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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A terrifying - true - Russian story

Autumn 1907: Maurice Baring, journalist and writer, is travelling in southern Russia and heading back to the centre of the country. He has previously covered the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 and the ensuing 1905 Russian Revolution. Since then, despite promises of democratic reform, the government has reneged and the country is in semi-chaos, the strikes and mutinies replaced by terrorism and criminality. Peasants who have not previously discussed politics are beginning to do so and the population is full of uncertainty and dread.

In the course of his travels Baring goes to the railway station in Tzaritzyn (now called Volgograd) at midnight, for the two a.m. train to Tambov. The place is full of sleeping travellers:

"... It was like the scene in The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, when sleep overtook the inhabitants of the castle. There was a bookstall and a newspaper kiosk. The bookstall contained as usual -the works of Jerome K. Jerome and Conan Doyle, some translations of French novels, some political pamphlets, a translation of John Morley's Compromise, and an essay on Ruskin a strange medley of literary food. At the newspaper kiosk, the newsvendor was so busily engrossed in reading out a story, which had just appeared in the newspapers, about a saintly peasant who killed a baby because he thought it was the Antichrist, that it was impossible to attract his attention. His audience were the policeman, one of the porters, and a kind of sub-guard. The story was indeed a curious one, and caused a considerable stir. I wrote about it later on in the Morning Post."

- Page 381

Here, narrated in the embellished style of his time, is how Baring reported it for his newspaper:


In the village of X., which is in the Government of O. in Central Russia, there were two men : one was called Michael and the other was called Andrew. They were both deeply religious and concerned with the things of a world which is not this world. They spent days and nights in reading the Scriptures and pondering over the meaning of difficult texts. They had both resolved in their early youth never to marry, for they considered that the human race had something so radically bad about it that the sooner came to an end the better. They decided, therefore, that it was their duty not to prolong its existence. But when they attained to early manhood the parents of Andrew contracted an alliance for him, and he was wedded to a girl named Masha. Their union was not blessed by offspring, and Michael, who continued to lead a solitary life, with rigorous fasting and uninterrupted meditation, said such was the will of Providence. The young wife of Andrew did not share the views of the mystic, and she yearned to be the mother of a child. Unbeknown to her husband she sought one night the Wise Woman of the village, who was skilled in finding lost objects, and who was versed in the properties of herbs and knew the words of power which cured the sick of dreadful disease.

Masha sought the Wise Woman in the night and told her her trouble. The Wise Woman lit a candle, muttered a brief saying in which the name of King David was mentioned, and that of a darker Prince. She gave her a small green herb, telling her to eat it on the first moonless night in June, and that her wish would be fulfilled.

Masha obeyed the Wise Woman’s behest. A year passed by and the wish of her heart was granted. A son was born to her. And Masha and Andrew greatly rejoiced over this. But when Michael heard of it his spirit was troubled. He consulted the Scriptures, and the meaning of the event became clear to him. He sought Andrew and said to him:

“This is the work of Satan. You have dabbled in black magic, and you are in danger of eternal perdition. Moreover, the truth has been revealed to me — the child which has been born to you is none other than the Anti-Christ, of which the Book of Revelation tells. And that is why our poor country is distressful, seething with trouble, sedition, and revolt, and why our Sovereign is vexed, and why evil days have fallen upon Russia, our Mother. We must slay the Anti-Christ, and immediately the dark cloud will be lifted from our land and peace and prosperity shall come to us once more.”

That night Michael convoked Andrew and Masha to his house. It was a small, one-storeyed wooden cottage, thatched with straw. It was swept and clean, and in one corner of the room were many glittering images of the Queen of Heaven and the Saints, before which burned small red lights; and besides this Michael had erected a shrine on which more than a dozen thin waxen tapers were burning. Michael convoked Andrew and his wife to his house, and the elders of the village also, and they spent an hour in chanting and in prayer, each bolding a candle in his hand, but to the priest he said no word of this matter, for he did not trust him nor believe him to be possessed of celestial grace. After they had prayed for an hour Michael said to Masha: “Go home and fetch your child.”

Masha obeyed, and returned presently bearing the infant, for whose advent she had so sorely longed, and which in coming had been the cause of such joy to her. Michael took the infant and said:

“In the body of this child is the power of Satan; in the body of this child is the Anti-Christ of whom the Scriptures tell — this is the cause of the misfortunes which have visited our dear country and vexed the spirit of our Lord and Sovereign.”

