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Down a deeply rutted dirt road, far from Russia’s centers of power and wealth, sits a small compound behind twelve-foot-high brick walls. People in the nearest village, several miles away, have heard rumors that an odd man lives there, a monk perhaps. But no one has seen him or knows anything about him.

I ring a buzzer on an intercom, and a heavy door swings open. A neatly tended rose garden lies before me. Flagstone paths lead to two small, modern brick houses and a chapel, whose white stucco glistens in the summer sunlight. A simple iron Greek (rather than Russian) cross adorns its peak. I follow the path to the house on the right. A man in a black cassock opens the door and greets me. He is Fr. Zinon (his secular name is Vladimir Mikhailovich Teodor), said to be the country’s most gifted iconographer.

In the Soviet Union, icon painting was a forbidden art, a form of religious propaganda. The communist state overlooked small projects for the few churches that remained open, but not until the Gorbachev era could Fr. Zinon work openly. Today, he has retreated. Russia’s Orthodox hierarchs do not favor the understanding of the church that his icons communicate. But behind these tall compound walls, he continues to bear a quiet witness to an alternative way of church life.

I am an American Protestant theologian, and for the past twenty years I have immersed myself in Russia and its Orthodoxy. I have been especially interested in a group of “holy elders” who helped sustain Christian witness in the late Soviet period. As I began my research a decade ago, a priest in St. Petersburg introduced me to Fr. Zinon, who had known several of these elders. When I was in Russia again just before the pandemic, I got in touch with him, and he invited me to visit.

Fr. Zinon was born in 1953 in a small village in southern Ukraine. His father herded sheep on a collective farm; his mother was an accountant. Both were firmly committed to communism. They did not care about religious faith or practice, although as was typical of the time, they had their son baptized as an infant, and when he was a little boy his grandmother took him to church occasionally.

At age fifteen, Fr. Zinon entered the Odesa Art School, where he was trained in socialist realism. His real love, however—about which he could not speak openly—was the great iconography of Andrei Rublev and Russia’s Middle Ages. He furtively studied illustrations in Soviet albums that celebrated the country’s “artistic heritage.” To understand the figures and symbols in the icons, he began reading a Bible. By the time he graduated in 1973, he had quietly become a Christian.

A decision soon followed to become a monk and an iconographer—as he would later say, “to leave aside everything for Christ.” As was Orthodox custom, he sought out a holy elder to test and confirm his intentions. The elder not only gave his blessing; he also recognized Fr. Zinon’s talent and commissioned him to paint large frescoes of the four evangelists. They still adorn the interior of the village church, which was slowly rebuilt after years of neglect.

Fr. Zinon’s relationship with that elder, Fr. Seraphim Tiapochkin, shaped him decisively. Fr. Zinon told me that he had never met anyone so spiritually free. Fr. Seraphim had spent nearly fifteen years in the gulag. When he was due to be released, the prison commandant asked him what he planned to do. “I am a priest, I will serve the liturgy,” Fr. Seraphim replied. The commandant countered, “Then sit in prison longer.” He then added five years of hard labor to the sentence.

When finally Fr. Seraphim was released after Stalin’s death, his spirit was unbroken. Nothing and no one could manipulate him. Government authorities allowed him to be assigned only to a ruined church in the boonies. But in the years that followed, a group of spiritual children, some from far corners of the Soviet Union, gathered around him. His unmerited suffering had made him all the more sensitive to others’ travails. Fr. Zinon says that he never heard Fr. Seraphim condemn anyone. He listened and offered comfort. But he was not afraid to tell you the truth about your spiritual condition.

A black-and-white photograph from that era shows a tall and vigorous Fr. Zinon standing next to Fr. Seraphim, who is short, elderly, and hunched over. Fr. Zinon’s own path of suffering would come later. For now, he entered the Pskov Monastery of the Caves and painted icons in the style of Rublev. Two years later, he was transferred to the Holy Trinity–St. Sergius Lavra north of Moscow, one of Russia’s most ancient and famous monasteries. There he worked with Iuliana Sokolova, who had preserved traditional Russian iconography during the most brutal years of Stalinist repression. In 1983, the Patriarch assigned Fr. Zinon to prepare icons in Moscow’s historic Danilov Monastery, which the state had returned to the Church to use for its patriarchal offices.

