Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov): Non-reading Readers and Other Phenomena of Life
Only one step and I found myself in an amazing place.
Just behind me, only two meters away was Lubyanka Street,
a flood of honking cars and people rushing to work. But in
front of me beyond the monastery gates were roses in
bloom, a pond with a babbling stream, and icons with
burning oil lamps between groves of trees. Rays of the
morning autumn sun illumined the church’s domes. But
most amazing of all was that I had passed this place
hundreds of times and never even noticed the splendor just
beyond the trees.
I could not believe my eyes. Could this really be the
center of Moscow? But the further I walked along the
well-kept and manicured paths, the more people—monks
and laymen—I met coming out of the church, the more
markedly did I comprehend that this was all for real. And
do you know what was lingering in the air? Peace, quiet,
and something inimitably cozy, like something from
childhood… You don’t believe it? Don’t
be lazy—go take a look for yourself.
I had already read Everyday Saints a long time ago. To
be honest, I wasn’t surprised at the readers’
enthusiastic remarks and the book’s many literary
awards. To the contrary, I was amazed at the reaction
coming from people who, to say the least, are not avid
readers. Did it cause a revolution in their consciousness?
Did it get them to start reading again? Not at all. The
“non-reading readers” really did
“dig” into their memory, recalled, thought
over, and reassessed their meetings with people who had
turned their lives around.
Tikhon, tell us about the events leading up to the
creation of your book. How did you get the idea to
write it, and why now?
—I had told these stories many times before to my
students, friends, and brothers of the monastery. Some of
those who heard them asked me to write them down, and
since I have written many things before and am used to
writing, at a certain moment the structure of the book
took shape, and it looked interesting to me. You know, I
think that every writer is really writing to specific
people. The second no less important—although
somewhat egotistical—element is that what you write
must be interesting to you. Well, I felt that both of
these elements were present. The work took two years. I
needed to edit it eleven times before I felt it was ready
to be given to other editors. The result was this book.
To tell the truth, when I wrote it I consciously set an
important goal for myself—to take the reader into
ANOTHER world populated with its own heroes, having its
own space and time. I thought to myself that if I can
achieve that, I’ve achieved everything.
—Regardless of this mission impossible, you have
said many times that you were surprised at the
book’s “unexpected success”. How can you
explain the phenomenon of this book among the broader
—It is something hard to evaluate. Because these
stories were not my creation, I am no more than the
re-teller and witness of those events—in this case,
life in the Church founded by Christ two thousand years
ago. Apparently the book has touched into some very
important reality in the spiritual life of many people,
even people who are quite far from any kind of religiosity
or weekly church attendance. For me it was extremely
important and interesting that a large number of people
responded who had found in the book much that resembled
their own fate. After all, as the ancient writer
Tertullian wrote, “The soul of every person is by
nature a Christian.”
The book has a life of its own: we have received tens of
thousands of responses by mail and on the internet. On
October 5, 2012 the English version was presented in the
Library of Congress in Washington DC, the French
translation is due for release this autumn, in Greece they
are printing a second edition, and a Spanish translation
is being prepared. In Russia, the book has come out in
large print runs—1,100,000 copies, and as the
experts have told me, around 4,000,000 electronic versions
have been downloaded.
—By the way, there are no legal copies on the
—We haven’t done anything to prevent free
access to the electronic version.
—I could never bring myself to download a pirated
copy of that book. Many internet readers have told me that
after downloading the book from pirate sites and reading
the first few chapters, they went to the store and bought
the printed version to read the rest. You have to admit,
this is a unique situation for a contemporary book.
—Yes, the book has a life of its own, and I even
keep myself somewhat distanced from its future fate. Some
truly amazing things are happening. Not long ago, Fr.
