Prioress Yekaterina (Abrikosova) and the Dominican Community in Moscow

Anna Ivanovna Abrikosova was born in 1882 into a well-known family of merchants. She lived her childhood and youth in luxury, remote from the political and social crisis then troubling Russia. Like many rich aristocrats in tsarist Russia, she graduated from Cambridge University.

In 1903 she married one of her relatives, called Vladimir. During their honeymoon they experienced a mystic revelation that led them back to the faith, and some years later they joined the Catholic Church –first Anna Ivanovna in 1908, at Saint Magdalene’s Church in Paris, and then, one year later, her husband.

Once back in Moscow, they started to spread their ideals and their faith among the intelligentsia. Their home became a centre of philosophical, religious and spiritual discussion.

During a pilgrimage to Italy in 1913, the couple had a private audience with Pope Pius X, who blessed their mission. In November that same year, Anna Ivanovna joined the Dominican Third Order, adopting the new name Yekaterina (Catherine, after Saint Catherine of Siena), and started her apostolic mission among students. The Abrikosovs’ house became a refuge for girls put under pressure by their families for embracing Catholicism, an act leading to the loss of many rights in tsarist Russia, even of material patrimony.

In 1917, at the Pope’s suggestion, she started to practice the Eastern Catholic rite together with her husband, since this ritual agreed with Russian traditions and mentality. The couple made a vow to abstain from marital relations, and Vladimir was later ordained a Catholic priest of the Eastern rite. In the same year, Mother Yekaterina founded the Russian Women’s Dominican Community in Moscow.

Not long afterwards, religious communities began to be persecuted. In September 1922 Vladimir Abrikosov received death threats and was forced to go into exile. He continued to perform his apostolic mission as well as his activities as a professor in Rome and Paris up to his death in 1966.

Prioress Yekaterina stayed with her nuns, of whom there were about 25 in all at the time. She also suffered violent persecution: on 12 November 1923 she, along with the other sisters, was arrested and condemned by the GPU (the secret police) for espionage and counterrevolutionary activities (she had sent her husband in Rome some letters describing the situation of the Church in Russia).

After 8 years in jail, in isolation, Anna Ivanovna was released because she had cancer and required immediate surgery. After this, she was not allowed to live in Moscow, so she settled in Kostroma, making rare visits to the capital.

In 1933 new trials against Russian Catholics started, involving not only new defendants but also those who had already been sentenced and paid their penalty. Mother Yekaterina was again among those arrested.

The tumour started to spread again, and we know from the Red Cross that Anna Ivanovna died of cancer in Butyrka prison on 23 July 1936, aged 54.

Her beatification process started on 31 May 2005.


A Sacrifice for Russia

In the early 20th century the Orthodox Church was completely subject to the State in Russia. Spiritual values were declining but the cultural circles (the ‘intelligentsia’) still sought the truth. This was the context in which our film’s subjects, Anna and Vladimir Abrikosov – a highly educated married couple from a rich bourgeois background – lived.

During their honeymoon they experienced a mystic revelation: looking at the people walking about, they suddenly saw walking skeletons with torn clothes instead of real persons. They started thinking of their spiritual life, neglected up to that moment, and they became fervent Catholics.

Once back in Moscow, they began apostolic work amongst the intelligentsia, believing that Russia could be renewed only by unifying the Western and Eastern Church again. In 1913 Vladimir and Anna made a vow of poverty and obedience in Rome, later adding one of chastity as well. Their new names as converted believers are Foma (Thomas; after Saint Thomas Aquinas) and Yekaterina (Catherine; after Saint Catherine of Siena). Pope Pius X gave official blessing to their activities in Russia and bound them to follow the tradition of Eastern rite ritual.

In May 1917 in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg), Vladimir Abrikosov was ordained and became a parish priest at the Church of the Nativity of the Virgin. The Abrikosovs hosted gatherings of kindred spirits who shared the ideal of joining together the Western and Eastern Churches –philosophers and theologians, both Catholic and Orthodox, as well as many young people. Leonid Fyodorov, the Exarch of Russian Catholics, attended many of these meetings.

The parish grew rapidly. An Eastern rite community of Dominican sisters was founded, as was, later, a community of friars. During the terrible events of the Revolution and the Civil War, Mother Yekaterina (Anna Abrikosova) and her sisters prayed for the rebirth of Russia and vowed to sacrifice themselves for the conversion of their native land. Their prayers would be later fulfilled.

The parish was constantly under the surveillance of the GPU (the secret police), which could apply any punishment without involving official judiciary bodies. A spy infiltrated the community and on 17 August 1922 Father Vladimir was arrested and condemned to death by shooting (a sentence later commuted to permanent exile, so that he moved abroad and lived in Italy and France for the rest of his life).

