The Power of Prayer
How one Russian Orthodox priest helps young addicts defeat the demon of drugs

Yaroslav Rzhevsky's life as a drug user began at the age of 15—when he received one gram of opium as a birthday present—and ended seven years later, with him standing in handcuffs, surrounded by two guards, his mother and a priest, the Rev. Anatoly Berestov.

The group stood not at the entrance to the local jail or police station, but rather at the entrance to what can now be considered Rzhevsky's life-changing station, the Charitable Center of St. John of Kronstadt in Moscow.

Berestov, a Russian Orthodox monk, established the center in the summer of 1988 as part of the official "Steps to Church" drug and rehabilitation program, which unites various Russian Orthodox priests and lay professionals. He believes that the demon of drug addiction that afflicts many of Russia's youth can best be defeated through the power of prayer, confession and other sacred practices.

Realizing the effectiveness of conventional drug therapies, however, Berestov, also a neurologist, supplements the spiritual remedy with biofeedback, a stress reduction and relaxation technique.

Berestov's office is located in Moscow's Krutitskoye Podvorye Compound. To get there, a visitor has to climb a black iron fire escape-like staircase, walk through the church sanctuary, past the rows of gilded icons at the front of the church, and turn right. A left turn will lead to the small room where the biofeedback tools'a computer and several loose wires'are stored behind a hanging curtain.

When Berestov developed his rehabilitation facility there were many seemingly similar facilities in existence in the West that were run by Protestant organizations. However, Berestov wanted to develop a uniquely Orthodox program that would address "the spirituality and mentality" of Russians—a "God-centered" program, as opposed to the Protestants' "human-centered" programs, he said.

"We are developing spiritual personalities in every person and connections between each person and God," he said.

For example, each of his center's participants actively take part in various Christian sacraments, including confession, communion, and anointment. If an individual has not previously been baptized into the Orthodox Church, he or she is also required to accept the sacrament of baptism.

Describing the importance of the sacraments—confession and communion, in particular—Berestov said that they "affect the human soul."

"We often see that young boys and girls stop using drugs and very often stop smoking and using foul language after the first prayer service, confession and communion," he said. Berestov's ultimate goal, however, is for the program participants to be not only free of their addictions but also grounded in the Orthodox faith.

"If people came out of the state of drug addiction over one and a half or two months [rather than immediately] we were able to give them some knowledge of what religion is about," Berestov said. "Those who quit immediately happened without an abstinence period—they didn't have immersion into spiritual life."

In light of this finding, Berestov no longer accepts individuals off the street, as he did initially, but now requires that prospective program participants be drug-free for at least 10 days before they are admitted to his rehabilitation program. To date, approximately 2,500 individuals have gone through the program.

In addition to immersing the participants into Orthodoxy, Berestov's program also aims to remove individuals from their familiar surroundings, "away from their social circle of drug addicts," he said. For example, Rzhevsky, the former drug user, lives in the Moscow compound, miles away from his native Kazakhstan. The intent is to isolate him from his former circle for at least one year.

"When we achieve that, we are no longer afraid that they are going back to ordinary life," Berestov said.

To accomplish this, Berestov sends some young men and women to monasteries and convents. Others undergo rehabilitation in one of five rural community labor and social rehabilitation facilities or in a daytime hospital.

Twenty-three-year-old Yelena Barysheva, for example, was sent to two different convents, and has now been drug-free for eight months. According to Berestov, she "underwent very good rehabilitation in a moral, spiritual and intellectual sense."

One sunny Tuesday afternoon Berestov spotted Barysheva performing her various daily duties at the pastoral center. A blue scarf covered the top of her blonde hair and she wore a dark sleeveless vest over a long sleeve top and a long skirt. As Berestov spoke about her progress in the program, she smiled shyly, her eyes downcast.

Later, Barysheva described how she first began using drugs.

"I tried it at the institute at theatre school and then I got addicted," Barysheva said. She explained that although her mother sought help for her from Berestov, she was not initially a willing subject.

