Hieromonk Alexander, in the world Athanasius Vasilyevich Turuntayevskikh (he later changed his surname to Orlov), was born in 1878 in Vologda province in the family of Protopriest Basil, who served in one parish for 50 years. His mother, who was called Olga, was a deeply believing Christian. There were six brothers and one sister in the family. All the brothers and the brother-in-law were priests. Athanasius was the youngest in the family. The Lord placed the mark of His grace on the younger son of this noble spiritual family from his youngest years – Athanasius refused to eat meat from the age of five.
He went to study in a theological seminary. Now atheism was widespread among schoolchildren in those years, and Athanasius fell into its nets. But this was not hidden from his mother. On her deathbed – she died at the age of 56 – she told him: “Leave your atheist comrades, change your character and God will not abandon you.”
The death of Athanasius’ mother had been exactly prophesied by a fool-for-Christ, which made a strong impression on him, the more so in that a good provincial doctor had said that she would recover.
After the death of his mother Athanasius began to become interested in theology, the philosophical approach to religion, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul and life after death. But he was burdened by the fact that he had been so attracted to atheist ideas, and he was constantly pursued by the thought: “you will not be forgiven”. The thought gnawed at his brain: “If you wish to receive forgiveness, offer yourself as a sacrifice to God”.
In despair he decided to commit suicide. His nearest relatives did not let him out of their sight, but followed him day and night. Many priests tried to convince Athanasius to abandon his plan, but without success. He took a raw thong from a harness, put his head into a noose and stepped off the stool… But just at that moment a fiery streak of lightning flashed before his eyes, and for the rest of his life he remembered the voice which he heard: “Now you are mine. There is no repentance in the grave.” And then he heard the powerful laugh of the devil.
At that moment he repented and came to on the floor – the end of the raw thong was swaying on the ceiling, and noose hung round his neck. One hearing the noise his relatives ran up. His godfather, who was a priest, confessed him and gave him communion. He sincerely repented and the thought of suicide never entered his mind again. Another priest, a friend of his father’s, said to him: “Athanasius, Satan told you the truth – there is no repentance in the grave. But you are not yet in the grave, and you can still repent.’
Athanasius imposed a strict fast upon himself and intensified his prayer. He graduated from the seminary and took up a three-year practical as a psalm-reader in a small parish where there were few services – only every Sunday. Since he was knowledgeable in medicine (according to one source, he had both a medical and a university training), he worked to counter epidemics of typhus and dysentery.
In 1915, during the First World War, he went to the front as a volunteer, serving as a regimental priest. With a cross in his hand, he would go in front of the soldiers into battle for the Faith, the Tsar and the Fatherland. His fearlessness, untiring service and flaming faith attracted the soldiers.
At the defence of Yakibstadt bridgehead, Fr. Athanasius did not allow the sappers to blow up the bridge until all the soldiers and the numerous wounded had been transported across from the German side of the river, for the water was cold and swift-flowing. The soldiers then met and decreed that Fr. Alexander should be given the cross of St. George.
He was three years at the front, and fell into captivity for seven months, but managed to escape. He did not go home, but returned to the front. He went into the trenches with his cross and words of encouragement. He also gave sermons. For his faithful service he was awarded with a gramota and golden cross by his Majesty Tsar Nicholas II. He was to receive this award personally from the Tsar, but the arrest of the Tsar in 1917 prevented this.
After the revolution Fr. Athanasius received no salary. However, the older soldiers tired to persuade him not to leave. And he remained until the front was liquidated, saying: “Dear ones, it’s a shame to break one’s oath”.
In 1918 he returned from the front and took up a position in Gribtsevo, Vologda province. His parish consisted of widely scattered villages and a church near a river. There was a bell-tower with one bell weighing 450 pounds, a second – 150, and a third – 80. There were always many parishioners in church. On the eve of Sundays and feasts, Fr. Athanasius introduced all-night vigils, which were followed by choir rehearsals with everyone chanting. He also introduced discussions outside the services: explanations of the Creed, the commandments and the Law of God, Church history, explanations of prayers and answers to parishioners’ questions.
