How a young conscript became a Russian saint

When Yevgeny Rodionov was beheaded by Chechen rebels, he was hailed as a contemporary Russian martyr. Andrew Osborn reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

At a starkly beautiful hilltop cemetery engulfed in a thick winter snowstorm, pilgrims pray to Russia's most unlikely latter-day saint: a young conscript brutally killed in Chechnya eight years ago. Yevgeny Rodionov was 19 when he was beheaded by Chechen rebels. In life, he was an ordinary boy from an unremarkable provincial town who liked to strum on the guitar, compose poetry and dreamt of becoming a cook. But in death, Yevgeny Rodionov is anything but ordinary.

At a starkly beautiful hilltop cemetery engulfed in a thick winter snowstorm, pilgrims pray to Russia's most unlikely latter-day saint: a young conscript brutally killed in Chechnya eight years ago. Yevgeny Rodionov was 19 when he was beheaded by Chechen rebels. In life, he was an ordinary boy from an unremarkable provincial town who liked to strum on the guitar, compose poetry and dreamt of becoming a cook. But in death, Yevgeny Rodionov is anything but ordinary.

To thousands of Russian Orthodox churchgoers, the border guard is already known as Saint Yevgeny and a vigorous campaign to canonise him is in full swing. Unwilling to wait while the Church considers his credentials, icons bearing the martyr soldier's likeness are being venerated across Russia, and thousands of pilgrims have begun making long, arduous treks to places associated with his life.

For his admirers, many of them committed Christians, war veterans and Russian nationalists, Yevgeny is a devout symbol of patriotism who, thousands believe, will instil pride in the younger generation and give millions of downtrodden Russians something they lack so sorely: hope.

For them Yevgeny, or Zhenya as he is affectionately known, was a modern Christian crusader who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country in the face of Russia's number one enemy of the moment: radical Islam, as personified by Chechnya's most ruthless separatist rebels.

Yevgeny was murdered by Chechen rebels on 23 May, 1996, during Russia's first Chechen war. It was his 19th birthday and he had been held captive with three other Russian border guards in a damp cellar for 100 days of torture, beatings and starvation. He was not a combatant, and had been kidnapped with his comrades by one of Chechnya's most feared rebel field commanders as they manned a remote border post on the Chechen border.

Thousands of Russians have died at the hands of Chechen fighters since 1994 when Moscow first sent in the tanks to crush the region's thirst for independence, but Yevgeny's death was different. His mother, Lyubov Vassilyevna Rodionova, says Yevgeny was given a chance to live if he converted to Islam and took up arms against Russian federal forces. Symbolically, she says all he had to do was to take off a small silver cross he had worn around his neck since the age of 11 and embrace the faith of his tormentors. Yevgeny refused and chose death instead.

Now the cross, its chain still stained red with his blood, has become a religious relic routinely smothered in tiny kisses by devout pilgrims at his mother's modest home in the town of Kurilovo, west of Moscow.

Forty pilgrims, some of whom had travelled more than 600 miles and deprived themselves of sleep to be there, gathered at Yevgeny's grave last Saturday to mark the eighth anniversary of the repatriation of his decapitated corpse to Kurilovo. Apparently oblivious to an air temperature of minus 10C, men with icicled beards clutched icons of the young man as they traipsed around the cemetery.

One man, who said he was a priest from the region where Yevgeny was born, held an enormous icon aloft. In it, Yevgeny's boyish features were framed by a golden halo, his border guard's uniform peeked out from a medieval-looking cloak and he clutched a Russian Orthodox crucifix. As the icy snowflakes and chill wind lashed, the pilgrims sang hymns, chanted prayers, crossed themselves, exchanged stories about his life and reminded themselves why Yevgeny should be canonised.

"He is from our region near the town of Kuznetsk and we have travelled all night to be here,"said a woman named Galina, in front of his austere grave. "We have hung a memorial board in his honour and teachers in our schools tell the children about his life. He deserves to become a saint." Another elderly woman, Valentina, said: "He could have lived had he renounced his faith but he didn't crack under pressure and he wouldn't take off his silver cross."

A dozen cadets training to be border guards at a nearby military academy tumbled out of a decrepit bus to pay their respects. Dressed in traditional Russian greatcoats and shapkas (fur hats), the young men stood holding different icons as the blizzard raged around them. "He is an example for us," said a serious-looking cadet called Artyom Pavlov. "An example of bravery and faith. He didn't know what he was fighting for but he went along anyway. He was a team player. There's so much respect for him; he refused to betray Russia and fought for the Motherland. He's a real hero.

"We need heroes right now. Russia needs more soldiers like him; soldiers who aren't afraid to die for the Motherland." As the pilgrims delivered eulogy after eulogy, the beautiful, whitewashed stone church behind them, a church razed by Napoleon's Grande Armée in 1812, appeared to glimmer in the morning murk.

