Russia’s “Golden Autumn” in Leningrad, 1991, was all too brief, those few short weeks between summer and seven months of bitter cold and snow. The view from my 2nd story office reminded me that Russia’s road to freedom was still blocked on many fronts. Tank barriers had been installed across the street to protect the television broadcast station just around the corner. Leningrad was essentially under government closedown. We had arrived only a few months earlier, six ex-patriots charged to “open holy fire”.
Armed tanks were stationed on the outskirts of the city, a signal that Russia’s coup had reached Leningrad, and below my office window I saw the street barricaded with throngs moving noisily across the now silent streetcar tracks, carrying Soviet style banners. None who were not a party to the demonstrators dared move about on the streets, except one. Sasha was easy to spot; he dragged his legs behind him and swung them forward in a practiced cadence as he planted his crutches firmly in the freshly fallen snow. Until now, cripples had been hidden away from mainstream society for more than five decades, unwanted reminders of a system that failed to care for the very least. The crowd begrudgingly made way for him and Sasha purposely, and no doubt somewhat painfully, made his way to the doorstep. There he had to maneuver his bulky coat and cruthches through double doors, down the long corridor, hoping that this day the elevator was working... His 2-hour journey from and to his home, to his volunteer position with The Salvation Army, included the Metro (subway) and two connecting trams. There were no elevators or escalators on the two Metro stations he transited, so the stairs were the means to reach the street. For decades the Party’s city planners had no reason to include the likes of Sasha, or for that matter anyone on crutches or wheelchair bound. Sasha was one of many who attended our Sunday meetings (worship services). He had read about this Salvation Army, an international religious movement, and knew well of the need for volunteers. He became one of the very first.
When we first met he shared that he’d like to deliver meals to the elderly, “those unable like myself to get out and about!” I struggled to find something less daunting for him to do, and asked my translator for suggestions and was told, “Sasha is firm in what he wants to do; God gave him this assignment!” And so it was… During our service in Leningrad Sasha became a fixture. His routine typically began in the early morning as he selected a list of recipients from the office files. He’d pick up satchels of food, somehow balance the 6-8 dangling bags while clutching to his crutches, and off he’d go. He never shared how many Metro stations or trams he had to traverse and conquer on his missions of mercy. He’d return around noon for another batch of deliveries, and again around 3:00pm, for yet one more tour of duty before heading home…
I witnessed this joyful, deliberate act of discipleship daily until our transfer to Moscow some months later. Those working with volunteers know that many come and some soon depart never to return… Sasha came, and remained faithful. If for some reason he’s not alive these 25 years later, still serving those he was commanded to care for, it’s because he walked his way to glory and there, surrendered his crutches to the great Physician for all eternity!
Former SA officer USA/Sweden/Russia/Ukraine
Dr. Sven Ljungholm