial and he publicly asked the court to let them go free. “Let my suffering suffice for them,” he said. “All I want for them is to find Christ and become as happy as I.”


During St. Petersburg’s short summer, the believers met in woods and open fields around the city. In spite of the danger, crowds came to worship and baptisms usually followed. Ivan often spoke at these meetings but the day the police found them and broke up their assembly his friend Sergey Alekseyev was leading out. They arrested Sergey and sent him to a prison camp for eight years. After that he got five years more.

Ivan felt sorry for Sergey and his family. He felt sorry for believers in scattered fellowships throughout Russia, many of them brutally separated one from another and needing the prayers and encouragement of others. Then, while doing an exam at the college in 1889 an idea came to him: “Why not have an informative church periodical?”

The very idea of a periodical for the “underground” church, most would have said, was laughable. For nonconformed believers to publish anything at all, let alone a periodical, was illegal. But Ivan began to think. When he returned home on vacation in May, he discussed it with his brother Aleksandr.

Aleksandr (they still called him Sasha at home), had become a genius in his own right. He loved to invent things and in no time had a curious-looking hectograph machine ready to use.

Ivan typed up the first articles. Local believers, using Bible pseudonyms, contributed.3 The excitement—even of seeing the clandestine copier hidden in the boys’ bedroom—was catching. But the reception of the first issue of Beseda (Conversations) far exceeded their highest hopes.

The boys sent it out in registered envelopes and carefully worded its contents not to reveal who sent it. They mailed it to Mikhail Ratushny, Gerasim Balaban and other Stundist leaders in the Ukraine. They mailed it to the congregations founded by Yakov Delyakov, the Mennonite colonies, and all the believers they knew of throughout central Russia, Siberia and the vast northern regions.

Everywhere, word came trickling back through secret channels of its joyful reception. Believers everywhere wept as they read reports—even though with camouflaged names and details—of others who suffered and stood for Christ. The articles spoke of nothing but hope and imminent victory.

No doubt many of the papers got intercepted. At best there was only one for every region, and they got passed on in secret from one family to another and from one village to the next. But after the first issue everyone knew that Beseda had to continue. In the fall, when Ivan returned to St. Petersburg, he found no one more excited about the new periodical than Heinrich and Olga Fast. They offered to help him with it and he moved in with them.

Meeting With a Tolstovets

After his third year of study in St. Petersburg, Ivan did a summer assignment as a railroad engineer in southern Russia. He enjoyed the work but got laid up with malaria at Novorossysk. There a tolstovets (disciple of Lev Tolstoy) came to see him.

For several hours Ivan and the Tolstovets, a boy called Viktor Alekhin, talked about Christ’s example and what to do with it. In one way Ivan felt Viktor (who wore rough clothes and boots and spoke like a peasant, in spite of his education) was mistaken. Following Christ involves more than rejecting wealth and power and identifying with the poor. But on the other hand Ivan sensed that this, Christ’s radical otherworldliness, had indeed been the way of Russia’s believers through a thousand years. It was what transformed their faith from a bare concept into shining reality, mysterious to the established and comfortable but well-known to those who suffer.

The more he thought about Christ and his church, the better Ivan understood what Aleksey Khomyakov wrote about:

The church is a collection of men (all without distinction of clergy and laymen), who have become bound together by love. . . . It is not a matter of which church, who’s church, or whether the church has the correct authority. Rather we must know where the church is. The church is in the heart and in the community of the humble poor.4

Ivan also thought much about a poem Fyodor Tyutchev had written:

Land of long patience, country of the Russian people with your poor villages and nature parsimonious in her gifts,

Never can the foreigner’s proud glance fathom the fire that burns so mysteriously beneath your poverty.

Bowed under the load of the cross, the King of Heaven in the linen shirt of a lowly peasant has journeyed over you from one end to the other, bestowing on you his blessing.

The church of the poor. A mysterious, unquenchable, fire of faith. Christ in a peasant’s disguise. Committed to walking with him, Ivan returned to St. Petersburg, and after his graduation to central Russia, where he learned about . . .

1 Among those who moved east was a group led by Klaas Epp, a Mennonite from Saratov, and Abram Peters from the Molochna River settlement. In long wagon trains they travelled through Uralsk and Chimkent to Kaplanbek on the mouth of the Syr Darya, and from there to the Khanate of Khiva. Many died on the perilous two thousand kilometre journey. Those who did not, passed through terrible times of turmoil and deception. But the Lord Christ was kind to them and the settlements they established survived.

2 In this case an order came, after a month, to return the children. But others were not so fortunate. Count Lev Tolstoy wrote a letter to the Oberprokuror and Tsar Aleksandr III, protesting this inhumane breaking up of families.

3 Ivan chose Zacchaeus for his own pseudonym, in spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that he had grown well over six feet tall.

4 Zernov, Nicolas: Three Russian Prophets