Children of the 50's
When I was born in the summer of 1951, a future colleague of mine was born in the Soviet Union 11 days earlier. Yelena Kharitonova and my lives each had different starting points, yet in the 1990’s they would wonderfully intersect for a common purpose. Although her family was poor, her mother made every effort to make the family’s life as comfortable as possible using her creative skills. Yelena was loved by her siblings and was an outgoing and popular child. My story sounds very similar!
Due to Yelena’s parents being older (they were born pre-revolution), they remembered their Orthodox faith from their childhood. At one of our staff retreats, Yelena shared stories of her early memories. One story surprised me, and caused me to wonder. Yelena shared that every night when she was a child going to bed she would remember her mother praying and making the sign of the cross over her.
In school Yelena gravitated toward history. Like almost all other Russian children at that time, she joined age appropriate Communist Party clubs such as Young Pioneers, Komsomolsk, etc. After high school she applied to and was accepted to study history at Ivanovo State University. Studying to be a history teacher, it was mandatory that she become a Party member.
While at the University she met and married Valentine Kharitonov. After graduation they moved to Lakinsk, a town of about 25,000 in the Vladimir Region. Yelena’s infectious personality and enthusiasm soon attracted attention in her new town and she began moving up the ladder in the local Communist Party. By the 1980’s she was Head of the Department of Ideology for the Sobinka District. As she now jokes, it was the perfect job, “I got to tell people what they were allowed to think!”
In 1988 she received a directive from her superiors. She was told to close the Orthodox Church in Lakinsk. Yelena was in no hurry to do so. “Why should we close the church, it’s just a few old women who attend anyway.” Besides, being a history major she felt strongly that it was part of her country’s heritage and culture.
Six months later, her boss asked why she hadn’t closed the church yet. When Yelena said that she didn’t think it was a good idea or necessary, her superior let her know that her career was in jeopardy if she did not follow these orders.
After refusing to close the Lakinsk Church, Yelena was removed from her role as Head of Ideology and demoted to the dubious position as Director of Lakinsk Orphanage.
It wasn’t long after Yelena was appointed the Director at Lakinsk Orphanage that she experienced agonizing pain. One day she was cleaning her parents’ graves and placing some fresh flowers when she had a sharp, painful attack. “God,” she said, “if you are there, help me!” She went home and passed an extremely large kidney stone, with almost no pain. Yelena went directly to the local Orthodox Church to give thanks – yes, the same church she didn’t close.
And I remembered her mother praying over her as a child.
(Today Yelena is a valuable staff member of Orphan’s Tree and resides in Moscow.)