When the 70-year-old communist Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, and when the people of Saint Petersburg had to remain at their houses due to the unrest and coup against the regime, Taras Chernenko, a 15-year-old Christian born in a royal family of the city, was acquainted with a miraculous book which transformed his life fundamentally. Since Taras was a genius and could read when he was just one year old, he began studying different cultures and religions. At the time of the collapse of the communist regime, he found the opportunity to read the Quran in three days, which paved the way for his conversion to Islam. Now 20 years after the breakdown of the communist regime, Taras, who has also translated Nahj al-Balagha to Russian, has become one of the influential preachers of the Shia Islam in Russia. Through our journey with Taras, we come to know that he also has extensive knowledge about the history of Saint Petersburg. While he takes us to various places across Saint Petersburg, in our dialogues, he talks about the major reasons of his conversion to Islam and his familiarity with Iran’s Islamic Revolution and his special interest in Ayatollah Khomeini’s ideas.
TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00
Narration: Here I am in St. Petersburg, Russia in the middle of summer and it’s already starting to get cold. At this time of year, when nearly two months has passed since the silver nights, the favorite season of tourists, the city seems empty. St. Petersburg is the cultural capital of Russia. This is a city that hasboth the architecture of the Tsarist era, and mementos of Russia’s historic revolution. The Hermitage, one of the largest museumsin the world, is located inside the Tsar’s palace. I embarked on this journeyto see St. Petersburg through the eyes of Taras, who’s going to show me around his hometown for couple days. Taras speaks 9 languages. This makes it easy for me to communicate with him.
Conversation [English] Between Taras and the Host of Program:
How are you?
Fine, how are you?
Mr. Taras! Right now, I’m near the metro station next to the congregational mosque.Given the heavy traffic, if you go on the metro, we can see each other sooner.
Yes, you’re right. I think so. I’m going to get dressed and come towards the mosque to see you.
Well, I’m waiting here for you.
It may take me a while but I’ll be there as soon as possible.
Ok then, I’ll wait for you right here.”
Narration: St. Petersburg traffic isn’t like the traffic Moscow’s notorious for. But in order to travel more easily, people here use the metro, them on or ail, and the trams. Built in 1955, the St. Petersburg metro has 5 lines, and the unique composition of the citysoil allowed city planners to buildsome of the deepest metro stations in the world. Taras should be here soon .The problem is that I don’t know which exit Taras is going to come out of.
Conversation [English] Between Taras and the Host of Program:
Are you fine?”
Narration: We got on quickly and our journey began from the very first moment we met. Taras took me to the Jameh Mosque of St. Petersburg. The Mosque was inaugurated in 1913 and it was considered the largest mosque of Europe at the time. Designed with an Iranian architectural style, its blue dome and minarets can be seen from the bridges of the Neva River. It’s one of St. Petersburg’s popular tourist attractions.
TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “The majority of the Russian people and Muslims don’t diverge from one another in beliefs markedly. A Russian citizen of that time, that is just before the dissolution of the USSR when life was devoid of spirituality and morality and everything was out of joint. Nothing had been left of the Communists, whether it was bad or good; Morality, culture, everything had been ruined. In a word, we had lost our ways. We all were after spiritual growth; some managed to find the right path; some were led astray; others went after different cults which had sent their missionaries from abroad. Fortunately, after studying the Quran I found the right path of Islam. In 1992, I converted officially to Islam in this mosque in the presence of my Muslim brothers. Let’s get prepared for the prayers and we’ll go on with it later.”
Narration: I went to Taras’s house. I notice it’s one of those old, government-built apartments from the communist era. Here, Taras lives alone.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “Here is my library.
I work here.
I’d like to show you my childhood photos.”
Narration: Taras showed me newspapers that have his childhood photos in them. He says he was a genius of sorts who could read and write at the age of one.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “What does it mean?
It means a one-year old educated child.
It means a three-year old child in first grade.”
Narration: Taras’s father, one of Russia’s most famous sculptors, has passed away. His mother, an ice skating coach, is currently living in the Czech Republic.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “This is my father during WWII. This is Nahj al-Balagha in Russian published in Azerbaijan. I was looking for this book from the very beginning. For the Shiah, it is the holiest book after the Quran. When I bought an annotated copy of it by Muhammad Abduh in the U.A.E, I decided to translate by any means some day. A few years later, I managed to do it. I was finished with it in 2005 and the first Russian version of the book was published in 2008.