He then extinguished all the lights and the tapers in the room; it was pitch dark, and no sound was heard save the muttering of Michael’s continuous prayer. Masha trembled, for she was afraid. Michael took the infant. It lay quite still, for it was asleep.

And as Michael took the infant he said: “We must exorcise the spirit and slay the Anti-Christ, who has been born in this child to the bane of Russia and to vex the heart of our Sovereign!”

And Michael bade the people who were gathered together the dark room — there were five men, the eldest in the village, and seven women — be prepared for the great event, and he lifted his voice, and in a wailing whisper he addressed the Evil Spirit.

“Evil Spirit,” he said, “Anti-Christ, of whom the Holy Scriptures tell, through the dark dealings of our brother Andrew and his wife, who have trafficked with Satan, thou hast found a way into the body of this child, but it is written that the troubles of Russia and of our Sovereign shall be at their thickest at thy advent, but shall diminish and pass away with thy disappearance. Evil Spirit, I conjure thee, leave the body of this child.”

Then the infant cried plaintively, twice.

“Hark,” said Michael, in a solemn voice, “the spirit of the Anti-Christ is speaking. Hark to the cry of Satan, who is leaving the body of the child. Pray, pray with all your might, and help me to slay the Anti-Christ.”

And fear came upon everybody, nor durst they utter in the stillness, but their spirits were spellbound and seemed to be drawn and taut as stretched wires, in that effort of prayer for the passing of the spirit of Satan and for the slaying of the Anti-Christ.

The infant cried once again — and then it cried no more.

“The Anti-Christ has been slain,” said Michael, and a great stillness came on the assembly. “The Anti-Christ,” said Michael, “must be buried.” And he walked out of his cottage into the yard where in a shed his horse and cart were kept. He unloosed his horse and said, “Whither the horse shall lead, thither must we follow.”

The horse trotted slowly down the deserted street. That night there was neither moon nor stars in the sky. Beyond the village was a marshy plain. It was just before dawn, and in the thick velvet darkness of the sky there was a glow as of a living sapphire. They reached the marsh and there the horse stopped, and began to browse.

“It is here that the Anti-Christ must be buried,” said Michael. And they buried the infant by the reedy marsh. And all this time neither Andrew nor Masha, nor the elders, nor the women who were there, spoke a single word; and when they had finished burying the infant a breeze came from the East, and the dawn, grey and chilly, trembled over the horizon, and the wild ducks awoke, and rising from the marsh uttered their cry, and rose into the air.

The spell that had kept this assembly mute and speechless vanished with the vanishing darkness. The noises of life began; the creaking of carts was heard from the village, and the cocks were crowing.

Andrew and Masha looked at each other, and a great fear came upon them, and indeed on all the assembly, for what they had done. They did not speak, but returned severally to their homes, and Masha, when she reached her home, too frightened to cry or even to speak, sat motionless before the swinging cradle which hung from the roof of her cottage, and which was now empty. And Andrew durst not look at her. Presently he left the house and sought the dwelling of the priest. The priest let him in and there be found Michael who likewise, overcome with terror and misgivings as to what had been done, had come to tell the story.

The priest reported the whole matter to the local policeman, who his turn reported it to the police captain of the district, and three days afterwards Michael, Andrew, Masha, and the others were locked up in the prison of a neighbouring town, and a day after their arrest an old woman of the village sought out the police captain and asked to see him.

“I was present,” she said to him, ”at the slaying of the Anti-Christ. I held the candle in my bands myself when the evil spirit was exorcised. and the cause of all Russia’s trouble was destroyed. They say the Czar has given money to the others for having destroyed his enemy, and I, who am poor and old, and who was there also, have received nothing. Let me receive my due. Give me the money that the Czar owes me, for I also helped slay the Anti-Christ."

This story is true. It happened last September and was recorded in the newspapers, with many more details than I have told. And at the station of Kozlov, in the Government of Tambov, between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m., a railway guard told it to myself and a newsvendor, and when he had finished telling it sighed and bewailed the blindness of his fellow creatures, the peasants of Russian villages, who, as he wisely said, had much kindness in their hearts, but were often led through their ignorance to do dreadful deeds.

- Taken from the Morning Post, Friday 05 June 1908, via the British Newspaper Archive

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