Mother Yekaterina decided to stay in Russia: after Father Vladimir’s exile. The parish continued to run a school, and the sisters took care of 10 orphans, working in the parish helping the poor, the sick, the elderly and the homeless, living off their work.

On 11 November 1923 Anna Abrikosova, the sisters and some of the parishioners were arrested. The tribunal sentenced Mother Yekaterina and the oldest sister 10 years in jail, three of the other sisters to from 5 to 8 years in a labour camp, and the others to 3 years’ exile in Siberia. Their time in jail and the camps is an example of pure love and sacrifice for outcasts, petty criminals and syphilitics. In August 1932 Anna Abrikosova was transferred to the hospital of Butyrka prison and underwent an operation for cancer; after the operation she was confined to Kostroma.

One year later, Mother Yekaterina was arrested again and accused of leading a counterrevolutionary terrorist organization plotting to assassinate Stalin.

She was condemned to 8 years in jail but her condition deteriorated and on 23 July 1936 she died of cancer in the hospital prison, aged 54.

The film shows people who personally met the sisters of the Abrikosov community: Russian Dominican priests, laymen, and Dominican tertiaries. The historian A. Yudin tells us about the situation of the Russian Church at the beginning of the last century.

At the beginning of this 21st century, when the Western World is losing its faith and Russia is returning to international isolation, still suspicious of Western Christianity, the Abrikosovs’ life is an answer to the challenges of our times and gives us cause to reflect. They had the intuition that their country could have been profoundly regenerated just by rejoining the Universal Church and they also represented a major example of personal sacrifice as a means of salvation.

Did you know...

Anna Abrikosova and her husband Vladimir

... that Eastern Catholic Churches are autonomous (in Latin, sui iuris) Churches in full communion with the Bishop of Rome — the Pope. They preserve the theological and  liturgical traditions of their various origins, as re-affirmed in the Vatican Council II (Orientalium Ecclesiarum, decree on Eastern Christian Churches). The forms of liturgical worship, sacramental and canonical discipline, terminology, traditional prayers and practices of piety may change, but all of them have equal dignity and recognize the central role of the Pope.

Most Eastern Catholic Churches have counterparts in Eastern Orthodox Churches, from whom they are separated primarily by differences in understanding of the role of the Bishop of Rome within the College of Bishops.

Byzantine liturgical rite

The terms Byzantine Catholics and Greek Catholic are used for those who belong to Churches that use the Byzantine liturgical rite, used currently (in various languages) by all the Eastern Orthodox Churches and by the Greek-Catholic Churches (Eastern Catholic Churches which use the Byzantine Rite). The rite developed in the city of Constantinople (the actual Istanbul), earlier called Byzantium.

The Rite consists of the Divine Liturgies, Canonical Hours, forms for the administration of Sacred Mysteries (sacraments) and the numerous prayers, blessings, and exorcisms, derived from the Church of Constantinople. The specifics of architecture (e. g. the iconostasis that separates  the sanctuary from the rest of the church), icons, liturgical music, vestments and traditions have also evolved over the centuries from Constantinople tradition. In the Eastern Catholic Churches we find the use of leavened bread for the Eucharist, a married priesthood in the parishes, a prominent role for the deacon in the services, and a continuing emphasis on monasticism. Scripture plays a larger role in Byzantine worship, fasting laws are stricter than in the West, and four fasting seasons are observed: Great Lent, Nativity Fast, Apostles' Fast and Dormition Fast. In addition, most Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year are fast days. 

The Russian Catholic Church

The Russian Catholic Church is a Byzantine Rite church in full union with the Roman Catholic Church. Historically it developed after the East-West Schism: a tiny group of Russian families maintained themselves as “Old Catholics”.
The modern Russian Orthodox Church owes much to the inspiration of poet and philosopher Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov (1853-1900), and was  formally united with Rome in 1905. Prior to the fall of the Monarchy, Russian Catholics were forced to endure severe persecution and harassment by law, even though Nicholas II and especially the 1905 Revolution and February Revolutions relaxed a bit of this.
In 1917, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky appointed the first Apostolic Exarchate for Russian Catholics with Most Reverend Leonid Feodorov as Exarch.
However, the October Revolution soon followed, dispersing Russian Rite Catholics into the concentration camps and the centres of the Russian diaspora throughout the world. In the spring of 1923, Exarch Leonid Feodorov was prosecuted for counterrevolutionary activity by Nikolai Krylenko and sentenced to ten years in the Soviet concentration camp at Solovki. Released in 1932, he died three years later. He was beatified in 2001 by Pope John Paul II.