Fr. Athanasius used to reminisce about this period: “I felt myself to be an irredeemable debtor before the Lord for my previous sins, lack of faith and the sins of my youth, and full of gratitude to the Lord for His mercy towards me in the war and in captivity. I was young, my voice was strong, I did not tire easily. I often had to speak on the subject of atheism, and to discuss the reality of the personality of Jesus Christ. I considered it my duty to acquaint my parishioners with the great scientists who had believed in God. At this time the Law of God was forbidden in schools, so Fr. Athanasius tried to speak more about God. This did not please the atheists. In the provincial newspaper they began to slander him. It became still more difficult for Fr. Athanasius to serve in his parish. The authorities sought the slightest excuse to arrest him, they imposed insupportable taxes on him and forbade him to preach.
Once a group of agitators came to the village soviet and posted a notice ordering the villagers to appear at a debate. The old rector refused to speak at the debate, but Fr. Athanasius decided to speak. He used what he himself had read and what he had heard in a debate in 1921 between Vvedensky and Lunacharsky against the atheists. The agitators could produce nothing in reply, and the senior member of the collective began to shout: “Arrest him…!”
“Everything you have is based on might, not on right,” said Fr. Athanasius fervently, “and not on facts or logic. A bear has got still greater might – he can beat up whomever he wants.”
Fr. Athanasius went home and the peasants dispersed. Two weeks later, they arrested him while he was paying a visit with his wife. He was brought to the village soviet under the guard of a policeman. This was on Cheesefare Saturday, and there were many people in the street. The people gathered at the village soviet and began to demand the release of the priest. The president of the soviet summoned a detachment of soldiers.
“The priest has stirred up the whole district in rebellion,” he said.
The bell for the all-night vigil was sounding, and some of the people went into the church. It became quieter on the street. They said that Fr. Athanasius would be taken out the next day. However, during the service they took him out of the village, and then forced him to go the whole way by foot. Snow was falling heavily, the convoy were traveling on wooden sledges while he walked behind them for 50 kilometres along the snowy road. The soldiers whipped the horse, and forced him to run. Later it turned out that they had been given the order to shoot him while he was supposedly trying to run away.
First he was put into a common cell in Kandakovsk prison. The investigators interrogated him, often using the butts of their rifles and constantly coming back to the same accusation: “He went round the parishes and villages conducting discussions”. But this was not true – he gave sermons only in the church. The investigator demanded that he confess, and that would be the end of the matter. But this would have meant that they could drag off any villager who let him conduct a discussion in his house.
Fr. Athanasius exposed their coarseness and refused to give any evidence before the drunken investigator. They sent him to the GPU in the provincial capital of Vologda, and there to a revolutionary tribunal. The interrogators began again, with yet more accusations – there were now 18 points in all. The president of the revolutionary tribunal accused him of mocking the soldiers in the war. In rebuttal of this accusation, Fr. Athanasius produced his cross of St. George. Then they accused him of conducting anti-semitic propaganda against the Jews. But Fr. Athanasius had not a single Jew in his parish. And at the front he had even defended the Jews, for which they had given him a present, a sacred book in Russian and Hebrew with a silver plaque and the inscription: “To the highly respected priest of the 237th Graiboronsky regiment, from the Jews of this regiment”. They asked to see the book, and it served as a proof of the truthfulness of Fr. Athanasius’ evidence.
Throughout the Great Fast until Palm Sunday Fr. Athanasius was constantly being brought under armed guard from his solitary cell for interrogations in various parts of the city. He was not allowed parcels from home. However, the day after seeing the procurator he was given back his clothes and documents and allowed to return to his parish. He served the services of Holy Week and met the Day of Resurrection with joy.
