Mystery Envelops Pryamukhino

PRYAMUKHINO, Tver Region -- Villagers, Orthodox Church elders and many others who loved Father Andrei Nikolayev are expected to gather here Monday on the ninth day since his death in accordance with Russian Orthodox tradition.

Following the fire that killed Nikolayev; his wife, Oksana; and their three children, Anna, Anastasia and David, villagers are angry and confused, wondering why the whole country seems to think they are to blame for the tragedy.

Russian media and Orthodox web sites have said local drunks descended on Nikolayev's wooden home, on a narrow dirt lane about a kilometer from the village center, jammed an iron bar into the front door to prevent it from being opened and torched the house. In a matter of minutes, everyone inside had perished.

The reason for the killings? Drunks were apparently angry the priest had stymied them from storming the grand, if crumbling, yellow and white church at the entrance to the village and stealing icons that could then be sold for more alcohol.

Residents here voiced doubt any among them could have done that.

"I don't understand why there are such rumors," said Tatyana Lapina, who works in one of Pryamukhino's two grocery stores. "The people here are good and kind."

Another employee at the store, Olga, who declined to give her last name, said the incidence of alcoholism in the village was no higher than anywhere else.

"People feel insulted," Olga said. "They say everything here is bad, but that isn't true." She noted that the grocery didn't even sell liquor but that it did offer Ochakovo beer.

The people of Pryamukhino, Lapina said, are hardworking and simple, toiling at the neighboring collective farm or struggling to get by on pensioners' benefits. She recalled that when reporters from Rossia television came here a few days back, they bought alcohol for people and then filmed them drinking it.

As she recounted the incident, struggling to recall the name of the television program, one of three women milling about the grocery chimed in: "It was 'Vesti,'" she said, referring to one of Rossia's prime-time news shows.

The conventional wisdom, or wisdoms, surrounding the five deaths has mushroomed into a complex series of tales laced with medieval motifs of angry villagers, a saintly priest and the apocalyptic battle for the very soul of Pryamukhino.

On Wednesday, Itar-Tass reported Nikolayev and his family had been killed by village drunks not because they were angry about the icons but because they wanted to avenge the loss of their drinking companions, who had been weaned off the bottle by Nikolayev. RIA-Novosti and Interfax, meanwhile, reported Saturday that an "icon mafia" that had been dealing in illegal icons had knocked off the priest. There have been reports of Nikolayev guarding the church with a loaded rifle.

"Father Nikolayev was a good man," said Vladimir Ponomarenko, the former secretary for the late Patriarch Pimen. "Only, he took too many risks with these people."

Boris Kudryashov, 70, who has spent his whole life in the village and used to work on the collective farm and at the nearby school, doubted "these people" could have murdered a priest. And he was skeptical that Nikolayev used a rifle to fend off thieves.

The Nikolayev family, Kudryashov said, were ordinary folks. The three children went to school in the village. They tended to a garden behind their house. There may be wild tales about blood and vengeance in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Kudryashov said, but not here.

Kudryashov added the fire may have been an accident, something to do with an electrical fuse perhaps. The homes of Pryamukhino -- all wooden, some painted blue or yellow, look eminently inflammable.

Indeed, the remains of the Nikolayev house is a wasteland. There is a cold silence that reigns supreme, a few reminders of the former inhabitants: a blue children's bicycle, bits of clothing, the carcass of a mattress. Piles of bricks adorn the perimeter of the site. Three small steps that appeared to be part of an entrance now lead to nowhere.

In the center of the site, encompassing roughly 100 square meters, is a makeshift memorial. At the center of the memorial is a photograph of the family. Surrounding the photograph are several carnations, roses and stuffed toys.

On one side, a neighboring house has been badly damaged by the fire, which ate up much of a thatched roof and an adjoining wall. The house on the other side appears unscathed. It seems incomprehensible that a family of five could have burned to death inside without neighbors knowing how and why.

In the Orthodox faith, it is believed that the soul, having wandered in contemplation for nine days after the body has died, finds rest and proceeds to heaven. On Monday, the five souls that once lived in Pryamukhino are expected by loved ones to find their eternal rest. As for the question of who or what is responsible for their departure, no one seems to have an answer.