— Eric Metaxas (@ericmetaxas) December 9, 2015
Toward the end of that show, Vodolazkin tells a story that he says he has never talked about before. He had become a Christian as a teenager, receiving baptism secretly, because, as he puts it, had the KGB known that he had been baptized, he would not have been able to go to college. One day, at 19, he was sitting in a mandatory college course about “scientific communism,” and the instructor asked the class, “Who in this room believes in God?”
No one said a thing. Then the instructor went row by row, asking each student to stand and say whether or not they believed in God. Vodolazkin was filled with anxiety, not knowing whether to tell the truth. He knew that if he didn’t tell the truth, he would lose all respect for himself. But if he did tell the truth, they would throw him out of the university.
As the classroom line-up moved closer to his desk, he says he thought that his situation was like that of the early Christians under Roman persecution. Would he have the courage to do as they had done? He didn’t know. And the inquisition was almost upon him.
When it was time for the young woman sitting in front of him to make her declaration, he watched her stand and say, “Yes, I believe in God.” Vodolazkin froze. Here, in front of him, was a woman who risked everything in the totalitarian atheist state to declare her allegiance to God. And him? What would he do?
At that moment, the door to the classroom opened, and someone stuck his head in to call the professor away. The professor left the room, and did not return that day. Vodolazkin never had to answer the question. In the interview, he tells Eric Metaxas that he believes today that he was delivered by God’s mercy from that moment of testing, because God knew how weak he was.
Think of that moment! Either answer he gave would no doubt have dramatically affected the course of young Vodolazkin’s life. Had he answered “no,” it’s possible, even likely, that he would have despised himself so much that he could not have continued in the faith, or at least that his spiritual sojourn would have been darker and more difficult. Had he answered “yes,” it seems certain that he would not have been permitted to continue studying at a high level, would not have been permitted to study at the feet of one of the country’s top experts in his field, would not have gained access to the medieval Russian manuscripts that became the focus of his professional research — and the inspiration for Laurus, the astonishing masterpiece of a novel about a man of faith in the Russian Middle Ages.
I was lying in bed last night listening to that interview, with my copy of Laurus on the bedside table. I have committed many words to praising that book, which is one of the deepest, most beautiful, moving, and skilled pieces of writing I have ever encountered. (And a shattering antidote to this kind of poison.) I am re-reading it now, more slowly, admiring its intricacy, appreciating it even more now than the first time. Listening to Vodolazkin tell that story, I realized that if not for what was surely God’s mercy at that moment, Laurus probably would never have been born. It’s as if a great white shark swam up to a bather at the seashore and, distracted at the last moment, turned and went in another direction.
“God helped me,” Vodolazkin tells Metaxas. “God understood that I was not ready for this choice. It was a terrible choice. And he brought this choice aside.”
Nothing in Vodolazkin’s life would have been the same had he been compelled to answer that question. But he was spared for something great. Think of this moment when you read Laurus.
UPDATE: Vodolazkin e-mails to say that nothing, in the end, happened to the young woman. She was allowed to continue her studies at the university. “She was a daughter of peasants, and normally such people (as well as workers’ children) were permitted more than others,” he writes.
But in that moment of trial in the classroom, the young Christian woman could not possibly have known that she would suffer no penalty for confessing her faith. Says Vodolazkin today, “She was really brave.”