Russian bandit trades crime for monk's life
By Karl Emerick Hanuska
MOSCOW, Sept 12 (Reuters) - At a time when the Russian mob was allegedly laundering billions of dollars through a U.S. bank, small-time gangster Sergei went and did something equally shocking -- he gave up his criminal life and became a monk.
A pimp and extortioner, Sergei was small fry in the criminal world compared to the shadowy and menacing figures who U.S. authorities say may have funnelled some $15 billion in loot through the Bank of New York.
But smuggling Russian women into Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic to work as prostitutes and extorting protection money from Soviet emigre businessmen there financed a lifestyle of flashy cars, designer clothes and five-star hotels for him.
Sergei says at the height of their activity he and the small band of army buddies he worked with were earning tens of thousands of dollars a month.
However, a year and a half ago he traded the trappings of Russia's new -- and very often criminally -- rich for a Bible and a bronze crucifix that now hangs from a leather cord around his neck.
``My friends and family seemed to think there was something wrong with me when I decided to give up my old life,'' Sergei said in an interview during a rare visit to his home in Moscow.
``Well, maybe there was and that's why I made this choice...I wanted to make things right.''
FROM LUXURY TO AUSTERITY
Even by the demanding standards of monastic Orthodoxy, the life Sergei now leads is very austere.
At 34, he is the youngest of a dozen Russian Orthodox monks living in a secluded community in a mountainous part of southern Russia only a few dozen kilometres (miles) from the Black Sea.
They have no electricity, no running water, and a small patch of potatoes that they tend in the summer is all the monks raise to support themselves.
Most of their time is divided between prayer and meditation, and chores like scavenging for food in the nearby forest or tending to the wooden huts they dwell in.
Newspapers, radios and television are all forbidden and the Bible is the only book they read.
As often as not, the monks' food and clothing are gifts from people who live in the neighbouring impoverished villages.
Sometimes, especially in the winter, they go hungry for days at a time.
``It's a simple life and we mean it to be that way,'' Sergei said, running a hand through his ragged beard and dark mop of hair that have been left to grow long in the traditional manner of Russian Orthodox priests and monks.
``Sure, we have little, but the fewer distractions there are to bother us, the closer we can be to God...Anything we need He provides.''
ROOTED TO THE CHURCH
Sergei says he has always been close to the church, even during his bandit days, though he denies the apparent contradiction.
``They're not mutually exclusive. You might be surprised at how many guys with guns in their pockets cross themselves every time they drive past a church,'' he said.
Sergei's parents had him baptised as a small child despite the fact religion was heavily frowned upon by the Soviet authorities, and they frequently visited the few churches that remained open during the period.
But while he freely expounds on the attraction religion has for him -- and he is not averse to urging his listeners to repent and be converted -- Sergei shies away from discussing what finally prompted him to abandon secular life.
``It's what God wanted'' and ``This is the road that I was led to'' were how he initially responded to questions about his motives.
Pushed harder, though, Sergei speaks of being disillusioned by the life he led.
``A person has to think about his purpose for living...What was I living for? The money. The girls. The sex. That was it. That was all I had and it didn't seem like much.''
He also worried about the example he was setting for his younger brother and a cousin who were often in trouble with the law in the Moscow suburb of Lyubertsi where they grew up, a town best known for its vicious criminal gangs.
A TURNING POINT
Sergei says the turning point was the death from a drug overdose of a friend who he had brought into the criminal world.
``At the funeral I tried to give (his mother) money but she told me she didn't want it because I was the one who introduced her son to the people who finally helped him kill himself,'' Sergei said.
``I didn't believe then that I was guilty of something and I don't now. We get what we deserve in this life. However, I feel I could have done something to save him.''
Sergei says he has never regretted the decision to become a monk, but admits to having been cowed at times by the hardships he has suffered.
Surprisingly, Sergei continues to maintain contact with a number of the people he worked with as a criminal.
He exchanges letters with many of them and says at least one friend secretly returned to Russia to visit him despite being wanted by the police.
``I enjoy any contact with them. They've made decisions just as I have. These people were my friends and still are. I can't condemn their choices even if I disapprove of them,'' he said.
However, that disapproval doesn't stop Sergei from accepting the money earned from robbery or prostitution which some of his friends offer as a gift to help him and the other monks survive.
``They have good intentions and so I thank them and tell them that that I will pray for them...If nothing else, I know that the money will go for a good cause.
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