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Feather's Miscellany: Cyril

...Nykola Wessolovskyi, the child's father, had been a Bolshevik, a revolutionary from the start. "What has religion done for the people?" he'd argued with his wife years before, "except blind them to reality and suppress them, kept them under as tools of the bourgeoisie and the aristos."

As a result Danya Wessolowska, his wife, had had to wait until that cold February morning, when, wrapped up in her thick black shawl like her mother, she'd smuggled young Cyril out to the chapel while his father was away in the army the other side of the country...

John Waddington-Feather's story arises from the drama and agony of Russia's 20th Century history.

It was his secret baptism in 1925, I'm sure, which sowed the seed of faith. His grandmother and mother had sneaked away before dawn to the monastery of St Cyril, near Kiev. Father Damien had baptised their child, now two years old, in the ancient font just inside the door of the monastery chapel. They named him Cyril after the patron saint, but his father had called him Leon, his State name, after his hero Trotsky.

Granny Maria worshipped in the chapel with other old crones from the village each week. It was safe for them, but not for others, younger folk who had to keep their faith secret to be safe and to get on in their jobs.

Granny Maria and the rest of the old women were no threat to the Party, no threat to the System. They didn't want to get on, only to be grannies.

The Party held them up as examples of the old decadent way, duped products of a corrupt regime and a dead religion, an opiate which drugged them into accepting serfdom. They mocked them as superstitious old gossipers who worshipped a dead God, a God who never was and never would be.

Nykola Wessolovskyi, the child's father, had been a Bolshevik, a revolutionary from the start. "What has religion done for the people?" he'd argued with his wife years before, "except blind them to reality and suppress them, kept them under as tools of the bourgeoisie and the aristos."

As a result Danya Wessolowska, his wife, had had to wait until that cold February morning, when, wrapped up in her thick black shawl like her mother, she'd smuggled young Cyril out to the chapel while his father was away in the army the other side of the country.

A new world had been born in Soviet Russia, albeit a world which had come in with a bloody revolution. Suffering was to be its lot right to the end of the century, when it collapsed, more suddenly than anyone expected and mercifully without much bloodshed.

Of course, Nykola Wessolovskyi was ignorant of his son's baptism. A rising star in the Red Army, newly created by Trotsky, he'd been with his leader from the start, and once the Bolsheviks had seized power he'd been promoted.

Now he was a colonel serving with his regiment near Karkov. When Ukraine became a fully fledged Soviet Republic in 1922, he rose quickly through the Party ranks in the army and was a veteran officer by the time his son Cyril, or rather Leon, was born in 1923.

Leon was the name his son used all his life until....but we'll come to that later in this story.

The monastery chapel was cold and dark, lit only by a solitary oil lamp near the font to avoid the attention of the Party. There was only one witness, an aged monk, who acted as the priest's server. The baptism was hurried, then the two women thanked the priest and hurried back home while it was still dark.

If the Party discovered what they'd done, they'd be in trouble; not least from Nykola the child's father, a militant atheist and a fervent Party member. He kept a keen eye on his subordinates in the army and his family. No one stepped out of line while he was about. Already trials were taking place of dissidents throughout the Soviet Republics and they were to accelerate when Stalin and his reign of terror came in.

When Trotsky fell from grace, so did Nykola Wessolovskyi. He was arraigned, tried and executed along with the other Trotskyites; abandoned by all, including his own son, as "an enemy of the people."

As he grew up, young Leon was sent to a good school, where he became fluent in German. That was to play an important part in his life before long. He followed in his father's footsteps and went to the Military Academy in Moscow, where he did well. Brain-washed by his father and teachers, he was an atheist and not until years later did he find out he'd been baptised. He despised all religion, worshipping only the State and its leaders, especially Stalin, the icon of Soviet Russia.

Throughout Stalin's reign of terror, Leon was promoted in the army, and by the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany, he was a young officer, dedicated to serving the State. He was dedicated also to denouncing religion, like his father, and went out of his way to ferret out anyone under his command who was in any way overtly religious.

On one occasion on military manoeuvres, he occupied a village church, quartering his men and equipment in it, and in the process vandalising the icons and altar. Not long after that, he was fighting in battle for real in the city named after Stalin.

The winter of 1942/3 was as bitter as the fighting was savage. The Russians, already devastated by the Nazi Blitzkrieg on their country, were fighting for their existence in Stalingrad. There was to be no retreat and the city was reduced to rubble as the two armies fought for it street by street.

The fighting became daily more bloody and more vicious. Leon was in the thick of it and one day, leading his men where the fighting was heaviest, he was badly wounded. It was night and his unit had re-captured a sector taken by the Germans during the day.