Fr. Zinon was increasingly in demand. Relaxation of church-state relations in anticipation of the 1988 celebration of the millennium of Christianity among the eastern Slavs allowed the Church to recover more properties. With the fall of communism in 1991, the Church’s situation improved even more. The new Russian government under Boris Yeltsin actively promoted Orthodoxy.

Officials invited Fr. Zinon to organize an iconography school within a newly returned monastery and a year later gave him an award for his iconographic accomplishments. He traveled abroad, taught master classes in Italy and France, and painted not only for Orthodox communities but also for Catholic and Anglican churches and monasteries. In his new commissions, he began exploring Byzantine and Russian iconographic styles that predated Rublev. His figures became simpler, plainer. Their gaze seemed to penetrate silently into the viewer’s inner self (whereas Rublev represented the more self-assertive spirit of Muscovy).

In 1996, at what appeared to be the height of his career, things suddenly fell apart. Fr. Zinon hosted a group of Italian Catholics, allowed them to celebrate the Eucharist in an unconsecrated space in the monastery, and received communion from them. When his bishop took him to task, Fr. Zinon defended himself. “Catholics and Orthodox recognize the validity of each other’s sacraments,” he argued. The bishop viewed his response as defiance, removed him from the monastery, and banned him from priestly service.

Fr. Zinon was penniless and on his own. He moved to a small village near the Estonian border, where he painted and sold icons to support himself. He continued to live as a monk, although he no longer belonged to a monastic community or had an abbot or bishop. The worst part, he told me, was that he could not celebrate the Eucharist. He could receive it only at the hands of another priest—but there was none in the village.

During these lonely days, Fr. Zinon began thinking about what it means to be a Christian when one is in the minority. He could no longer turn for guidance to Fr. Seraphim, who had died in 1982. And he had few kindred spirits in the Russian Church, which was heady about its new social status and political influence. In order to find a way ahead, he learned all that he could about how the first Christians had lived with spiritual freedom amid an unfriendly society. His study of iconography had already been taking him back in time. Now, he investigated the famous mosaics in Ravenna, created in the sixth century when the church throughout East and West was still one. Soon, he looked back even further, to the art of the catacombs.

He read widely in liturgics. A book by Orthodox theologian Nicholas Afanasiev, The Church of the Holy Spirit, made a deep impression on him. Afanasiev, originally from the same part of Ukraine as Fr. Zinon, had escaped to Paris after the Russian Revolution and there became a professor at the famed St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute. Based on a careful study of the New Testament, Afanasiev argued that the early church’s officers—bishops, presbyters, and deacons—constituted not an institutional hierarchy but rather a series of concentric circles around the Eucharist. They gathered the whole congregation at the altar to commune with the risen Lord. Afanasiev called for recovering a Eucharistic ecclesiology, in which each local Eucharistic community represents the church in its fullness.

Fr. Zinon also investigated early church architecture. He concluded that the first Christian churches had no solid screen of icons (iconostasis) but only a low barrier that served the practical purpose of keeping the priests and the laypeople from bumping into each other. The arrangement of space invited clergy and laity to understand themselves as one body and as co-celebrants of the Eucharist. Iconostases grew in height and breadth only as clerical dominance increased and church structures became more hierarchical. By the time of the Russian Middle Ages, whose iconography had once seemed to Fr. Zinon the height of perfection, iconostases had five or more tiers and completely blocked worshippers’ view of the altar area and of the priests’ preparation of the Eucharistic elements. Few worshippers communed.

An idea slowly took hold of him. How, he wondered, could he design a church building and its icons so as to draw people into the Eucharistic spirit of the first Christians? When Fr. Zinon first told me of this ambition, I wondered whether it reflected a continuing defiance of the institutional Church that had so harshly punished him. But Fr. Zinon sees it differently. He had become convinced that the post-communist Church had gotten things wrong theologically. Orthodoxy could not be faithful to the gospel by becoming a new national ideology. Too many of the new church buildings replicated the tall iconostases of the medieval past—and thereby implicitly affirmed the restorationist impulses of the new Church hierarchy.

Eventually, Fr. Zinon made enough money to have a small stone chapel built to incorporate his new insights. The result is striking. The building uses local stone that remains undressed on both the exterior and the interior. The walls are thick and heavy, and the space is dark, broken by only a few small windows. The altar area, set apart by three steps and a low gate, is completely open to worshippers’ view. Small icons of Christ Pantocrator (World Ruler) and Mary the Mother of God, the central icons on every Orthodox iconostasis, hang on the walls to the right and left of the altar area.

