Vol 3, No 9       

harbor in Kamchatka
The Soul Is Always Free
with Father Yaroslav Levko
by Merike Stroganova-Gates

What is it like to live as a spiritual person in a regime where personal beliefs can cost your job, your friendships, your life?

What is it like to suddenly find yourself free once more to believe in the religion of your ancestors?

What does the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church tell us about the true nature of the Russian Soul, eclipsed for so many years under Communism? What can we learn from the hard lessons the Russian people have endured?

Father Yaroslav Levko, a courageous priest who has labored for the Souls of his parishioners under both regimes, lives with these questions — and he provides answers that will touch your heart.

During the reign of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church was all but wiped out in outlying areas of Russia. Today, that is beginning to change, due in great part to the spiritual faith and dedication of people like Father Yaroslav Levko.

Before Father Yaroslav's arrival in Kamchatka — an area about the size of France — not the slightest trace of religious life remained there. Today, due largely to his efforts, the Russian Orthodox Church flourishes in this remote area.

Merike: Father Yaroslav, tell us, please, about yourself and your Path.

Father Yaroslav: I am a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church and a Father Superior of the Church of the Saints Pjotr and Paulus in Petropavlovsk, the capital of Kamchatka. I have lived here for eighteen years. My life is filled full with God's abundance. I am married, and we have three children. During this time here, we built a church.

I was born in the Ukraine, in the region of Lvov. Among my immediate family there are nine priests. Thus, I grew up in a deeply religious environment and experienced the persecution of the Church. After graduating from the Moscow Ecclesiastical Academy in Sergiev Posad, formerly Zagorsk, I was sent as a missionary to work in Kamchatka.

Historically, Petropavlovsk was settled mainly as Kamchatka's northernmost port and military base. The dominant industry for the civilian population was its fisheries, including a large fleet.

Before my arrival in Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka was one of the few regions in the USSR that had become completely atheistic. There was not a single priest, church, or religious group registered there for 56 years.

But still there were people who, despite the oppressions of the local authorities, used to come together in private houses for prayer. So my arrival in 1985 was a real joy for these few truly faithful.

When I arrived, the people of the peninsula's ruling government — Communists — were highly disturbed and exasperated at this young priest now in their midst. And many citizens looked at me with surprise, their eyes following me with curious glances every time I walked along the street.

To this day, I vividly remember going to register my arrival documents. The woman behind the counter was so amazed to discover my profession, she could not resist asking me, "May I touch you, please?"

Merike: And by now, you have built a church there. Tell us about that, please.

Father Yaroslav: In the beginning, I held services in a small collective residence. During the first year, so many parishioners were coming that on some Sundays the house was too small to hold them all. Building a new church was becoming a necessity.

I went to the local authorities asking to be given land for a church. The answer was always "no."

We wrote letters asking the same permission from the authorities in Moscow. Again, the answer was a resounding "no." Building churches was not compatible with the ruling Communist ideology at that time. However, I did receive permission to rent a small building, about 60 square meters [about 645 square feet] in size. The purpose stated in the official document was to "rejuvenate the building for future prayer meetings."

Actually, I was never given formal permission to build a church. But in 1989, under the pretext of this "rejuvenation," we destroyed the old structure and dug out the area needed to lay a foundation. These "illegal actions" gave rise to a serious confrontation with the city government. Construction was stopped four times. But through the Will of God and my persistence — I kept on insisting that this was only a "rejuvenation" — all hindrances were overcome and the church became a reality.

The first service was held in 1992, on Christmas Eve. Oh, what a joyful event it was! Nevertheless, the building was not given the official status of a church until just four years ago.

Merike: How has the spiritual climate changed in Russia since Perestroika?

Father Yaroslav: The attitude is certainly different now. There have been changes in the ideology of the government, and the country itself is different. Everywhere, you see leaders of the country on holiday attending church services. The president of the country even wishes us well at Christmas and Easter. The Church has gotten back monasteries that had previously been taken away or even almost destroyed. And church buildings have been returned that once were used for secular purposes. The spiritual institutes, gymnasiums, and schools are open again.

In times past, you could easily have lost your job or been barred from educational pursuits just for going to church. But now the Russian people have stepped over this barrier of fear. People are not afraid any more. Here in Kamchatka, although there is no help for the Church, no one is trying to block our activities in any way.

An indication of how much things have changed is that instead of being a banished castaway, I have officially become an honorary citizen of Petropavlovsk. The President of Russia actually issued an edict awarding me a Second Degree "Order for Meritorious Service to the Fatherland."

