Saint Nicholas of Myra is a real, but rather legendary figure in Christianity. Born during the Roman Empire in 270 AD in the port town of Patara, in modern day Turkey, the Christian bishop made quite the reputation throughout his life and beyond, becoming the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, and students. He is also often credited with being the driving force behind the traditional model of Santa Claus, due to his habit of roaming the city at night in a nightcap giving gifts to the poor, but one of his most famous attributes is all of the myriad miracles and amazing deeds associated with him. From resurrecting three murdered children to stopping a storm at sea to chopping down a demon-infested tree and appearing in the dreams of Holy Roman Emperor Constantine, among many others, there are so many spectacular and astounding feats accredited to him that he is often known as Nicholas the Wonderworker, and one of the more famous of these is the tale of the woman who turned to stone.
The story here takes place in 1956 in the Russian Soviet city of Kuibyshev, now known as Samara, where a humble, pious woman by the name of Claudia Bolonkina lived with her adult daughter Zoya, also sometimes spelled Zoë. On New Year’s Eve of that year, Zoya invited seven friends, some boys, and her fiancé Nicholas over for a New Year’s party. By all accounts her mother was very against it, as her strict religious views meant she did not approve of the boys coming over, and Zoya had also prepared a feast even though it was traditionally the Christmas fast, which was supposed to last from November 28 until January 6 of the following year. Her mother was so upset about the party, in fact, that she left the house to go to church to pray that God would forgive them.
The party went on as planned, but when midnight came and went without her fiancé arriving, Zoya became angry. The other couples were all dancing and having a good time, and so the frustrated Zoya took down the icon of St. Nicholas and declared that she would dance with him instead, after which she waltzed around the room with the religious image in her hands pressed against her chest. This was a bit much even for her friends, who told her it was a sin to do what she was doing, but Zoya allegedly just laughed and exclaimed, “If God exists, let Him punish me,” continuing to dance around the room as her horrified friends looked on. A few moments later, there was a loud boom and a whirlwind swept through the house as lighting flashed and Zoya stopped dancing, frozen in place.
Her friends went to her and found that she was completely still, as if frozen in time, and they found that her limbs could not be budged. They tried lifting her, but she was as if bolted to the floor, and the icon of St. Nicholas could not be pried from her vice-like grip. Zoya’s expression was frozen on her face, her unblinking eyes staring out at nothing, her skin cold, hard and pale like marble and nothing to show she was not a statue except for a very slight heartbeat. The friends called police officers to the house, who also could not move the petrified girl even an inch, and paramedics were unable to get her into the ambulance. One of the stranger things that supposedly happened was when a doctor named Anna Pavlovna Kalashnikova tried to give her an injection but the needle snapped off as if against a rock. In later years, the priest Vitaly Kalashnikov, the rector of the Sophia Church, who was very respected in Samara, was interviewed about this and said of it:
Anna Pavlovna Kalashnikova, my mother’s aunt, worked in Kuibyshev as an ambulance doctor in 1956. She came to our house that morning and said:“ You are sleeping here, and the city has long been on its feet! ”And she told about the petrified girl. And she also confessed that she was now in that house on call. She saw Zoya frozen. She saw the icon of St. Nicholas in her hands. She tried to give the unfortunate one an injection, but the needles bent and broke. Anna ran home in a very agitated state. Although the militia had taken a statement from her promising her silence, she could not contain herself. She told how she had tried to give Zoya injections, but that turned out to be impossible. It was as if Zoya’s body had gone hard, the needles of the syringe would not penetrate the skin, they broke off. The whole town was talking about it. Everyone was shocked by her story. Anna Pavlovna Kalashnikova worked in the ambulance for many years later. She died in 1996. I managed to help her shortly before her death. Now many of those to whom she was on that very first day are still alive.
People began flocking to the mysterious house in droves trying to get a look at the frozen woman, to the point that police had to be stationed there to keep the crowds at bay. In the meantime, a series of priests was invited to the home, but they were unable to change Zoya’s condition no matter how hard they prayed for her and they could not pull the icon away from her petrified hands, with many of them too terrified to even go anywhere near her. Doctors and professors from Moscow purportedly looked at her and could find no explanation for it, coming to the conclusion that it was some form of tetanus, but no one had any idea of what was going on and the crowds of people circling the house were saying that Zoya had been punished by St. Nicholas for her sins. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and Zoya did not move, eat, or drink, although her heart continued to beat weakly within her chest and doctors were sure she was alive. The only change in her condition happened when a kindly local clergyman by the name of Hieromonk Seraphim Tyapochkin managed to take the icon from Zoya’s hands after consecrating the room, and he would also prophesize that she would turn to normal on Easter. Some witnesses claimed they could hear her crying at night or screaming for forgiveness, and a living witness named Alexandra Ivanovna would say of it all many years later in his memoir:
In the fifth week of Great Lent, 1982, I arrived in Rakitnoe. I dared to ask:“ Father, where is the icon of St. Nicholas that you took from Zoya? ”He looked at me sternly. There was silence. Why I remembered exactly about the icon? My relatives lived in Kuibyshev - on the same street as Zoya. When all this happened, I was fourteen. To prevent people from gathering near the house, the lights were turned off in the evenings. Zoya's screams terrified everyone. The young policeman who was at the post turned gray from all this. My relatives, being eyewitnesses of what was happening, became believers and began to visit the church. The miracle of "Zoya's standing" and everything that happened to her was deeply imprinted in my mind. After Father Seraphim's stern glance, a thought pierced me: "Oh, woe to me, woe!" Suddenly the priest said: "The icon was lying on a lectern in the church, and now it is in the altar. There were times when they ordered to remove it.