The space is quiet and intimate, a refuge from a world of noisy, aggressive, and competing power interests. But Fr. Zinon has moved on.

In 2002, Patriarch Aleksiy II lifted the ban, and Fr. Zinon began to receive major commissions again. He designed the iconostasis for a small church on the site on which Fr. Aleksandr Men, a charismatic, ecumenically minded Orthodox priest, was murdered in 1990; the case remains unsolved, though some believe that state security agents saw Men as a threat to the new church-state order. Metropolitan Ilarion (Alfeev), based at that time in Western Europe, commissioned Fr. Zinon to execute the frescoes for a new Russian Orthodox cathedral in Vienna. For a brief time, Fr. Zinon lived on Mt. Athos and painted icons for one of its monasteries. But he no longer knew where he fit in church or society. He contemplated moving back to Ukraine but eventually came to this remote corner of Russia.

Now, he invites me into his home. The brick walls and floor tiles are a warm reddish brown. Large picture windows look out on a small river and a lush valley. No highway or electrical lines interrupt our view of fields and forests. We step into his atelier. Two small photographs hang on the wall: one of Seraphim Tiapochkin, the other of Seraphim Rosenberg, a holy elder whom Fr. Zinon served when he first entered the Pskov Monastery of the Caves. We go into the kitchen, and he invites me to sit at a long oaken table as he prepares lunch. On the wall to the east is a small icon of Christ Pantocrator; on the west wall hangs a full-size reproduction of Dalí’s “Christ of Saint John of the Cross,” that dramatic painting of Christ on the cross soaring through dark, empty, cosmic space. As we eat and converse, Fr. Zinon sits below it on a bench.

As much as he believes in a Eucharistic ecclesiology, Fr. Zinon is a loner. He is a monk without a monastery, a priest without a congregation, and a servant of the church who no longer has a secure place within institutional Russian Orthodoxy. He observes a strict, monastic regime, yet has made modifications to it in the spirit of the early Christianity that he so values. The day begins at 3 a.m., when he arises and recites the morning office for nearly two hours, using readings from the New Testament letters, the Gospels, and the Church Fathers. He especially values St. Gregory the Theologian, the great expositor of the Trinity. After a small breakfast, he works on his icons. Lunch is the main meal of the day—Fr. Zinon is an excellent cook, as I experienced for myself. Afternoon is devoted to household chores and, in the summer, to a vegetable garden. He retires by 9 p.m. after praying a long evening office.

On Saturdays and Sundays, Fr. Zinon gathers in the chapel with the monk (a church furniture maker) who lives in the compound’s other house and with any guests. He remains true to the theological commitments that once got him into trouble: to the unity of the church, East and West; and to the spirit of the early church, in which Christians celebrated the Eucharist in thankfulness for their new lives in the power of the resurrection. On Saturdays, he presides over a version of the Western, Latin rite; on Sundays, he uses a simplified version of the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, common to the Orthodox East. Fr. Zinon never preaches a sermon—he claims that in the ancient church, exposition of the faith was directed to the catechumens. The spatial arrangement of his new chapel is even simpler than before. No steps or gates separate the altar area from the nave, and now only one icon, the Pantocrator, hangs on the wall.

I wonder what to make of all of this. Is Fr. Zinon an ecclesiastical renegade, a theological oddball, a vain little Martin Luther, free to do his own thing only because he has cut himself off from the Church and the rest of the world? Or is he cultivating a vision of the Church that Russia desperately needs today? The spiritual freedom that he claims to have learned from Seraphim Tiapochkin seems to have isolated him from others, whereas Seraphim radiated joyous love to the many who came to him for help. Later, however, I learn of those who have made pilgrimages to Fr. Zinon’s home, Russians who want a Church that renounces state privilege and cultivates deep, loving community among its members.

Fr. Zinon is convinced that Christians today in both East and West are called to rediscover the gospel with its simple, singular focus on the resurrected Christ. Church architecture and iconography can invite people into the new way of life that the Savior has made possible. In a world of visual overload—the imagery that constantly bombards us from social media, advertising, YouTube, and 24/7 news—less, says Fr. Zinon, is definitely more.

Look at the typical Russian’s home, he tells me. The walls are cluttered with inexpensive icons printed on paper or cardboard. The colors are bright and gaudy, artificial and distracting, as on a computer screen. In his view, much of the painted iconography in Russia’s new churches suffers from the same faults. It is decorative, visually bombastic perhaps, but not a window into eternity.