How are you?
Thank you. How are you?
Are you fine?
Yes, thank you. How are you?
Did you sleep well last night?
We can head toward the Petropol Castle.
It was the cornerstone of St. Petersburg.
It was around 1703 when Peter the Great decided to build a new city. In the beginning, it was just a military castle. The Russian navy developed from there. Later in 1711, some Italian architects, especially DominicoTresini built Petropol Church inside the castle.
That’s Petropol Castle. There are two entrances here and there. That one is better.
The church you see inside the castle is Pertopol Church. The city of Petersburg was named after this church. During WWI, the Russian king decided to change its name.
After the October Revolution, it was the capital city of Russia for half a year.
Then Moscow was chosen as the capital city in 1918. The city used to be called Petrograd until the death of Lenin in 1924. Then it was named Leningrad after Lenin. Then after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the city was called again St. Petersburg. It was called St. Petersburg twice, Petrograd once and Leningrad once.”
TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00
Narration: According to Taras, St. Petersburg began to grow around this very castelin 1703. And Petropolchurch, was constructed in the center of it in 1711. The church however would later became a tomb for Russia’s kings. We went inside the church with Taras and there, with an enthusiasm that caught me off guard, he introduced me to the Tsars whose tombs were hidden away inside.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “This is the tomb of Alexander II. He was assassinated by terrorists.
Why did they assassinate him?
The revolutionaries assassinated him. I don’t know why because he was a king who abolished slavery 20 years before his assassination.
This is the tomb of Maria, the mother of the last Russian king, Nikolas II.
The first Tsar buried in this church was Peter the Great, the founder of St. Petersburg and the Russian navy and the great reformer of the country.
My father used to make many statues of him even under the Communists because even the Communists respected him highly.”
Narration: Noticeably excited, Taras was talking about Nikolas II, the last Tsar of Russia, and showing me the photos of last king. who had rain over his country. The whole experience was a bit surreal. It was as if he was introducing to me the members of his own family.He insisted on taking me to somewhere he said he himself hadn’t visited for a long time.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “I’ve not been here for nearly 20 years.
He was the first member of your family who came to St. Petersburg, wasn’t he?
Yes, here are he, his daughter and grandchild, I guess.”
Narration: This is the graveyard where the ancestors of Taras’s mother are buried. They all belong to the family of the Tsars that have founded St. Petersburg.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “Yes, that’s right. This is the tomb of my great-great-great-great grandfather back in the 18th century.
These are the tombs of his wife and daughter.
What do you feel about being here, Taras?
The remains of last emperors and lives … A nation that forgets its traditions, ancestors and past is doomed to extinction.”
Narration: Taras’s hometown has been at the center of Russia’s most historic of transformations, and for hundreds of years, it has witnessed different regimes and political eras. Even its name has been changed more than a couple times as new regimes came and went. And Taras’s life is interwoven with the history of his country. Born in the 1960s, he belongs to a dynasty of Russian Tsars from his mother’s side of the family. And in his teenager, he saw with his own eyes the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Being with Taras, I understand just how fragile history can be. When confronted with sweeping social and political forces, it shatters in its place. Today, Taras is going to show me the Hermitage museum. From Taras’s house, we need to head downtown across the Neva River. It’s cloudy, and because it suppose to rain, Taras brought along his umbrella.
TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “We haven’t gone to Palace Square, have we?
No, we haven’t.
Palace Square is very important.
It’s the square where all Russian revolutions and demonstrations began from.
Well, would you explain where here is?
That is the Alexander Column.
The one in the middle of the square.
Would you explain more?
This Alexander is called Saint Alexander, a martyr…
Is he the same Alexander we visited his tomb?
No, he is a Christian martyr and the Russian Tsar had been named after him.
Here reads, “Grateful Russia, in memory of Alexander I.”
The Grand Kremlin Palace is the extension of the Winter Palace or Hermitage Palace.
It used to have several buildings attached to each other one by one. The Grand Kremlin Palace is a bit older than this, I guess.
Where are we now, Taras?
At the Hermitage Museum, the world’s greatest museum.
