HIEROMARTYR MICHAEL OF CHISTOPOL (+ 1974/1977)
By Vladimir Moss
Fr. Michael (Yershov) was born on September 17 (or October 12), 1911, in the village of Mamykovo in Kazan province, in a peasant family. According to another source, he was born in the village of Barskoye, Yenaruskino, Aksubayevo volost, Chistopol canon, Tataria. His father, whose name was Basil, had taken part in the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War and the Civil War. From 1920 he had become a cobbler and president of the committee of poverty in the village. There were five children in the family, four daughters and a son. Michael’s mother was called Daria.
Michael finished two classes at elementary school, and at the age of ten began to help his father, working as a cobbler. He went to church services and sang in the choir. When he was twelve years old, as he was receiving communion a church in Chistopol, an elder saw him and said: "This lad will take upon himself the sins of the whole people." From 1929 the church was closed and his father became president of the village soviet and began to persecute his son for reading service books and constantly praying at home. As a result of this he went blind. Afterwards, when he repented, he recovered his sight.
In November, 1930 Fr. Michael left his father’s home because he did not agree with the family’s joining the collective farm. At some time during that year he arrived in Chistopol, where he fell seriously ill. On recovering, he got to know Elder Plato, who told him: “You will suffer very much for the name of God and for the people. Only don’t seek anything from anyone, rely only on Almighty God. By the mercy of God I knew about you before.” Together they went round the villages taking part in joint prayer-services.
According to one source, Fr. Michael was ordained to the priesthood in 1930 by the Catacomb Archbishop and future Hieromartyr Nectarius (Trezvinsky) in Kazan. According to another (dubious) source, however, his ordination took place in September, 1933 at the hands of Hieromonk Peter (?). He was a fervent opponent of the Moscow Patriarchate, and believed that it was wrong to have any contact with it.
Fr. Michael and Elder Plato were arrested on March 3, 1931 in Chistopol, but he was released on May 1. A few days later, he was arrested again in Kazan, but was released after twelve days. He then went underground, wandering round the villages and earning his bread as a cobbler. He walked in chains, carried out joint prayer services and healed the sick and the demon-possessed.
In April, 1933 he was arrested in the village of Aksubayevo, but was released in July. On June 7, 1934 he was arrested in Bilyarsk, taken by convoy to Chistopol, then to Kazan and on July 10 condemned to eight years in the camps for anti-Soviet agitation. He served his term in the Mariinsk and Baikal-Amur camps, and then in Ulan-Ude and near Murmansk, doing general work. In 1940 he was transferred to Kandalaksha, where they were building a railway. He worked in the refectory. In May, 1942 he was sent to Tataria to work on the Ulyanovsk-Sviyazhsk railway. There he worked in the field hospital. On September 25 he was sent for defensive works in the village of Stepanovka, Buinsk region, from where he escaped to Chistopol, then to Aksubayevo region. On October 16 (17), 1942 he was arrested and cast into Chistopol prison. On January 23, 1943 he was sentenced “for desertion from defensive works” to seven (eight) years in prison. On February 16, 1943, according to one source, he was released, but according to another he was sent to call-up, but, not wishing to serve in the army, escaped. After this he served secretly in the village of Yelantovo, Sheremetyevo region. He celebrated Pascha on April 12, 1943 in a tent on a hill not far from Yelantovo with a group of twelve women. Later those attending the services in the tent rose to sixty. In September, during a service on the hill, the police arrived and drove away the believers; some were arrested and sent to the camps. On December 12 (or 15 or 26), 1943 he was arrested again for church preaching and cast into Chistopol prison. He was accused of being “a leader of the anti-Soviet activity of the underground of the True Orthodox Church of Tikhonite tendency in Tataria”, and on August 18, 1944 was sentenced to death by shooting. He spent 81 days in the death cell; they starved him the whole time. On October 25, 1944, they commuted the death sentence to fifteen years' hard labour, of which he was informed on November 9. He was sent to Vorkutlag, where he worked in the mines, and later – in the cobblers’ workshop. In 1945 he appealed for clemency to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, but his request was declined.