Matthew Samokhin told me that a woman came and told him
that she had fallen into such a hopeless situation that
she had decided to commit suicide. She had prepared the
pills, but was biding her time. Her gaze fell upon the
book Everyday Saints that someone had recently
given her. In that state of utter despair she sat down and
started reading it, read it all night, and in the morning
went to the church to give confession. What greater reward
could a priest, a writer, or any man receive? In a case
like this you understand that you are nothing and no
one—you were only granted to be the instrument of
God’s providence; you did something that you
yourself don’t entirely understand… Then
suddenly it begins to work with infinitely more power than
you could ever have supposed it would.
—A perfectly natural question from your readers:
Will there be a sequel?
—I am thinking about that now. Recently I have had
to travel much around the country, meeting most often with
students. They often begin to tell me their own life
stories. This is how the thought came to me to compile
Everyday Saints 2, and to offer people to send
their stories to our website, Pravoslavie.ru, for
example. We will put the best ones on the site for people
to discuss, and then make a book out the ones that readers
chose as the best.
As for me personally, it is of course a nice idea to do a
sequel, but unfortunately I just don’t have enough
time. After all, I am a priest and the abbot of a
monastery, the rector of a seminary, and moreover an
ecclesiastical bureaucrat with a number of routine
obligations. That is why the book was practically never
written at a desk; all the writing mainly took place
“on my knees”: in the car, in the airplane, on
business trips, in hotels, and in all different countries
from Japan to Greece.
Generally speaking, if you mention plans, I had a dream of
making not a book but a film, and had even made an
agreement with one of our central television channels to
create an eight-part feature series, the main heroes of
which would be two men. The first is a Russian saint,
Archbishop Luke (Voino-Yasenetsky)—a professor, a
talented doctor, who became a priest and then a bishop in
1927, during the worst persecutions against the Church. As
could be expected he was sent to the labor camps, from
which he was released during wartime to work as a surgeon.
Already a bishop, he became the head of all the evacuation
hospitals in Siberia, led the life of an ascetic, and
received a 1st degree Stalin award for his book on
purulent surgery, which was used by several subsequent
generations of Soviet doctors. The second protagonist was
Stalin. These were two entirely separate worlds in Russia
of that period. So, first I took a month leave, went to
Greece near Mt. Athos, and wrote down all the main points
of the scenario, then came to Thessaloniki, left my bag
with my computer in the car, walked into a store, and
returned to find the window smashed and the bag stolen.
Therefore, in order to realize this dream I will need to
find at least a month of relatively free time.
do a lot of travelling, and talking with young
people. What kind of questions do students ask
|Sretensky Monastery, Moscow.
—It becomes ever clearer from our conversations what
problems are now most troubling our young people, and this
means they trouble all of society. The main problem, other
than questions of faith, is inter-ethnic relations. The
second most important problem is the drunkenness,
alcoholism, and drug addiction we see everywhere. Do you
remember how we once saved our northern peoples from
killing themselves with alcohol? Now the same question has
to be raised about the Russian people. If the Russians,
around whom our country has formed, are not shown some
real support, then the Russian provinces will continue to
drink and fall into degradation. I say without
exaggeration that a huge amount of complex work is now
being done, but few know about it. New, reasonable laws
are being passed to place limitations, and young people
are being offered more healthy alternatives.
There is yet another question that they all raise without
fail: the lack in our country of healthy and intelligible
humanitarian politics. We are often told that there is no
ideology in the West. Forgive me, but what about
Hollywood, for example? Isn’t it a machine that
brings all of America, even the whole world, in line with
its ideological patterns?
—The eternal question, the conflict between
parents and children, has taken on new features in the
present age. Internetization, or computerization, is today
both a benefit and a danger at the same time. Mothers who
read our site and are worried about their children’s
addiction to social networks, computer games and gadgets
have addressed a question to you. What should they do in
order not only to make their teenagers feel adequate in
the virtual world, but to also become truly worthy human
beings in the real world? How can they find a balance?