Fr. Zinon has written, “An icon is a revelation of Christ’s kingdom, a revelation of the transfigured, divinized creation—indeed, of humanity itself as transfigured.” The iconographer works with earthly materials to open believers to spiritual realities. Fr. Zinon prepares his paints from minerals and plants. Their subdued colors, he asserts, quiet the eye and prepare it for prayer. Moreover, he says that believers need only the icons of Christ and the Mother of God—indeed, perhaps only that of Christ. Fr. Zinon is critical of those many Russians who acquire icons of saints who they believe help with particular health conditions, as though one’s salvation were not already secure in Christ.

Fr. Zinon’s singular focus on Christ also explains his simplification of the liturgy. Over the centuries, the church’s worship expanded to include long hymns devoted to an ever growing number of saints. But the purpose of the liturgy, insists Fr. Zinon, is to focus people on the Eucharist. Christ’s sacrifice defines the self-sacrificing love that is to characterize his followers. As in the early church, believers should commune whenever they gather for worship. The Eucharist is their common meal of praise and thanksgiving.

For many in Russia’s Church hierarchy today, Fr. Zinon’s ecclesiological vision is idiosyncratic. Their goal is to re-Orthodoxize the country. They want Russians to regard Orthodoxy as an essential dimension of their national identity. The more churches, the better, even if they are full only at Christmas and Pascha. The architecture, iconography, and liturgy should adhere to the Church’s medieval canons, even if people do not understand the theology those canons once sought to preserve.

There is an exception to this rule. One of the country’s premier churches now embodies some of Fr. Zinon’s principles. The very history of the church building reflects the past and present vicissitudes of Russian Orthodoxy—its possibilities and missed opportunities, internal contradictions and complicated relations with a state that today claims to be friendly to the Church, yet wishes to control it.

The Cathedral of the Feodorovsky Icon of the Mother of God was built in St. Petersburg in 1913 to commemorate the establishment of the Romanov dynasty three hundred years earlier. In the 1930s, the Soviets removed the golden cupolas, stripped the outer walls of their marble cladding, and turned the building into a milk factory. Not until the early 2000s did the Church regain title to the empty and decaying property. The small parish sometimes gathered in the shell of the former nave, but it lacked the resources for a major restoration. But in 2007, local civic and political leaders committed themselves to raising the necessary funds—millions of dollars—in anticipation of the cathedral’s one hundredth anniversary. They wanted the immense building, near the city’s major railway station, to showcase the nation’s renewed commitment to its Orthodox heritage.

Today, the cathedral has been restored to its former glory. The golden domes and white marble cladding shine resplendently. Inside, the large “upper church,” the main space for worship, has a traditional, multitiered iconostasis, a perfect copy of the original. An icon of the Feodorovsky Mother of God, the protectress of the Romanov family, occupies an honored place again. In the corridors, the parish has preserved a few of the mechanical objects left over from the milk factory, “relics” of the fanatical Bolshevik effort to eradicate religion, the “opium” of the people.

The “lower church,” partially underground, presented a different challenge. By the time of the 1917 October Revolution, nothing had yet been done to the space. When parish leaders a century later looked in the archives, they found that the original building committee had proposed designing the space in accordance with early church architecture. But no architectural sketches, no concrete plans, existed.

The Feodorovsky parish is reputed to be on the more liberal side of the Russian Orthodox Church. Certainly, the parish has an activist spirit. It has extensive educational offerings for all ages, a much-admired adult catechumenate program, both adult and children’s choirs, and various social outreach projects. Members’ political commitments vary widely, but the parish is known for offering a forum for discussing controversial issues, including the war in Ukraine. A strong sense of trusting Christian fellowship is evident.

In considering what to do with the lower church, the parish’s head priest thought of Fr. Zinon. Fr. ­Zinon’s ecclesiological vision seemed to correspond to the parish’s way of life. The priest approached him and promised him a free hand. Fr. Zinon long demurred but finally accepted, seeing an opportunity to realize his ideas not just for himself but also for the larger Christian church. He and a team of iconographers and engineers went to work.

