WAY OF THE ORTHODOX - Doctor Ivan L.Popel
- WAY OF THE ORTHODOX - Doctor Ivan Leshko-Popel
There are many quiet and unsung heroes among the laity, whose Good
deeds and spiritual exploits remain largely hidden. May the following life
take its rightful place upon a candle stand where it can shed its light
abroad in our hearts, warming them with the noble beauty of self-sacrifice.
In mid-December 1903, in the town of Ekaterinoslav, there died an
army doctor, Ivan Vasilievitsh Leshko-Popel, a man not yet old, about 45
years of age. His death shook literally the whole town. Night and day
hundreds of people streamed to his coffin, and a great multitude gathered
for his funeral.
"Just let me have a last look at the dear one, al least through the
window," begged an old workman on the street who was too feeble to squeeze
his way into the house.
[IMAGE] On the day of the burial, a crowd of poor folk, almost paupers,
awaited the bringing out of the body. Wreathes were carried out of the
house: porcelein wreathes, wreathes of flowers, metal wreathes, wreathes
from his medical colleagues, wreathes from fellow army personnel, wreathes
from grateful patients.
"And what about us?" asked the poor. "After all, he was our doctor.
Are we going to bid him farewell empty-handed? We should also give him a
Someone took off his cap and threw into it a five kopeck piece. Dirty,
gnarled hands reached into pockets and "precious" coins showered into the
cap: kopecks, two kopeck pieces, three kopeck pieces. It was counted up:
two rubels and some change. They went to the store.
"Give us a wreath for our dear doctor."
No luck; there was no wreath for two rubles. The prices were much
higher. The proprietor came out.
"For whom is the wreath?"
"For Ivan Vasilievitch."
"Give them a nice wreath," the proprietor ordered. "And inscribe it as
they request? To our dear doctor, from his grateful poor people."
The doctor-asectic Ivan Vasilievitch Leshko-Popel was born September
5, 1860 in the town of Rogachov in the Mogilev proyince. He was educated in
the Mogilev secondary school, then in the natural history branch of the
Petersburg University, and finally in the army medical academy. In all his
years as a student Ivan was considered an "odd fellow," an impression which
he continued to ei ye to ordinary, insensitive people, even after his
professional reputation was established.
His classmates could not remember that the young Vanya ever hit,
teased or otherwise offended anyone. On the contrary, he would always seek
out and befriend the weaker ones. If someone was a slow learner who tried
hard but couldn't manage his lessons, Popel would try to help him. "Please,
let's study together," he would say to one of those having difficulty. "I
find it easier." And he would make it seem as if the slow learner were
granting him a favor.
In the upper classes, Popel became a real tutor. But even here his
oddness revealed itself. While the other tutors received expensive,
well-paid lessons, Ivan Popel arranged to give lessons for next to nothing.
And on top of that he spent 3 to 4 hours a week tutoring free of charge.
"What's a poor lad to do?" explained Popel abashed when they laughed
at his tutorial earnings. "If a father can't afford an extra 10 rubles a
month, must the student therefore lose a year? Time, my friend, is more
precious to the poor than to the rich."
At the university Ivan Vasilievitch gave lessons with the same
financial results: he expended a great deal of time but earned little.
"Riches carry many temptations," he would joke good-naturedly. "Once
you begin to receive lot of money, all kinds of whims enter your head. To
receive less is better for the Soul."
From his meager earnings Ivan Vasilievitch often helped his poorer
"Popel, you're rich, a capitalist," his classmates laughed. "You always
have extra money." "A rich man is not he that has a lot of money," Ivan
Vasilievitch jested in return, "but he that spends little."
At home during summer vacations, Popel was also forever taking care of
the poor; he'd invite some ragged beggar in, then he'd discover some poor
old sick woman and busy himself with sending her to a hospital; then he'd
treat some children with rolls. Sometimes they would deceive him. "Well,
what of it?" he would say calmly. "Better that I be deceived in my opinion
of who is poor, than to fail a poor man who has hopes that I'll be able to
When Leshko-Popel entered medical school it became even more difficult
for him financially. There was no time for private tutoring. All his time
was taken by his studies. There was a wide range of subjects and the
examinations were tough. The students used to complain that the professors
were too demanding, but Popel was in favor of strictness. "If I were a
professor," he said, "I would drive my medical students without any mercy.
For goodness' sake, a doctor is entrusted with the most precious thing
there is--a man's life. What leniency can there be here where the most
exact and thorough knowledge is requited.'
As a student of the fourth class he found himself a "follower." Under
his care in the clinic there lay a gravely ill woman who worked as a cook.
There was little hope in her recovery. The patient herself sensed this and
was becoming worn out. "I don't feel sorry for myself, but for my son," she
cried. "He's nine years old. What's to become of him?"
Popel was touched by the sick woman's grief. He comforted her, questioned
her, and one day said: "Would it be easier for you if you knew your little
boy, was taken care of?"
"My dear, yes, then I would die with a prayer on my lips and peace in my
"Then don't fear, Auntie Irene, I'll take your Kostya."
"Are you serious?" the sick woman could not believe her ears." Word of
"May God bless you. Now I no longer need to fear death. I trust you and am
at peace concerning my son."
The following day towards evening the sick woman died, and the next
morning Ivan Vasillevitch took Kostya home to his apartment. The boy slept
on top of a trunk in Popel's small, crowded room; for his board Ivan
Vasilievitch scraped up 6 rubles out of his nearly empty pocket.