—The upbringing of children is a great and daily
creative process. It is the parents’ hard work and
constant, wise attention to their children. I have many
times had to confess people on their deathbeds. Their
confessions are not about not having earned a million
dollars, built a luxurious home, or been successful in
business. People in their final hours are first of all
full of regret for not having done some good, not having
helped or supported their family, friends, or even
incidental acquaintances. The second thing that torments
almost everyone before death is that they gave so little
time to their children.
That parents here do not know the lives of their children
is something I have become absolutely convinced of. We
made some films on the theme of anti-alcoholism and spoke
with some teenage girls who study in excellent schools.
These girls drink alcohol every day—well-advertised
energy cocktails, then beer, and on down the list…
Every day! According to the Russian Department of
Consumption, 30 percent of all boys and 20 percent of all
girls above the age of thirteen consume alcoholic
beverages daily. But their parents do not know
about it. And there is quite a bit more about which their
parents have no inkling. For example, the fact that many
teenagers age thirteen to fourteen live an adult life, and
by age seventeen have already gone through a large number
Such things are by no means rare, unfortunately. But I
cannot comprehend their real massiveness. What percentage
of the young generation will be able to create a normal
family if a huge percentage of marriages fall apart after
roughly two years? Therefore, if we talk about the
relationship between parents and children, it would seem
that we first have to talk about constant, daily, but at
the same time wise, unobtrusive attention to them. This is
an enormous job.
—Let’s return to the book. You are using
the proceeds to build a church, correct?
—We have a church in our monastery which is the only
one remaining of the original four. But it cannot contain
all the worshippers, and many have to stand outside, even
in winter. Sretensky Monastery is located on Lubyanka
Street, and we know what happened here in the last
We want to build a church that will be called the
“Church of the New Martyrs and Confessor of
Russia on the Blood, on Lubyanka.” We plan to
consecrate it in February of 2017. All the proceeds
received from sales of the book in and outside of
Russia will go to the building of this church.
—You head the publishing house in your monastery.
What kinds of books do you publish?
—Our publishing house is first of all a religious
one. We publish books about the ancient ascetics of piety,
the holy fathers, books on history, apologetics, a good
amount of classical literature, and textbooks for our
institutes of higher education. Incidentally, these
textbooks are also used in secular schools. We also
publish art albums. Every year we publish 250–300
books. This is basically our main service, and at the same
time, our main financial support. Furthermore we have a
seminary where 200 students study for six years, and we
support them as well. We have a children’s home with
100 children who come from difficult, dysfunctional
families. There we only provide financial support, while
professional teachers (including priests with degrees in
education) and caregivers actually work with the children.
The internet site Pravoslavie.ru also requires
money to produce. Thus, the publishing house bears a
humanitarian, educational, and financial burden.
—As far as I am aware, it is one of the most
successful religious publishers in Russia. Where else can
your books be purchased?
—Our books have been sold for a long time in
“Biblio-Globus” [one of the largest and most
popular bookstores in Moscow —Ed.]. We are very
grateful to that company’s administration for giving
our books such a great degree of attention. This is very
important for any publisher.
—What do you prefer to read?
—You know, I used to be a devourer of books. I would
read my favorite Dostoevsky novels twice over each year. I
loved the great novels of Leo Tolstoy. Also the Western
classics. And of course, Pushkin… But something
happened to me thirty years ago and I nearly stopped
reading those works, because I discovered a whole
continent of another kind of literature—St. John
Climacus, St. Isaac the Syrian, St. John Chrysostom, St.
Ignatius Brianchaninov, St. Theophan the Recluse. Their
works are so grandiose that after becoming acquainted with
them it is not so easy to go back to reading bestsellers.
From time to time I read memoirs; I don’t like
fictitious stories. To be quite honest, I feel a little
deprived for not reading modern literature, but what can I
say. It all comes back to time. You have to read when you
are young and have the time—and your whole life
ahead of you.
—Thank you for this interesting conversation!
by Elena Beilina