DALEKUSHI, Russia — The fire consumed the priest's body, charring bones and flesh, and raged for hours. The bodies of his wife, Oksana, and their children, 10, 7 and 5, lay close to Andrei Nikolayev's corpse in the ashes of their simple gingerbread house in the Russian countryside.
A government investigator suspected arson, and many observers blamed the family's deaths on drunks who broke into churches looking for icons to sell for vodka money. It was rumored that Nikolayev, worried that his church wasn't safe from burglars, kept money and relics at his home, townspeople said.
Some two and a half years after the December 2006 fire, no one has been arrested or charged. Russian officials, without citing any evidence, now blame the victims.
Nikolayev had been on a mission to save a small corner of his country from population decline, alcoholism and other ills. He was 32 when he died about a month before the Russian Orthodox Christmas holidays.
Acquaintances said that Nikolayev, who'd arrived in the mid-1990s to serve Dalekushi and nearby villages separated from each other by hayfields and connected by dirt roads, was determined to make a difference. He'd grown up in Kuvshinovo, about 16 miles to the west, where workers at the paper mill earn a few hundred dollars a month.
His church, Holy Trinity, a once-grand neoclassical building flanked by sets of white columns, was falling apart. Opened in 1836 on a feudal estate, with lush landscaping and ponds, the church near Dalekushi was converted to a Communist Party youth camp in the 1930s, then used as a milk-processing plant, a recreation center and finally as a storehouse for fertilizer.
Nikolayev began raising money to repair the building. His sermons implored villagers to stop drinking. It wasn't a popular message.
Less than two months before his death, Nikolayev sat before a TV studio audience in Moscow with his shoulder-length brown hair and goatee, wearing a black robe with a large gold cross. TVTs, a channel controlled by the Moscow city government, had invited him to talk about the dangers of alcoholism.
Nikolayev said he'd fought off seven robbery attempts at his church.
"I had to defend it — forgive me — with a rifle in my hands," he said.
Footage showed him walking past the ruins of his old house near Dalekushi, which had been burned to the ground about a year earlier — by drunks, Nikolayev told friends at the time. If he hadn't taken his family on an outing that night, the priest said, his wife and children would have been killed.
"It's very difficult to live in this village," he told the audience. "It's especially difficult if you are a priest and you have a family. . . . I have always been terribly concerned about my family."
A senior federal fire inspector said the blaze that incinerated the Nikolayevs was probably arson. After national, and then Western, news media reported the story and its suggestion of Russia's decline, officials clammed up. Unnamed officials started blaming an electrical problem or murder-suicide by Nikolayev.
When a McClatchy reporter visited Dalekushi, the government administrator in charge, Alexander Volkov, said: "The priest burned down his own house from the inside."
However, Vera Davidova, a neighbor, said that on the night of his death, Nikolayev was out in the road in front of his house, happily waiting for his children to get home from a market.
The spokeswoman for the regional investigative committee of the prosecutor's office that's handling the incident, Karina Beketova, had no comment. She didn't say whether there's an ongoing inquiry.
Like others in the village, Davidova wouldn't speculate about who might have killed the priest. She did mention that a lot of poor people needed cash for alcohol.
One woman who knew Nikolayev when he was studying to become a priest said that he'd recently confided that his family had been getting threats.
Asked who was responsible for the intimidation campaign, and perhaps for the priest's death, Zinaida Zhirnova said: "Everyone there gets drunk, so it's hard to know who was threatening him."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009