At one point a mysterious elderly stranger was said to have approached the house on the day the feast of the Annunciation, claiming to know Zoya, and when he saw her he supposedly asked her if she was tired of standing there before vanishing into thin air and sparking rumors that he was the apparition of St. Nicholas himself. Zoya supposedly remained petrified there for a full 128 days, until on Easter she suddenly unfroze and could move again, just as Hieromonk Seraphim had predicted. As soon as she snapped out of her statue-like state she is said to have shouted out “How dreadful, the earth is burning! Pray! The whole world is lost because of its sins, pray!” One rumor has it that authorities tried to get Seraphim to be quiet about the event but he refused, after which he was framed, arrested, and sent to a prison camp. As for Zoya, she apparently was never quite the same, screaming day after day for forgiveness and ranting about the “sins of the earth” and about how she had been fed by doves. She would eventually be admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where she supposedly lived out the rest of her days in intense repentance and prayer.
The Russian government tried to suppress the story, forcing police officers and other personnel involved to sign non-disclosure agreements and carrying out a propaganda campaign to make it seem like a myth and pure urban legend, calling it all “deception and empty rumors.” It was apparently seen as an embarrassment to the Soviet era government, who did not like attention drawn to such supernatural events and routinely tried to stop the spread of such stories. Archpriest Andrei Andreevich Savin, who is a living witness to the event and was secretary of the diocesan administration at the time, has said of these efforts to cover it all up:
The bishop of this cathedral received a phone call from the Commissioner for Religious Affairs and asked the temple to announce that no miracle actually happened. In response, the bishop asked to be allowed into the house of the rector of the Intercession Cathedral, so that he himself would verify what had happened. Everyone was shown a small room in which there was no one, but no one was allowed into the large room, assuring that there was nothing to see there. At the same time, groups of Komsomol members traveled in city trams and carried out propaganda that no miracle had happened in the house on Chkalovskaya. Those days were very busy. The people, naturally, expected explanations from us, but not a single priest came close to that house. They were afraid.
At the time, the story was nevertheless published in several newspaper accounts, and in later years it has been made into a documentary called Standing Zoe in 2000 and a feature film titled Miracle in 2009, as well as a television film called Zoya in 2015, and the house became a sort of pilgrimage destination for many looking to see miracles. There was even a monument to Nicholas the Wonderworker erected on the lawn near the house, but sadly the house was burned down in a fire in 2014 taking its secrets with it. We are left to wonder just how true any of this was. There is certainly a lot of testimony from people who were there at the time and documents uncovered that show the government was aware of it, and there have even been other supposed cases of this happening. An article in an August, 2006 article on the incident in the Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty says of it:
After what had happened to Zoya, people flocked to the churches. They bought up crosses, candles and icons. Those who were not baptized got baptized. There is no doubting that all this really did take place. A girl really did ‘turn to stone’. There are the testimonies of eyewitnesses, some still alive today, and documents from Communist Party meetings of the time. ‘This isn’t some fairy tale or never-ending fable’, said Anton Zhogolev, editor of the Samara Orthodox newspaper ‘Good Tidings’ (Blagovest) and co-author of a book about Zoya, who has done years of research into the case. From the research, it is clear that this was not the only case of ‘petrification’ in Soviet times. For example, there was also the nearby case of Marina Ilinichna Kurbatova in the village of Zuyevka near Togliatti in 1932. At the age of fifteen, she ‘froze’ for nearly six months, dying only recently, again her mind slightly deranged after the event.
What was going on here? Is this all just tall tales and rumors that grew to take on a life of its own? Was it some sort of mass hysteria? Was it perhaps a hoax perpetrated by Zoya or her family? Or did something truly miraculous occur at that house in 1956? Why was the government trying so hard to cover it all up? With the lack of any good, solid records from the era and the retellings over time, plus the fact that most people who were there are no longer with us, we will probably never know for sure.