Life of the Archpriest Avvakum (selections)

Text modified from the translation at

Here begins the story of Avvakum. The texts before this one are written in superior Church slavic, which we have left away here. What know comes is a CV: birth, place, parents, written in the language of the people ...

I was born in the Niznij Novgorod area, beyond the Kudma river, in the village of Grigorovo. My father was the priest Peter, my mother Marija, as a nun Marfa. My father was given to hard drink, buy my mother fasted and prayed zealously and was ever teaching me the fear of God. Once I saw a dead cow at a neighbor's, and that night I arose and wept much over my soul before the icon, being mindful of death and how I too must die. And fom that time I grew accustomed to praying every night. Then my mother was widowed and I, still young, orphaned, and we were driven out, away from our kin. My mother deigned to have me married. And I prayed to the most holy Mother of God that she might give me for a wife a helpmate to salvation. And in the same village there was girl, also an orphan, who was accustomed to going to church unceasingly; her name was Anastasija. her father was a blacksmith by the name of Marko, very rich, but when he died everything dwindled away. And she live in poverty and prayed to God that se might be joined with me in marital union; and so it was, by the will of God. Afterwards my mother went to God amidst great feats of piety. And being banished I moved to another place. I was ordained a deacon at the age of twenty-one, and after two years I was made a priest. I lived as a priest fo eight years and was ten raised archpriest by Orthodox bishops. Since then twenty years have passed, and in all it is thirty years that I have been in holy orders.

And when I was a priest I had many spiritual children; up to now i would be about five or six hundred. never slumbering I, a sinner, was diligent in churches and in homes, at crossroads, in towns and villages, even in the capital and in the lands of Siberia, preaching and teaching the Word of God, this for about twenty-five years.

When I was still a priest, there came to me to confess a youg woman, burdened with many sins, guilty of fornication and self abuse of very sort; and weeping she began to acquaint me with it all in detail, standing before the Gospel there in the church. But I, thrice-accused healer, I was afflicted myself, burning inwardly with a lecherous fire, and it was bitter fo me in that hour. I lit three candles and stuck them to the lectern, and raised my right hand into the flame and held it there until the evil conflagration within me was extinguished. After dismissing the young woman, laying away my vestments, and praying awhile, I went to my home deeply grieved. The hour was as midnight, and having come into my house I wept before the icon of the Lord so that my eyes swelled; and I prayed earnestly that God might separate me from my spiritual children, for the burden was heavy and hard to bear. And I fell to the ground on my face; I wept bitterly, and lying there sank into forgetfulness. Nothing could I ken, as I was weeping, but the eyes of my heart beheld the Volga. I saw two golden boats sailing gracefully, and their oars were of gold, and the masts of old, and everything was of old; each had one helmsman for the crew. And I asked, 'Whose boats are these?" And they answered, "Luka's and Lavrentij's." They had been my spiritual children; they set me and my house on the path to salvation, and their passing was pleasing to God. And lo, I then saw a third boat, not adorned with gold but motley colored - red, and white, and blue, and black, and ashen; the mind of man could not take in all its beauty and excellence. A radiant youth sitting aft was steering. He raced toward me out of the Volga as if he wanted to swallow me whole. And I shouted, "Whose boat is this?" And sitting in it answered, "Your boat. Sail in it with your wife and children if you're going to pester the Lord." And I was seized by trembling, and sitting down I pondered: "What is this vision? And what sort of voyage will it be?"

This part is situated just before the first time that Avvukum was banned to Siberia in 1653. He has broken with Nikon. Boris Neledinskij is a good friend of Nikon ..

Later on Boris Neledinskij and his musketeers seized me during a vigil; about sixty people were taken with me. They were led off to a dungeon but me they put in the Patriarch's Court for the night, in chains. When the sun had risen on the Sabbath, they put me in a cart and stretched out my arms and drove me from the Patriarch's Court to the Andronikov Monastery, and there they tossed me in chains into a dark cell dug into the earth. I was locked up three days, and neither ate nor drank. Locked there in darkness I bowed down in my chains, maybe to the east, maybe to the west. No one came to me, only the mice and the cockroaches; the crickets chirped and there were fleas to spare. It came to pass that on the third day I was voracious, that is, I wanted to eat, and after Vespers there stood before me, whether an angel or whether a man I didn't know and to this day I still don't know, but only that he said a prayer in the darkness, and taking me by the shoulder led me with my chain to the bench and sat me down, and put a spoon in my hands and a tiny loaf, and gave a dab of cabbage soup to sip - my it was tasty, uncommonly good! And he said unto me, "Enough, that will suffice thee for thy strengthening." And he was gone. The doors didn't open, but he was gone! It's amazing if it was a man, but what about an angel? Then there's nothing to be amazed about, there are no barriers to him anywhere.