Yevgeny's followers say his images are responsible for minor miracles. The icons weep myrrh, it is claimed, "enemies forget their differences" in front of them and an intercessional prayer offered up to Saint Yevgeny can mean the difference between earthly joy and sorrow.

Lyubov Rodionova, 52, brewing tea in her kitchen nearby, does not look like the mother of a saint but that is how she is perceived. "I am a person without a future, a past or a present," she says, her greyish face drawn with fatigue and emotion. "I am no longer known by my own name but merely as 'Yevgeny's mum'. I exist for that purpose alone and it is a great honour." There is no room in her life for anything else. Her kitchen is dominated by a gigantic poster of Yevgeny and an icon bearing his likeness. As she talks of her son, the doorbell rings twice in an hour, fresh pilgrims each. On one occasion, three men nervously tiptoe into her kitchen. They ask for a booklet written in Yevgeny's honour, kiss the silver cross which he refused to yield, give his mother a small statue of Saint Seraphim and visually suck in the surroundings like men who have not eaten for days.

"This is the cross he gave his life for," Lyubov tells them, her eyes welling. "They cut his head off but the cross remained in place [on what was left of his neck]." "This is Zhenya's dog," she adds, pointing to a small, poodle-like creature racing about the kitchen. The three men who have driven 200 miles soon dash off to visit the cemetery of Satino Russkoe where Yevgeny is buried, their faces stamped with a peculiar look of satisfaction.

More than 4,000 pilgrims ring the same doorbell every year, Yevgeny's mother says. Lyubov Rodionova looks like millions of other Russian women in their fifties but her quest to discover the truth about her son took her to places most Russians will never visit. Unwilling to accept the army's initial claim that Yevgeny was a deserter, she spent nine months in Chechnya finding his body.

She paid $4,000 (£2,100) to the man she believes killed Yevgeny - a Chechen field commander - to discover where her son was buried, meeting him 17 times. She found the body beside a mountain stream in a heavily mined region; one Russian soldier was killed helping to make the area safe. Lyubov Rodionova then exhumed her son's putrefied body with her hands at night and took it back to Kurilovo.

Lyubov says she recognised Yevgeny by his cross and other things "which only a mother knows". She says: "Every mother knows how her child wears their shoes and he was wearing the socks I had knitted for him, dark-brown ones." But Yevgeny's head was missing and she had to make another trip back for his skull, which had been shattered by the rebels who feared his soul would come back to haunt them if they left his head intact.

Lyubov's experiences in Chechnya have changed her. She was abused, spat on, and almost murdered by the brother of Chechnya's most-wanted man, warlord Shamil Basayev, who beat her so badly he left her for dead. "All my teeth were broken," she says. "These are all fake." She taps them. "When I came back from Chechnya my hair was all grey. I am not healthy. When you bury a child you bury half of yourself. I can't laugh or make merry any more." She also lost her husband, Alexander, a few days after Yevgeny's death was confirmed. She believes he died of sorrow.

But Lyubov says she does not care whether Yevgeny is formally canonised or not. "God chooses a place for everyone. His [Yevgeny's] place will not change if he is made a saint. He is already in paradise." She insists she is hard-pressed to understand why her dead son inspires such veneration. "I really don't know. It's not the best times in Russia right now. Maybe God is offering Yevgeny to people as a symbol of purity."

She claims she knows the precise circumstances of Yevgeny's death because she confronted his captors and his murderers. "If I'm honest, I was ready to kill them," she whispers, her eyes flashing with anger. "But I didn't have a weapon."

Many of the pilgrims play down suggestions that Russia is engaged in a holy war, but Lyubov is less coy. "Islam and Christianity are at war. Some of our boys were crucified and nailed to trees. The Chechens laughed and said, 'Your Jesus rose from the dead on the third day; let's see if you do the same'. Terror has a Muslim face. You can't deny that."

Lyubov believes Russian troops should stay in Chechnya, claiming there would be a bloodbath if they left. She also supports the "liquidation" of Chechen rebel leaders. But she is also deeply critical of the Russian authorities. "What bothers me is their insistence that it is not a war. If people are dying, which they are, it's a war. They [the authorities] betrayed Yevgeny. Why did I have to go and search for him myself? Can you imagine that happening anywhere else? We can buy football teams like Chelsea but what does that really count for?"

As she closes the door to her small flat, her mood swings from sentimentality to an almost soldier-like matter-of-factness. "Remember, there will be many unhappy mothers in Russia this Christmas," she murmurs. "There is nothing more precious to a mother than their child."

Then comes the change; Lyubov was not a churchgoer before Yevgeny's death but she is now a strong believer. "War defines people quickly," she says crisply. "If you are a piece of shit you crumple quickly but if you are decent, it hones you like a diamond. You need to go through a lot to get to that stage."