A Christian Death
as a priest sometimes offers a perspective available to
no one else. I’m not even speaking here about the
privilege of serving the Divine Liturgy, of standing
before the throne of God in the moments of the
celebration of the Eucharist. This is a joy beyond all
description. But, even beyond performing the Liturgy,
the priesthood has certain exclusive opportunities for
discovering humanity and the world that those outside
the priesthood cannot even begin to contemplate.
|Actor and film director Sergei Fyodorovich Bondarchuk
Often during the last minutes of the life on earth of a
Christian, his or her priest is with the doctor. But the
priest is the only witness of the last confession. I am
not speaking about what the dying person specifically
repents of: people’s sins are usually fairly
similar. But the priest gets to be a witness, and even
sometimes a participant, in the remarkable event of the
revelation of God’s will to a person.
In the Agrapha or sayings of Christ it is written,
“In whatsoever things I apprehend you, in those I
will judge you.” The clergy has long believed that
if before a person’s death he is able to take Holy
Communion, that person’s soul immediately goes up to
God, without undergoing any ordeals after death.
I have often been struck by how various persons (of whom
there are quite a few examples) could go to church all
their life and even be monks, or priests, or even bishops,
and yet somehow circumstances before their death were such
that they died before receiving Communion. Others never
went to church at all, and lived as unbelievers, and yet
in their final days they not only revealed true deep faith
and repentance, but, even beyond all expectations, the
Lord vouchsafed them Communion of His Body and Blood.
I once asked Father Raphael (Ogorodnikov) about this. He
sighed and said: “Ahh! To take Communion before
death! One can only dream about such things. Personally I
believe that if a person lived his entire life outside of
the church, but in the very last moment repented and took
Communion, that the Lord has undoubtedly given him this
gift for some secret virtue. For compassion, for
Reflecting a bit more, Father Raphael then corrected
himself: “Although . . . What am I talking about?
What mortal can claim to know the mind of the Lord? Let us
remember that verse from Isaiah the prophet: ‘For my
thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my
ways, saith the Lord.’ Sometimes we are too cruel in
our judgments of non-churchgoers. The fact is that we
simply do not know anything.”
In the fall of 1994 my classmate from film school, Dmitri
Talankin, visited me in the Sretensky Monastery. We
hadn’t seen each other for many years, but he
brought sad news. Our former professor, the great actor
and film director Sergei Fyodorovich Bondarchuk (winner of
the 1968 Best Foreign Film Oscar for his monumental epic
War and Peace), was dying and near death already.
Bondarchuk was a friend of Dmitri’s family, and so
Dmitri sought me out to hear his confession and give him
Communion before his death.
I hadn’t seen Sergei Fyodorovich since my student
days, but I knew that his recent years had been darkened
by harassment and persecution by colleagues in the movie
industry. He had endured it all stoically. Bondarchuk was
not only extremely versatile in his talents, but also a
very strong and courageous man. However, his health had
become irreparably frail.
As for the spiritual life of Sergei Fyodorovich, he had
been baptized in childhood, but then he had been educated
and had lived in an atheist environment. Only in his final
years had he come to some understanding of God. But his
religious teachings had been gained not from the Church,
but from the religious writings of Leo Tolstoy, whose
genius he revered. As is well known, Tolstoy at the end of
the nineteenth century offered the world a religion that
he had basically created for himself. Several
generations of Russian intellectuals went through the
temptations of Tolstoyan mysticism. Many of them
transformed their relationship to their idol into
something akin to real religious reverence.
Dmitri told me that in the past few weeks Sergei
Fyodorovich’s physical sufferings had been
aggravated further by strange spiritual torments. He was
receiving “visitations” from long-dead people
whom he had known well, famous actors and colleagues in
the movie industry, appearing before him as if real. But
now they were appearing before him in the most monstrous
and horrific forms possible, tormenting the patient, and
giving him no rest either by day or night. His physicians
tried to help him, but without success. Tormented by
nightmares, Sergei Fyodorovich tried to find refuge in the
religion of Tolstoy. But the strange visitations
tormenting his consciousness only became worse and
tortured him even further.
