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From the Soviet Army to the priesthood: faith in the shadow of the regime

"As a boy I felt the goal of my life was to become a priest”. This is how the conversation with Victor Pogrebnii begins. He did become a priest: he was ordained seven years ago, in Kyiv (Ukraine), on 7 January 2012. By that time, he was already 66 years old and a grandfather, and had spent most of his life as a soldier in the Soviet Army.

By Cesare Lodeserto

Fr Victor's story begins in the village of Slobozia-Rascov, in the heart of Transnistria, a territory still disputed with the Republic of Moldova, which claimed jurisdiction following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This small village has produced many Catholic priests and a Bishop, thanks to its lively Catholic community, which included the young Victor. A community that was not afraid to witness to the faith, to the point of building a church without authorization. It was the 1970’s, and the communist regime controlled everything.

Choosing the military without losing the Faith

Victor's dream of becoming a priest was shattered the day he was recruited to serve in the Soviet navy. He felt he was leaving Slobozia-Rascov forever. After completing his regular period of military service, Victor continued to rise in the ranks, becoming an officer and later attending military school in Kaliningrad.

Far from his village, and the seminary that continued to be his heart’s desire, Victor’s life took a radical turn. This is how he describes it: "I had not lost my faith and preserved everything my parents taught me, but now I had embarked on a military career; I was respected and had responsibilities. My life had changed and I had met a fine girl, who I married in 1970. I was before the altar, but promising to be a good husband”.

Victor in the Soviet Navy
Victor in the Soviet Navy

Reported for possessing a copy of the Gospels

Fr Victor tells how difficult it was to live his faith under the suspicious eyes of the communist regime, and within the strict structure of the military. "There was a bad moment when I was serving at a military facility at the North Pole and my superiors found a copy of the Gospels on me. Then again, when the police discovered I was helping to build a church in Slobozia-Rascov. They reported me to the superiors and interrogated me. Whenever I could, I attended a Catholic church that stood opposite the KGB offices. I had to be careful not to be seen. I was a clandestine Catholic, hidden and afraid. I tried to find out if there were any other Catholics among my companions, but I couldn’t reveal myself".

A happy family life

"My life was taking shape”, continues Fr Victor. “I loved my wife. Two children were born to us, then they got married and I became a grandfather, gifted with three grandchildren. I also had the joy of following the path of my brother, who became a priest”.

Victor with his wife and first child
Victor with his wife and first child

Free to live the Faith

When the communist regime collapsed, Victor's life reached another turning point: he could practice his beliefs freely, and educate his children in the Christian faith without fear.

After a successful military career, he eventually went on pension, living quietly with his family, enjoying his children and grandchildren. In 2008, his wife died and Victor found himself alone. He started thinking again about his childhood goal of becoming a priest. It was a vocation that had never left him. The Bishop of Kyiv welcomed him to the seminary that same year.

Four years later, on 7 January 2012, Victor was again before the altar of the Lord, but this time to receive his priestly ordination, surrounded by family members and his younger brother, who had already been a priest for several years.

Fr Victor (center) concelebrating in the Cathedral of Chişinău
Fr Victor (center) concelebrating in the Cathedral of Chişinău

"I cannot describe the emotion of that moment”, says Fr Victor, recalling the connections with his faith when he was young and part of the community of Slobozia-Rascov.

“At the same time I was thinking of my wife and the fact that she was certainly happy, up there in heaven, with my new choice”, he continues. “Before starting my formation at the seminary, I wanted to hear what my children thought about my choice. I found them wonderfully understanding. They made me even more convinced of my choice, which did not erase my past as a husband and father, but made possible a vocation that had to wait for the right time, and go through the difficult test of a rigid regime".

After ordaining him a priest, the Bishop of Kyiv placed Victor in a parish, so he returned to being a father, with just a more extended family, and with responsibilities that saw him dedicate himself to the communities entrusted to him.

A new community in Crimea

But challenging times were not over yet. The fact he had been a Soviet soldier and a Russian citizen meant that Victor could not remain in Ukraine, especially at a time when Russia's relations with Ukraine were particularly tense. So, Fr Victor left for Crimea and the Bishop of Odessa placed him in a parish in Sinferopoli, where he could continue to serve in another community.

Fr Victor Pogrebnii (3rd from left) with other priests
Fr Victor Pogrebnii (3rd from left) with other priests

Returning home

In 2019, Fr Victor turned 73 years of age. He had left his heart in his native village of Slobozia-Rascov, and longed to return there. He contacted the Bishop of Chisinau, Anton Cosa, and asked him to evaluate the possibility of his going back to the land of his family and his origins.

"I was moved by the story of this priest,” says Bishop Anton Cosa, “and by his desire to return to the village of Slobozia-Rascov, and his community. I invited him to meet and talk, and to introduce him to the clergy of my Diocese. I discovered a man tried by his long and painful history, but happy to give himself, and to bear witness to his experience as a priest. He arrived with few belongings, with the essential spirit of the military, but with the great and helpful heart of the priest and the father".

Fr Victor Pogrebnii with the Bishop of Chişinău, Anton Cosa
Fr Victor Pogrebnii with the Bishop of Chişinău, Anton Cosa

Surprised by the Lord

One of the first things Fr Victor did, after arriving in Chişinău, Moldova, was to visit the grave of his parents in Slobozia-Rascov. It was an emotional return. It meant putting together the pieces of a life that had begun in this community, the source of his vocation, and the start of his earthly pilgrimage – one that had brought him full circle.

Fr Victor glances through a series of photographs of himself as both a soldier and as a priest. If we are to live a true life of faith, he concludes, we must allow ourselves to be “surprised by the Lord”. “I would never have thought I could become a priest,” he says.

“But it's true: God listens to the prayer of the poor man. My prayer."

31 July 2019, 10:11