Together, they cook meals for all the residents of the farmstead, of whom there are over 200 at present.
Yevgeny explains: “Although I am the leader, I do my share of the cooking on a par with the others. I do believe that a leader is not someone who stands aside and gives instructions to his subordinates, but who stands next to them and does his own fair share of the work. I am equal with everybody else, I just have some more duties than others. It has a lot to do with the way I was raised - my parents taught me to see others as my equals, who are not any better or any worse than myself; some may have a higher status, but status is never an indicator of superiority.”
Yevgeny's kitchen team includes two cooks, a baker, two dishwashers and two waiters. There are also four people with disabilities who help peel potatoes and other vegetables.
“The senior cook comes to his job at five in the morning and is always the last to leave. The rest of the team come by 6.30. As the other brothers at the farmstead stand up for prayer, the kitchen team goes to cook. We pray separately at ten, after everyone has had breakfast, we have finished cleaning the dining room and washing the large boiler pot, and started our preparations for making lunch. We read the prayers while the food is cooking,” says Yevgeny.
Does the kitchen team feel that their work is always fully appreciated?
Yevgeny responds: “Most people respect our work a lot, and we feel appreciated for the most part. Others are less so, and sometimes we do get to hear comments that hurt us a lot; on some occasions, however, they may be justified. Cooks, like all others, have their good and bad days. They do not always enjoy getting up at 4:30 standing in front of the stove all day. Sometimes, we are just too tired, and begin to grumble. But most of the time, we deal with these moods quite successfully by doing our work with love, as the monastic sisters teach us.”
"As Mother Elisaveta likes to say, the most important ingredient in any meal is love. Any cooked meal will be excellent if you make it with love if you put your best effort your heart in it. In this respect, cooking resembles the work of a painter; if a painter does not have peace in his heart, what are the chances of him creating a masterpiece? Cooking if quite similar. We should cook for others like we would for ourselves. The people have come to this place as their home, and they need to experience being home and being loved.”
Mother Elisaveta to whom Yevgeny has just referred comes from Montenegro. Her obedience at the farmstead is to stage theatrical plays with the brothers and to conduct Sunday school every week. She has been very helpful in bringing the element of versatility in kitchen work.
Yevgeny continues: “When I arrived here back in 2012, the meals here consisted mostly of cereals and salads; today, the menu is a lot more varied, owing in large part to the work of the monastic sisters and the kitchen team. Making some rice or boiling some potatoes, of course, is easier than making plov or potato pancakes. But all the brothers appreciate greatly the variety and the choice. We had an excellent experience with Mother Elisavata making the musaka - a Balcan dish from potatoes, eggplant and minced meat. We bake buns for everyone to go with the fruit stew, and in the evenings we often treat the brothers to some casserole or pudding.”
Before age 25, Yevgeny lived in Moscow, where he was trained as a cook and confectioner; however, it was not until he came here that he felt the true taste for the profession.
"I could cook for ten, and be creative, but I had no idea how to cook for two hundred. It was quite frightening at first. I never wanted to take up this obedience, but the fact that I ended up doing it was providential indeed. My first piece of equipment was not even a cooker, but a furnace, which I had had no experience of using. But I was getting a lot of help. It turned out to be less difficult than I thought - all that was needed is a clear idea of my actions at the next moment, and a fixed process. The kitchen at the farmstead became a place of my learning,” he explains.
Several brothers who live at the farmstead have become Yevgeny's reliable aides, but some of his best friends are among the monastics.
Yevgeny recalls: “Monastics are people who have embraced the Lord and dedicated their lives to serving Him. I also came here to rebuild my life. Who could be a better model for me than a monastic? Mother Elisaveta taught me many things. Sometimes, she could scold me, and sometimes he could pat me on my back. She has been supporting me and worrying about me like a mother. My own mother is far away from me, in Moscow, so having a sympathetic soul here at the farmstead.”
To help Yevgeny build self-confidence Mother Elisaveta engaged him in theatrical performances and assigned him a variety of roles. This created a tremendous positive change in him.
Yevgeny explains: “By nature, I am quite unsure about myself and too afraid to speak up. Mother Elisaveta helped me come out of my shell and raise my self-esteem by inviting me to play in her theatrical performances.”
“I used to be extremely introverted and afraid to approach others; I am still not very outgoing, but the experience of playing in the performances has helped me become more confident of myself, less hesitant to approach others, raise and negotiate an issue and speak my mind. I used to suffer a lot in the past from my habit of nodding quietly in agreement while others were piling tasks on me, and I ended up being responsible for not completing them.”
Yevgeny arrived at the farmstead to get rid of his drug dependence.
