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The Life of the the Holy Confessor Athanasius (Sakharov)

Saint Athanasius (Sakharov), a Steadfast Confessor of the Faith

Saint Athanasius (Sakharov)

This year marks the 55th anniversary of the blessed repose of the Holy Confessor Athanasius (Zakharov).

Sergey Sakharov (Bishop Athanasius name in the world) was born on 2 July 1887 in Tsarevka Village of the Tambov Governorship. His family lived in Vladimir. His father, Gregory Zakharov, had the civil rank of Court Councillor in retirement, and his mother Matrona, came from a peasant family. His parents let their son choose his name by putting in front of him several cards with the names of saints on them. The little boy picked up the card with the name of Saint Sergius of Radonezh.

Sergiy Sakharov, his mother Matrona Andreevna Sakharova and nephew. Photo from 1913.

Sergiy Sakharov, his mother Matrona Andreevna Sakharova and nephew. Photo from 1913.

He lost his father when he had barely turned two years of age, and was brought up by his mother who was instrumental in attuning him to a deeply righteous life. She was a pious woman, and she always wanted her son to follow the path of monasticism.

Young Seregiy Sakharov holding a bishop's staff. Photo from 1889.

Young Seregiy Sakharov holding a bishop's staff. Photo from 1889.

At nine years of age, he went to a school in Shuisk. In the beginning, Sergey found studying very hard, like his namesake Saint Sergius of Radonezh did centuries ago. One year, he was even refused progression. However, at his graduation, he already ranked among the most capable students in his class.

He liked church liturgies from an early age, and he particularly enjoyed the festive liturgies celebrated by an archpriest. At home, he would often role-play the church service and even learned to put embroidery on church vestments. When people asked him what he would like to become when he grew up, he answered unhesitantly, "An archpriest, of course!" He wrote his first Troparion to the Icon of the Mother of God of Shuisk and Smolensk when he was only twelve.

Shuiskaya-Smolenskaya icon of the Mother of God

Shuiskaya-Smolenskaya icon of the Mother of God

After finishing school, he entered the religious seminary in Vladimir. As a seminary student, he displayed a talent for avoiding or even ignoring, the temptations of his time. A clandestine chapter of the Social Democratic party active at the seminary fell apart after one of its leaders died from mishandling explosives. In the summer of 1905, a secret gathering of revolutionary students of religious seminaries gathered in his seminary. Later, in December, the students of the Vladimir Seminary went on strike. But Sergey Sakharov was not interested in social or political strife.

Remembering his seminary years, he spoke mostly of Bishop Nicholas (Nalimov) of Vladimir, known for his strict asceticism and deep knowledge of church liturgics. As it turned out, nothing else had influenced him or left any significant impact. After finishing the seminary, he went on to study at the religious academy in Moscow, where he took monastic tonsure with the name Athanasius.

Archbishop Nicholas (Nalimov) of Vladimir

Archbishop Nicholas (Nalimov) of Vladimir

He completed the academy in 1912 with the degree of candidate of theology and was ordained a deacon and then a hieromonk several days later. Soon, he took up teaching liturgics and homiletics at the religious seminary in Poltava before returning to his native Vladimir in 1913.

Hieromonk Athanasius (Sakharov). Photo of 1913

Hieromonk Athanasius (Sakharov). Photo of 1913

He was a participant in the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1918, whereupon he served as a member of the Diocesan Administration of Vladimir from 1918 to 1920. On 20 January 1920, he was raised to the rank of Archimandrite and became the abbot of the Nativity of the Theotokos Monastery in Vladimir.

In 1921, he was ordained a bishop at age 34. On the eve, he was summoned to the secret police headquarters, where they warned him not to accept the ordination or face harsh ramifications.

The Vladimir Monastery of the Nativity of the Mother of God

The Vladimir Monastery of the Nativity of the Mother of God

In the prerevolutionary era, a bishop was a high-ranking position that brought multiple privileges, but in the 1920s it promised nothing but persecution and deprivation. Acceptance of the rank meant taking on the feat of a confessor and a vow to preserve the purity of one's faith.

His first arrest occurred in March 1922 just seven months after his ordination, and was connected with the campaign to confiscate church property ongoing at the time. He was sentenced to a year in prison but was pardoned and released without serving the full term.