And the quality of life in the parishes of Kamchatka has risen. For many years, I had to work alone, not just in the city but also visiting remote villages of the region. Now we have a central diocese, with a bishop and nineteen priests, and many outlying villages have built churches or are in the process of building them. We have even been provided with land here in our city, and I am happy to say we are now building a new cathedral.

Also, every active church as a rule now has a Sunday school. Young people come to both confession and communion. There are numerous Bible study groups in the Church, and we involve ourselves in providing charity dinners for the needy and striving in every way to help people.

We also involve ourselves in the social needs that abound. But our predominant concern is for the human heart and Soul.

Merike: How is your ministry different in Kamchatka than it might be in Moscow?

Father Yaroslav: Objectively speaking, it is all one and the same, word for word. The liturgy does not differ from one location to another.

But in Moscow, the Church's historical traditions were not so severaly interrupted. Ancient churches still stand. Every priest has his own set of duties, and there is a measured way of life.

In Kamchatka, I had to do everything myself. I was teaching, singing, building, driving a truck — even working on a tractor.

So life is much easier in Moscow. But I like it better here. There were such hardships in the beginning, always stumbling, only to find dead ends, never any way to get what was needed. But there is one very big difference about this place, and that is the people themselves. To feel the "Soul" that is in them is for me beyond any other jewel. Realizing my sincere care for them, they responded by gathering around and joining together.

Today, when I pass through the church's yard, it seems like a miracle. I wonder to myself, "How could this dream ever have come true?" Everything moves within God's Will.

Merike: I understand that you are baptizing many new parishioners.

Father Yaroslav: Yes. During the first ten years, I baptized more than a hundred thousand people! Can you imagine? At times, in Petropavlovsk, the necessity for baptism was so overwhelming that people had to wait on a list for two or three months.

Once, in Kljuchi town, 600 kilometers [about 375 miles] from the city, I baptized 1007 people in two days. In Nizhne-Kamchatsk, 700 kilometers from the city, there were 868 in a single day! I still wonder where I got the strength to baptize so many people.

But even during the times of socialism, a Russian in his heart has always been Orthodox. People still came to the churches — to get holy water, to consecrate the Easter cakes. Echoed in many old wise proverbs is the idea that "a peasant will never cross himself until the thunder and lightning strikes," but after the ideology of the government changed, people started filling the void in a very natural way, and the Soul moved within that natural flow.

There was a small fear in the beginning that visiting the church would just turn into a fashionable thing. How much sincerity could there be in it? That was a question that had my attention. But I soon realized, with the tremendous change in the quality of administering the sacraments, that this was a Soul need. The call of the Soul from within was finding its realization.

Merike: How has this resurgent interest in the Church affected you personally?

Father Yaroslav: Certainly, I have changed. In the first year of my service, I was afraid I would not be able to manage. Thoughts of despair were always slipping through my mind: Maybe I should just run from this place. But with each passing day, the people's longing added to my strength. When I had to travel to Moscow to get sacred objects for the church, they would come to see me off, always asking, "Reverend Father, will you surely return to us?"

Just from these words, it would be difficult to imagine the depth of faith I saw in the people's eyes! But they supported me. They are my spiritual children, and Kamchatka is my home. "Where your treasure is, there also abides your heart." I am deeply attached to this place. The atmosphere here is truly spiritual.

Merike: Do you know whether or not this growth in the Church is throughout Russia? What are some of your colleagues experiencing?

Father Yaroslav: Because the Church started out as nonexistent in Kamchatka, growth and interest in the Church is much greater here. But the Orthodox spiritual renaissance is felt everywhere. It is impossible not to notice it. Parishes that once were very small have grown to many thousands.

One remarkable event that's happened is the reconstruction of the Church of Christ the Savior, in Moscow — at the very location where the old church was destroyed under Communism. Also, monasteries have been returned, and churches that were being used for secular purposes have been restored to their parishioners.

Another remarkable aspect is that in restoring and reconstructing these places of spiritual importance, the largest percentage of help has come not from the rich but from the small. Parishioners themselves provide what is needed, "calling the world together" to build. Each person participates. This activity is changing lives. Every Soul is enrichened.

Merike: What do you think might be the global impact of this spiritual resurgence in Russia?

Father Yaroslav: Russia is in the process of spiritual revival. This is not an easy process, but it's taking place nevertheless. With Perestrojka, the doors and windows of Russia opened to the rest of the world.

Along with all the good, there also are very many bitter weeds, foreign to the Russian Soul: violence, movies about cruelty, and access to every kind of evil are influencing the Russian people.