I was met in the Bondarchuk apartment by Sergei
Fyodorovich’s wife, Irina Konstantinovna Skobtseva,
and their children, Alyona and Fedya. A melancholy gloom
had settled over their home. Everyone seemed to be weighed
down by suffering, and not just the dying man, but all his
family as well.
Fyodorovich was lying in a spacious bedroom whose
curtains had been tightly drawn. His illness had
changed him visibly. Across from the bed, looking right
at the patient, there hung a large and beautifully
executed portrait of Tolstoy.
|Irina Konstantinovna, Sergei Fyodorovich, Alyona, and Fyodor
After greeting Sergei Fyodorovich, I sat by his bedside
and could not at first even begin to find the words to
express our gratitude as graduates of the National State
Cinematic Institute for our beautiful memories of his
lectures. Happy to hear of my gratitude, Sergei
Fyodorovich gratefully clasped my hand. This cheered me
up, and I was encouraged to proceed to the main goal of my
I said that I had come in order to remind him of the
precious teaching that is kept and passed on by the Church
from generation to generation. The Christian Church does
not only believe, but absolutely knows that physical death
is not by any means the end of our existence, but is
instead the beginning of a new life for which the person
This new life is endless and is open to those who have
filled themselves with God our Lord, Jesus Christ. I told
Bondarchuk about the beautiful and remarkable world after
death that is endlessly good and full of light to which
our Savior will lead anyone who trusts himself unto Him
with all his heart. And I told him that one needs to
prepare for this great event of dying and transition into
a new life.
As for the horrible visions that had so cruelly been
torturing the patient, I tried here to set forth the basic
teachings and experience of the Church about the reality
of the influence upon us of the evil spirits. Modern man
has difficulty accepting this theme. However, Sergei
Fyodorovich had clearly felt the reality of the presence
in our world of these pitiless spiritual entities for
himself, and so he listened to me with great attention. At
the threshold of death, once someone approaches the
boundaries between this world and the next world, the
previously impermeable barrier between the two worlds can
dissolve. Unexpectedly one can begin to see a new reality.
One of the greatest shocks is often the fact that this
revealed new reality can be aggressive and truly awful.
People who are separated from the Church do not understand
that because of their sins and passions for which they
have not yet repented, they can be prey for these evil
spiritual entities, which the Orthodox Church calls
demons. These demons were in fact torturing the dying man,
partly by taking on the visages of persons whom he had
once known. The goal of these demons is to frighten us, to
make us feel terror, powerlessness, and utter despair.
Their goal is to make sure that the soul passes into the
other world in an agonized state of hopelessness, despair,
and the absence of belief in God or any hope of salvation.
Sergei Fyodorovich listened to all of this with noticeable
emotion. It was plain that he had already understood and
thought about much of what I said. When I finished, Sergei
Fyodorovich said that he wished to confess his sins with a
full heart and to receive the Holy Mysteries of Christ.
Before I could remain alone with him there were two
important things I needed to do. The first was fairly
easy: Alyona and I opened the heavy curtains and let the
sunshine stream into the room through the windows. Then I
stepped out with Sergei Fyodorovich’s family into
another room and closed the door. I explained to them as
best I could that the ceaseless grieving and despair of
his loved ones only worsens the spiritual pain of a dying
man. When someone we love goes into another life, of
course, this is a sad event, but it is not by any means a
cause for despair. Death is not only an occasion for grief
about the person who is leaving us behind, but also a
sacred moment for us Christians, because it is the
transition to a new life. Our role was to help him get
ready for that most important of transitions with all of
our energies. And therefore we absolutely should not
present ourselves to him in mourning and despair. I asked
Irina Konstantinova and Alyona to prepare a celebratory
meal, and bid Fedya to deck the table with the best drinks
available in the house.
I went back to Sergei Fyodorovich and told him that now we
would get ready for the confession and Communion.
