The amazing pilgrimage of Russian businessman-turned-monk, Athanassios

In Vladivostok in 1990, the winds of glasnost and perestroika had begun to blow into the furthest reaches of Siberia and the major naval base of what was then the Soviet Union. People were speaking freely, making small fortunes and attending without fear the few churches that had escaped Stalin’s terror, in a general trend toward the spiritual, seeking hope in religion. Yevgeny Pushenko, then aged 34, grabbed the opportunity provided by the «spirit of Gorbachev» to open a clothing factory employing more than 50 workers. That is, he became a minor capitalist. His future seemed rosy since business was doing well and who knows what might have been if «something terrifying» had not happened to him. «I felt a terrible need to get close to God,» he said. There was nothing unusual about this; it was a feeling shared by millions of other Russians who had never really shed their Russian Orthodox faith under the Bolsheviks. The decision So one day, Pushenko gathered his friends together, handed out vodka and declared that he was giving them his factory, without explaining why. They found out the next day when Yevgeny astounded his father Anatoly and his mother Natasha with his decision to give up everything and become a monk. His parents were even more shocked to hear that within a few days Yevgeny would be setting off on foot for Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Three days later, he set out from Vladivostok on a journey that was to take three years before he reached his destination, having covered 15,000 kilometers. He crossed the Ural Mountains to Moscow, walked on down through the Ukraine into Romania, crossed the Danube into Bulgaria and then over into Greece, moving east toward Turkey, then down through Syria, to arrive in the Holy Land at Easter of 1993. «I did it with God’s help,» Pushenko told Kathimerini in his first media interview, despite many appeals from the Russian press. He now lives in the monastic community of Mt Athos, as the monk Athanassios. «It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have dared do it. Great decisions are made in the heat of the moment. I took with me two pairs of shoes, a few clothes and very little money, just as much as I would need to get visas in Moscow, since the Soviet Union had not yet restored relations with the outside world, and just enough to get me by,» he said. Pushenko explains how he walked day and night, sleeping very little. «I walked through Siberia under very difficult conditions, walking through snow and mud. So as not to get lost, I followed the highway. I had to walk 2,000 kilometers through ravines and forests, walking on the Trans-Siberian express train lines, when there was no highway,» he relates. He said he slept anywhere, in caves, abandoned houses, churches. He ate fruit, vegetables, roots, and was sometimes fed by people in villages he passed. «However, I never asked for food as I was a proud man,» he said. Pushenko not only had to confront the terrible weather conditions and the exhaustion but the suspicion of the authorities who at best regarded him as quaint or crazy and, at worst, as a spy. «I was often dragged off to police stations for questioning, since no one could comprehend why I would want to walk all the way to Jerusalem,» he said. When we asked him why he didn’t retire to a monastery in Russia or attend a church back home to pray instead of taking such a dangerous journey, he explained: «I wanted to be purified, God led me like a little dog out of the mire of my sins,» said the man who, until his enlightenment, had lived the life of an ordinary Russian Christian. Russians’ faith It would be easy to brand Pushenko as a crank – and it would be unfair. This is the nature of the Russian psyche. The dream of every religious Russian is to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, to Mt Athos or to Bari, in Italy, where lie the remains of the Russians’ «saint of saints,» Nicholas. Prior to the Bolshevik revolution, millions of Russians made pilgrimages every year to Jerusalem, Mt Athos and southern Italy. Once a week, a ship sailed from Odessa for Mt Athos bearing tourists. Another boat subsidized by Russia sailed between the little port of Dafni to the Russian monastery on Mt Athos. The 70 years of Communist rule in Russia could not replace the Christian faith in the hearts of Russians with dialectical materialism. When the regime fell, the people turned to the religion which they had never really rejected for the sake of state ideology. They flocked to churches and built monasteries; the Russian Orthodox Church acquired enormous power, the Communist leader Gennady Zhuganov often met with Patriarch Alexei; it is said that Vladimir Putin has his own confessor at a monastery outside Moscow and that astronauts take off into space wearing an icon of the Virgin around their necks. Yevgeny Pushenko succeeded in walking all the way to Jerusalem. Thousands of the faithful form caravans from Moscow to the «golden circle» formed by dozens of monasteries around the Russian capital, while more daring souls used to walk to Kiev, the religious capital for all Russians. In Moscow and Odessa, the sole business of dozens of travel bureaus is to take thousands of the faithful to Mt Athos, the Holy Land and Bari. The Russian Orthodox Church directs a powerful religious tourism industry that brings in huge profits and has even greater political influence. As for Yevgeny Pushenko, he has more than fulfilled his dream as a good Russian Orthodox Christian. He walked all the way to the Holy Land and in 1996 arrived, as the monk Athanassios, at Mt Athos, where he built his own hermit’s cell at Karoulia, the community’s famous hermitage. From there he communicates with the outside world, as do many other monks at Mt Athos, by mobile telephone.