In the darkest hours of communist rule, Father Merhum fought to protect the sanctity of the Orthodox Church. Now the Soviet Union is gone, but the bureaucracy survives, and within it lurk men who would do anything to undermine the fragile new Russian democracy. Father Merhum is on his way to Moscow to denounce those traitors when he is struck with an ax and killed.
As police inspectors Porfiry Rostnikov and Emil Karpo dig into the past of this celebrated village priest, they uncover strange church secrets and a conspiracy to carry the vile corruption of the former regime on into the twenty-first century. But if they don’t watch their steps, someone may need to say the last rites for them.
With the Edgar Award–winning Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series, “Stuart Kaminsky evokes Russian life like a born Muscovite. . . . Don’t miss this one. It’s even better than his Edgar-winning A Cold Red Sunrise.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Kaminsky moves closer to becoming the Ed McBain of Mother Russia . . . The usual strengths of the series—ingenious plotting, solid police procedure, and Rostnikov’s shrewdly perceptive presence—are joined here by casually effective glimpses of the old Soviet Union in chancy transition. It all adds up to Rostnikov’s best outing since A Cold Red Sunrise.” —Kirkus Reviews
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Death Of A Russian Priest
An Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov Mystery
By Stuart M. Kaminsky
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Stuart M. Kaminsky
All rights reserved.
An hour after dawn on a chill December morning, the assassin stood before the white wooden church in the village of Arkush.
He was careful not to touch any of the gathering faithful who entered prepared to cross themselves, stand, bend, pray, and sing during the three-hour ceremony that would be conducted by the priest who would one day be a saint.
The assassin looked up at the domes of the church, four bulbous shapes meant to represent colorful flames reaching up toward heaven, but looking to child and nonbeliever only like pastel onions. The assassin, filled with disgust, hid behind a suffocating mask of piety. He entered the church and found a place to stand where the priest could be clearly seen.
The church was filled with men and women of all ages, families with children, not just old babushkas. They had come to hear the holy man who evoked the spirit of St. Basil and St. Philip. They had come to pass their candles forward and then be blessed by him.
Through the moving, talking congregation the assassin could see the iconostasis, the wall of holy paintings that, according to dogma, served as the door to the Lord, the Holy Mother, or the depicted saint. The assassin paid little attention to the crowd, the icons, the lighted candles. He watched the actual door in the iconostasis through which the priest would soon be coming.
In the sanctuary beyond that door, Father Vasili Merhum held out his arms in homage to the Savior so that his grandson Aleksandr could help him put on his vestments for the Eucharist. As the ecclesiastical robes slipped over his arms the priest's heart beat madly in anticipation of what he planned to do this very afternoon.
Into his mind there came a vivid picture of a low wooden building in Moscow, the Department of External Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In a conference room in the building, where Father Merhum planned to go that afternoon, was a large painting. It was Father Merhum's favorite painting. In the painting a large angry man in golden robes partially covered by a dark monk's cloak looks down at a bishop, the object of his scorn. The bishop, in full white vestments, appears quite calm as he looks up at the irate giant.
The golden giant in the painting is Ivan the Terrible. The bishop is Metropolitan Philip of Moscow. Legend has it that Ivan entered the church in disguise to demand that Philip cease speaking out against the policies of the czar. The bishop refused. Ivan had him arrested and strangled in prison and Philip became a saint of the church.
Father Merhum was a large man, over six feet tall and shaped like a brown bear. He was sixty-six years old and his beard was curled and gray. His unflinching gray eyes announced that he was a priest who fully believed he had the ear of Jesus. With faith in his mission Father Merhum had stood up to commissars, the leaders of his own church, the KGB, and state leaders from Stalin to Gorbachev. And now, days after the end of the seventy-year-old failure of Soviet socialism, he stood ready to take up the demands for reform with Yeltsin himself.
Father Merhum had no illusions. He did not believe the new Sodruzhestvo Nezavisimykh Gosudarstv, the Commonwealth of Independent States, would suddenly bring freedom. He did not believe that the men against whom he had fought for more than half a century would suddenly become tolerant because they wore new hats and waved a flag of red, white, and blue instead of a red flag with a hammer and sickle. Yeltsin had come to power without a party behind him. He and the leaders of the other new nations had no choice but to rely on the old bureaucrats. The people would continue to suffer, with starvation, with the gradual realization that different is not always better, and ultimately, with attacks on their faith.
Vasili lifted his robe and held up a leg so his grandson could help him put on thestitcharion, the long, smooth undergarment. "My soul rejoices in the Lord," the priest said softly. "He has dressed me in the garment of salvation and put upon me the vestment of joy. Like a bridegroom, He has placed the miter upon me, and like a bride, He has surrounded me with adornment."
Across the shoulders of the priest his grandson, who stood a full half foot shorter than the old man, placed the epitrach-elion, the stole. Its dangling ends, sewn together over the chest, signified the burst of joy of the Holy Spirit.
As he donned the stole the priest said, "Praise be to God who has poured out His grace upon His priests like precious ointment upon the head; it flows down upon the beard of Aaron; it flows down upon the hem of his garment."