“But I have no idea how that’s done,”
Bondarchuk admitted to me confidentially.
“I’ll help you. But just one thing: do you
believe in the Lord God and in our Savior Jesus
“Yes! Yes! I do believe in Him!” Sergei
Fyodorovich pronounced these words with all his heart.
Then, as if remembering something, he murmured to me:
“But I . . . I’ve . . . always been asking
Tolstoy for help.”
“Sergei Fyodorovich!” I broke in heatedly.
“Tolstoy was a wonderful and great writer! But he
will never be able to defend you from these horrible
visions! Only the Lord can do that!” Bondarchuk
It was time to prepare for the sacraments of confession
and Communion. However, as before, the portrait of
his beloved genius was on the wall opposite him like an
icon. There was no way that I could place the gifts of the
Eucharist for Communion on the commode beneath the
portrait of that writer. It was unthinkable! In life,
Tolstoy had not only refused to believe in the sacraments
of the Church, but he had openly and cruelly mocked them.
Indeed, he had with particular refinements satirized even
the very sacrament of Communion. Bondarchuk knew and
understood all this no less than I did. With his
permission I carried the portrait into the living room.
And this was the second important thing that needed to be
The Bondarchuk family had an ancient icon of the Savior in
a tarnished silver frame. Fedya and I placed it in front
of Sergei Fyodorovich’s eyes, and he finally,
leaving behind all that was temporal and temporary,
fulfilled the sacrament to which the Lord by His
Providence had been leading him for years and decades.
Bondarchuk confessed before God all the sins of his life
profoundly, courageously, and sincerely. After this the
whole family walked into the room, and Sergei Fyodorovich,
for the first time since distant childhood, partook of the
Holy Mysteries of Christ.
Everyone was amazed with what feeling he did this. Even
the expression of pain and suffering that had never
gone from his face had suddenly vanished.
Having completed our main task, we set a beautiful table
for a feast right by the bedside of the patient. Fedya
poured everyone a little bit of red wine as well as some
of his father’s oldest and best cognac. We had a
real peaceful and joyful feast, as we congratulated Sergei
Fyodorovich with his first Communion since so long ago,
and the upcoming mysterious journey or “the way of
all flesh” on which he was soon destined to embark.
Before I left I had another moment alone with Sergei
Fyodorovich. I wrote a simple Jesus Prayer on a little
piece of paper and left it in front of him: “Lord
Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a
sinner.” Sergei Fyodorovich did not know any
prayers. And of course in his condition he could not learn
anything more complicated. But nothing more complicated
Then I removed my monastic prayer rope
from my own arm and taught Sergei Fyodorovich how to
use it. And we said goodbye.
Several days passed. Alyona Bondarchuk called me and told
me that her father’s condition had changed markedly.
He was no longer being tormented by dreadful visions. He
had calmed down and was somehow visibly resigned from
suffering in this world. Alyona told me that she often saw
how her father would be lying there staring for hours at
the icon of the Savior, or, having closed his eyes,
whispering a prayer at each knot of his prayer rope.
Sometimes he would press the little cross at the end of
the prayer rope to his lips. This meant that his physical
pain was becoming unbearable.
Another week went by. I was invited by the chief of the
department of neurosurgery of the Moscow Province Hospital
to bless the operating room and intensive care unit. When
I got there in the morning, Dmitri Talankin and Fedya
Bondarchuk were waiting for me. Sergei Fyodorovich had
been brought to the Central Clinical Hospital, where the
doctors had declared that he might die any day now. I had
the Holy Gifts of the Eucharist with me, ready to give
Holy Communion to the sick, and we immediately went to the
Central Clinical Hospital.
Sergei Fyodorovich was suffering unbearably. When I came
up to him he opened his eyes slightly to let me know that
he recognized me. He had the prayer rope in his hand. I
asked him if he wished to receive Communion. Sergei
Fyodorovich nodded, almost imperceptibly. He was already
unable to speak. I read the prayer of absolution of sins
over him and gave him Communion. Then his whole family and
I kneeled by his bedside as we read the Canon for the
Departure of the Soul.