The temperature was well below freezing, and as Leon and his unit scurried across a street a mortar shell exploded, killing several of his men and wounding Leon. He was carried into what was left of a house and left there for the medics to pick up as the rest of his unit re-grouped and continued fighting.

Only the lurid light from flares or shellfire lit up the hole where he lay, gasping and in pain, hoping that the stretcher bearers would come soon. It was hell lying there in that dark stinking place. He was frightened, sure he was going to die, and he began thinking of the past - his father, executed years before, his mother and grandmother, who'd brought him up.

For the very first time in his life he faced death and the hereafter - and he felt empty. Was this really to be his end? Dying in a heap of rat-infested rubble, cold, hungry, in pain and alone? He'd done well at school and the academy, but what had he really achieved? What had he done to deserve a death like this?

He tried to dismiss these thoughts from his mind, tried to focus on what he had helped the State to achieve, its freedom under Stalin and others; its freedom from despots like the Tsar. "From despots?" something echoed inside him. There were more gulags now than ever before, more trials, more executions. For what?

Leon tried again and again to get rid of these thoughts but his mind wouldn't let go. Suddenly, he was distracted by a noise at the entrance to his shelter. Someone was coming. The medics?

He was about to call out when a flare went up and he caught a glimpse of a man crawling into the shelter. He was a German officer, hoisting himself painfully forward, badly wounded like Leon. The German didn't realise at first that Leon was there. Leon reached for his revolver. It was gone. Taken off him when they'd put the dressings on his wounds.

Another flare went up and the German saw him. Their eyes met and the German dragged himself over. "Wasser!" he croaked. "Water! For the love of God please give me water!"

By reflex, Leon handed him his water flask. "Danke," whispered the German and took a long swig before handing it back. Then he leaned with his back against the wall next to Leon, sweating and gasping, bleeding badly.

They said nothing for some moments, then Leon asked him his name.

"Karl Schmitt," said the other.

"I'm Leon Wessolovskyi," said Leon in fluent German.

"You speak German well. You been there?"

"No. I learned it at school."

Silence again for a few moments, then, "Odd we should both finish up together like this," said the German, who was much older than Leon. He rumbled in his breast pocket and pulled out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. He offered one to Leon, took one himself then lit up, passing his lighter to Leon.

Leon drew heavily on his cigarette. "Good cigarettes," said Leon. "Better than ours."

The German laughed cynically. "A present from the Fuhrer." Then, "Any family?"

"No. I'm not married. And you?"

"A boy and a girl," Karl answered. Then barely audible he whispered, "I'll never see them or my wife again."

There was another silence and Leon thought he heard the German sobbing, but by the time he spoke again he'd recovered. "My God," he said. "What a mess we're both in. Hell can't be worse! Lying here in this rat-hole, dying...for what?" He gave another cynical laugh. "For madmen now tucked up safely in their beds. We're nothing to them."

Wessolowskyi heard Schmitt echoing his own thoughts. Now he'd actually met a German, now he was injured and now he thought he was going to die, it was very different. Truth slowly began to dawn how he'd been brain-washed all his life. There was more to life than what he'd been taught by the politicos and his father. Life was precious, infinitely more precious than to be wasted like this. It took a dying German to make him realise that.

Neither said anything for some time. They were in too much pain. Then Schmitt fumbled inside his jacket pocket again and pulled out something. In the light from a shell, Leon saw it was a rosary. Attached to it was a crucifix and the German held it to his lips.

Why, he didn't know, but Leon was deeply moved. He supported the dying man now leaning heavily against him, gasping for breath. Suddenly Karl Schmitt went limp and there was silence. Leon called to him, but no reply. Another flare went up and he lowered the dead man to the ground and unwound the rosary from his cold stiff fingers. He wrapped it round his own, tight, and it gave him assurance.

He was still clutching it when the stretcher-bearers arrived sent by his unit. One of them saw Karl Schmitt and levelled his rifle. "No!" Leon shouted. "Leave him. He's dead!" Then he passed out.

Leon survived his wounds and the Germans surrendered - a whole army. Their general was stripped of his rank by a furious Fuhrer. "The god of war has gone over to the other side!" he snarled, and ordered a day of national mourning, not for the dead, but for the humiliation of defeat.

It was the end of the battle, too, for Leon Wessolovskyi. He spent months convalescing and had a marked limp the rest of his life. When he was fit again, he was transferred to a non-combatant unit and made a political officer, attached to the NKVD, making sure the troops toed the Party line.

And all the while something was happening inside him. He questioned more and more the Party line but said nothing. To have done otherwise would have been fatal, more fatal than the mortar bomb which had injured him.

