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Feather's Miscellany: Sergey Petrov

...Though he’d abandoned Communism, like many former members of the Party, he never really believed all men and women were equal. He saw where the main chances in life lay and took them. Number One was always first and that’s why he had risen high in the Party ranks. That’s why he quickly landed himself a well-paid job when the Party crumbled...

But Sergey Petrov is about to discover that there is much more to life than money and success in this splendid story by John Waddington-Feather.

For more of John's satisfying tales please click on Feather's Miscellany in the menu on this page.

Born in 1950, Sergey Petrov was an out-and-out Party official while the Communists ruled Russia. When The Party fell from power and capitalism swept through the USSR, changing its name to the Russian federation, Sergey abandoned Communism and became a capitalist. He knew which side his bread was buttered.

Always an opportunist, like all Communist Party officials, he embraced the new creed with open arms, and as a well-qualified engineer with the right contacts, he soon found a plum job in an enterprising company drilling for oil in Siberia. Its managing-director became a multi-millionaire overnight.

However, his new job wasn’t as plum as it might have been. Well-paid, yes, but with Spartan living conditions in an harsh climate and a three-day journey by road every time he went on leave to Moscow. He could have gone by air, but he was sick for days afterwards each time he flew, so he took the long way each time he went home.

In summer it was quite pleasant when the roads were firm and not a mud-trap. But winter was another story. He rarely went home over winter when travelling by road ground to a halt. Roads, even highways, became treacherous and inches deep in mud when they were not ice-bound and pot-holed. There was also the chance of a late blizzard, too, and to be trapped by one of those in temperatures plummeting below minus 30 degrees Celsius meant certain death from hypothermia. Every winter, unlucky drivers were found frozen behind their wheels.

Though he’d abandoned Communism, like many former members of the Party, he never really believed all men and women were equal. He saw where the main chances in life lay and took them. Number One was always first and that’s why he had risen high in the Party ranks. That’s why he quickly landed himself a well-paid job when the Party crumbled.

But he remained an atheist. His gods were very much of this world: wealth, possessions, power and prestige, and his gods looked favourably on him. He had a comfortable home in an upmarket part of Moscow, he held a high position at work, he owned a smart car and wore expensive clothes. His women, too, were always expensively dressed when he took them to the best restaurants and clubs or to his holiday home near the Black Sea. Yes, his gods were very much of this world and smiled broadly on him.

The God of the Christians and other faiths was a myth. He’d had that fact dinned into him from an early age as a young Communist and by his father. Religion was the opiate of the people and he was quite content with his political opiate without the need for others. The Party opiate was tangible and brought profit. Religion was unprofitable in the USSR; simply a sop for the elderly and ignorant, and the Church was riddled with planted priests, put there to keep an eye open for Christian dissidents, who were soon weeded out. But since the collapse of Communism in the 1990s, slowly, very slowly the Church regained its integrity and began to grow.

Sergey’s grandmother, Babushka Markov, had remained loyal to the Church throughout her life. Like many of her age-group she clung steadfastly to her faith through all the traumas of Communist Russia. The young priests may have been Party spies, but the Christian Church is more than its priests. The Orthodox Church with its beautiful icons, its wealth of candles and incense, its rich liturgy and singing embodied the spirituality of its elderly congregations. Prayer was their mainstay, but that meant nothing to Sergey who’d never been taught how to pray. It was mere mumbo-jumbo. His brain-washing on that score was complete and remained with him even when he embraced capitalism. His soul was dead.

When his grandmother died he went to her funeral, the first time he’d set foot inside a church for many years. He remained behind while the rest went to her interment in a cemetery some way off. For her sake he took one last look around the old church which his mother had also attended till his father forbade her.

He didn’t like funerals; still less the interments afterwards; all that “dust to dust, ashes to ashes” business reminded him too closely of what atheists believed happened after death – oblivion. It was part of his creed he tried to blot out. Life was for making the most of while it lasted with no thought of what lay beyond, and capitalism was now providing him with all he wanted. He was richer than ever he’d been and there were more goods than ever to spend his wealth on.

Yet he was polite to the old priest, Father Dmitrov, who insisted on showing him round the church, which he’d served all his long life. He also had not gone to the interment which a younger priest was taking. The bitter weather kept the old man indoors.

“I knew your grandmother and mother well,” he said as they strolled towards the door. “They were regular worshipers here and I baptised your mother.” He glanced across to read Sergey Petrov’s face. Better not to ask why the younger man had not been baptised. There was much hostility to religion in the past and he sensed Sergey was against it.

Sergey didn’t comment only smiling politely at the garrulous old man. “I loved my grandmother dearly,” was all he said. “I spent much of my childhood with her when my parents were working.