In October, 1946 he got to know Basil Kalinin, healing him from an illness of the spine which had paralyzed him completely for three years. He came up to him, took him by the hand and said:
"Get up and walk."
He also healed the withered hand of John Kokarev and the leprous face of Gregory Rusakov (the future Hieromonk Philaret), which was already stinking. He took the whole crust from his face.
Fr. Michael passed through almost all the prisons of the Soviet Gulag: Kazan, Arzamas, Vorkuta, Olga, Bannino, Sakhalin, Nagayeva, Magadan, Suman, Kolyma, Khabarovsk, Blagoveshchensk, Bratsk, Taipet...
On August 3, 1950 he was transferred to Sevvostoklag (Kolyma, North-East Siberia), where he worked in the gold-fields. On November 15, 1954 he was recorded in his personal file as having worked only 54 days, while there was a series of decrees casting him into the isolator for between three and ten days for refusing to work. On July 14, 1954 his sentenced was reduced by one-third. In December, 1954 he was transferred from Kolyma to the camp section Sovietskaya Gavan, Khabarovsk district. On May 29, 1956 he was transferred to a prison regime for one year, and was sent to prison in Blagoveschensk. On July 4, 1958 the follow report was written about him: “During his stay in prison he behaved satisfactorily, and did not violate the prison regime, was a cleaner in the corridors of the prison, and carried out his work. A religious fanatic, he did not work on days that were, in his opinion, festal.”
On April 11, he was transferred to the inner prison of the KGB in Kazan for investigation in connection with a church case. On July 18 he was indicted for being “the leader of the anti-Soviet underground of the True Orthodox Church in Tataria. By means of written and personal links with those who think like him, he gave instructions on preaching the ideas of the True Orthodox Church, called on people to refuse to participate in political enterprises and decline from service in the Soviet Army, in collective farms, in state institutions and undertakings. He gave instructions on preparing new secret priests, and on acquiring houses and equipment for an illegal church.” On August 11-14, 1958 he was sentenced to twenty-five years in the camps with five years disenfranchisement, and was sent to Dubravlag, Potma, Mordovia. “At eight in the morning they brought Vladyka Michael (Yershov) in a ‘black raven’… He raised his hand like this, crossed himself and bowed to the earth. ‘Pray and fear not. The victory will be with the True Orthodox Christians!’ Then they took him away. After him they brought in Basil Vladimirovich, and he also said: ‘All of you pray for us, pray. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ Then they brought in Fr. Philaret, and after him Ivan, and the last was Nadezhda Vasilyevna. They brought them through, and they all shouted: ‘Pray! The victory will be with the True Orthodox Christians!’... They gave them twenty-five years’ strict regime.”
Fr. Michael spent fifteen years in irons. According to the accounts of prisoners, he spent whole nights standing in prayer. He healed many criminals, possessed, lame, blind and sick people, and gave them instructions on how to live well. He also had the gift of prophecy.
On August 13, 1973 he declared a hunger strike in the camp. In October he was transferred to the seventeenth section of the Temnikov camp (Potma). In the spring of 1974 they pulled out all his hair and all the hairs of his beard one by one with manacles, after which he was paralyzed. A.S. Dubina reported that he died in camp on June 4, 1977. According to another report, however, he died in a special prison hospital in Kazan on June 4, 1974.
However, his relatives heard that he had been transferred to the Kazan special psychiatric hospital. It seems that the secret was let out by the procurator of the town of Kazan when he was receiving his relatives. It is possible that the authorities wanted to hide him from the believing people because of his great popularity - he was known as "the Tsar of Mordovia" and people came to catch a glimpse of him through the barbed wire from all over the Soviet Union. Fr. Michael himself prophesied that they were going to hide him, and he ordered them not to believe the story of his death. All his spiritual children were convinced that he had been hidden away in a psychiatric hospital so as to be annihilated there.
It is said that in the 1950s Fr. Michael was secretly consecrated Bishop of Chistopol in the camps, and in this capacity took part, according to one source, in the Nikolsky Council of the Catacomb Church in 1961 through Monk John. However, the real existence of this Council is doubted by many.