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Everything in life is a result of a conscious decision. The prison guards decided that they are delighted to let a prisoner escape if the bribe is generous enough. The escapee decided a long time ago to be the best criminal he could possibly become. Not just a petty pick-pocketer, but a serious professional. Because whatever is worth doing in life you do it right or you don’t do it at all. You have to have some clear principles, you know! Nikolay* made it to the highly respected level of a “Thief in law”, the highest you could go in this line of business. Well, he had to punish, torture and kill, but it all was not personal, just necessary steps for the advancements.

Now, in the confines of the prison world, things went the wrong way. Some decided that he was acting not according to the “Understanding”. To rectify mistakes you have to pay. You pay with blood. Actually with your life. Nikolay was not fond of such a proposed solution and paid the guards. They readily found a way to arrange things accordingly. The yellow lights of prison camp watchtowers slowly faded away, and Nikolay found himself all alone in the night.

No money and no support from the criminal world, he used his survival skills to the fullest. At night he walked. During days he rested. Nourishment was provided by the abundance of the forest, fields and gardens of villagers. From time to time there was a friendly peasant or a traveller who shared a meal.

It took six weeks to walk from Russia, across the front lines of the new war zones into western Ukraine. Walking in stealth, keeping a low profile, hunger, hiding from the police, these all left their traces. By the time he made it to the city of Chernivtsi, he felt weak and very sick. He settled on the streets, close to the train station. His natural criminal persona commanded respect and instilled a healthy fear among the low-lifers of the city. Food and booze came in abounded supply. It was easy for him to “convince” others to pay their “dues” to him. The spiral of crime, drugs and alcohol took him downhill again.

He fancied a change. There was no future in this lifestyle. But, how? Where could he find a way out? “I need a life!” He thought – “A good life! I really need to get off the streets.”

One Sunday there was a weird guy on the street shouting about God. Saying that a certain character, named Jesus loves sinners and alcoholics. Nikolay forced himself up. He had an accustomed hangover, but he still wanted to see that yelping preacher. The preacher was well-nourished and commanded respect. Who is this annoying guy?

Nikolay approached him with a swag of self-confidence and with a smell of stale alcohol and shouted: “ I do not know your ring leader, Iisus. What connections can he prove? I am a sinner! I am an alcoholic! Why do you scream so early in the morning? Swearing.”

The preacher showing no fear (which was unusual for Nikolay to notice) looked at him and said: “Jesus loves you! He wants you to serve Him!”

“I serve nobody, everybody serves me!!!” Laughed Nikolay – “I do not bow down to anyone!” But something pinched him in his heart. He looked at the preacher and found in him no evil. Then he was surprised by the words that came out of his mouth: “Can you get me off the streets preacher, please?!”

The preacher, Oleg*, said: “If you are seriously want to change and listen to the teachings of Jesus, get into my car. I can take you to a place where you can start a new one. You can be a changed man if you want.”

Nikolay did not want to change, but he liked the idea of a warm bed, a home-cooked meal and safety. He agreed and seated himself on the backseat of a 40-year-old soviet made SUV, a Niva. After a short drive, they arrived at a large house outside the city. The building belonged to the communist party leadership a few years ago. Now Christians took over and transformed it into a rehab house for the addicts. An energetic elderly man greeted them; “Welcome, by the grace of God, come in!” “ Oh, it is some kind of a monastery”, the thought gave Nikolay shivers, “ A bunch of pious idiots. Actually I don’t care. I need to get back to strength and then I can go somewhere else. It looks like it is all free here anyway. “

The house was well organized. There where several other men who lived here. Three cooked meals a day. Warm, clean rooms and single beds. Medical assistance if needed. Morning and evening discussions, prayer and bible studies. All-day there was something to do in the house, renovations or in the fields, or in the gardens. Most of the veggies they used in the kitchen were grown by themselves. There were also some chicken and geese.

Every day, especially at Sunday church services, everyone would kneel to pray. Nikolay never knelt down. He proudly announced that he has stars on his knees! This was a codex of the “Thief in Law”, you never kneel down before any men, police, government, other criminals, never ever … Then, he remembered that seemingly God was exempt, but he wasn’t so sure.

Days, weeks and even months flew by. Life was good. Nikolay started to ploy an escape. He had his fill of religion. He grew to like this bunch of honest Christians. Somehow he believed in God and his Son Jesus to and thought that They, UpStairs in the Sky, liked him also. He liked the readings and speeches from the Bible. This all gave him a deep inner peace and made a lot of sense. But, the thought of bowing down, worshiping and asking Jesus to become the Lord of his life, he could not do. It was too much to ask of him. Nikolay was too proud, too independent.

On a Tuesday they needed to fix the roof on a shed. Everyone started to carry the corrugated sheet of metal to the building. Suddenly a large sheet slipped from the hands and with a full swing hit Nikolay in the head, near the temple! Screams, blood, panic and speeding car race to the hospital. Medics knew what to do and a life was saved. The Doctor took the pastor to the side and asked, “Are you sure this was not a murder attempt? A millimetre further and he would be dead!” He saw the multiple tattoos on Nikolay and knew that this guy comes from a complicated world. “We can call the police, you know?” He repeated. The pastor assured him that it was not necessary, and having great respect in the city pastor’s word mattered and all of them left back to the rehab house in the night.

Nikolay recovered. The following Sunday he went to the front of the house-chapel knelt down, confessing his sins and asked Jesus to become his Lord and Saviour.

Later he explained: “God sent an Angel to keep me alive. He gave me a chance for a new life. Now I will live for Him. Not a day will I waist. I will honour Him with every breath of my life.”

Today Nikolay is free of addiction. He is a member of a local church where he serves as a door welcomer/greeter. His tattooed body is not a typical religious ornament but is a strong deterrent to would-be troublemakers. Everyone loves him. He has a gentle and loving character, and he kneels every day before Jesus and prays.

*All names and personal information is altered to protect privacy.

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