In the morning the Archimandrite came with brethren and led me out; they scolded me: "Why don't you submit to the Patriarch?" But I blasted and barked at him from Holy Writ. They took off the big chain and put on a small one, turned me over to a monk for a guard, and ordered me hauled into the church. By the church the they dragged at my hair and drummed on my sides; they jerked at my chain and spit in my eyes. god will fogive them in this age and that to come. It wasn't their doing but cunning Satan's. I was locked up there four weeks.

At this time, after me, Login, Archpriest of Murom, was seized; he sheared him at Mass in the Cathedral Church, in the presence of the Tsar. During the Transposition of the Host the patriarch took the paten with the Body of Christ from the head of the Archdeacon and put it on the altar, but Therapont, the Archimandrite of the Cudovskij Monastery, was still outside the sanctuary with the chalice, standing by the royal gates! Alas a sundering of the Body of Christ worse than the work of the Jews! When they has shorn him, they ripped off his surplice and kaftan. But Login blazed with the zeal of the fire holiness, and rebuking Nikon he spat across the threshold into the sanctuary, in Nikon's face. Unbelting himself, he tore off his own shirt and threw it into the sanctuary, in Nikon's face. And wonder of wonders! - the shirt spread out and covered the paten on the altar like it was a communion cloth. And at that time the Tsarina was in the church. They put a chain on Login, and dragging him from the church they beat him with brooms and whips all the whips all the way to the Bogojavlenskij Monastary and tossed him naked into a cell, and musketeers were stationed to stand strict watch. But that night God gave him a new fur coat and a cap. In the morning Nikon was told, and having roared with laughter, he said, "I know all about those sham saints!" And he took away the cap but left him the coat.

After this they again led me on foot out of the monastery to the Patriarch's Court, as before stretching out my arms, and having contended much with me they led me away again the same way. Later, on St. Nikita's Day, there was a procession with crosses, but me they again carried in a cart, meeting the crosses on their way. And the carried me to the Cathedral Church to shear me, and kept me at the threshold for a long time during the Mass. The Sovereign came down from his place, and approaching the Patriarch he prevailed upon him. They didn't shear me, but led me off the Siberia Office and handed me over to the secretary Tret'jak Basmak, now the Elder Savatej who also suffers in Christ, locked up in a dungeon pit at Novospasskij. Save him, O Lord! And at that time he was good to me.

This part tells about Avvukums traveling in Siberia.(1653) Many prisoners were forced to help with the colonisation of Siberia. Avvakum sat in the group of Afanasij Pasjkov

So then I climbed into my boat again, the one that had been shown to me, of which I have spoken previously, and I journeyed to the Lena. But when I came to Yeniseisk another decree arrived; it ordered us to carry on into Daurija - this would be more than twenty thousand versts from Moscow. And they handed me over into the troop of Afanasij Paskov; the people there with him numbered six hundred. As a reward for my sins he was a harsh man; he burned and tortured and flogged people all the time. I had often tied to bring him to reason, and here I had fallen into his hands myself. And from Moscow he had orders from Nikon to afflict me.

After we had traveled out of Yeniseisk, when we were on the great Tunguska River, my raft was completely swamped by a storm; it filled full of water in the middle of the river, everything else had gone under. My wife, bareheaded, just barely dragged the children out of the water onto the decks. But looking to Heaven I shouted, "Lord, save us! Lord, help us!" And by God's will we were washed ashore. Much could be said about this! On another raft two men were swept away and drowned in the water. After putting ourselves to rights on the bank, we traveled on again.