Here is the Winter Palace of Russian kings.”
Narration: We are in the Hermitage, which has one of the largest collections of Western European art in the world. It was formerly the Winter Palace of Russia’s kings. Consisting of 6 main buildings, the Hermitage museum was established by Catherine The Great in the 18th century. Today, more than three million works of art are kept here. The museum guide accompanied us, but Taras actually ended up guiding me throughout the museum.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “These are the works of an Italian painter in the Middle Ages. His works draw heavily on the New and Old Testaments.
Let’s go to the Cavaliers Hall. We can judge from near.
How small it is.
Look at them. They are like children. This is the Italian art of the Renaissance.”
Narration: I knew that Taras had a PhD in economics. That’s why i found his historical knowledge, of Russian history astonishing.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “Here are the coffins of Egyptian pharaohs.”
Narration: Taras has traveled to all four corners of the world.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “Have you ever been in Egypt?
It’s fantastic. I liked it.
Look at his face.
See how it is.”
Narration: I was beginning to get a little worn out. Taras continued tirelessly, energetically showing me the different halls and sections of the Hermitage. This building, the Winter Palace, which is only one of the six buildings of the museum, has 1,057 rooms and 117 staircases.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “It takes about one week to see the whole museum. Let’s see all the rooms as fast as this.”
Narration: At the Hermitage, I felt I was at the heart of Russian history. then, Taras took me to a place that marked one of the turning point of Russia’s communist revolution where history erupted before the world’s eyes.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “In the year 1917, that is about four months before the October Revolution, Lenin who had come back from exile to St. Petersburg delivered speeches to people urging them to demonstrate.
From March to June in the summer of 1917, the Social Democratic Party of Russia was located here and Lenin gave several speeches to laborers and the Russian military forces from this balcony.”
TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00
Narration: During the first years of its rule The communist regime, decreed tolerance of all different religions and opinions. But ten years later, in 1927, the regime began a fierce crusade against any sort of religious belief. Taras says Lenin’s most horrendous acts were his efforts to destroy the belief in God. But with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a new revolution occurred. The walls came down and people found the chance to set their own paths, regardless of what their political leaders wanted. Taras narrates the history of his country with a realistic eye. He says those who look at history with nostalgia, tend to remember good, but often forget the bad.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “Man must be realistic. He must not be too optimistic or pessimistic. He must be realistic.
Definitely, the Communist regime had both positive and negative things. It had many positive things too. The government would support us to be educated and literate. Its financial support was considerable. No one was out of a job; no one was homeless; no one was illiterate. But the downside was that the standard of living was not high as it is now, especially when it came to religious and spiritual issues.
No matter how rich you are, without religion your life in incomplete.
All in all, did you have a happy childhood or not? Can you remember it?
I don’t have happy memories of those days because I was deprived of freedom of thought. I was a fervent liberal.
I was eight when I asked myself questions like, “Where is my place in this life?” “What will happen after death?” and “Where will I go after I die?” I wonder why others don’t think about these issues.”
Narration: Having translated the Nahj al-Balagha into Russian verses, Taras is still studying and translating the Islamic texts. He is one of the most successful Muslims, and time and time again he’s invited to speak at various conferences around the world.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Taras, Converted to Islam: “Arrived?
This is no. 15. We’ve almost arrived.
This is in fact a Christian academy which holds conferences on dialogues between religions
This is its library. I think the entrance is this way.”
Narration: Today Taras has been invited to a conference in one of the City’s research centers and I’ve been allowed to take along . It was the summer of 1991 when some St. Petersburg families stayed home for several days to avoid getting entangled (then the unrest) brought on by the Co against Russia’s communist government . that’s one a fifteen year old Taras use those idle houres to read through a copy of Quran lying around his house . not much longer after that first series encounter with Islam he decided to become a Muslim . today in St. Petersburg like most other Russian cities there’s a growing trandmanpost soviet generations to explore different religions and Taras who has himself experienced the spiritual revolution and the critical junctionon his country’s history provide more support for those who believe in the prevalent Of human will over the rigidity of history . at first I thought getting to know Taras would better acquaint me with city of St. Petersburg and It’s violenthistory. but now I see that my journey has instead introduced me to Taras . A resident of St. Petersburg , a historian , a Muslim .