The Nuns of Shamordino
in Solovki Prison
AND THE MIRACLE OF THEIR MANLINESS
Commemorated November 12
“Upon him who labors—
God sheds mercy, but he who loves
Elder Ambrose of Optina
In the summer of 1929, there came to Solovki about thirty nuns. Probably the majority of them were from the monastery of Shamordino, which was near the renowned Optina Hermitage.
The nuns were not placed in the common women’s quarters but were kept separately. When they began to be checked according to the list and interrogated, they refused to give the so-called basic facts about themselves, that is, to answer questions about their surnames, year and place of birth, education, and so forth.
After shouts, threats, and beatings they were placed in solitary confinement, and were tortured by hunger, thirst, and deprivation of sleep; that is, all the usual means of pressure were applied to them. But the nuns remained unbending and even were bold enough—a fact very rare in the concentration camp—to refuse any kind of forced labor.
After several days, I, together with Prof. Dr. Zhizhilenko (who had been sent to Solovki because, while being the chief physician of the Taganka prison in Moscow, he had secretly accepted monasticism and had become a bishop with the name of Maxim) were called to the chief of the Sanitary Division. We were confidentially ordered to make a medical examination of the nuns with a hint as to the desirability of recognizing them unfit for labor so as to have an official bias to free them from forced physical labor.
It was the first time in the history of Solovki that the administration found itself in such a complicated situation. Usually, in such cases, they acted very severely and cruelly. After a serious beating of those who refused to work, they were sent to the punishment island of Anzersk, from where no one ever returned alive.
Why these rebel nuns were not sent to Anzersk we could not understand. We gave this question to the chief of the Sanitary Division of the whole camp. He explained to us that the silent, restrained protest of the nuns was not in the least like the protests with which the administration was used to dealing. These latter protests were usually accompanied by a scene, shouting, and hooliganism. But here, there was silence, simplicity, humility and an extraordinary meekness. “They are fanatical martyrs seeking sufferings,” the head of the Sanitary Division explained. “They are some kind of psychic cases, masochists, but one becomes inexpressibly sorry for them. I cannot endure seeing the humility and meekness of which they bear the pressure. And it is not I only. Vladimir Yegorovich, the chief of the camp, also could not bear this. He even quarreled with the chief of the Intelligence Division and he wants somehow to soften and iron over this matter. If you find them unsuitable for physical labor they will be left in peace.”
When I went out to the barracks where the nuns were kept, I saw extraordinarily sober women, peaceful and restrained, in old, worn-out, and patched but clean monastic garments.
There were about 30 of them. Their age one could give as an “eternal thirty” years, although undoubtedly there were those both older and younger. In all faces there was something from the expression of the Mother of God, “Joy of All Who Sorrow,” and this sorrow was so exalted and modest that totally involuntarily I was reminded of certain verses of Tyuchev. Their meek appearance was of a spiritual beauty which could not but evoke a feeling of deep contrition and awe.
“So as not to upset them, I’d better go out, Doctor,” said the chief of the assignment who met me, who should have been present as a representative of the medical committee. I remained alone with them.
“Good day, Matushki,” I bowed down low to them. In silence, they replied to me with a deep bow to the waist.
“I am a physician. I’ve been sent to examine you.”
“We are well. You don’t need to examine us,” several voices interrupted me.
“I am a believing Orthodox Christian and I am sitting here in the concentration camp as a prisoner for church reasons.”
“Glory be to God,” several voices again replied to me.
“Your disturbance is understandable to me,” I continued, “but I will not examine you. You only tell me what you have to complain about and I will assign you to the category of those incapable of labor.”
“We are not complaining about anything. We are quite healthy.”
“But without a definition of the category of your inability to work, they will send you to extraordinarily difficult labor.”
“All the same, we will not work whether it be difficult or easy labors.”
“Why?” I asked in astonishment.
“Because we do not wish to work for the regime of Antichrist.”