When we came to the Samanskij Rapids we met some people sailing the other way. With them were two widows, one about sixty and the other older; they were sailing to a convent to take the veil. But Paskov started to turn them around and wanted to give them in marriage. And I said to him, "According to the Canons it is not fitting to give such women in marriage." What would it cost him to listen to me and let the widows go? But no, being enraged he decided to afflict me. On another rapids, the Long Rapids, he started to kick me out of the raft. "Because of you," he says, "the raft won't go right! You're a heretic! Go walk through the mountains, you're not going with Cosacks!" Ah, misery came my way! The mountains were high, the forests dense, the cliffs of stone, standing like a wall - you'd crick your neck looking up! In those mountains are found great snakes; geese and ducklings with red plumage, black ravens, and grey jackdaws also live there. In those mountains are eagles and falcons and gerfalcons and mountain pheasants and pelicans and swans and other wild fowl, an endless abundance, birds of many kinds. In those mountains wander many wild beasts, goats and deer, Siberian stags and elk, wild boars, wolves, wild sheep - you'll lay your eyes on them but never your hands ! Paskov drove me out into those mountains to live with the beasts and the snakes and the birds.

So I wrote him a shot little epistle; the beginning went like this; "Man! Fear God, who sitteth above the Cherubim and gazeth into the abyss; before him the heavenly Powers do tremble and all creation together with mankind. Thou alone dost scorn and exhibit unseemliness" - and so on. A good bit was written there, and I sent it to him. And Lo, about fifty men ran up, seized my raft, and rushed off to him (I was camped about three versts away from him). I cooked the Cossacks some porridge, and I fed them. The poor souls, the both ate and trembled, and others watching wept for me and pitied me.

Now we are at the Irgenlake. The regiment of Pasjkov has not enough food because Moscow can't deliver them food on an apropiate way...

Then we moved to Lake Irgen. A portage is there and during the winter we started hauling. He took away my workers but wouldn’t order others hired in their places. And the children were little - many to eat but no one to work. All alone this poor, miserable old Archpriest made a dogsled, and the winter long he dragged himself over the portage. In the spring we floated down the Ingoda river on rafts. It was the fourth summer of my voyage from Tobol’sk. We were herding logs for houses and forts. Soon there was nothing to eat; people started dying off from hunger and from tramping about and working in water. The river was shallow, the rafts heavy, the guards merciless, the cudgels big, the clubs knotty, the knouts cutting, the tortures savage - fire and rack! - people were starving, they’d only start torturing someone and he’d die! Ah, what a time! I don’t know why he went off his head like that! The Archpriestess had an overdress from Moscow that hadn’t rotted. In Russia it’d be worth more then twenty-five rubles, but here, he gave us four sacks of rye for it. And we dragged on for another year or two, living on the Nertcha River and eating grass to keep body and soul together. He was killing everyone with hunger. He wouldn’t let anyone leave to get a living, keeping us in a small area. People would roam across the steppes and fields and dig up grasses and roots, and we right there with them. In the winter it was pine bark, and sometimes God gave us horse meat; we found the bones of beasts brought down by wolves, and what the wolf hadn’t eaten, we did. And some of those near frozen to death even ate wolves, and foxes, and whatever came their way, all sorts of corruption. A mare would foal and on the sly the starving would eat the foal and the foul afterbirth. And when Pashkov found out, he would flog them half to death with a knout. And a mare died. Everything went to waste because the foal had been dragged out of her against nature; she only showed his head and they jerked him out, yes and even started eating the foul blood. Ah, what a time!

