Kurilovo Journal: From Village Boy to Soldier, Martyr and, Many Say, Saint
By Seth Mydans
The New York Times
Copyright© 2003 The New York Times Company
November 21, 2003
Shoulders back, chest out, the young soldier stands as if on parade in his camouflage fatigues – his boots polished, his rifle at his shoulder, a halo around his head.
His face is the blank mask of a man for whom duty is life. It is not easy being a soldier, or a saint.
Portraits of this young man, Yevgeny Rodionov, are spreading around Russia
– sometimes in uniform, sometimes in a robe, sometimes armed, sometimes holding a cross, but always with his halo.
He is Russia's new unofficial saint, a casualty of the war in Chechnya who has been canonized not by the Russian Orthodox Church but by a groundswell of popular adoration.
The portraits are religious icons, venerated in homes and churches where Private Rodionov has become the focus of a minor cult that seems to fill a nationalist hunger for popular heroes.
In one icon he is painted to look like a medieval Russian knight. In another he is included, in full uniform, in a group portrait of the last czar and his family, under the gaze of Jesus.
Church officials say all of this breaks religious law. Sainthood is not a popularity contest, and icons are not campaign posters. The process of canonization, the officials say, is long and arduous and can only be carried out by the church.
But it does happen from time to time that a symbolic figure emerges to capture the passions of a moment and becomes a sort of folk saint -- sometimes the first step toward official sainthood.
In pamphlets, songs and poems, in sermons and on Web sites, Private Rodionov's story has become a parable of religious devotion and Russian nationalism. The young soldier, it is said, was killed by Muslim rebels seven years ago because he refused to renounce his religion or remove the small silver cross he kept around his neck.
It is the story his mother says she was told by the rebels who killed him and who later led her, for a ransom of $4,000, to the place they had buried him. When she exhumed his body late one night, she said, the cross was there among his bones, glinting in the light of flashlights, stained with small drops of blood.
"Nineteen-year-old Yevgeny Rodionov went through unthinkable suffering," reads an encomium on one nationalist Web site, "but he did not renounce the Orthodox faith but confirmed it with his martyr's death.
"He proved that now, after so many decades of raging atheism, after so many years of unrestrained nihilism, Russia is capable, as in earlier times, of giving birth to a martyr for Christ, which means it is unconquerable."
As his story has spread, pilgrims have begun appearing in this small village just west of Moscow, where his mother, Lyubov, 51, tends his grave on an icy hillside beside an old whitewashed church.
Some military veterans have laid their medals by his graveside in a gesture of homage. People in distress have left handwritten notes asking for his intercession.
In a church near St. Petersburg, his full-length image stands at the altar beside icons of the Virgin Mary, the Archangel Michael, Jesus and Nicholas II, the last of the czars, who was canonized three years ago.
Aleksandr Makeyev, a paratroop officer who heads a foundation to assist soldiers, said he had seen soldiers kneeling in prayer before an image of Private Rodionov. "The kids in Chechnya, they feel they've been abandoned by the state and abandoned by their commanders," he told the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.
"They don't know who to appeal to for help, but they understand that Zhenya is one of them," he said, using Private Rodionov's nickname. "You can say he is the first soldier-saint."
Among the photographs of her son that Mrs. Rodionov spreads on her kitchen table are laminated cards that she says some soldiers carry with them for luck. They bear his image along with a prayer:
"Thy martyr, Yevgeny, O Lord, in his sufferings has received an incorruptible crown from thee, our God, for having thy strength he has brought down his torturers, has defeated the powerless insolence of demons. Through his prayers save our souls."
Although he has not been formally canonized, Private Rodionov's mother and other believers say his icons sometimes emit rivulets of holy perfume, as some extremely sacred Orthodox icons are said to do.
Indeed, Mrs. Rodionov said, her own icon of her son drips perfume. "When that happens and I am planning a trip, I postpone it," she said. "The icon gives me signs."
Mrs. Rodionov said she was able to find her son's body and learn how he died during a lull in the war when rebel soldiers were demanding huge sums of money to return live prisoners or the bodies of men they had killed.
According to the accounts of his captors, she said, he and three other soldiers were seized in 1996 while manning a checkpoint and were held in a cellar for 100 days before they were executed.
Private Rodionov was killed, she said, when he refused the rebels' demand that he remove his cross and forswear his religion.
A poem called "The Cross," composed in his honor, paints a scene of laughing heathens who beheaded the young soldier when he defied them.
"Pure mountains in the distance, slopes covered in blooms of blue," the poem reads. "Refusing to renounce Christ, the soldier of Russia fell. And his head rolled, blood flowed from the saber, and the red grass whispered a quiet prayer in its wake."
Private Rodionov was proud to wear his military uniform and to do his duty for his country, his mother said. But as a boy in this small village, all he really wanted was to be a cook.