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How We Bought Our Combines

In the summer of 2001 a young man named Yaroslav N. applied to join our Sretensky Monastery. He was descended from a family of Russified Germans. He had been born and bred in the Altai Mountains, and had immigrated with his parents to Germany. There he had received German citizenship. Thus, to our surprise, he had two passports: a Russian one and a German one. There was more than a month left before the entrance exams, and the young man asked whether during that time he could live in the monastery. I asked him what he knew how to do. It turned out that he had studied accounting in Germany.

“So you know how to deal with accounting programs?” I was very happy to hear this.

“Of course, Father! Computer programs are my specialty!”

That was exactly what we needed at the time. We gave Yaroslav a workplace in the accounting department, and he began to work for us so well that we could not have been more contented.

I should mention that that year we had decided to allocate all the money earned by the monastery from the books it publishes to buying agricultural equipment. We have a skete in Ryazan Province where we go for monastic retreat. All the farms or collective farms in the surrounding area had gone to rack and ruin over the past decade or were in such a state of decay that it was truly painful to look at the dying villages around us.

One winter evening, farmers from the neighboring village had come to our skete. These people had been driven to the furthest depths of despair. They told us that they hadn’t been paid one kopeck of their already miserable salary for the past three years. There was no equipment left on the farm except for a ramshackle and half-broken tractor and an old Soviet-era Jeep-like car belonging to the chairman. The collective farms’ cattle had not been fed and for lack of fodder would have to be sold to a slaughterhouse within a week for almost nothing at all. In certain families the children were being fed nothing more than steamed animal fodder. We shuddered to hear all of this, and we couldn’t refuse our neighbors when they asked us to take over their completely collapsed farms and help them. To our complete horror, they begged us, “Please take us on—even as serfs!” It was quite obvious that they were utterly desperate and had absolutely no one else to whom they could turn.

Well, we took them on, but it was easier said than done. As we acquainted ourselves with the problems of these farms, we understood that we would have to rebuild everything from zero, starting entirely from scratch. Even after we paid them their salary and purchased fodder for the cattle, it was not enough: in any case huge sums of money would be required to buy the minimal agricultural equipment needed to get the farms running again—$200,000. We decided to save up this money our­selves, by putting off repairs to the monastery and also by postponing various of our publishing projects.

We did not deposit our savings in the bank. We had all too vivid a memory of the financial crisis and default of 1998. Our parishioners, some of whom were quite savvy in matters of finance, suggested that we save our money for the purchase of agricultural machinery not in rubles, but in dollars. And they suggested that we keep them not in a bank account but in a safe hiding place.

The Father Treasurer and I found such a place. We drilled a niche in one of the rooms of our bookkeeping department, installed an excellent safe in the niche, and then hid the key to the safe in the bottom drawer of the desk under a pile of old copies of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate. Then we hid the key to that drawer under the floorboard! We were utterly delighted with ourselves and were certain that now the money we had saved would be safer than if it had been deposited in Sberbank (the Russian state savings bank).

By fall we had saved up $180,000. We needed just a little more and soon we would be able to order grain harvesting combines and tractors and sowing machines. We were already leafing through catalogs of agricultural machinery, and discussing which brands would be more effective for future harvests. But then on September 14, 2001, as I was setting out for our farm in our car, I received a telephone call from the Treasurer of the Monastery. His voice was trembling from anxiety and he was barely able to speak:

“Father . . . only please don’t get alarmed. There’s no money in the safe. And Yaroslav has also disappeared. Please come back as soon as possible!”

What I came back to the monastery, things were exactly as he had said: there was no money in the safe, and Yaroslav was gone. However, both keys were neatly back in the places where they were before, in the bottom drawer of the desk and under the floorboards.

However devastating this blow was, we still had to do something. I telephoned our parishioner Vladimir Vasilyevich Ustinov, who at the time was the Chief Prosecutor of the Russian Federation. Vladimir Vasilyevich came to the monastery and brought several detectives with him. The detec­tives did their thing—interrogations, dusting for fingerprints, inspection of the scene of the crime—and meanwhile the Father Treasurer and I wandered dispiritedly about the monastery waiting for their results.