And in these privations two of my little sons died, and with the others we somehow suffered on, roaming naked and barefoot through the mountains and over the sharp rocks, keeping body and soul together with grasses and roots. And I myself, sinner that I am, I both willingly and unwillingly partook on the flesh of mares and the carrion of beasts and birds. Alas for my sinful soul! “Who will give my head water and a fountain of tears that I might weep for my poor soul,” which I wickedly sullied with worldly pleasures? But we were helped in the name of Christ by the Boyarina, the Commander’s daughter-in-law Evdokija Kirillovna, yes and by Afanasij’s wife Fekla Simeonovna too. They gave us relief against starvation secretly, without his knowing. Sometimes they sent a little piece of meat, sometimes a small round loaf, sometimes a bit of flour and oats, as much as could be scraped together, a quarter pound and maybe a pound or two more, sometimes she saved up a good half pound and sent it over, and sometimes she raked feed out of the chicken trough. My daughter Agrafena, the poor little love, on the sly she would wander over under the Boyarina’s window. And we didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry! Sometimes they’d drive the little child away from the window without the Boyarina’s knowing, but sometimes she’d drag back a good bit. She was a little girl then, but now she’s twenty-seven and still unmarried. My poor, dear daughter, now she lives in tears at Mezen with her younger sisters, keeping body and soul together somehow. And her mother and brothers sit locked up, buried in the earth. But what’s to be done? Let those broken hearts suffer for the sake of Christ. So be it, with God’s help. For it is ordained that we must suffer, we must suffer for the sake of the Christian faith. You loved, Archpriest, of the famed to be friend; love then to endure, poor wretch, to the end! It is written: “Blessed is not he that begins, but he that has finished.” But enough of this. Let’s get back to my story.

Winter 1660-1661. Avvakum is traveling back to Russia with his family ...

Later we tuned back from the Nerca River towards Russia. For five weeks we traveled by dogsled over naked ice. He gave me two miserable old nags for the little ones and for our pitiful belongings, but the Archpriestess and myself trudged along on foot, stumbling and hurting ourselves on the ice. The land was barbarous, the natives hostile. We dared not leave the horses at length; keeping up with them was outside our strength - starving and weary people we were. The poor Archpriestess tottered and trudged along, and then she'd fall in a heap - fearfully slippery it was! Once she was trudging along and she caved in, and another just as weary trudged up into her and ight there caved in himself. They were both shouting, but they couldn't get up. The peasant was shouting, "Little mother, my Lady, forgive me!" But the Archpriestess was shouting, "Why'd you crush me, father?" I came up, and the poor dear started in on me, saying, "Markovna, right up to our very death." And so she sighed and answered, "Good enough, Petrovic, then let's be getting on."

We had a good little black hen. By God's will she laid two eggs a day for our little ones' food, easing our need. That's how God arranged it. During that time she was crushed while riding on a dogsled, because of our sins. And even now I pity that little hen when she comes to mind. Not a hen nor anything short of a miracle she was - the year round she gave us two eggs a day! Next to her a hundred rubles aren't worth spit, pieces of iron! That little bird was inspired, God's creation. She fed us, and there at our side she'd peck the pinbarck porridge right out of the spot, or if some fish came our way, then she'd peck at a little fish. And against this she gave us two eggs a day! Glory be to God, who hath arranged all things well!! And we came by her in no ordinary way. All the Boyarina's hens went blind and started to die, so she gathered them into a basket and sent them to me in hopes that "the good Father might favor us and pray for these hens." Well sir, I thought some on it: to us she'd been a real benefactress, she had little ones, and she needed those hens. I chanted prayers of supplication, blessed some water, and sprinkled and censed the hens. Then I tramped around in the forest and built them a trough to eat from. I sprinkled it with the water and sent the whole kit and caboodle back to her. And with a sign from God the hens were cured and made whole, because of her faith. It was from that flock that our little hen came. But enough talk about this. It wasn't today taht such became the usual thing with Christ; Cosmas and Damian performed good deeds and healed for both man and beast in Christ's name. All things are needful to God; every little beast and bird lives to the glory of him, who is our most immaculate Lord, and for the sake of man as well.

We are now during the council of 1666. Avvakum is back in Moscow. Nikon is not in charge anymore, but his laws are still being followed. Avvakum is banned to Pustozjerk. The first 3 years, he is relatively free, but from 1670, they imprisoned him in a cell under the ground till the end of his life.

So they took us to the scaffold, and after an edict was read they led me away to a dungeon without mutilating me. The edict read: "Imprison Avvakum in the earth, in a log frame, and give him bread and water." And I spat in answer and wanted to starve myself to death. And I didn't eat for about eight days or more, but the brethren directed me to eat again.