People are overwhelmed by the huge flow of information. This freedom, this liberty, contains in itself the freedom of choice as well, which demands a huge responsibility of the Soul. In the same way that a small child does not see the danger in matches or knives, the young Soul doesn't recognize the hidden dangers in the objects that attract its curiosity. The task for the Church is to help define what is Good and what is Evil. People need to be educated, and everything needs to be explained. Every single thing needs to be called by its real name.

In the Western countries, including the United States, people seemingly approach freedom differently. Russian people tend to understand freedom as all-permissiveness.

But there is no doubt that the Russian Soul is unique and has a great future. Russians are recognized by their depth of pragmatism, openness, lack of hypocrisy, intuitiveness, and generosity — there is a lack of greediness in all of its manifestations. Russians do not express cruelty in their everyday living.

Other countries have different perspectives, a different understanding of life. I believe that by our having deeply rooted contacts with other countries, the care, goodness in relationships, patience, endless endurance, and compassion that are the essential qualities of the Russian Soul will have a great influence on people of other nations. He who has suffered a lot is able to feel the most deeply. All peoples have their good colors, of course. But it seems to me that the Russian Soul has a special hue.

Merike: In Soviet times past, a priest-monk related to me a very deep thought. The words were so simple: "Always rejoice!" Twenty years have passed since then, and I still strive to understand the depths of those two words. How would you comment on the words of that wise monk, looking through the prism of your own Spiritual path and experience?

Father Yaroslav: It is one of our church's pillars of Truth: A Christian should always rejoice. Morning dawns, and then evening comes; it's a rainy day, and then the sun shines again. We need to thank God for all of this. This life is a grace beyond measure given to us. With wisdom, we need to enjoy life, and witness all the beauty of the world that surrounds us.

One cannot enjoy the beauty of life egotistically. Everything is charged with the warmth of spiritual joy.

And there does appear to be a sense of joyous bliss here now. So much so that I must remind myself of the words of the Holy Bible that say, "Be aware, and thou shall not fall into misfortune." It is an acute necessity that we remain aware.

For example, until 1917, Russians were all praying and building monasteries. But just in a short time, these very same people destroyed their own sanctuaries, exterminated the clergy, and prescribed for themselves complete atheism.

Now, recently, this very same country makes concerted efforts to repent and make amends. How long will all this last? Is it sincere? The answer is unclear.

Inwardly, I believe that nothing is beyond change, and not necessarily for the best. I don't say this to be pessimistic, but to stand in reality. Everything is good today; tomorrow the climate may change drastically. We need to be strong so that we can resist unseen disasters. Having an awakened spirit also means not allowing oneself to be weak.

I remember well the horrors of living in the seventies, growing up in the religious family of a priest and going to the Church, while at the same time being a pupil in a Soviet school — the humiliation, oppression, and lies we had to suffer! Thanks be to God, this helped me to work out a kind of spiritual immunity that I later was able to bring to my work in Kamchatka.

But governments and politics forever change. In my sermons, I never even touch upon the political side of life. Some priests underline changes in politics, but I simply say to my parishioners, remembering the past: "It was a very dark and frightful time." But the point is, it may return. That is why, first and foremost, we must care for the human Soul. The Soul is always free, and it knows the way to God and Truth.

Merike: Father Yaroslav, your lifepath sounds like a legend, and the hardships you've had to overcome have certainly brought a measure of wisdom. What would you suggest and wish for the good of those who will read this article?

Father Yaroslav: I would like to present your readers with few words — but deep thoughts.

We all are brothers and sisters. We all are the children of the Only Creator, living in one family. Could we not try always to be aware of this kinship?

Amid the blessings of this world, do we just please ourselves? Or are we thoughtful and caring about our inner world and the health of our Soul?

If there is no peace within ourselves or the people around us, that should be an alarm signal of the Soul. We need to inwardly shake ourselves, awakening to the Self once again.

Not a single thing — be it territory, disposition, riches, religious differences, the color of one's skin, the shape of one's eyes — nothing gives us the right for superiority or the feeling of exclusiveness.

We are all the Creations of God. God called us here not for animosity or enmity but for Love and sacrificial sharing, intending that we help each other. It is beyond choice. It is a necessity that we change for the better. And when we do, everything around us will change, as well.

God bless us all!

Father Yaroslav Levko is the Reverend Father of the Church of the Saints Pjotr and Paulus in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatka. You are welcome to contact him personally through his e-mail address, Levko@intercom.kamchatka or by calling him at 011-7415-229-6539. Father Yaroslav speaks only Russian.

Merike Stroganova-Gates was one of the Russian translators of Drunvalo's Ancient Secret of the Flower of Life. She taught English in Estonia for seven years before emigrating to Seattle last June.

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