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However, Bishop Athanasius was rearrested shortly afterwards and was exiled to Ust-Sysolsk in Eastern Siberia for opposing the Renewalist schism. He served time in multiple camps and prisons, Including at Onega, Kargopol, and several prison camps in Siberia, Mariinsk, Temnikov and Dubravlag. Of his 42 years as a bishop, he served in his diocese for only a decade. The remaining 33 years were spent in exile and prisons. He felled trees, built roads, made Lapti, cleaned manure and performed many other hard menial jobs.

In imprisonment, he was not merely waiting for the end of his term or enduring its hardships. He was convinced that true church life was happening here, behind the prison walls and grates. In his letter to his mother from Taganskaya Prison, Bishop Athanasius wrote: “I am far better off here than at liberty, and I am saying so without the slightest exaggeration. The true Orthodox Church is here”. Together with the other members of the clergy, he co-celebrated regular church services, wrote liturgical texts, reassured his flock and shared his views on the situation in the Church.

The courtyard of Taganskaya prison in Moscow

The courtyard of Taganskaya prison in Moscow

As one reads the Bishop's prison letters and memoirs of the people who knew him, one cannot help admiring his natural talent to disregard the harshness of the prison conditions and perseverance in his choice of monasticism.

In one of his writings, he shares his experience of the celebration of the festive liturgy of the Nativity of Christ in 1940 at the Belomorsko-Baltiysky camp and his imaginary visit to the graves of his loved ones: “At night, I served the vigil with several breaks (woe unto me for succumbing to sleepiness in my laziness!). After that, I went to praise the Lord and share the good news with my loved ones in the graves and with the living in their cells. Everywhere, I sang the same piece: the Troparion and Kontakion of the feast, then the augmented litany, changing only the supplication and the final blessing before greeting the living and the departed. It was as if I had seen them all and communed with them in prayer. I have been everywhere, it seems - beginning, of course, with the grave of my beloved mother, and those of my father and Godmother. Then I continued my journey all around Holy Russia - first to Petushki, then to Vladimir, Moscow, Kovrov, Bogolubovo, Sobinka, Orekhovo and Saint Petersburg, then to the exile locations - Kemi, Ust-Sysolsk, Turukhansk, Yeniseysk and Krasnoyarsk”.

Bishop Afanasy (Sakharov), a prison photo, 1937-38.

Bishop Afanasy (Sakharov), a prison photo, 1937-38.

Only in some camps were prisoners allowed to possess books. Nevertheless, Bishop Athanasius always served all services according to the church rule. He conducted all the offices of the daily cycle from his memory. He never allowed himself any exceptions from the fasting rule. Hieromonk Hierax (Bocharov) thus describes his encounter with Athanasius at the Mariinsky Camp in 1944:

"The door opened. I heard the strikes of the domino pieces, swearing and prison jargon. Dense bluish tobacco smoke hovered above the table. A rifleman pushed Father Hierax Inside and showed him his bunk. The door closed. Father Hierax continued to stand at the door in numbness. Someone said to him: "Go over there!" As he was going where he had been directed, he saw an unexpected scene and stopped in his tracks. Sitting on the lower bunk with his legs to the side, was Father Athanasius. A stack of books was near him. He looked at Father Hierax, whom he had known long before, and said to him, without a greeting or a hint of surprise: "Read this and this tone, and this and this Troparion!" "Can we do it here?" "Sure! Read!"

As Father Hierax joined Father Athanasius, the sense of anxiety left him completely, as did the feeling of sadness that had been burdening his heart."

Hieromonk Hieraks (Bocharov)

Hieromonk Hieraks (Bocharov)

Father Athanasius' term ended in November 1951. But they did not let him go but committed him almost immediately to a care facility for the disabled in Mordovia. The conditions there were almost the same as in a prison.

Yet throughout his imprisonment, Bishop Athanasius never grumbled, despaired, or felt embittered. As he endured protracted interrogations and severe beatings, he always gave thanks to the Lord. To him, it was an honour to endure any pain for his sake. He believed that the people who opposed the Renewalists outside the prison were in a much easier situation.