Completed in time for the 2013 anniversary, the lower church of the Feodorovsky Cathedral is unlike any other liturgical space in Russia. As in Fr. Zinon’s chapels, no iconostasis, only a low wall, sets off the altar area. Icons of Christ and the Mother of God, slightly larger than life, are to the right and left, leaving an unobstructed view of the altar and the priests’ actions during the liturgy. Directly behind the small stone altar, a fresco in the central apse depicts the risen Christ at table. With one hand, he blesses; with the other, he holds a paten containing a white disc stamped with the sign of the cross. On the table before him stands a large brass pitcher. The message is clear: Christ, not the priest, is ultimately the host, both as the One who presides at the Eucharist and as the One who gives himself as the bread of life, the cup of salvation.

Frescoes to the left and right depict the apostles and the Evangelists, again larger than life. With outstretched hands, they lean in toward Christ at the table, as though hastening toward him. The Evangelist Luke looks directly toward those in the nave. The message is again clear: The people who are presently gathered for worship join with the disciples of old to receive the Divine Mysteries.

On the immense pillars that support the upper church hang several large icons of other saints; many of them are renowned ascetics of the early church. In contrast to much popular Russian iconography, Fr. Zinon avoids any sentimentality. Rather, the icons have a “cool,” otherworldly feeling. The saints they depict are now illuminated and transfigured in their heavenly, glorified condition.

Frescoes in the north apse, where the Eucharistic elements are prepared, depict three Old Testament figures—Abraham, Melchizedek, and Moses—whom the early church understood to prefigure Christ. The south apse, where liturgical garments and instruments are stored, invites us into the life of the first Christians. Fr. Zinon has used scenes from the Book of Acts, including the martyrdom of Stephen, perhaps to suggest the trials that Christians today may face if they are true to the faith.

A large baptismal pool to one side of the nave is shaped as a cross, representing baptism as a dying to the old life of sin and a being born to a new life in the resurrected Christ. Fr. Zinon argues for the ancient practice of baptizing adult catechumens or children at least three or four years old, whose parents are active believers and raise them in the faith. In a world in which Christians are again a minority, he wants those who join its ranks to understand and affirm God’s claim on their lives.

In contrast to his two small chapels, the lower church of the Feodorovsky Cathedral is open and bright. Large chandeliers hang overhead. A labyrinth inlaid with polished wood occupies the central floor area. Furnishings have been carefully crafted from natural materials. Fr. Zinon intends each element of the space to embody a beauty that does not draw attention to itself but rather points to the God whom Orthodoxy honors not only as Truth and Goodness but also as Beauty.

Some in the West criticize those Russians who oppose the war in Ukraine but refuse to pay the price of “martyrdom.” Instead, they flee the country or remain but refrain from open protest, perhaps after an arrest or two. An Aleksei Navalny, serving an ever-extended sentence in a labor camp, is the rare exception.

I never asked Fr. Zinon about Ukraine, his homeland. But he did tell me that Fr. Seraphim never openly opposed the Soviet government, despite the injustices that he had experienced at its hands. He was too busy doing as much good as he could. Many days, he received people from morning to evening in his tiny cell. He offered spiritual guidance both to humble laborers on the local collective farm and to intellectual religious seekers from Moscow and St. Petersburg. On Sundays, he celebrated the liturgy so slowly and with such painstaking love and care that his spiritual children from the provincial capital sometimes missed their buses back home. His sermons were simple, yet he delivered them with such conviction that he broke into tears, and soon the entire congregation was crying along with him about the wondrous mystery of Emmanuel, God with us.

Today, Fr. Zinon seeks to speak the truth about God and the church through his iconography. Does it matter? He no longer disturbs the Orthodox hierarchy. And how many who step into the lower church of the Feodorovsky Cathedral will get the point? Architectural form by itself does not determine religious content.

No, he is not a political martyr for what he believes, nor does his self-imposed “internal exile” keep him from living comfortably. His personal behavior, as well as his views on ecclesiology and iconography, will be debated. But the Christian church has always recognized that some of its members become faithful witnesses to Christ by committing themselves to “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.” To keep one’s spirit free from manipulation, to refuse to submit to the ideologies of the day, to radiate joy, even when one feels alone and misunderstood—“if there is any excellence . . . think about these things,” commands the Apostle Paul.

Since the pandemic and the war, I have been unable to return to Russia. Fr. Zinon rarely replies to my emails or messages. Those, like him, who have retreated into their compounds will not bring peace to Ukraine. But if a new, different Russia has a chance someday, it will be because he and others have continued to do their little bit of good in their vast country’s quiet, lonely places.

John P. Burgess is James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Image by Ron Lach, public domain. Image cropped. 

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