“What are you saying?” I asked, upset. “After all, here on Solovki there are many bishops and priests who have been sent here for their confession. They all work, each one as he is able. Here, for example, there is the bishop of Vyatka who works as a bookkeeper at the rope factory, and in the lumber department, many priests work. They weave nets. On Fridays, they work the whole 24 hours, day and night, so as to fulfill their quota extra quickly and thus free for themselves a time for prayer in the evening on Saturdays and on Sunday morning.”
“But we are not going to work under compulsion for the regime of Antichrist.”
“Well then, without an examination I will make some kind of diagnosis for you and give the conclusion that you are not capable of hard physical labor.”
“No, you needn’t do that. Forgive us, but we will be obliged to say that this is not true. We are well. We can work, but we do not wish to work for the regime of Antichrist and we shall not work even though they might kill us for this.”
“They will not kill you, but they will torture you to death,” I said in a quiet whisper, risking being overheard; I said it with pain of heart.
“God will help to endure the tortures also,” one of the nuns said, likewise quietly. Tears came to my eyes.
I bowed down to them in silence. I wished to bow down to the ground and kiss their feet.
In a week the commandant of the Sanitary Division entered the physician’s office and, among other things, informed us, “We’re all worn out with these nuns, but now they have agreed to work. They sew and patch up clothing for the central ward. Only they made as conditions that they should all be together and be allowed to sing quietly some kind of songs while they work. The chief of the camp has allowed it. There they are now, singing and working.”
The nuns were isolated to such an extent that even we, the physicians of the Sanitary Division who enjoyed comparative freedom of movement, and who had many ties and friends, for a long time were not able to receive any kind of news about them. And only a month later we found out how the last act of their tragedy had developed.
From one of the convoys that had come to Solovki, there was brought a priest who turned out to be the spiritual father of some of the nuns. And, although contact between them seemed, under the camp conditions, to be completely impossible, the nuns in some way managed to ask directions from their instructor.
The essence of their questions consisted of the following: “We came to the camp for suffering and here we are doing fine. We are together; we sing prayers; the work is pleasing to us; have we acted rightly that we agreed to work under the conditions of the regime of Antichrist? Should we not renounce even this work?”
The spiritual father replied with an uncategorical prohibition of the work.
And then the nuns refused every kind of work. The administration found out who was guilty of this. The priest was shot. But when the nuns were informed about this, they said, “Now no one is able to free us from this prohibition.”
The nuns soon became separated and one by one were taken away somewhere.
Despite all our attempts, we were not able to find out any more news about them. They disappeared without any trace.
Years later from the mouth of an American prisoner who was in a slave-labor camp, comes the following supplementary information shedding light on the spiritual outcome of the ascetic firmness of such nuns.
When the conversations turned to religion, as they soon did, I heard of an extraordinary happening, a miracle, which had just occurred in Vorkuta. God indeed was there with us! And the eagerness with which the men told me this story left no doubt as to the fact that the Iron Curtain could not keep God out of a country or out of the minds and hearts of its people.
It was in November of that year, 1950, just after our own arrival, that three nuns reached the camp under the sentences of hard labor. The many thousand women prisoners at Vorkuta did not work in the mines but performed other rugged work, and the nuns were assigned to a plant which made bricks for construction work throughout the whole Arctic area of Russia.
When the nuns were first taken to the brick factory, they told the foreman that they regarded doing any work for the Communist regime as working for the Devil and, since they were the servants of God and not of Satan, they did not propose to bow to the orders of the foreman despite any threats he might make.
Stripped of their religious garb, the nuns’ faith was their armor. They were ready to face anything and everything to keep their vow and they did face their punishment, a living testimony of great courage. They were put on punishment rations, consisting of black bread and rancid soup, day after day. But each morning when they were ordered to go out to the brick factory, into the clay pits, or to any other back-breaking assignment, they refused. This refusal meant, of course, that they were destined to go through worse ordeals. Angered by their obstinacy and fearing the effect upon the other slave laborers, the commandant ordered that they are placed in strait-jackets. Their hands were tied in at the back of them and then the rope with which their wrists were bound was passed down around their ankles and drawn up tight. In this manner, their feet were pulled up behind them and their shoulders wrenched backward and downward into a position of excruciating pain.