The Church has one particular prayer and rite that is
known as “when a person suffers very long in
sickness.” This prayer is read if the soul of the
dying person is taking a long and torturous time to leave
the body. It is used when a person wants to but cannot
When I saw the state the patient was in, I read this
prayer right by his pillow. In this prayer the Church
commends its son into the hands of God, asking that he be
freed of suffering and worldly cares in this temporal
life. Making the sign of the cross over Sergei Fyodorovich
for the last time, I bade him farewell. Dmitri Talankin
and I departed the hospital room, leaving the dying man in
the company of his family.
No matter how sad the sight of the sufferings of someone
about to die, life has its own demands. Dmitri and I had
not had a single bite to eat all day. Therefore we decided
to go to Dmitri’s family’s home on Mosfilm
We were met at the doorstep by Dmitri’s parents Igor
Vasilyevich and Liliya Mikhailovna, who were in tears.
Alyona had just telephoned them to say that Sergei
Fyodorovich was no more. Right there and then in the
apartment we served the Orthodox requiem.
Perhaps we could end the story of the Christian death of
the remarkable man and great artist Sergei Fyodorovich
Bondarchuk on this note—were it not for one highly
unusual occurrence that was conveyed to us by
Dmitri’s parents. To be honest, I thought for a long
time about whether it is even worth telling you this
detail. I do not know how even churchgoers will be willing
to accept the story Dmitri’s parents told us. Will
they not just dismiss it as a fantasy—or perhaps
just coincidence? But in the end, this story was and shall
remain a sacred family story known to the Talankin family,
and they authorized me to relate it.
There are certain strange but absolutely real events in
our lives that to outside observers will seem like nothing
more than mere chance or
Surprised by this, the husband and wife walked out onto
their balcony and beheld a scene the likes of which they
had never laid eyes on before. The sky was choked by a
black cloud of birds. Their sharp cries had become
unbearable. The balcony looked out on a wooded park and
onto the hospital where, as the Talankin family knew,
their friend lay dying. The numberless horde of birds was
absurd invention. But for those who undergo these events,
they will always be a genuine revelation, completely
changing their entire lives and outlooks on the world.
I will therefore not edit out the detail from my
chronicling of that day. And I will convey all that was
related to me by two absolutely healthy and normal
people—the People’s Artist of the Soviet
Union, celebrated director Igor Vasilyevich Talankin, and
his wife, professor Liliya Mikhailovna
Talankina—exactly as Dmitri and I heard it.
No sooner had we completed the first requiem for Sergei
Fyodorovich when Dmitri’s parents told us in an
unsettled matter that something extremely strange and
incomprehensible had happened just a few minutes
before Alyona Bondarchuk had called them. They had
been sitting in their room and still did not know about
the death of their friend. Suddenly, they could hear a
growing cawing and cawing of ravens. The sound got louder
and louder and became almost deafening. It seemed
that an innumerable flock of ravens was flying over
their home. streaming out precisely from that place. The
sight of the horde suggested a thought to Igor
Vasilyevich, which he suddenly stated with absolute
conviction to his wife: “Sergei has just died. Those
are demons which have just fled away from his soul.”
He said it and was himself surprised by what he had said.
The flock of birds flew up over them, and disappeared
among the clouds hanging over Moscow. Several minutes
later Alyona called.
Everything that happened on that day—both the death
of Sergei Fyodorovich, and the strange sight that happened
at the moment of his death—Igor and Liliya Talankin
conceived of as a message to them from their dying friend.
No one was able to convince them otherwise— not
friends, not Dmitri and I, nor even their own intellectual
skepticism. Although, as far as I can remember, the
Talankin family never again told any kind of stories of
any events that might have anything to do with mysticism.
I had the fortune to baptize them, and gradually they
became Christians of deep and devout faith.
The prayer rope is the Orthodox form of a rosary, made
with yarn or cord. —Trans.