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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Monk Treats Addicts With a Dose of God

MTBerestov initially quit his job as a neurologist to work with young members of cults.
Anna Ivanova injected her first heroin at the age of 18 at the urging of her boyfriend, a drug user of six years. She spent every day of the next 18 months obsessing about finding her next fix. She overdosed twice and received a suspended sentence for theft.

Then she met Anatoly Berestov, a doctor-turned-Russian Orthodox monk who treats drug addicts with a heavy dose of religion. Her mother dragged her to Berestov's St. John of Kronstadt rehabilitation center.

"I thought all that praying and the church was not for me," said Ivanova, 23, her long blond hair covered with a scarf according to Orthodox tradition. "I thought it was something for grandmothers, not young people like me."

But after six months of prayer, confession and other religious rituals, Ivanova became one of the 3,000 young addicts whom the center has helped rehabilitate since opening in 1998.

When Berestov threw open the doors of his center at the Orthodox church's Krutitskoye Podvorye compound, he wasn't planning to help people like Ivanova. Berestov, a neurologist who headed the pediatric neurology department of the State Medical University, quit the post in 1996 for a ministry reaching out to the young followers of totalitarian sects, which were widespread in the 1990s.

He quickly learned that many sect members were addicts.

"We realized that many victims of sects -- especially those involved in Satanic groups -- were suffering addictions to hallucinogens," Berestov said in an interview.

He said addicts without ties to sects started flocking to the center as word spread about the free treatment. The program is financed by private donations and three Orthodox shops.

Berestov, other Orthodox clergymen and volunteers counsel 10 to 15 patients every day. He said 82 percent of those treated are living drug-free two years or more after completing therapy, a sharp contrast to cure rates of 25 percent to 30 percent at nonreligious rehabilitation centers.

"We believe that drug addiction is the result of a sinful lifestyle rather than medical problems alone," he said, adding that some patients have turned away from drugs after their first communion.

Being a doctor himself, Berestov firmly supports conventional drug therapy. Patients admitted to the rehabilitation program must be drug-free for least 10 days after going through a medical treatment at a public clinic, which he calls the first stage of treatment.

Immersing participants in religion is the core of the rehabilitation program, isolating them from their familiar drug-filled lives, Berestov said.

To that end, Berestov sends some patients to work and pray in monasteries in the Tula and Yaroslavl regions. Ivanova spent three months in a Yaroslavl monastery at the start of her rehabilitation.

Others are sent to farms, where they plant crops, tend cattle and cook. Those who wish to remain in Moscow spend their days helping out at the center.

Mike Solovyanov / MT

Polgov has been off drugs 18 months.
While doctors implementing conventional drug therapy programs consider addicts drug-free after a year, Berestov said he believes his patients are drug-free after two years, "to be on the safe side."

Drug use has grown rapidly in recent years across the nation, and President Vladimir Putin ordered the government this week to draw up anti-drug measures. Putin also ordered the creation of a new drug enforcement agency under the auspices of the Interior Ministry to coordinate the country's anti-drug efforts.

He put the number of drug users at 3 million, although some experts say the figure could be as high as 5 million.

Berestov, who has helped to set up similar Orthodox treatment centers in several regions, said young people living in wealthier areas like Moscow are more at risk. Those in poorer regions tend to turn to alcohol, which is cheaper, he said.

The average age of Berestov's patients is 22, and the youngest are 17.

The center's goal is not only to help addicts kick the habit but to introduce them to the Orthodox faith, Berestov said. Baptism is not mandatory, but those who take the program usually do get baptized, he said.

Artyom Polgov, a 23-year-old who has been off drugs for 18 months, has no regrets about his addiction, saying it was how he was led to God.

"Now every new day is like a miracle to me," he said, beaming.

He has finished his rehabilitation and works at the center as a driver.

Ivanova also chose to stay at the center, where she works as a secretary.

She said her experience and the road to recovery has set her apart from many of her peers. "Former drug addicts look at the world differently," she said. "They treasure all of the simple things around them."