"We need not fear the prison. We are better off here than at liberty, and I am saying so without the slightest exaggeration. The true Orthodox Church is here. Being here is like being in an isolation ward during an epidemic," wrote Father Athanasius.

In imprisonment, Bishop Athanasius received significant help from his friends who sent him parcels with food and clothing. To his multiple disciples, he set the example of venerating the Prophet Elijah. He said daily prayers to him while in prison and read the Troparion that he had himself composed. Bishop Athanasius was convinced that he and his cellmates escaped a hungry death through the intercessions of Saint Elijah.

Elijah the Prophet with a hagiography and deesis

Elijah the Prophet with a hagiography and deesis. An icon from the Church of Elijah the Prophet at the Vybuty Village Cemetary outside Pskov.

As we know from Church history, a major schism occurred within the church in 1927, when Metropolitan Sergius (Starogorodky) issued a declaration of rapprochement with the Soviet authorities. Immediately, several bishops broke with Metropolitan Sergius and refused to remain in obedience to him. Another group of bishops, who did not deny his authority, nevertheless refused to remember him during liturgy considering that he had exceeded his authority. Bishop Athanasius was one of this latter group. Yet he continued to serve and called on his spiritual children not to move away from the Church.

When Patriarch Alexis I took the direction of the Church in 1946, Bishop Athanasius immediately acknowledged his canonical authority and called on all the hierarchs to follow his example and return to remembering his name during the liturgy. His word had great weight among the hierarchs not least because he was a close friend of the Metropolitan of Kazan Kirill, who had recently departed and was considered the informal leader of the non-remembrance faction. In this way, Bishop Athanasius helped avoid a new schism in the Russian Church.

Holy Martyr Kirill (Smirnov), Metropolitan of Kazan and Sviyazhsk.

Holy Martyr Kirill (Smirnov), Metropolitan of Kazan and Sviyazhsk.

He was finally released from his commitment to the care facility in 1955 and could return to his home in the Moscow Region. Shortly afterwards, he took charge of the Commission on the Church rule. However, because his views were different from those of the other commission members, the bishop had no choice but to return to Petushki. He was offered to serve in the local church behind closed doors and without wearing a bishop's habit. Athanasius declined, preferring to pray privately in his home. From Bishop Athanasius' perspective, one advantage of this arrangement was that it allowed him to pray before the Analogion icons of the Royal Family and Patriarch Tikhon, some of the bishop's most fervently venerated saints.

One would be hard-pressed to find someone in the Church who would treat Church liturgics with as much love and awe as Bishop Athanasius did. As he admitted in his writings, one of his strongest desires was to help systematise, supplement and adjust the liturgical texts to ease their understanding by modern-day churchgoers.

Bishop Athanasius (Sakharov), a 1962 photo.

Bishop Athanasius (Sakharov), a 1962 photo.

We also remember Bishop Athanasius as an author of the service to all the saints who shone forth in the Russian land. He began his work on the text in 1918 when its first variant was published. However, no political pundit of his time could predict the scale of the persecution against the Church in the coming decades. Bishop Athanasius did not stop working on the updated text throughout his time in the camps.

Athanasius also composed the service to the Malsimovskaya Icon of the Mother of God and wrote a range of magnifications and chants used in modern-day liturgics. During his prison years, he also composed several prayer chants, including "For the Homeland", "For the Cessation of Wars and Peace in the whole world", "For the Sorrowing", among others. He also penned an extensive treatise titled On remembering the dead according to Orthodox Church Rule, which he dedicated to the memory of his mother.

He anticipated the approach of his repose. Several days before his death, he asked his cell attendants an unexpected question: "What day is it? And what time?" After hearing her reply, he said: “Sunday, eight a.m”. He was not mistaken. Bishop Athanasius peacefully fell asleep in the Lord on 28 October 1962 at eight in the morning. It was a Sunday. His last words were: "We will all be saved by prayer".

He was buried in Vladimir at the Entry to the Temple Cemetery, adjacent to the fence of the Vladimir Prison, where he had been kept multiple times during his lifetime.

After glorification in the fall of 2000, his relics were transferred to the Monastery of the Nativity of Theotokos, of which he became the abbot in 1920.

30 October 1962. Funeral of Bishop Athanasius

30 October 1962. Funeral of Bishop Athanasius

October 28, 2023
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