Elder Nikolai Guryanov takes a special place in the history of our Convent. Its spiritual Father Andrei Lemchonok received his blessing to build the Convent. He also offered his first small donation, adding, "the people will supply the rest." On the anniversary of his departure to God, we remember his life and service to God, his teachings, his good works and his life of prayer on a remote island.
Nikolai Guryanov was born at the beginning of the last century in a small village on the bans of Lake Chudskoe in northwest Russia. He belongs to the generation of Orthodox priests that survived persecution and repression in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. Archimandrite Zechariah of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, Archimandrite Antony (Abachidze) of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, the Moscow Saint Starets Alexei Mechev, Archimandrite Seraphim (Tyapochkin) and Archimandrite John (Krestyankin) are some of the best known among them. They all shared the fate of the confessors of the faith and were rewarded with great spiritual gifts of foresight. With these great gifts of God, they attracted scores of followers and disciples from many different places.
Nikolai Guryanov received his education during the Soviet period. Eventually, he had to make the difficult choice between professing his faith and living a life of relative calm and comfort in a secular occupation. The elder chose the path of sorrows. In 1929 he was expelled from a teacher's college for speaking out against the closure of a church. Less than a year later, he was arrested and sent to a prison camp in the northeast of Russia. The conditions at the camp were extremely harsh. Together with the other prisoners, Nikolay was sent to work on a railway building project laying the tracks. For many years ahead, he remembered the terrible night when he and some other prisoners were made to stand knee-deep in ice-cold water for many hours. Nikolai was the only one who survived. The guards found him barely alive the next morning.
Since then, he had had great difficulty walking. Because of his disability, he was not called up to the army when World War 2 began. After his release, he worked as a teacher. On the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, on 15 February 1942, Nikolai Guryanov was ordained a priest. He served at the churches and monasteries of the Baltic republics, and in 1958 he asked to be placed at the remote island of Talabsk (now Zalit). There, he spent the next forty years of his life of ministry and service to God.
When Father Nikolai arrived at the island inhabited mostly by fishermen, few people knew him. The majority were unbelievers, and they treated him with considerable suspicion. With the passage of years, he gradually earned their deep respect. He settled in the smallest house at the edge of the village that he eventually converted into a church with his own hands. The fishermen went out to fish for many days, leaving their families to fend for themselves. Out of kindness and generosity, he helped some of the families with their household chores and looked after the elderly and the infirm. He could approach a drunken person, take out the bottle from his hands and break it in front of him, and nobody protested.
His initial years of service were extremely difficult. On many days, he held worship services in an empty church. At one point, he seriously considered leaving the priesthood, but a child stopped from acting on his intent. Sensing his sadness, he came to him unexpectedly and asked him to stay. Nikolay took the child's words as a sign of God's will and a reminder from the elders of his promise to endure. Father Nikolai continued to bear his cross with great valour and patience. After several decades, his sparsely populated island changed beyond recognition through his works. It was basking in the green of the garden planted by Father Nikolay. He used the water from the lake to look after the crops. He carried it by hand in buckets. He hardly ever slept, dedicating most of his daytime to physical work, and spending the greater part of the night in worship and prayer. At last, his hard work was beginning to yield fruit. The hearts of the fishermen were warming towards him. One day, a woman from the island wrote an angry letter to the authorities calling for his arrest, but her action was received with universal condemnation. Nearly all of the villagers started going to church.
In the 1960s, a new wave of persecution the prosecution of the Church began. One day, he received an unexpected visit from the local government. The visitors were rude and threatening. They promised to come back for him the next day. Father Nikolay stayed up all night praying and in the morning a violent storm broke out on the lake. It did not subside for three days, putting the island off-limits to everyone. When the storm ended, the authorities forgot about their threat, and Father Nikolai was spared.
In the 1970s, people from all over the Soviet Union were coming to see him on the island. He received every visitor - churched or unchurched - with great warmth. Because of the visitors, he seldom had a moment for himself. Yet, foreign to all worldly glory, he said to many of them with regret, "I wish you were going to church like you are coming to me. He knew the names of many of his visitors before they introduced themselves, warned them of possible dangers, advised them how to rebuild their lives according to Christian principles, and prayed for the seriously ill. In the 1990s, Archimandrite John (Krestyankin), from the Pskov-Pechery Lavra called him a genuine elder endowed with the gift of foresight. He helped people understand God's will and follow it throughout their lives. He never had the aim of pleasing anyone. He was not shy of saying to someone who deserved it, "why have you come here at all?"
He was convinced that we all needed to keep watch over our thoughts and live according to their faith. He advised his disciples to live their lives as if tomorrow was their last day. He also warned people to beware of idleness and keep working all their lives. He asked them to shun heavy drinking and called on them to love their neighbours and be good servants of God and the people. He is still alive for us in his video and audio recordings and the memories of his spiritual children.
He bore the cross of his ministry to the last day of his life. Suffering from a terminal illness, he refused to retire. He taught his followers to see the people and the world with God's love and illuminated the lives of many with his example.
The parishioners, the labourers and the many friends in many countries have been united as one helping the Sisters build St Elisabeth Convent. It is no surprise that many different people view the Convent in a certain sense as a public domain.
On 22 August, we celebrated the birthday of our Convent. For many, the time spent at the Convent has become a treasure and a valuable experience and a source of inspiration. We asked nun Olga to talk about the highlights of her monastic life.
This is the first part of an account by our lay Sister Yulia Kostukevich, who has been with us from the beginning, in which she shares her memories about the establishment of our Convent and the beginning of our ministry.
We look back at the history of the lay sisterhood in Honour of The Holy Royal Martyr Grand Duchess Elisabeth, which gave rise to our Convent.
As time passes, we tend to forget the way things were in the beginning. To preserve the unique memories of the Sisters who were the first to join the Convent, we asked them how it felt 20 years ago.
This neighbourhood had waited for many years until that moment 22 years ago when we laid the first stone in the foundation of Saint Elisabeth Convent. It has seen many troubles, upheavals, tragedies and hardships.
In the third part of her first-person review of the Convent’s lived history, sister Yulia Kostukevich explores the foundations of our strength and of our ability to sustain and expand our works.