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Zoya Krakhmalnikova: Exiled Russian Orthodox writer

Zoya Krakhmalnikova may have looked grandmotherly in her later years, her distinctive white hair making her easily identifiable at events in Moscow intellectual circles, but she was quietly determined in defending what she believed was right.

A convert in her early forties to Russian Orthodoxy, she went on to produce, by hand, an admired anthology of Orthodox spiritual writing that led to her work being banned from publication in the Soviet Union, and to a spell in prison. Freed from her sentence in July 1987 under Mikhail Gorbachev, she thought, spoke and wrote about the Russian Orthodox Church, chiding it for failing to break free of its Soviet heritage of submission and caution and failing to denounce nationalism and anti-Semitism.

Krakhmalnikova was born in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov in 1929. Her parents split up soon after her birth, and she was initially brought up by her father. But on his arrest in 1936 she was passed over to her mother. Despite her father's arrest, she was able to study at the prestigious Gorky Institute in Moscow, and graduated in 1954. She then worked in publishing, including at Molodaya Gvardiya and Literaturnaya Gazeta, and her literary criticism was published by leading journals and newspapers, including the famous Novy Mir. In 1967 she gained her doctorate on the Estonian writer Aadu Hint, an interesting choice for a Russian-speaking critic.

She converted to Orthodoxy and was baptised in 1971 by the dissident Moscow priest Fr Dmitri Dudko. Three years later, she was sacked from her job for writing samizdat articles on the revival of Orthodoxy in Brezhnev's Russia, some of which were republished in émigré journals. Krakhmalnikova was determined to bring Orthodoxy back into Russian culture at a time when Soviet atheism, materialism and persecution left no room for religion in the public sphere. She devoted her main energy to Nadezhda ("Hope"), a typewritten journal she founded in 1976 and circulated clandestinely. Unlike other samizdat editors, she boldly put her name to each issue.

The wide-ranging journal – which eschewed politics – included works by the church fathers, testimonies by bishops, priests and other Orthodox victims of the Soviet regime, pastoral addresses by the likes of Fr Dudko and some of her own writings. Krakhmalnikova managed to produce 10 issues – which were soon republished abroad – before the KGB swooped. She was arrested in August 1982 at the family dacha near Moscow, in front of her daughter and baby grandson. She was held in Moscow's Lefortovo prison, where the KGB sent a journalist in an unsuccessful bid to get her to incriminate herself. She was sentenced the following April on charges of "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" to one year's imprisonment, followed by five years' internal exile.

"The persecutors of Christian reading material have their own publishing houses, newspapers, television and radio stations – all means of producing countless quantities of atheist propaganda, full of hatred towards God and his believers," she mused. "How could the modest issues of Nadezhda produced in a tiny print-run possibly do them any harm?"

Having survived prison, Krakhmalnikova was sent into exile in the remote Altai region close to the border with China and Mongolia. Her husband, Feliks Svetov, was arrested in 1985 for his samizdat writings and was exiled to the same area. Both were eventually freed amid Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, although they were among only a handful of prisoners of conscience who refused to write appeals for clemency. Sadly, their marriage did not long survive their return to Moscow.

Back in the capital, Krakhmalnikova threw herself into public debates on the role of the Church in the much freer atmosphere under Gorbachev and then Boris Yeltsin. She condemned Orthodox bishops who refused to confess their guilt for collaborating with the KGB.

Krakhmalnikova wrote several novels and books of memoirs of her imprisonment. She also edited a collection of articles in 1994 on anti-Semitism in Russia, a growing problem as the country went through a search for new certainties and often turned its back on the values she held dear.

Felix Corley

Zoya Aleksandrovna Krakhmalnikova, writer and dissident: born Kharkov, Ukraine 14 January 1929; married Feliks Svetov (marriage dissolved, died 2002; one daughter); died Moscow 17 April 2008.