“Then you will be blessed by her love, my son,” said Father Dmitrov. “Love is at the heart of our faith. It comes from God.”

Again, Sergey made no reply and as they entered the porch, he thanked the old priest for showing him round. He was about to leave when he was halted by a striking mural in the porch, the painting of a tall man carrying a child on his shoulders. It was larger than life and dominated the porch; and it was different from all the icons he’d seen. They had solemn unsmiling faces, but this one was smiling and lifelike. So lifelike it might have spoken.

Sergey asked the priest who it was. “He’s the patron saint of this church, Saint Christopher,” he replied, “and he’s also the patron saint of travellers. Tradition has it he unknowingly carried the infant Christ across a river.”

Sergey gave another polite smile. How could these Christians believe such fairy tales? Nevertheless, he felt drawn to look more closely at the saint before he left.

His car was not far away and packed ready for the long journey to Siberia. He glanced at the sky which was heavy with snow and hoped he’d reach his first night’s lodging before it fell. It was hazardous driving once it started snowing.

He’d a smooth run out of Moscow and was well into his journey before the snow came. There was little traffic on the road. None when he hit the unpaved highway out in the wilds; yet he had to keep going. He’d three days of hard driving ahead.

As dusk fell, the snow grew thicker and by the time it was dark a full-scale blizzard was blowing. To make things worse the road had deteriorated into a muddy trough and he began to be worried. Although he’d filled up with petrol before he left, the gauge was running low and he’d still some distance to go. He couldn’t go fast for the snow was drifting across the road and the mud brought him almost to a standstill at times.

He began to panic when his tank registered empty and was on reserve. There was no other traffic in sight and he was some miles from his lodging. He was alone, terrifyingly alone in a howling snowstorm with the temperature well below freezing.

Why he didn’t know, but he began talking to himself; not in prayer but giving voice to some inner expression of fear which surfaced. He could see nothing in front or to the side because of the driving snow; no sign of life anywhere. Even the signposts were blanketed out. Worse still, growing stronger by the second, the frightening thought nagged him that he would freeze to death once his small supply of reserve petrol ran out. He wouldn’t last an hour without heat and his hands were already numb.

Just when he’d reached the end of his tether, a dark shape loomed in front. It was a vehicle of some sort and he flashed his headlights frantically till the lorry, for such it was, pulled over and Sergey pulled in behind him. He got out of his car and struggled to the lorry in the teeth of the gale. When he reached the cab he yelled at the driver: “I’m out of petrol! Can you give me a lift?”

“Of course,” the driver replied. “Get in!”

Sergey hurried round the front of the vehicle and climbed in beside the driver. His cab was warm and welcoming for the heating was full on and the radio played popular music, and as soon as Sergey was inside he drove off.

“You going far?” he asked.

Sergey explained where he was heading. Once the blizzard had blown itself out, he would pick up his car the next day and continue his journey. Then he looked closer at the driver. “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” he asked.

“Probably. I do this run often,” came back the reply, and the driver turned and smiled warmly at Sergey as if enjoying some private joke.

Sergey recognised him then. It was the face on the mural in the porch of Saint Christopher and he was gob-smacked! It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t! His mind was playing him up. It must have been driving so long through the blizzard which was playing tricks with his eyes. He was imagining things. But the longer he sneaked sideway glances at the driver, the more certain he was that it was St Christopher’s face he was looking at. He was so stunned he couldn’t speak and the driver concentrated on his driving. Only the radio broke the silence between them.

He took Sergey right to the door of his lodging and wished him a safe journey to Siberia. Sergey drew out his wallet and wanted to pay the driver, but he only laughed and told Sergey to put it in the poor-box the next time he went to church. Sergey was about to say he didn’t go to church, but with a final wave the driver left him and went on his way, leaving Sergey much to think about.

During the night the blizzard died down and the next day dawned bright and clear. Sergey recovered his car and continued his trip safely, but he couldn’t get the stranger who’d given him a lift out of his mind. He’d saved Sergey’s life and he never found out who the driver was though he made exhaustive enquiries. No one had seen him on the road. No one knew anything about him. He might never have existed.

When he returned to Moscow on his next leave, he went to St Christopher’s Church and stood in the porch looking long and hard at the mural. Yes, it was the lorry driver all right, down to the last detail: his hair, his complexion, above all, his smile and the twinkle in his eye.

He went there often after that, not to pray or worship for he could never bring himself to make the great leap of faith which requires trust; but he did begin attending church at intervals and he did place anonymously a handsome sum of money in the poor-box. So great a sum that when old Father Dmitrov opened it, he thought a miracle had happened.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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