“That Pascha was especially joyful,” he said, “for my family, for me and for the parishioners. Their petitions, even as far as the centre, had been crowned with success. By the mercy of God, I, too, was resurrected!”
Fr. Athanasius rejected the declaration of Metropolitan Sergius. He was a mitred protopriest with the right to wear two crosses, and the people stood up for him through thick and thin in his conflicts with the authorities, who watched his every step. The MVD boss declared openly that he wanted to get him. And they began to threaten him with prison and execution for his fierce sermons against atheism. In 1930 he was arrested and spent three years in a camp building the Pinyuga road. He ran away, but had to hide continually from the authorities.
Fr. Athanasius sought an answer to his dilemma in the Gospel. He found it in Luke 14.26-27: “If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whosoever does not bear his cross, and come after Me, cannot be My disciple”. These few words made his decision clear and firm – to leave his family, because he was not allowed to serve honourably as a priest under Soviet power and his conscience did not allow him to become a traitor.
In 1935 he left his family, his wife and four children – his youngest son Nicholas was only six years old. He went to the river, and left a note on the bank which said: “It is impossible to live like this”. Then he left his clothes there (so that they should not look for him in the surrounding villages), signed himself with the sign of the cross and left his native land. He took up employment as a shepherd, and in the winter was a sexton in the church of the Holy Spirit.
As a shepherd he wore old peasant clothes and was distinguished from the others by his meekness, humility, eagerness to please and kindness. It was clear from his face that he was not who he said he was. The villagers noticed this, and to test him gave him sour food to eat – but he was satisfied with everything.
In the church he did not go up close to the kliros in case he forgot himself and began to chant. Once, however, in Staraya Russa, he couldn’t help it – he began to chant. This gave him away completely. Once he was asked to baptize a child, he couldn’t refuse. There were rumours that this was not a simple peasant but someone who was hiding from Soviet power.
The time had come to leave the area. And so, thanking God, Who had enlightened him through the Holy Gospel and Who had made it easier for him to bear the burden of leaving his family, he went to the railway station and got on a train taking him eastwards. This was in 1941.
He came out in Omsk in Siberia. Having neither money nor even a crust of bread, and not knowing anybody, he began to beg for alms, first by the viaduct, and then in the Nikolskaya church. But nobody gave him anything. Fr. Athanasius prayed to God and thanked Him for sending him this trial for the purification of his former sins.
He came out of the church and saw an elderly woman with a heavy suitcase. He offered to help her. This woman turned out to be a believer, and she gave him something to eat. He told her that he was a priest, but did not recognize the sergianist church. Gradually a parish was formed around him.
At first only a few individuals came, then it was tens of people. Finally, such a large catacomb community was formed that it was difficult to find a place where they could all fit in for the festal services, and admission had to be limited. The community included nuns who had been driven out of their destroyed monasteries. The nuns and believing old women collected books and vestments and church utensils. Then people were found who sewed gonfalons, and former monastery artists who painted icons. Then there appeared readers and chanters. People learned how to make candles, to bake prosphoras and boil incense.
At the end of the 1940s he became a monk with the name Alexander in the city of Ufa. He also changed his surname to Orlov after a nun whom he tonsured in Omsk, Elizabeth Orlova.
Fr. Alexander commemorated Schema-Bishop Peter of Nizhegorod, and later the First Hierarchs of the Russian Church Abroad.
People invited Fr. Alexander to their homes, and he went from house to house. Children were baptized, people repented of their sins and received the Holy Mysteries, burials and pannikhidas for the reposed were carried out. All this was done at great risk both for Fr. Alexander and for the parishioners, but God preserved and strengthened them.
On great feasts as many as 100 people gathered. The service was long. It began with an all-night vigil in the evening and finished at 4 in the morning, lasting twelve hours. The daily services began at about 3 or 4 o’clock and continued until late in the evening. During the proskomedia Fr. Alexander took out a particle for each believer. He spent a long time on confessions and sermons, which caused some of the old women to complain, but he was adamant. In his sermons, which made a great impression on many, batyushka especially concentrated on the refutation of atheist propaganda about the existence of God, and pointed out how many of the great scientists believed in God.