Then, as the girdle was placed about his ample waist and belly, Father Merhum recited, "He has girded me with strength and made my way irreproachable."
Then the epimakinia, the cuffs, reaching from wrist to elbow.
"Thy right arm," he said, "was glorified in strength, O Lord; Thy right arm, O Lord, shattered the enemy."
And then for the left arm. "Thy hands have created me and formed me; teach me, that I may know Thy commandments."
Then he put on the chasuble, the "house," seamless like the tunic of Jesus.
As Father Merhum said his prayer the assassin stood off to the side of the railed platform from which the priest would soon address his flock. An ancient nun, covered in black from head to foot and wearing a beehive-shaped head covering, stood head bent, praying the rosary. The assassin watched her gnarled hands that cradled a rosary of silver and green beads.
At her side a small choir of six men and women sang softly, almost to themselves. Nun and choir went silent as the ornate gold-painted door opened and Father Merhum, a giant in full vestments, stepped forth and bellowed, "Forgive me my children."
"Spasi gospodi. God save you. God will forgive," echoed all but one voice in the church.
The service lasted more than three hours. Then it was time for the sermon. There was a great silence as Father Merhum turned his back to the congregation to look at the icons and gather strength from them. His broad shoulders sagged and then rose with determination.
A small child cried out for something to drink. Angry voices whispered to quiet the little boy, but the priest, who had now turned to face those before him, held up a hand and smiled.
"It is right that that thirsty child should ask for water," he said. "The Lord did not make children with the power to dissemble. Children are taught pretense. We live in a world of pretense taught to us not only by those who once told us to worship the false God of Lenin, but by all those who would reject the true God and our Lord Jesus Christ. Give the child water."
The ancient nun in the corner rose and the crowd parted. She moved to the child who had asked for drink and took his hand.
"Your soul," the priest continued as the nun led the little boy to the church door, "may wear its earthly masks. Women may paint their laces." His words echoed from the ancient stone walls. "Men may perfect their masks. But the true God can see the soul and hear its cry for water, food, meaning."
The assassin was certain that the burning eyes of the priest met his at that moment. He forced himself to keep from blinking and turning away.
"The struggle is not over, though the statues are down and the empire is dying. We speak openly, but those with clubs and guns, the murderers of the soul, wait in the shadows. New freedom is not only for the just but for the unjust also. Those who stole your bread will be replaced by others who will steal your bread and your water. The struggle is not over.
"Look you," he bellowed, stepping forward. "New false gods already dwell behind the golden doors of Moscow, Tiblisi, Kiev. Deny them. There is no new kingdom and there was no old kingdom. It was always the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. This very day I will go to Moscow. This very day I will be expected to join in the rejoicing of those who claim a new kingdom called Democracy. This day even those in vestments in our own church will smile and give thanks and be mesmerized by hope. It is not hard for an evil king to clothe the seduced in the vestments of priests, but God, not the kings of the earth, determines the holy. In the name of our Lord I will not be mesmerized by a crucifix of gold while someone reaches into my chest to take my soul, our soul, and claim the kingdom of the Lord."
At the end Father Merhum blessed the worshipers and patted the heads of those who came forward to kiss the hem of his vestments.
Assassin and priest's eyes met again for an instant. Had the cleansing weapon not been hidden outside, he would have climbed over the backs of the fools, the stupid animals who knelt in front of this preening pot of filth. The pot had to be broken. Krov, thought the assassin, blood. He imagined the broken priest split in two, a putrid foul gas escaping from his body.
The priest was gone. Through the golden door.
The assassin pushed through the crowd. The priest would change quickly. Feigning humility, he would walk through the woods to the train station, where he would travel to Moscow to do battle with the state in the name of God and the people. But he would do other things in Moscow of which he told no one.
Hypocrisy, he thought, willing himself to move at the pace of those who stepped out into the cold daylight, dazzled, still in a religious swoon, a state of stupid ecstasy. They moved slowly and so did he.
Father Merhum, with the help of his grandson, removed his vestments carefully, with reverence. He was aware of his hands, his thighs, the rippling gray hair between his legs as he slipped off each vestment and handed it to Aleksandr.
"I have a question for you," said the priest, and the boy's legs trembled as he placed a cloak neatly on a wooden hanger. Aleksandr was sure that his grandfather had discovered his secret.
"You ate this morning?" Father Merhum asked, pulling his head through the top of his black cloak and smoothing his unruly hair and beard.
"Yes, Father," said Aleksandr. He placed the sleeves gently in the wooden box on the table.
"You ate all your bread?" asked Father Merhum playfully.
"All of it," said Aleksandr.
"Good," said his grandfather. "Are you still going to be a priest?"
As he had said dozens of times before, the twelve-year old answered, "As my grandfather and his father before him."
They said nothing of Aleksandr's father, Peotor, who had forsaken his tradition for the life of a shopkeeper. Peotor claimed to be an atheist. In the four years during which Father Merhum had been imprisoned for his articles, for his attacks on the puppet priests who had been appointed by the government as metropolitans and bishops, not once had Peotor written to him.