Finally Vladimir Vasilyevich asked me to step into our Father Treasu­rer’s office. As soon as I walked in I could see by the expression on everyone’s face that there was no good news. Gesturing me to have a seat, Vladimir Vasilyevich said:

“It was a good thing that you sat down just now, Father. Try not to be nervous, and prepare yourself for what we are about to tell you. This so-called ‘student’ Yaroslav N. has already left Russia. There is no doubt that he took the money. And if that is the case, then unfortunately there is nothing that we can do to return it.”

“Why is that?” I whispered.

“Because the thief is a citizen of Germany,” Ustinov patiently explained, “and Germany will never hand over one of its citizens to us, just as we have never handed over any of our citizens to them.”

“But he’s a criminal!” I said, amazed at this.

“Indeed he is,” Ustinov sighed, “but there are certain rules that are not made up by us, and we can’t change them. Never in the entire history of Russian or Soviet jurisprudence has there been one single case when the government of Germany has handed over one of its citizens to us for a criminal trial.”

“And where is this Yaroslav?”

“Probably at home in Germany. After all, he has a German passport. Therefore he calmly sailed through the green corridor in customs (for “nothing to declare”) with all your money. Nobody’s going to thor­oughly inspect a citizen of Germany. You understand this; you’ve flown over­seas. Now of course we will start a criminal case, and we will file a report with Interpol. But the best thing you can do, Father, is not to waste time and nerves. Forget about this money altogether and start saving up once again for your agricultural amusements,” the Chief Prosecutor concluded.

From these words I nearly lost the gift of speech. “How are we supposed to just forget? That was $180,000! Those were all our combines! No, Vladimir Vasilyevich, we can’t just forget about it!”

“Believe me, there is nothing we can do.”

“Well, if there’s nothing you can do, then we . . . we will pray. If neither the government nor the police can help us, the Mother of God will protect us.”

Those were my words, but I was shaking inside. The fact is that there was no source of hope but prayer. I told our brotherhood everything that had happened, and together we began to pray. First and foremost we prayed to the icon in whose honor our monastery has been founded, the icon of the Holy Mother of God of Vladimir.

Two weeks passed. Front-page headlines were already screaming with scandalous stories of how a million dollars had been stolen from the Abbot of the Sretensky Monastery. Then suddenly one truly bright day Vladimir Ustinov drove back to our monastery. He looked not only surprised but actually shocked.

“Can you believe it, Father? That thief of all your combines has actually been found!”

“Really? They found him?” It was so surprising that at first I didn’t even believe it.

“Yes, can you imagine? This morning we received a report from Interpol; strange as it may sound, that scoundrel has been detained at the border crossing in Frankfurt on the Oder.”

Ustinov told me that Yaroslav had driven from Russia through the Ukraine and Poland and was finally passing into Germany. He had passed through German customs at the border town of Frankfurt on the Oder numerous times, and because of his German passport had never had any problems. Indeed, he would never have had any problems this time, had his crossing not been on September 14, 2001—in short, on the third day after the infamous terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Seeking terrorists, the alarmed German border guards began inspecting everyone from head to toe, their own citizens as well as foreigners. And so it happened that they found on Yaroslav’s person $180,000 that had not been declared and whose honest origin he of course could not explain. These funds had been confiscated from him, had been duly registered, and had been sent for safekeeping to the prosecutor of Frankfurt on the Oder.

Scarcely had Vladimir Vasilyevich finished telling me the news when I cried for joy. “When will the funds be returned to us? We’re going to Frankfurt immediately!”

“I don’t want to upset you, Father, but the thing is . . . they won’t return the money to you,” Ustinov sighed.

“Why not?”

“I was trying to explain: first of all, we can’t prove that this is the same money he stole.”