Fr. Alexander had a special veneration for the Mother of God. With what emotion and love he read akathists and molebens to her, and recounted the miraculous healings wrought through her icons in Holy Russia! He also knew the lives of the saints very well, and would often bring up examples from their lives to illustrate a point.
During the 1950s, when atheists were being introduced into the seminaries, Fr. Alexander would warn about these “wolves in sheep’s clothing”.
Fr. Alexander would make small placards with glorifications of the Lord, and he would travel on trains carrying them – something unheard-of in the Soviet Union. Thus at Pascha, to the amazement of the train passengers, he would travel with a placard saying “Christ is risen!”
Twice batyushka was picked up off the streets of Omsk because of the unusual nobility of his bearing and brought to the police station. But with the help of God he was released. Once, while he was celebrating the Divine Liturgy, at the moment of consecration of the Holy Gifts the police came in. Fr. Alexander took the chalice with the Holy Gifts and stood up against the wall, covering himself with a tablecloth. The police did not notice him. By the Providence of God and the prayers of the Most Holy Mother of God, Fr. Alexander and his flock were often saved from the torture-chambers of the KGB.
The servant of God Anna remembers how she was healed by him. She went to Fr. Alexander on Sundays and feastdays seeking healing from her illness. Most of the time she seemed a normal person, but when they began to chant the Cherubic hymn she suddenly became anxious and began to shout in an inhuman voice. They had to drag her up to receive communion. In 1952, at the request of her relatives, Fr. Alexander read prayers over the sick woman, and the demon was driven out of her. Since then Anna has become a normal Christian who regularly, in peace and with the fear of God, receives the Holy Mysteries and lives a Christian life.
In the middle of the 1960s a chance arrival at one of the services turned out to be a former parishioner of Fr. Alexander’s in the church where he served before he left his family. She recognized him, as he did her. After she had told him about his family he decided to visit them.
They were convinced that he had drowned in the river. After he had told them what happened, they told him that his daughter Olga was working for the KGB. His wife just wept. But his daughter said to him: “Father! I give you my room. I will hang it with icons. You pray in it as much as you want, but stay with the family!”
Fr. Alexander replied: “My daughter, I’ll do everything you suggest, but only on condition that you leave your work for the KGB”.
His daughter replied that she could not do that. Then Fr. Alexander said: “Well then, my daughter, you cannot leave your work at the KGB, and I cannot leave my service to God and the people who have been entrusted to me. My life belongs to the Church of Christ.”
At this they parted. Fr. Alexander and his novice Maria left for Omsk, not suspecting that at the order of his daughter he had been placed under constant surveillance.
By the will of God, however, Fr. Alexander did not fall into the hands of the KGB. His novice went through all the interrogations without giving away anything about batyushka or his address. However, this information was supplied by Maria’s landlady.
So the church services stopped, and Maria was forced to go to her parents in Semipalatinsk while for Fr. Alexander there began a life full of alarms and persecutions. In order not to expose his Omsk parishioners to danger, he went only where he was invited. By the Providence of God, faithful Christians offered him refuge in many towns, especially Tavda, Vyatka, Ufa, Ust-Kamenogorsk, Semipalatinsk and Novy Afon.
Once, when he was traveling by boat to Semipalatinsk, he sat down at the piano and began to play: “God, save the Tsar”. A detective who was travelling on the boat then told him that he would be arrested on disembarking. But it turned out that the detective got drunk, fell asleep and set fire to his mattress in the cabin. Meanwhile, Fr. Alexander had disembarked and escaped.
Once on arriving in Omsk he said: “My daughter has betrayed me.” People came to visit him more rarely because many, and especially young people, were being summoned to interrogations. There they always demanded answers to the same questions – about Fr. Alexander. And they were asked to work as stooges for the KGB.