The nuns writhed in agony but not a sound of protest escaped them. And when the commandant ordered water poured over them so that the cotton material in the straitjackets would shrink, he expected them to scream from their pressure on their tortured bodies, but all that happened was that they moaned softly and lapsed into unconsciousness. Their bonds were then loosed and they were revived; in due course, they were trussed up again, and once more the blessed relief of unconsciousness swept over them. They were kept in this state for more than two hours, but the guards did not dare let the torture go on any longer, for their circulation was being cut off and the women were near death. The Communist regime wanted slaves, not skeletons. They did not transport people all the way to Vorkuta in order to kill them. The Soviet government wanted coal mined. Slave laborers were expendable, of course, but only after years of labor had been dragged out of them. Thus the commandant’s aim was to torture these nuns until they agreed to work.
Finally, however, the commandant decided that he was through trying. The nuns were either going to work or he was going to have to kill them in the attempt. He directed that they again be assigned to the outdoor work detail and, if they still refused, that they be taken up to a hummock in the bitter wind of the early Arctic winter, and left to stand there immobile all day long to watch the other women work. They were treated to this torture, too. When the pale light of the short Arctic day at last dawned, they were seen kneeling there and the guards went over expecting to find them freezing, but they seemed relaxed and warm.
At this, the commandant ordered that their gloves and caps be removed so that they would be exposed to the full fury of the wind. All through the eight-hour working day, they knelt on that windy hilltop in prayer. Below them, the women who were chipping mud for the brick ovens were suffering intensely from the cold. Many complained that their feet were freezing despite the supposedly warm boots they wore. When in the evening other guards went to the hill to get the nuns and bring them back to the barracks, they expected to find them with frostbitten ears, hands, and limbs. But they did not appear to have suffered any injury at all. Again the next day they knelt for eight hours in the wind, wearing neither hats nor gloves in temperatures far below zero. That night they still had not suffered any serious frostbite and were still resolute in their refusal to work. Yet a third day they were taken out and this time their scarves too were taken away from them.
By this time, news of what was happening had spread throughout all the camps in the Vorkuta region. When at the end of the third day, a day far colder than any we had yet experienced that winter season, the bareheaded nuns were brought in still without the slightest trace of frostbite, everyone murmured that indeed God had brought a miracle to pass. There was no other topic of conversation in the whole of Vorkuta. Even hardened MVD men from other compounds found excuses to come by the brick factory and take a furtive look at the three figures on the hill. The women working in the pits down below crossed themselves and nervously mumbled prayers. Even the commandant was sorely disturbed. If not a religious man, he was at the least a somewhat superstitious one and he knew well enough when he was witnessing the hand of a Power that was not of this earth!
By the fourth day, the guards themselves were afraid of the unearthly power which these women seemed to possess, and they flatly refused to touch them or have anything more to do with them. The commandant himself was afraid to go and order them out into the hill. And so they were not disturbed in their prayers and were taken off punishment rations. When I left Vorkuta four years later, those nuns were still at the brick factory compound and none of them had done a day’s work productive for the Communist regime. They were regarded with awe and respect. The guards were under instructions not to touch them or disturb them. They were preparing their own food and even making their own clothes. Their devotions were carried on in their own way and they seemed at peace and contented. Though prisoners, they were spiritually free. No one in the Soviet Union had such freedom of worship as they.
What their example did to instill religious faith in thousands of prisoners and guards there at Vorkuta, I cannot begin to describe. Later on, when I had the opportunity as a locker-room attendant for the MVD men to talk with some of the more hardened Russian Communists about religion, not one failed to mention the Miracle of the Nuns.
(John Noble: I Found God in Soviet Russia, Zondervan, March. 1971, pp. 112-117).
1. The Nuns of Sharmodino
2. Shamordino Convent
3. Vorkuta Camp
4. Cemetery at a coal mine in the Vorkuta complex of penal camps, 1956
5. Russian Gulag Vorkuta
6. The Nuns of Sharmodino Icon
7. John H Noble, War Prisoner at Vorkuta Camp
Header: ‘Russia’s Catacomb Saints’, book cover, published 1982