“Why can’t we? One hundred and eighty thousand dollars was stolen from our monastery, and they found $180,000 on him there. Yaroslav N. disappeared from us here when these funds were stolen here, and he is there when the funds are found on him! It all fits! And I’ll bet the fingerprints—”

“All of this may fit here,” said the prosecutor with sympathy, “but only a court will consider these facts. And the court will never convene.”

“What do you mean it will never convene?”

“I mean that the Germans will postpone it and postpone it forever. And that Yaroslav will figure out some explanation for the funds one way or another. Besides, the court case has to be held in the presence of the accused, and of course there’s no way that he’ll ever show up for his own trial.”

“I thought they’d arrested him at the border.”

“Not at all. They merely confiscated the funds, but they let Mr. N go. Father, do not have any illusions. Be glad at least that that scoundrel was not able to use your money.”

“Glad? What consolation is that? He may not be able to use those funds, but neither can we! And we need to buy combines!”

“Well, that, Father Tikhon, is beyond my control.”

“All right then,” I sighed once more. “We’ll keep praying!”

“Pray as long as you like!” Ustinov got angry. “But you should know that in their entire history neither the Germans, nor the French, nor the British, nor the Americans have ever extradited any of their criminals to us, nor have they ever sued them for crimes committed on our territories. Nor will we ever give them any of our criminals! Never!”

“Well, then, we will pray!” I repeated.

Nearly a year elapsed. This happened to be a period when we were restoring our complex but extremely important relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. And it happened that Archbishop Mark of Berlin and Great Britain invited me to Munich to prepare a summit meeting between Patriarch Alexiy and Metropolitan Laurus, the Chief Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.

His Holiness the Patriarch blessed my voyage and I flew off to Bavaria. I was met by Archbishop Mark’s closest helper, Father Nikolai Artemov, who came to greet me at the airport and drove me back to the residence of the archbishop, the tiny Monastery of St. Job of Pochaev on the outskirts of Munich.

It turns out there are over eighty million inhabitants of Germany. But the very first person I saw when I got out of the car in that little monastery was—Yaroslav N.! I lunged for him and grabbed him.

I must admit that my memory of what happened next is a bit foggy. Yaroslav was so surprised to see me that he didn’t even resist. Before the very eyes of Father Nikolai, the bewildered monks, and Archbishop Mark himself, I dragged Yaroslav into the monastery, shoved him into some room, and locked the door behind me.

“What are you doing, Father Tikhon?” Archbishop Mark reproached me, beside himself with astonishment.

“This man stole an enormous sum of money from us!”

“It must be some mistake. He’s going to be working in our monastery as an accountant.”

A crowd of monks gathered around us. Finally it occurred to me to put myself in the place of the astonished Archbishop Mark. Some priest he had never met before arrives from Russia, the former Soviet Union, and suddenly grabs a citizen of Germany and locks him up in someone else’s monastery!

So I told the archbishop and his monks the story of what happened with Yaroslav. But I could see that they couldn’t believe me. Then I asked for permission to make an overseas telephone call and dialed the Chief Prosecutor in Moscow.

“Vladimir Vasilyevich! I’ve caught him!” I yelled through the telephone.

“Caught whom?” Ustinov’s voice sounded discouraged.

“What do you mean—whom? The thief, of course, the same one who stole our money!”

“Wait a second . . . what do you mean you caught him? Where?”

“In Munich!”

“In Germany? Are you joking? How could you possibly have found out where he was?”

“Well . . . I got out of the car, and I looked and there he was. I grabbed him, dragged him into the monastery, and locked him in a cell.”

There was an unpleasant pause. For a moment I was afraid that Ustinov thought I was pulling his leg. But a minute later I realized that this was not the case, because from the other end of the line there came a real yell. “You let him go at once!”

I was petrified. “What do you mean let him go?”

“Release him immediately!” It seemed that Ustinov was yelling loud enough for all of Moscow to hear. “Have you any idea what you’ve just done?”

“Vladimir Vasilyevich! How could they possibly just let him—”

The prosecutor didn’t listen to me at all. “You have deprived a citizen of Germany of his freedom. And on German soil. You will be sentenced to two years for that. And we’ll be going crazy trying to spring you from jail! Let him go at once! This minute! And let him run wherever his feet will carry him!”