Once Fr. Alexander, accompanied by Nun Elizabeth (Orlova), went to Novy Afon and stopped in the house of a believing woman. Unexpectedly that evening a search-warrant was issued for him. The mistress of the house managed to hide them in the attic. The KGB searched the whole house, but did not think of looking in the attic. Having waited for him the whole night, they left in the morning. There had been a sharp frost that night, and Fr. Alexander and Nun Elizabeth came down from the attic seriously ill. They took a long time to recover and somehow managed to get back to Omsk. But batyushka stopped traveling after that, and never completely recovered from his illness. He walked with difficulty, and Nun Elizabeth lost all her teeth.
In 1969, eight years before his death, his sight began to fail. Then he became completely blind and fell ill. But his hearing was good to the end. He knew the simple services by heart, but he needed to be prompted when it came to the festal exclamations. He celebrated the Liturgy only in the presence of his spiritual father, Hieromonk Anthony, who had been a cleric of Schema-Bishop Peter (Ladygin) and had spent many years in prison. Fr. Anthony would often go to Omsk to fulfil the needs of the Christians of that city. Fr. Alexander spent most of his time with him in Tavda until his death there in 1973. Then Fr. Alexander returned to Omsk.
In one of his last letters which have not been destroyed, Fr. Alexander wrote:
“Dear brothers and sisters in Christ!
“I appeal to you with a last humble request before my death: receive as a prayerful memento of the sinful hieromonk Alexander a humble gift which will nevertheless be very useful for all believers: the five prayers of the hierarch Demetrius of Rostov.
“I ask forgiveness of all if I have offended anyone in anything because of my feeble mind, lack of foresight, pettiness, insufficient self-control or, most important, lack of the fear of God – the beginning of spiritual wisdom.
“I beseech you all who believe in the Lord God to raise your fraternal Christian prayer that the Lord send me a Christian end and count me worthy of a good answer before the Terrible Judgement Seat of Christ. May the Lord reward you with temporary and eternal blessings.
“My path is life is ending with the words of St. John Chrysostom and the hierarch Nicholas, my favourite hierarchs – Glory to God for all things!…”
Before his death he said: “I have much to say, but I can’t”.
And before his death he forbade anyone to make any inscription over his grave, saying: “I lived in secret and must lie in secret”.
Twenty-four hours before his death, he began to breathe with difficulty. In the neighbouring room they read the prayers for the departure of the soul from the body. On the morning of his death they had already read the prayers for him although he had not heard them. As he was dying they were reading the akathist to the holy great-martyr Barbara.
He died at the age of ninety-nine in the city of Omsk (according to another source, Tomsk) in the family of a pious widow on August 29, 1977 at six o’clock in the evening. He had been a priest for more than seventy years, and had been serving in the catacombs for forty.
He was buried in Omsk in the north-eastern cemetery.
The radiant memory of this wonderful man and pastor and fierce denouncer of the atheist Bolshevik power lives on in the hearts of his parishioners who are alive. The path to his grave is not overgrown. When the parishioners meet, the conversation always turns to Fr. Alexander, and the prayers of those who pray to him at his grave are always answered.
The present first-hierarch of the Russian True Orthodox Church, Archbishop Tikhon of Omsk, was a member of Fr. Alexander’s Omsk community during his lifetime, serving as assistant to the warden, Theodore Kirillovich Kuvaldin.
(Sources: “Zhiznennij put’ ieromonakha Aleksandra (Orlova) v Omskoj obschine katakombnoj Pravoslavnoj Tserkvi”, Tserkovnaia Zhizn’, NN 1-2, January-April, 1994, pp. 41-57; “Katakombnij Ispovednik Aleksandr (Orlov)”,
“Ustnie vopominania raby Bozhiej N.I. Pashko o katakombnom dukhovenstve”, Pravoslavnaia Zhizn’, 52, N 11 (634), November, 2002, pp. 28-30)