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Soviet religious dissident Zoya Krakhmalnikova dies at 79

The Guardian

April 2008

By Michael Bourdeaux

In the Brezhnev years an innocent person actively engaged in work as a "democrat" might expect to receive a sentence of five to ten years imprisonment. A sentence of one year demonstrated to the Soviet public - and the world - that not even the semblance of a crime could be pinned on the victim. The second variant was the fate of Zoya Krakhmalnikova, who has died, aged 79.

When she was sentenced in 1983 for reviving a pre-revolutionary Christian journal, Nadezhda (Hope), Krakhmalnikova used her judicial right to address a "final word" to the courtroom. She said: "I wasn't 'guilty' of producing Nadezhda - I was simply trying to re-establish what was suppressed sixty years ago. Nadezhda was produced for all who seek the Word of God, so there's no crime in producing these volumes. Thank God for everything!"

Zoya Krakhmalnikova was born on January 14, 1929, in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov (now Kharkiv), where she witnessed the arrest of her father in the 1936 purge. After the war, despite her background, she was educated in the Gorky Literary Institute, where she graduated in 1954, followed by post-graduate work at the Institute of World Literature. By the 1960s she was writing dozens of articles and publishing them in all the prestigious literary journals. She married another author, Feliks Svetov, and in 1967 she became a member of the Institute of Sociology in the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

However, in 1971 she was baptised into the Russian Orthodox Church, leading to dismissal from her job and from the Union of Writers, thus being banned from publishing. However, as in so many other instances, Soviet anti-religious tactics misfired. With no other outlet for her gifts, she devoted her talents to Christian writing, tackling the problem of the religious renaissance in the Soviet Union and sending several articles abroad for publication.

This piecemeal work did not long satisfy her. She wanted to produce something more systematic. In 1976 she began to compile a typewritten anthology, Nadezhda, to which she gave the sub-title Christian Reading - and it was just that. She was not a dissident writer who confronted the authorities on their human rights record or their suppression of religious liberty. Krakhmalnikova openly attached her own name to this work, which she aimed it at various levels of readership, not just the intelligentsia. She was particularly concerned to find sources and authors who could write on the historical roots of the Orthodox Church. She went back to the Church Fathers and published sermons by contemporary priests. However, when the journal tackled the twentieth century, this inevitably included articles on the "new martyrs", that is, the victims of communist repression. Further, the typescripts regularly reached the anti-Soviet publishing house, Posev, in West Germany, which printed them for smuggling back to the USSR.

The knock on Krakhmalnikova's door came at 4 am on August 4, 1982, when she was at her dacha. A year in the notorious Lefortovo prison followed, where her health declined. Ten issues of the journal had appeared and a few more subsequently appeared anonymously. Accused of sending these abroad and of publishing articles by the "dissident" priest, Fr Dmitri Dudko, Krakhmalnikova pleaded not guilty at her trial on April 1, 1983, a whole year after her arrest. The Soviet news agency, Tass, publicised her sentence, but omitted that it was to be followed by five years exile, obviously trying to emphasise the "leniency" of the court.

However, the year already spent in jail counted as part of her sentence and she was sent almost at once to a remote settlement, Ust-Kan, in the Altai region, adjacent to Mongolia. Like many before her, she adapted to her circumstances quickly. She found a small but light room, enjoyed the company of local people, could receive food parcels and have monthly visits from her husband and daughter. She had a Bible and acquired a few icons to put up in the traditional corner. However, there was no priest and she was barred from visiting the nearest church, which was almost 400 kilometres away.

Later her husband, too, was arrested and sent into exile a mere 120 kilometres away. As an Orthodox activist, he was one of the last victims of the communist repression of religion, being sentenced in January 1986, ten months after Gorbachev's accession. The pair refused to "repent" and petition for early release, but a pardon followed in July 1987. Krakhmalnikova became an active democrat, calling on leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church to repent of its collaboration with the Soviet authorities (which they never did).

Zoya Krakhmalnikova later published an autobiography (which appeared in the USA, but not in the UK). She never became a high-profile figure in Russia and was virtually unknown in the West (on April 5, 1983, this newspaper reported her arrest in a single sentence). However, she was influential in her circle, being fearless, radiant in her faith and yet personally modest. She opened the way for the new era of Christian publishing in Russia which began twenty years ago.

Zoya Alexandrovna Krakhmalnikova, Christian writer and editor, born January 14, 1929, died April 17, 2008.