True Orthodox secret monasticism Ukraine



True Orthodox secret monasticism Ukraine


These photographs were taken during a raid on an underground monastery by the Soviet secret police, the NKGB in 1945. The images provide visual representations of a vernacular subterranean architecture developed by True Orthodox Christian communities in Soviet-era Ukraine. The monastery was located in the underground vault dug out under a private house (see the first image) in the small town of Chuguev, near Kharkov, northeast Ukraine. The twenty two photographs enclosed in the secret police file give a detailed description of the underground construction. Images 2 and 3 depicts two entries to the hidden religious space. The main entry (image 3) was concealed within the wall of a vault by a wooden structure. Inside, the monastery had several bedrooms, a storage space with a stove and a mill, and an archway gallery (image 4) leading to an underground church. The last photograph shows the altar of the church.
Apparently, this was not the only underground monastery in the region. As other secret police files on the True Orthodox Church reported, there was a network of underground churches and monasteries constructed in caves and underneath rural houses in the region. In the short period between 1945 and 1947, the Soviet security services discovered 14 similar monasteries and churches. In later years, at least until the 1960s, the police reported more underground True Orthodox communities and their hidden dwellings and places of worship.
When the police raided the underground monastery in 1945, there were some 20 people (mostly monks and nuns) gathered for a religious service; nine of them were arrested and brought to trial. Among the arrested was hieromonk Seraphim (Shevtsov), the leading figure in the religious underground of the True Orthodox Church in that area. Records of his interrogations give a detailed account of how underground churches and monasteries were constructed and how the religious life of communities of dissenters was organised. Seraphim claimed that there were about 2000 believers under his leadership, from different parts of eastern Ukraine and southern Russia. The underground church could fit up to 300 people at a time, with a core group of 10-15 monastics who permanently lived there under the spiritual guidance of father Seraphim. Even in the religious underground, there was a constant mobility. As more people came, the subterranean structure was expanded and modified. When a place was discovered or became unsafe, believers built new underground churches, moving from village to village.
In the interrogation report, Seraphim explains about an incident that happened in the underground monastery in 1941. The subterranean structure partly collapsed when a group of believers gathered for prayer. The tragedy took the life of four people who were then secretly buried in the same underground church where they died. Monks and nuns belonging to the community were also buried inside the underground church.
Not all the monastics of the True Orthodox communities lived underground, many of them practiced secret monasticism. As Seraphim reported, he personally tonsured some fifty people into secret monasticism. For reasons of safety, new monks and nuns did not receive new monastic names (as is the tradition in Orthodox Christianity). Continuing to live in the secular world, they followed the monastic code (prayers, celibacy, asceticism, non-possession of material goods and monastic obedience). They kept their monastic vows in secret even to their immediate circle of family and friends and never spoke about their monastic life with anyone (for more on secret monasticism see Wynot 2002).
The police continued to arrest Seraphim’s followers after his detention. In 1948, the MGB reported the arrest of a group of wondering monastics left uprooted after Seraphim’s imprisonment and the closure of the underground monastery. Seraphim returned to his community after his release in 1952 and continued to build more underground churches. He was secretly buried in one of them in 1955.

The images come from the State Archive Branch of the Security Services of Ukraine, fond 6, sprava 75976, SBU Archive (Kiev, Ukraine). The two-volume file contains interrogations protocols, formal notes on the police search and confiscation, with the detailed list of confiscated religious items and valuables from the underground monastery, closing indictment and the final sentence. Several confiscated (unidentified) personal photographs are also attached to the file.

For related entries see:


Communism and religion
Communism--Europe, Eastern--History--20th century
Secret police (secret service)
Material culture--Religious aspects
Christian sects--Soviet Union
Communism and culture--Soviet Union
Evidence photographs
Informal (Economics)
Monastic and religious life of women
Surveillance detection
Vernacular architecture


Tatiana Vagramenko


Галузевий державний архів Служби безпеки України
ГДА СБУ ф. 6, спр. 75976


This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme No . 677355
The research for this entry was funded by Irish Research Council, GOIPD/2017/764




Copyright for these images belongs to the State Archive Branch of the Security Services of Ukraine








SBU Archive, f. 6, spr. 75976


Soviet Union
20th Century

Bibliographic Citation

Tatiana Vagramenko, "True Orthodox secret monasticism Ukraine"

Date Created