2006 Ivan Bunin Prize
Kucherskaya's honest and humorous account of life within the modern Russian Orthodox community, including short biographies of numerous batyushkas (low ranking priests), sometimes fictitious, but presenting easily recognizable prototypes all the same, have made her popular beyond the bounds of church circles. Kucherskaya is a master at describing them. The images of priests and parishioners that she creates are sometimes far from sainthood. Among her characters, you can find “manager” priests, “superman” priests and even one “cannibal” priest. They teach their parishioners in a way that has a Zen Buddhist element to it. One calls his followers “an academy of idiots” for hanging on his every word. Another induces a parishioner, whose wife has been coming home late, to feign drunkenness to show her how distraught he is with her absence. Surprisingly, the wife takes a renewed interest in her “drinking” husband and begins to come home earlier. She never discovered that, on the priest’s advice, her husband had collected empty vodka bottles and cigarette butts from the street and then strewn them all over the apartment before she came home. “Father Konstantin never laughed as much in his whole life,” Kucherskaya writes at the end of the story.
Kucherskaya’s book is also full of overzealous female parishioners, whom the author does not treat with much sympathy. “If only one of them had killed someone!” a batyushka says in one of her stories, after listening to a long line of empty confessions from women reporting that they had eaten sardines on a Friday, or some other trifle. “What conclusion can we draw from this story? The girl was insane,” is how she wraps up a story of a Literary Institute graduate who idolized her priest so much that she made him the censor of all her writings, before drowning herself in the Moscow River after becoming disillusioned with writing.
“This is one of my criticisms of church subculture,” Kucherskaya said. “Sometimes, people there confine themselves to a small space and write the word “vanity” on the window to the outside world. The young church girls often call this penance. It has nothing in common with real penance, however.”
When the book was first released by the secular Vremya publisher, readers’ reactions were enthusiastic. But, when the second edition was published by Biblio-Polis, whose books are sold in Orthodox churches, the tone of the reactions shifted with the audience. A church newspaper in St.Petersburg even suggested that Kucherskaya was under the spell of “hostile demons.” “Kucherskaya is an alien, who came to our circle accidentally or, more likely, with an evil purpose,” an article in the religious newspaper Pravoslavnyi St.Peterburg said. “Our joys appear stupid to her, while our troubles are a laughing matter for her. This is just unbearable!”
Fortunately, Kucherskaya wasn’t turned into an Orthodox Russian version of Salman Rushdie. Many monks, nuns and regular churchgoers rushed to her defense. “An honest reader will quickly remember many examples similar to those described in the book,” one of her defenders, who identified herself as a nun by the name of Yekaterina, wrote in a letter to the media. “For this reader, Kucherskaya’s book is just one more reason to think about the illnesses which still plague our church.”