Knitting and Praying for the Russian Soul

I’ve spent a lot of time knitting and fretting and praying over situations in Russia, and here we are again. 

For me, the act of knitting is oddly intertwined with Russian culture and its wildly volatile social fabric. My favorite story about knitting – and prayer – involves a Russian woman who went to her priest, feeling spiritually out of whack. The priest told her to sit in front of an icon for an hour a day and just silently knit. She did that, and soon enough, she was spiritually right as rain. I’ve followed that advice many times in the last twenty or so years, knitting and silently, wordlessly praying. 

For a time, I knitted and prayed for my soon-to-be-adopted son, a tiny, malnourished little boy abandoned by his birth parents and left in the custody of an orphanage on the Arctic Coast of Russia. While I waited for a date to leave on what would become the most momentous trip of my life, I knitted. I made hats and scarves for the children in this orphanage, one after the other, soaking up my stress and my hopes and my worries. Then, while I waited to leave on my second trip to bring my son home, I knitted again, this time making adult sized scarves for the orphanage staff, the kind souls caring for my son. I knitted and prayed that all would go well, that we would be able to bring home our little son without all the hassles and things-that-could-wrong. 

I had reason to knit and pray a lot during those trips. The government of Russia is not friendly to strangers. My husband and I were under constant surveillance while we were there. Moments after we checked into a hotel, the CNN broadcast froze on the TV screen (the better to hear you with, my dears). When we met our adoption facilitators, men suddenly appeared out of nowhere to intently listen in, finding out where we were going and where we were staying. The hotel in Moscow had a Red Army watching and listening post in the lobby. The hotel maid felt free to come in and check on us without knocking, without asking. 

On the way out to the airport to leave, we were stopped and asked for papers at 4:30 in the morning. After my husband and our new baby and I passed passport control at the airport, my ten-year-old children were held back as the officer took her sweet time checking data base after data base, making sure they weren’t Russian adoptees leaving illegally on American passports. Hundreds of people were held up behind us as we stood on the other side of the border, waiting and hoping our children would soon step over the border after us. I have never been so relieved as the moment the door to that big Lufthansa jet slammed shut and the plane pulled away from the gate, taking us to the safety of the West. 

But that wasn’t the end. When we visited a toy store in Times Square in New York, a man appeared out of the blue, snapped my son’s photo, then disappeared just as quickly. A friend and I were very obviously followed in the Washington, D.C. area. Several times in the last 17 years, I have felt under surveillance and followed here in Knoxville. 

But in juxtaposition to this harassment by the Russian government, I also have stories of pure Russian kindness and humanity. My adoption facilitators took wonderful care of us and gave my son gifts out of their own pockets. One of them asked me to explain the concept of Christian baptism as we stood on a street corner in St. Petersburg. She listened intently and earnestly. 

On the tarmac in Arkhangelsk, an Aeroflot flight attendant saw me holding a baby in the cold wind, at the back of the line, and whisked me up to the front and up the steps to the plane to keep him warm. As I stepped off the airport bus onto an icy tarmac in Moscow, a number of arms suddenly reached out to steady me, to make sure I didn’t slip and fall while holding my precious new baby against my chest. 

This is the Russian soul I now pray for as I sit and knit through the terror of the Ukrainian invasion. I pray for the Mother Russia who loves her babies and children and doesn’t want them to even get cold. I pray for the kind of Russian people who work in the orphanages at low pay and terrible hours and do the best they can with little resources. I pray for the boys aging out of the orphanages in Russia and sent straight into the Red Army, because that’s what happens to the little boys who don’t get adopted and are turned out with no job skills. 

I pray for the extraordinarily brave Russian people taking to the streets to protest their government’s completely unwarranted invasion of a neighboring country. Things do not go well for those who speak out against the Russian government. I pray for the Russia that could be, the Russia that just wants to live in peace and have enough money for food. 

As I sit and knit today, I pray that the evil yoke of oppression will soon be lifted, both from the shoulders of Russia and of Ukraine. I pray for the good that is in Russia to prevail. 

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, a collection of interrelated short stories about knitters and those they meet through knitting and sharing prayer shawls. 

Copyright 2022 Cynthia Coe

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