Later they took the priest Lazar and cut his entire tongue from his throat. Just a bit of blood there was, and then it stopped. And he again spoke even without a tongue. Next they put his right hand on the block and chopped it off at the wrist, and lying there on the ground, of itself the severed hand composed its fingers according to tradition, and it lay that way a long time before the people. Poor thing, it confessed even in death the unchanging sign of the Savior. And that, sir, was a miracle that amazed even me: the lifeless convicted the living! On the third day after, I felt and stroked inside his mouth with my hand; it was all smooth, no tongue at all, but it didn't hurt. God granted him him speedy healing. They had sliced away at him in Moscow. Some of the tongue remained then, but now everything was cut out, nothing left. But he spoke plainly for two years, as if with a tongue. When two years had passed there was another miracle: in three days his tongue grew back complete, only a little bit blunt, and again he spoke, praising God and rebuking the apostates.

Later they took the Solovki hermit, the Elder Epifanij, a monk of the angelical image, and they cut out the rest of his tongue. And four of his fingers were chopped off. At first he snuffled his words. Later he entreated the most immaculate Mother of God, and both tongues, from Moscow and from here, were shown him on a communion cloth. He took one and put it in his mouth, and from that time he started to speak plainly and clearly. And he had a whole tongue in his mouth. Wonderful are the works of the Lord and inexpressible are the designs of the Most High! He suffers punishment, but he has mercy and heals again. But why go on and on ? God's an old hand at miracles, he brings us from nonexistence to life. And surely he will resurrect all human flesh on the last day in the twinkling of an eye. But who can comprehend this? For God is this: he creates the new and renews the old. Glory be to him in all things!

This is the last passage of the book, which ends in an anticlimax. He talks about the exorcism of a devil, in the beginning of his priestdays...

And when I was still a priest, in those first days when I had just turned to my labors in Christ, a devil scared me this way. My wife was grievously ill, and her confessor had come to her. Deep in the night I left our place for the church, to get the book for her confession. And when I came to the church porch, till then a little table had been standing there, but when I came up that table started hopping about in its place, acted on by a devil. But I wasn't frightened, and after praying before the icon I signed the table with my hand, and going over I set it down, and it cut short its capers. When I entered the narthex, in a coffin on a bench, and acted on by that devil on board on top opened and the shroud started to stir, frightening me. But I prayed to God I signed the corpse with my hand, and everything was as before. When I entered the sanctuary, sure enough the chasubles and dalmatics were flying from place to place, frightening me again. But I prayed and kissed the communion table, and I blessed the vestments with my hand, and drawing close I touched them, and they hung there as always. Then I got the book and left the church. There you have the kind of devilish devices used against us! But enough talk of this. What can't power of the Cross and holy oil do for the possessed and the sick through God's grace! Yes, and it behooves us to remember this: it's not for our sake, it's not to us but to his own name that the Lord gives the glory. But I, the scum of the earth, what could I do if it weren't for Christ? It is fitting that I weep for myself. Judas was a miracle worker, but for his love of silver he fell to the devil. And the devil himself was in heaven, but for his pride was he cast down. Adam was in paradise, but for his lust was he driven out and condemned to five thousand five hundred years in hell. After this let him who in understanding "thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." Hang on to the feet of Christ and pray to the Mother of God and all the saints, and all will be well!

Well, Elder, you've listened to more than enough of my gabbling. In the name of the Lord I command you: write down for the servant of Christ how the Mother of God crumpled that devil in her hands and turned him over to you, and how those ants ate at your private parts, and how that devil set your wood on fire and your cell was burnt but everything in it remained whole, and how you shouted to Heaven, and whatever else you recall, to the glory of Christ and the Mother of God. Heed what I'm saying: if you don't start writing I'll be vexed and no mistake! You loved listening to me, so why be ashamed? Say something, if only a little! The Apostles Paul and Barnabas related before everyone at the council in Jerusalem "what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them," in Acts, lesson 36; and in lesson 42, "and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified, and many that believed came, and confessed, and showed their deeds." Yes, and much of this is found in the Epistles of Paul and in Acts. Tell away, never fear, just keep your conscience clear! Speak, seeking glory not for yourself but for Christ and the Mother of God. Let the servant of Christ rejoice in reading it. When we die, he will read and remember us before God. And we will entreat God on behalf of those who read and listen. They will be our people there at Christ's side, and we theirs, forever and ever. Amen.