This is one of the exhibits at the delightful museum in Vetka’s School One. It’s a Bible dating from the late 19th to the early 20th century, placing it somewhere in the reign of Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II. But it’s more than just a Bible. It’s an Old Believers’ Bible.
Old Believers founded Vetka in 1685 after fleeing from persecution in Russia for failing to accept Orthodox reform. To this day they continue to follow the old ways. I have friends in Vetka who are Old Believers.
The museum curator and I recognise kindred spirits in each other. Towards the end of my visit in April, we were touring the museum’s exhibits together and without warning, he asked me to close my eyes and hold out my hands. I did as I was bid.
He gave me the Bible. ‘This is for your work’ he said. ‘I want you to have it. It’s a gift, from me to you, to help with your research’.
I looked at him, open-mouthed. I couldn’t take in the power of such unconditional friendship and trust. I thought about all the events this holy text has witnessed. I looked at its beauty. I imagined the hands that have held it.
The cover is wood, part bound in leather and held together with hand-made clasps of metal. The printing is exquisite, the words Old Russian, only some of which I could read. Not even Sergei Nikolaevich could read all of them. And the more I said that a text of such significance belonged in Vetka, the more he insisted I must have it.
Later, as we sat drinking green tea in the Head Teacher’s office, I raised the issue of likely regulations preventing its removal from the country. We talked about letters of authority.
On her way home, Oxana called to see the Head of Customs at Gomel Airport. Calls went all the way up the line to Minsk and back. There would need to be a very specific letter signed by a very specific department of regional administration.
When I told Sergei Nikolaevich this the following day, my last in Vetka, he was crestfallen. ‘I am ashamed not to have thought of this’ he said, ‘but I have an idea’. And while I spent time in conversation with students of English at the school, he ran to the town’s museum and obtained a letter of authority.
Oxana and I went back to Gomel Airport for confirmation this would be adequate. Again calls passed up to Minsk and back. Later that night we heard that no definitive answer could be given other than by a governmental expert.
It wasn’t worth the risk. Had I been stopped at the border, who knows what might have happened? The prospect of neither I nor Vetka seeing this extraordinary relic ever again was unimaginable.
Thus I was doubly blessed. Blessed once by an act of friendship beyond measure or compare, then blessed a second time, because this powerful symbol of deep magic remains still in Vetka, where it belongs.
But let there be no doubt. By the time of my next visit, Sergei Nikolaevich will have all the boxes ticked for me to take the Bible home.
And yet, perhaps the Good Lord has already spoken. In Vetka this holy relic was conceived with devotional love, in Vetka it has always lived, and perhaps in Vetka it will remain.
Слава Богу …
Postscript: earlier this week, four months on, I heard from Oxana that Sergei Nikolaevich has been very busy. He has spent much of that time making the necessary arrangements for me to take the bible home with me at the end of my visit next Spring. He travelled all the way to Minsk, on the opposite side of the country, to obtain the requisite consent. It means that much to him for me to have this sacred relic under my stewardship
Слава Богу indeed …
© Nigel Roberts 2016