"I was very hard in the beginning," she said. "I came first and then left."

After Barysheva finally made up her mind to stay in the program, she was sent first to Diveyevo Convent, where she stayed for two weeks and then to a different convent in the Tula region, where she lived for six weeks. While at Diveyevo, Barysheva had some free time, but at the Tula convent her 6 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. day consisted of only prayer and work, she said.

Now, instead of living in a convent, Barysheva travels back and forth from her home to the center each day, where she has undergone rehabilitation for the past six months. She is preparing to enter theological school to become either a teacher or a mental health professional. But what will keep her from going back to drugs? "It's the faith," she said, "God, and of course the spiritual leadership of Father Anatoly."

Indeed, that same faith and spiritual leadership has kept hundreds of former program participants like Barysheva free of what the Orthodox church refers to as the "satanic captivity" of drugs. According to Berestov, the most recent program statistics indicate that about 80 percent of individuals who participated in the rehabilitation program—particularly those who spent time in monasteries and convents—had been freed from their addictions.

"Now we rarely see cases where people stop using immediately after first confession, because we changed tactics," Berestov said.

Berestov's facility employs priests, medical doctors, psychotherapists, psychologists, and catechism teachers—all of whom are Orthodox Christians, and who work "for our [Orthodox] methodology"—together with other helpers and former drug users, Berestov said.

"We're all tied together by one chain of mutual interests," he said.

Those interests have come to fruition in more than one instance, according to the priest.

"Drug addicts come here [in a state of] spiritual, moral, social and intellectual degradation and then suddenly you see—as if a dried flower bud suddenly blooms and you see a beautiful flower—interest to life emerges," Berestov said. "They start to see the beauty of life, aesthetical feeling develops they become modest in their behavior and chastity emerges in their mutual relations."

Berestov's center also recently began receiving alcoholics—both middle-aged and young—in addition to drug users.

"The most horrible thing is we get to see young alcoholics—14, 15, 16 up to 20 years [old] as result of silly government policy in regard to mass media and advertising," he said, referring to the numerous city billboards advertising various alcoholic drinks. "Even kids start drinking beer and as a result heavy beer alcoholism develops."

Such advertising in the mass media may not extend to hard drugs, yet many individuals also begin using these substances in their early teen years. Such was the case with Rzhevsky.

"When I turned 15 I got a gram of opium as a birthday present from my older friends," he said. For the next two years Rzhevsky said he used drugs at least once a month and sometimes even once a week. He then experienced four years of heavy drug use, during which he used about 10-15 grams per day.

Like Barysheva, Rzhevsky was taken to Berestov by his mother, who had seen a television program about the priest's rehabilitation center. Unlike Barysheva, however, Rzhevsky was taken to the priest in handcuffs, escorted by two guards and his local priest.

"My mother hired guards because I would often run away from home for several months," Rzhevsky said.

Rzhevsky has now been drug-free for about six months. He has gone on short pilgrimages with groups from the center to various monasteries but has not yet lived in a monastery, he said. He spends most of his days at the center, cleaning and performing various construction-related duties, but goes to a nearby monastery on Mondays and Thursdays to help make bread. On Saturdays and Sundays most of his time is spent in church services.

As for his future plans—after his rehabilitation is complete—Rzhevsky may either become a monk and live in a monastery, or just go back home, he said.

But in going home Rzhevsky would face the prospect of returning to the social circle that he is now isolated from. Upon considering this, he said, "I have no real desire to go home because when you go, there is drugs. Everything grows in our area and all of Russia comes to our area."

QUICK LINKS: Feature Stories | Dispatches | Photo Essays | Itinerary | Maps | About This Class

A project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism made possible by the Scripps Howard Foundation. Comments? E-mail us.

Copyright © 2002 The Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.
All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

The Rev. Anatoly Berestov standing outside his office in the Krutitskoye Podvorye Compound with former drug users Yelena Barysheva and Yaroslav Rzhevsky.