After graduating from the academy, Popel was assigned doctor of the
reserve battalion in Ekaterinoslav where he remained until his death 15
years later. It was a time for him of ceaseless labors; he knew neither
rest, nor days off, nor, if you will, close friends. At seven in the
morning he would begin receiving patients. Poor people, workers,
blacksmiths, locksmiths and other tradesmen, old women from the market
place, washer women, poor Jews--all crowded to see him. Leshko-Popel would
examine each one carefully, give a word of encouragement, write out a
prescription, often giving them some medicine there on the spot.
After the clinic he would begin his round of house calls. With rapid
strides the slight figure of the doctor would traverse the town from one
end to the other. The thin coat was rarely buttoned--no time. The day was
short and there were many sick people--and all in various parts of the town
and on the outskirts. Later a bicycle was found, and the same thin coughing
figure began to fly about town with the wind.
"Ivan Vasilievitch," one of his patients somewhere would say of an
evening, "won't you stay and dine with us?"
"I have no time. But could I have a little something to take along with
me?" asked the doctor hurriedly, not having had a bite to eat all day.
One of Ivan Vasilievitch's regular patients would not let him leave her
before he had eaten a piece of beef-steak and had drunk a cup of coffee or
tea. "If you don't feed the poor dear, he'Il forget about food altogether,"
she would say.
Ivan Vasilievitch returned home late, in a state of total exhaustion.
He went to bed and slept like a log. But often during the night the door
bell would ring; some poor peasant from across the valley had called asking
for Ivan Vasilievitch. Other doctors living in closer proximity had
declined to come at this hour, but the worn-out Popel could not refuse; he
got up and went. In the morning at seven o'clock the reception of patients
began again, and another round of visits. And so it was for fifteen years.
Once, when the air , was fragrant with the bloom of spring, some
acquaintances met Popel in the town park. He was passing through. 'Let's
sit down, doctor."
A smile ran across the pale fade of the tired doctor. "Yes, it would be
nice to sit down and rest." But he glanced at his watch and hurried on his
way. "I have no time. Today I have many sick people to attend."
Ivan Vasilievitch had a large practice also among the wealthy. Here he
made good money and could have made himself quite a fortune had he so
desired. But he could not. Everything he earned from the rich he gave to
There came to see him an impoverished schoolgirl with an emaciated
green face. Anemia. Popel prescribed iron pills. "Take before eating."
"Can they be taken before tea?"
"God forbid. Tea and iron--make ink." "What's to be done?" asked the skinny
girl in bewilderment. "Mama and I never eat dinnor; we just drink tea with
The doctor gave her a packet. "Give this to your mother for some
meat." The packet contained three rubles. And for the next two months the
widowed seamstress and her daughter received a package of meat daily from
the butcher. "It's paid for," they were told.
Once Ivan Vasilievitch was called to a blacksmith's dwelling on the
edge of town. A family of seven. The smith was afflicted with rheumatism,
the only laborer in the family. They lived in a hut; it was cold and
damp-moisture gathered on the walls in rivulets. What hope could there be
of curing rheumatism here? But they couldn't afford to leave. In three days
a dry apartment was found, a half year's rent paid in advance--Dr. Popel's
Ivan Vasilievitch Leshko-Popel was no ordinary doctor; his healing arts
were directed as much towards the soul as towards the body. He knew how to
comfort people, and he was a guardian angel to all the poor. There was
nothing he would not do for the sake of alleviating another's suffering.
A young girl across town was dying of tuberculosis. She was beyond
medical help. Nevertheless, Popel stopped in to see her every day, warding
off despair and bringing sunshine to her last days. "Why do you waste your
time in coming to see us?" asked the mother, fully aware of her daughter's
condition. "If it brings some hope, some joy to the sick, surely it is not
in vain," answered the doctor.
Finally it was clear that the candle was burning itself out. Friends
persuaded the worn-out doctor to rest himself at one of their country
homes. He came--and at once discovered some sick people in the nearby
villages. He began treating them, busier than ever. "Go with God , Ivan
Vasilievitch," said his friends. "It's better for you in town."
Constantly forcing himself towards the good, the doctor-ascetic soon
reached the end of his earthly sojourn. He fell ill and disregarded his
condition until he collapsed-when it was too late. Even the special
medicine sent for by his colleagues could not help.
He received the Holy Mysteries. "Here is the end. Everything has been
done for the final journey. Death. If I'm sad, it's not because I'm dying,
but because there is so much left to be done." He smiled weakly, then
turned to his children:
"Live in harmony together. Love one another. Take care of your mother.
Lighten her load, and help others as much as you can, that their life, too,
be made easier."
He said nothing to his wife, but simply looked at her with a gaze
which conveyed a gentle love for one who had cast warmth and light on the
difficult path he had chosen.
That is all there is to the life of this simple doctor. It is a
touching story of a profoundly good man, and what is best of all-it is
Friends and admirers of the doctor erected a handsome memorial in his
honor. This is good. But it would be better still if we could preserve even
a small piece of Ivan Vasilievitch Popel in our hearts, and somewhere,
somehow manifest the spirit of this self sacrificing doctor-ascetic, for
therein lies a rare beauty which can adorn our souls in this life and lead
us into the higher realities of the world to come.
From a longer account in Russian Ascetics of the 19th and 20th Centuries
(in Russian), Holy Trinity Monastery, 1966. Article from Orthodox America