Now a major he received a posting near Kiev and was able to visit his mother often on leave. His grandmother had died, but his mother continued visiting the old monastery chapel. Outwardly, Leon remained loyal to Stalin. He'd even denounced his father during the purge of the Trotskyites; not an uncommon thing then for children to rat on their parents and vice versa. The gulags were full of denounced parents and children.

As Stalin's terror spread, the NKVD became feared. They pried into everything. No one was safe. Neighbour was set against neighbour, yet Leon, like his mother, began going secretly to the monastery chapel. He had a ready excuse if anyone ratted on him. He was seeking out dissidents. He knew that many 'priests' were really plants in the churches and seminaries spying on Christians who attended the services.

And the more he went to the services, the more his rosary came to mean to him. It symbolised the new creed he'd found, a creed of love, replacing the creed of hate he'd been taught by his father and others. He saw his old creed in the endless cycle of interrogation, torture and finally imprisonment or execution. But after Stalin's death, matters improved. It was as if a great weight was lifted from the Soviet Empire. Life became more tolerable.

In the year that Stalin died, Leon met a woman, Elena, some years younger than himself, an attractive brunette from the Crimea, with whom he fell deeply in love. He was in his early thirties, still very handsome and wanting to get married. When he got to know her better, he discovered she was a Christian and together they were able to ease the torment they witnessed about them in the NKVD bloc.

Like Leon she was a linguist. Like Leon she sometimes had to interrogate foreign prisoners. And like Leon she found herself more and more at odds with the System and the Party. Everyone was a prisoner of the System, the NKVD most of all, trained by the System to crush the mind and spirit; sometimes the body of their captives. Yet ultimately the human spirit cannot be crushed, and more people were voicing their opposition to the State as the System began to crumble.

Outside Russia, too, voices rose against the System - in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Matters came to a head in Hungary in 1956 when the students at Budapest University openly rebelled and their uprising quickly spread. And just as quickly the Soviet tanks rolled in to quell it.

Budapest was bombed and a thousand tanks entered the city. Thousands of Hungarians were slaughtered.

Thousands more fled the country and in allowing refugees to flood through his sector to the West, Leon Wessolowskyi was reported and court-martialled - in secret. The Hungarian prime Minister and his colleagues who had supported the uprising were also tried in secret - then executed.

When the Presiding Judge at Leon's trial asked him his name, he said, "Cyril Wessolowskyi."

"I want your correct name, your State name," barked the Judge.

"I was State-named Leon, after Leon Trotsky. Before Trotsky was deemed to be an enemy of the people. Now I answer to the name Cyril, the name I was baptised with."

The Judge was nonplussed; nevertheless to play safe during his trial he addressed him as Comrade Cyril Wessolowskyi. Cyril escaped execution only because he refused to plead guilty to the charges laid against him, and because he'd been decorated for his part in the Battle of Stalingrad. All through his trial Cyril clutched his rosary, when the prosecuting counsel tried to wear him down and make him plead guilty.

"Comrade Wessolowskyi, you have been charged with aiding members of a reactionary conspiracy against the Hungarian people. Do you plead guilty?"

Cyril said he did not plead guilty. That he'd never been a member of any counter-revolutionary organisation.

"You're not telling the truth. The prosecution has at its disposal precise information that you were a member of a right-wing organisation. Give me the truth."

"If you count my Christian faith as right-wing, you are wrong, comrade. I have served my country well. I almost died thirteen years ago for my country at Stalingrad - perhaps you have at your disposal that precise piece of information? How could I possibly be counterrevolutionary?"

The prosecutor did not break Cyril and the judge could not impose the death sentence, but he did sentence him to twenty years in a hard labour camp. Before he was sent back to Russia, Elena managed to see him briefly. Shortly afterwards she was dismissed from her post and went to live with Cyril's mother near Kiev, eking out a living translating papers for a State publishing company.

Her love for Cyril never waned; indeed, their love grew stronger as the years went by. So did their faith. By 1976 the Soviet world had changed and was about to collapse when Cyril was released. His mother had died and Elena alone met him at the gates.

He looked older than his fifty years. She'd grown older, too, but their love was still young and strong. On their return home to Ukraine they married and Cyril found work as a janitor, the only work they'd allow him to do at first.

When the Soviet System collapsed, together they founded an orphanage at the monastery of St Cyril helped by charities in the West. They also adopted two of the children as their own and had them baptised in their name.

They continued working there till the end. Cyril died in his late sixties and Elena some years later. Both were buried quietly and without fuss, like the saintly people before them, in the graveyard of the monastery where Cyril and been baptised.

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