Volume 14 Number 5
'Take the Next Train'
01 October 2001
Some of the younger people attending the Caux conferences tell FAC about experiences that have changed their lives.
'I must be a very stubborn person,' reflects Igor Smerdov from Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorky), Russia. He is referring to his determination over the last seven years to complete his doctoral thesis, despite the turmoil in his country where 'what is abnormal is normal and what is normal is abnormal'. In order to finance himself he had to 'work too hard', teaching in university, acting as an assistant to an oil man, editing books for a publishing house, giving private lessons and translating technical writing. He could not depend on his parents as his mother had lost all her savings in the financial crisis of the early 1990s and his father's salary was some 25 months in arrears.
The subject of his thesis, which at the time of our interview he has just submitted, is the 'greatest 19th century Russian philosopher', Vladimir Solovyov. Smerdov's sense of vocation to 'finish a major work about his philosophy' goes back to 1990 but first he had to obtain a degree in Russian literature in the faculty of philology, which he did in 1994.
Solovyov was an Orthodox Christian and 'his attempt to realize his deep philosophical ideas in practical ways' influenced Smerdov's own life. Solovyov tried to apply principles of unselfishness and love of his neighbours—for example, by giving his last fur coat to someone who asked for it in the middle of winter. 'Though he could afford to give such gifts, it happened quite often,' Smerdov adds wryly.
Smerdov was brought up by agnostic parents, so what led him to take an interest in Christian philosophy?
'My first transcendental experience was during military service when I lost my automatic rifle on an airfield. This was a serious offence and I instinctively prayed. It was eventually found on the roof of a hangar—probably put there by some friends as a joke—but it made me feel that prayer was answered.'
In the army he had access to a library and took the chance to read major classical novels, by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and others, which were based on Orthodox Christianity.
Later when he returned home he discovered more books. Despite the fact that his grandmother had been an atheist and a Communist Young Pioneer, these included a New Testament of his great-grandmother's. 'It was a stunning experience to read it for the first time in my life.'
This was in the late Soviet period when Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika, and gradually more religious books were published. Smerdov spent most of his university stipend on them. He also started attending church occasionally where he would pray and light candles for his family and friends. This helped him to keep to his sense of vocation.
Another marking experience came in 1997 when he felt that Moscow was the place to pursue his studies. 'I had great doubts,' he recalls. 'I was earning quite a bit by then and I needed to be sure that my studies justified the upheaval.'
He went to Moscow for a few days. Still undecided about what to do, he stood on an underground station platform and prayed. He determined to take the next train. If it was north-bound he would go home; if south-bound he would head for the student hostel and stay. The first train was heading north, but no one was allowed to get on board. So he ended up going south and staying.
In 1998 he took part in an MRA-sponsored Foundations For Freedom course in the UK. It strengthened his resolve that he must work to 'serve the public interest'. He is not yet sure what form that will take but he assures me that 'I'll be no less stubborn in any new area where I feel called to be than I was in pursuing my studies'.