"Your father has lost his soul," said Father Merhum, adjusting the heavy cross on his chest. "He inherited the weakness of his mother, whom our Lord has taken to his breast."
The small, thin boy, who most resembled his sad and pretty Georgian mother, nodded his head. When his grandfather talked of his father, Aleksandr imagined not the sullen man at home but one of the sinners in the icon of the Lord and the gates of hell that hung in his grandfather's house. The sinner in the icon was a thin, pale creature in rags, his right arm trying to cover his face from the wrath of the Lord.
"It is not that Peotor honestly turned from God," said Father Merhum, "but that he believed in the Lord yet turned his back upon him and the Holy Mother for a few extra bottles of wine and a shank of meat on earth. I respect an honest atheist, even an honest Communist, but I despise the coward who thinks only of preserving what sheathes his body and fills his belly, the coward who abandons God and his soul."
Aleksandr nodded dutifully.
"You understand?" asked Father Merhum. "Speak."
"I understand," said the boy.
"My words are hard, but it is better to face reality than to waste time constructing lies and excuses. We are what we must be, but the Lord gives us the opportunity to choose. Your father has chosen. You must choose. Today. Tomorrow."
"Do you understand even half of what I say to you?"
"I think so."
"Good," said Father Merhum. "Go."
And the boy turned, grabbed his coat, and ran out the door.
With his grandson gone, Vasili Merhum surveyed himself in the tall mirror and contemplated the approaching struggle. He would fight for political and religious freedom in this new Russia. He would demand that those who tortured and murdered under the old regime, even if they be officials in the new commonwealth, be brought to justice. He would supply the names. He would read them in Red Square atop the empty tomb that had held the profane icon of Lenin, which the foolish had stood in line to worship. And if he were martyred, then so be it.
He would name the ones who had changed their masks, from the highest generals to the party members and even the pathetic mayor of Arkush. And to that list he would add two bishops. It would begin with a public meeting in snow before St. Basil's this very day. The foreign press had been invited. Yeltsin himself had been invited but would certainly not come. Even Gorbachev had been invited, though it no longer mattered if he came or not. Father Merhum expected only the people and the television cameras. He would speak in Russian, English, French. He anticipated the day not far in the future when he would be offered a position in the Russian government. He pictured himself righteously refusing the offer.
After he put on his coat, Father Merhum checked the floorboard under the leg of the table, found the hidden space below it and its contents as he had left them. Then he rose and stepped out the door onto the stone path behind the church. He crossed the small concrete churchyard, went across the brick-lined street, and entered the woods.
As he walked, watching his cold breath cloud before him, the priest allowed himself a brief thought of the appointment he had made for that evening in the square building just across from the church where Pushkin had been married. The appointment and what it would lead to would be both the earthly reward and punishment for the explosive speech he would make that day. Father Merhum's challenge to Yeltsin, his demand for immediate punishment for those who now hid behind the shadowed pillars of the Kremlin would be on the lips of every Christian and non-Christian in Russia and beyond. He planned to demand the immediate resignation of many of those in the new Commonwealth governments. He expected no such thing to happen, but the demand would signal that a respected member of the Church had joined in the call to overthrow not only the old reactionaries but the new bigots and self-seekers.
Father Merhum was soon no more than fifty yards from his house. He would not turn toward the house but would continue straight on to the station. Walking on the narrow path of stones, he was aware of the scuffling of animals in the snow-covered grass and the rustling of wings of the gray-black crows in the trees above.
He paused at the birch tree where at the age of sixteen he had cut a cross to impress the young large-breasted daughter of the then mayor of Arkush. There was no longer a trace of that cross. He stopped now because something was in his shoe, a pebble perhaps. As he paused, reached down, and removed the shoe, Father Merhum was aware of a rustling in the leaves behind him, a rustling that suggested something larger than a ferret or rat. With his right shoe in one hand and balancing himself against the familiar birch with the other, he turned his head and saw not a person but an upraised ax.
There was no time to think, pray, or respond. The priest fell backward as the blow came and his shoe sailed into the woods. He tried to turn his back, but he had no time. The next blow brought no great pain, just a sudden throbbing as he rolled onto his back and looked up.
"You," he said. "You."
The assassin was going to strike again, but he stopped in midblow. The priest had fallen backward, eyes opening and closing in confusion as his mouth let out a deep breath and a cloud of steam. The assassin stared at the bearded, wide-eyed dog who looked up at him, blood and something yellow coming out of the back of his head, staining the leaves on the ground dark. Instead of striking again, the assassin turned his back and walked into the woods, ax at his side.
Father Vasili Merhum, not yet dead, rolled over onto his knees, touched the back of his head, and felt the soft cushion of his own brain flecked with sharp edges of bone. He began to crawl, trailing his bloody handprints in the snow and along the stone path. Were he to live, it would truly be a miracle.
Excerpted from Death Of A Russian Priest by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 1992 Stuart M. Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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