19-year-old Russian Orthodox teen chose death over apostasy.
On May 23rd 1996, his 19th birthday, Private Evgeny Rodionov hung from the wrists in a dark and filth-ridden cell outside of a village called Bamut. The young man could hardly have imagined such ill fortune just a year earlier upon his induction into Russia’s armed forces. A native of the Moscow region, Rodionov joined the border troops and was sent to the North Caucasus for duty at an outpost near mutinous Chechnya.
With three comrades he manned a checkpoint along a desolate smuggling road on February 13th; as if to illustrate the outrageous negligence of the Yeltsin-era Russian military, they were not provided rifles or even radios. And so within a matter of hours these teenage conscripts, raw youth on alien and hostile terrain, were captured by a dozen well-armed Chechen fighters riding in a commandeered ambulance. Despite hearing screams for help, officers nearby simply wrote their men off as deserters.
Rodionov and his comrades would then spend three months in confinement, undergoing 100 days of torture, beatings and starvation. Kidnapping to extract payment was both a time-honored custom and a burgeoning cottage industry in North Caucasus republics like Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya. In the 1990s Chechen gangsters and rebels could obtain well-publicized million-dollar sums for businessmen, journalists and government officials. Yet ordinary Russian soldiers, prisoners of war rotting in dungeons or forced into slavery, were considered to be almost worthless by both sides. An 18-year-old private might just as likely be shot and cast into a ditch as ransomed.
Aside from their mothers, no one evinced concern for the fate of such men; they were the cannon fodder of a criminally inept and venal ruling class in Moscow. And like other mothers, Liubov Rodionova would travel to the Caucasus, braving the chaos and war of Chechnya in an attempt to rescue her child. When she approached Private Rodionov’s superiors, they showed little interest in the matter, and “human rights” activists informed her that as a Russian soldier, her son was a killer of innocent civilians. She nonetheless had come within mere miles of Evgeny at the time of his death on May 23rd.
On this day Rodionov would seal his destiny. A bid to escape had proven futile, and he now stood between two paths. His captor, Chechen field commander Ruslan Khaikhoroyev, was willing to concede him his life. All that was required of Evgeny was to renounce his baptismal faith and join the ranks of the Muslim fighters. If he would abandon Jesus Christ and swear allegiance to Allah, freedom was his. Among the mountaineers there was a chance for survival, refuge and perhaps one day a wife and progeny. A handful of prisoners had taken up these offers before; they could be seen in rebel propaganda videos—fair-haired Slavs among darker Caucasians, all brandishing weapons and chanting the Islamic war-cry. If "Zhenya" would only remove the small silver cross from his neck and submit, new possibilities would open to him—brotherly acceptance, women and even martial distinction against his own kinsmen. Should he refuse, the Chechens would slaughter him like a ram at one of their feasts.
There wouldn’t be any return to the familiarity of home, to family and friends. Zhenya would die a martyr’s terrible death or live, but as an apostate and traitor. His entire scope of existence had narrowed to this grave moment. Conflict raged within his heart, and its outcome would determine the trajectory of his soul. Yet such cruel trials can purify and temper those who endure, from unassuming soldiers to mighty sovereigns. Six centuries before young Rodionov contended against the abyss, another man was choosing in similar stark fashion between the temporal and eternal. On the eve of battle with the invading Turks in 1389, it is said that Tsar Lazar of Serbia received a vision from the prophet Elijah. This messenger from the divine throne told the prince that in his forthcoming duel with the Ottoman sultan, he could win earthly power or heavenly glory, but not both. We witness Lazar’s brief and forceful deliberation in the Kosovo epic cycle: