A RUSSIAN PRIEST IN AN ENGLISH PRISON

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‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…: for I… was in prison, and ye came unto me’ (Mt. 25:34-36; King James Bible)

The interview was conducted by Julia Pliauksta

There are several clergymen of the London Dormition Cathedral of the Sourozh Diocese who preach the Word of God to those people who have violated the law and have been imprisoned. This ministry is usually invisible to outsiders, priests themselves do not talk much about it, so laypeople have no idea that their beloved pastor several times a month visits ‘the more remote parts’ in order to support those who were jailed in a foreign country. Father Maxim Nikolsky is such a prison chaplain – he agreed to speak on this aspect of his pastoral ministry, on his meetings with prisoners, and to share with the readers that sometimes those sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment ‘have no time’ to speak with a priest and that convicts preach the Gospel to their cellmates.

Fr Maxim, can you tell us about the ministry of a prison chaplain in the UK?

As an Orthodox chaplain I normally visit Orthodox inmates at one prison once a week. For the first time I was invited there by incarcerated persons themselves, or rather by one of them. It was more than ten years ago. I was asked to visit one young man who was serving his sentence at Wormwood Scrubs prison in London and who had requested a meeting with an Orthodox priest. I spoke with him; he was very lonesome. I do hope that our conversation helped him somewhat.

The UK law says that the authorities are obliged to invite a clergyman from the denomination which the prisoner belongs to. So it was then that I began to visit prisoners at that man’s request. Initially there were very many Russian-speaking inmates at Wormwood Scrubs – up to thirty people. Some of them were constantly transferred to other prisons while new convicts appeared, but their total number always was about thirty.

Most of them had never attended any churches; perhaps some of them used to go to church with their grannies in childhood in Russia, the Ukraine or Romania – but in Britain they certainly had not entered any house of God.

Please, can you tell us about your meetings with people who serve their sentences in jail?

In addition to services which are celebrated in prison, I also perform molebens [public services]. Of course, I talk with prisoners as well. I come to every convicted person individually and speak with him in his cell. Earlier I did it once a month, but now I gather Russian-speaking inmates more often and find it very useful. We pray together, then many of them go to confession, and after that we have a talk. First we discuss one subject or another, and then I answer their questions.

There are various categories of prisoners there, though Wormwood Scrubs now houses fewer Russian-speaking inmates. There are considerably more Russians in other prisons, but here the majority of Orthodox prisoners are Romanians. I should note that most of them are nice guys, though sometimes silly, and they came under bad influences. Some are serving their terms for thefts, some for violations of the passport regulations, and some for drunken brawls. I saw it in most cases. Unfortunately, some were confined for major crimes and felonies, such as murder. And I ought to devote some time to each prisoner individually.

Are inmates easy to get in touch with a priest?

I can remember only one story that occurred over the years of my prison ministry when a man who had been sentenced to fifteen years of confinement at first refused to speak with me. I came to him, but he said: ‘I am sorry but I have no time to talk to you today’. But what does it mean – ‘I have no time’, when you are incarcerated for so many years?! But the refusal was point-blank: ‘I need to do my exercises!’ He did press-ups in his cell… I left, but later came again, and we finally found a common language.

Our conversations are dedicated to a wide range of topics. Many of prisoners regret having committed criminal acts, while others feel that they are innocent. True, sometimes people are imprisoned by mistake, especially when their knowledge of the language is very poor. Either they did not realise what they had done or they were misunderstood. And whenever I speak of the purpose of life, nearly all of them show a positive attitude towards it. They are conscious that they have transgressed the law and are ‘doing time’ for that, but nevertheless they wish they would be released sooner.

Were there any remarkable occurrences when people came to believe in God and their lives were transformed?

Yes, there are several such stories. One of them is connected with another prison which is far from London. Among its inmates was a Russian young man, aged between thirty and forty. I visited him on several occasions, and then he asked me to come to an Englishman with whom he shared his cell because the latter wanted to speak to an Orthodox priest. It turned out that our Russian prisoner talked with the Englishman, told him about the Orthodox faith, about the Church, and the latter came to understand – that was exactly what he needed. I came and spoke with him and the Englishman said: ‘I want to be baptised’. And I then came again and baptised him. It was for the first time in my prison ministry when a non-Orthodox prisoner heard about Orthodoxy from his cellmate and was eventually received into the Orthodox Church. This convert had not communicated with his wife for several years. But on the following day after this man’s baptism she telephoned him to say that she wanted to see him again. Soon after that they met.

So a real miracle occurred?

Yes, definitely it was a miracle. One young woman from Belarus was sentenced to a long term of imprisonment for a grave crime. But behind bars she started studying: the woman took a distance learning programme at one university, was granted a bachelor’s degree and is currently pursuing a Masters Degree. Representatives of the university came to the jail especially for her graduation ceremony. It was Father Joseph Skinner from our London cathedral who told me this story as he regularly visits this woman.

Is it easy to be baptised, if you are in confinement?

If an inmate wishes to be baptised, he needs to obtain an official authorization of the prison administration. Some want to have a ceremony of Church wedding in jail, but it is rather difficult as many of them are not British citizens. They are citizens of other states and in order to get married in Church they need official documents and a licence. Some prisoners have sweethearts at liberty who frequently visit their boyfriends. So there have been several attempts to register a marriage, but I personally have not performed any wedding ceremonies yet.

And one more short question: if a layperson has a desire to help a prisoner, what can he do?

He can become a volunteer, come to a prison, communicate with inmates – it is in demand. Interestingly enough, a chaplain is given keys to the prison. I carry them inside the prison, lock and unlock numerous doors, walking altogether several kilometres each time. Volunteers however must be accompanied by someone else; they have no right to walk in the prison on their own. I have an assistant, a Moldovan, who speaks Romanian. He is not always available, but he does come to prison quite regularly and helps me as a Romanian interpreter. So volunteers are needed.

Thank you very much for your interesting and important interview.

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