“I cannot say that it was a severe kind of dependence. I was just indulging myself in my freedom; I was having the illusion of being able to go where I wanted, to do what I wanted and to make my own decisions. In truth, I had no freedom at all, just the fantasy of being more sure of myself from being high on drugs. This was the only reason I was using them, now it is gone - I have learned to have confidence in myself without the drugs,” he explains.
“I used to think that I could go it alone, and achieve any goal without anybody's help; now I am wise enough to seek out a life with God, now that I have come to Him. Even in my past life, God was still holding me by the hand. I just was not wise enough to understand this.”
Yevgeny continues: “All bad news and setbacks - however bad they are - would be received with the right kind of attitude; it just does not help to respond to them by having a drink because it hurts. Some things in life may hurt, but it is best to clench one's teeth and go forward. To let God lead one's way.
I was asking for freedom, but today, I am on obedience. I am doing what I am asked. I have had enough of freedom; following my selfish desires had led me nowhere, which is why I am living here with the other brothers and am thanking God for this.”
Before coming here, Yevgeny knew that there would be rules that would have to be followed. He admits that this was not always easy. He recalls:
“I have had difficult moments. I was on the point of leaving. I could not listen even to Mother Elisabeth. But she never stopped caring for me, together with Nun Marfa, and managed to bring me into my senses eventually. It is no accident that Nun Marfa has been trusted to run this place. She is a very wise person. I also talk to Novice Irina (Gelman). I realise that these conversations are steering me in the right direction.
One brother said to me once: "The first six months are the most critical; build your strength to live through the adjustment to getting up at six, not at noon, to not having the things that you ask for, and to not being one's own man any longer. This is going to be difficult, irritating and painful, but it is critical to breaking away from past habits without breaking up and walking away. I often felt sad, depressive and hurt during this period, admit. I only came here because my mother asked me to. She said: "just stay on for a year, and then we'll see what to do next". I stayed a lot longer than that. I have already been living here for eight years.
My mother wanted to drag me out of the abyss that I had let myself fall into. She was praying for me. She was taking me to church. Standing at the worship services was hard, sometimes nauseating, but I understood that I needed to be there a lot.
I was living in Moscow, but this did not mean at all that I was one of the yuppie kids. I grew up in an honourable and modest family. I was mixing with my peers, and sometimes I wanted to be like them. They were wearing brand clothes and had expensive smart-phones, and I wanted to have the same. But this is not me, I am different.
I changed my life; I moved from Moscow to a village in the midst of forest to live in a twelve-bed room and work on a farm, but I did not see this as a blow on my self-esteem; I was fully prepared for the change.
My mother is a faithful Orthodox. She was going to the Marfo-Marrinsky Convent and praying before the Mother of God. She was checking out the rehabilitation centres at different monasteries trying to help me; she was sending her pleas to the Lord so I find my way to Him. When she read on the Internet about Saint Elisabeth Convent, she came up to me and said: Let us go to Minsk.
I did not go immediately. I went on an orgy first. She was very upset and seeing that I asked her to buy the tickets to go to. Her prayers were heard, and God's providence has led me here and made me who I am now. I am staying on, and keeping myself from falling back.”
Yevgeniy is also going to driving school and is expected to get his driving licence soon. He got the blessing to learn driving from the Convent's spiritual father, Andrey Lemeshonok.
"God knows your needs best. I have got the blessing to learn driving and get the driving licence, so I will be able to help the farmstead more. The monastic sisters have their plates full and are already doing a lot of driving to take the brothers to a doctor, to shop for supplies and medicines.
My plan is to stay on at the farmstead and to continue to be of help, and leave everything else to God's will. If His will will be for me to marry and have a family, then let it be so. But this does not mean that I need to take off and go searching right now and leave everything else behind. To do so would be a betrayal of the farmstead and of the Lord,” says Yevgeny.
To Yevgeny, the farmstead is the house of the Lord, where people are getting helped to put their lives in order and achieve freedom from alcohol and drugs. Some had been homeless, and the farmstead became their home.
Yevgeny concludes: "I am living here, and I am thankful to the monastic sisters, Father Andrey and all of the people around me for helping me overcome my passions and weaknesses. At this place, people are learning how to live with other people. This is certainly not a secular organisation, but it has great power and capability to embolden the shaky spirits such as mine, to teach people how to think and act correctly.”
Recorded by Vadim Yanchuk
Photos by Stanislav Zelenko
Monastic farmstead/ men’s rehabilitation centre provides shelter, food and supported employment to people in difficult situations, the homeless, former prison inmates, those dependent on drugs or alcohol, and people with disabilities.