I thought for a moment and said, “No, I won’t! The Lord sent him to me. How could I possibly release him now? Do what you want with me, Vladimir Vasilyevich! But I’m holding him here until the police arrive.”

And I insisted on my position no matter how loudly Ustinov yelled. And there was nothing he could do to change my mind from where he was sitting in his Chief Prosecutor’s office in Moscow. Finally, he relented: “Very well, right now I will call German Interpol. But if you get arrested, don’t say I didn’t warn you!”

Soon enough the Bavarian representative of Interpol drove up to the monastery. However, instead of arresting Yaroslav, he began to interrogate me. Our conversation went as follows.

“Have you been carrying out illegal investigations on German soil?”

“What investigations?”

“How did you find this man?

“I got out of the car and I saw that it was Yaroslav! So I grabbed him!”

“So you’ve been tracking him? Following him? Trying to determine the subject’s whereabouts?”

“Of course not. It’s just that the Lord delivered him to me.”

“Excuse me, who?”

“The Lord!”

“Excuse me once more. Who?”

“The Lord God. He has delivered him into my hands!”

“Yeah, right!” The Bavarian looked at me as if I were crazy.

He then asked in great detail about the entire case. Then he repeated all his questions. Gradually the disbelief on his face began to be replaced by enormous astonishment. Finally he said, “You know, if it really happened just the way you’re telling me, I’m willing to offer you the position of director of Bavarian Interpol.”

To this I replied: “Thank you, but I already have another civilian job. I’m the chairman of a collective farm and therefore I cannot accept your kind offer.”

* * *

The effect of these events that had been so utterly unpredictable, happening one after another, also could not help but form a stunning impression on Yaroslav.

First, the money he stole had suddenly been confiscated—and not just anywhere, but in Germany, when it had seemed to him that all dangers were in the past, and he had already been celebrating in his mind his spending of this money, feeling his complete triumph. Second, this had happened at the customs point at Frankfurt on the Oder, a place that Yaroslav had selected on purpose because he had crossed the border there many times before without incident. And he had been caught by me in the monastery in Munich, where he had already almost managed to get himself a job . . . as a bookkeeper! And finally, his confinement was not just anywhere, but once more in a monastic cell—very much like the cell in Moscow from which he had so improperly fled a year ago.

What’s more, I believe that all these coincidences began to weigh on the conscience of the young man for his sad and ill-considered deed in our monastery. After all, he knew all too well what the purpose of this money was and just how difficult the saving of it had been, and I have no doubt that in fact deep down he felt pain and shame no matter how he tried to justify himself in his crime.

But most important of all, he felt the action in the world not just of the Church, but of the mysterious and benevolent Providence of the Lord. And this truly amazed Yaroslav. And he began to think deeply. In the end he confessed to everything and took responsibility.

He was held in pretrial confinement, and then after a while there was a trial. Yaroslav was sentenced to four years in jail for his theft, and he served the full term of his sentence in Bavaria. The monks of the novices of the Monastery of St. Job of Pochaev in Munich visited him all the time and helped him as best they could.

Meanwhile the Chief Prosecutor’s office and the Ministry of Justice of Russia, in accordance with protocol, worked out an arrangement with the German Justice Ministry. And finally, by a decision of the German court, the $180,000 that the German prosecutor of Frankfurt on the Oder had been keeping safe was transferred to representatives of our Justice Ministry, which traveled to Frankfurt especially for the occasion.

Early in the morning of July 6, 2003, these representatives brought a box with this money to our Sretensky Monastery and gave it to our Father Treasurer, who signed a receipt for it. It was a day of our patronal feast, the celebration of the Icon of the Vladimir Mother of God—that same icon before which we had prayed to the Virgin Mary for a favorable ending to the misfortunes that had befallen us.

I did not need to think about the theme of the sermon for our celebratory Liturgy. I just told our parishioners the story and jubilantly showed the entire church the box that had just been brought to us that morning. And soon we bought the agricultural machinery we needed.

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