Biography of Father Pavel Portnyagin

Born in Vladivostok in 1903. In 1927 he took part in the Trans-Himalayan Expedition of Nicholas Roerich [Rerikh] to Tibet. Graduated from seminary and was ordained, most likely as a priest of the Eastern Rite. In the 1930s he was a priest at the Catholic mission in Harbin, Manchuria. December 22, 1948 – arrested by Chinese authorities and handed over to agents of the USSR Ministry of State Security. Transported to Chita Prison for further investigation; tortured during the interrogations. In November 1949 he was sentenced to twenty-five (?) years in corrective labor camp. Sent to Tayshetlag. Released in 1956. Settled in Samarkand, where he worked as a translator at the Institute for Persian Lamb Husbandry. Died in Samarkand in 1977. Source: Archive of Medoun Center for Russian Research; L. Peshkova, pp. 4-5. Translator’s Note: The following entry provides much more detail about Fr. Portnyagin. Posted at; compiled by V.E. Kolupaev, Katolicheskie obshchiny vizantiiskogo obriada i russkaia diaspora. Father Pavel Portnyagin (1903-1977) was a Catholic priest of the Eastern Rite, an educator and an Orientalist. He was born in Vladivostok in 1903. He immigrated to China during the Civil War; in 1924 he was in Harbin and for two years he travelled around China. In 1926 he was living in Nizhneudinsk (Irkutsk oblast); in October 1926 he was in Urga [Ulan Bator, Mongolia], where he unexpectedly met Nicholas Roerich, who invited him to participate in a Central Asian Expedition. In the spring of 1926 he set off for Tibet as a staff member for the expedition; his journal entries reveal new information about Roerich’s search for Shambhala. The manuscript of his notebook is autographed by Roerich. The caravan, which set out from Urga, passed through Mongolia and Tibet and spent a harsh winter on the approaches to Lhasa. The journey ended in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra River, where the group split in two. May 31, 1928, Portnyagin parted with Roerich and returned to China via India, with the expedition doctor, Konstantin Nikolaevich Ryabinin. When crossing the border Pavel had destroyed his Soviet documents, which caused problems in his dealings with the English resident governor for the Maharaja of Sikkim, Colonel [Frederic Marshman] Bailey. In 1930 Portnyagin began to work as a Russian language teacher at St. Nicholas Lyceum, established in Harbin by the Russian Catholic Eparchy of the Byzantine-Slavic Rite in Manchuria [see > Lyceum]. In 1932 he was sent to Rome for studies; enrolled in the Russicum and studied at the Gregorian University; on account of health problems aggravated by the change in climate (asthma), he transferred to Czechoslovakia where he graduated from the seminary in Preshov [Slovakia] and was ordained a priest of the Eastern Rite. He returned to Manchuria and in December 1937 began his teaching activity at St. Nicholas Lyceum and St. Ursula Convent, where he daily celebrated the Liturgy, taught religion, Russian language and literature and, after 1945 – dialectical materialism. In 1938-1939 he was editor of Katolicheskii vestnik. After the suppression of the Exarchy, Fr. Pavel was arrested by Chinese Communists in 1948 and sent to the USSR. Along with other priests he was transported under convoy to Chita. Fr. Pavel spent a large part of the eleven-month investigation in solitary confinement. He was charged with espionage on behalf of England – his participation in Roerich’s “American” expedition was especially incriminating. By decree of a Special Board of the USSR Ministry of State Security, Portnyagin was sentenced on September 9, 1948, under Article 58-4, 11 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR (participation in a White Guard organization) to twenty-five years of corrective labor; he served his term in the camps of Eastern Siberia, working in wood gathering. When Fr. Paul Chaleil saw Portnyagin in Camp 0-11 in 1954, he noted that he was in very poor condition, extremely emaciated and “it was a wonder he was still alive.” He was released in November 1956 but prohibited from residing in the capital and the major cities, and thus he settled in Samarkand; he lived in extreme poverty, unable to find work. He left the priesthood and married P.P. Malysheva. Because of his prior conviction, he was unable to work even as a fireman at a Pioneer camp; in his search for work, he concealed certain facts on the application forms and with difficulty found a job as a steward at a certain financially autonomous enterprise. In September 1959, hearing of Roerich’s visit to the USSR, Portnyagin wrote to ask his assistance. He was rehabilitated by decree of the Military Tribunal of the Zabaikal Military District on January 14, 1960. At the end of the 1960s Portnyagin began employment as a translator at the Institute of Persian Lamb Husbandry; he knew English, German, French, Polish, Czech and Chinese; he also did freelance translating. […] According to his colleagues, he lived very modestly; in his room stood a bed and a table with two typewriters (one with Russian and the other with Latin type) at which he worked on his translations by night. He was a very cultured and highly educated person – simply a treasure for the Institute. The city’s entire professional community came to him for translations. He always performed his work precisely and without error. […] He had a good understanding of people and he was a very decent man. He was never photographed, and he never spoke to anyone about himself. Fall and winter he wore a long black overcoat and a beret. He was tall, graceful, and slender; his thin hair was greyish and he wore it long. Died unexpectedly in 1977 of a heart attack during surgery and was buried in Bratskoye Cemetery in Samarkand. [The entry includes a list of some of his publications as well as sources for the entry.]
Variant Names:
Portnyagin, Pavel; Portni︠a︡gin, Pavel
Vladivostok (Russia); Tibet Autonomous Region (China); Harbin (China); Chita (Chitinskai︠a︡ oblastʹ, Russia); Temirtaū (Kazakhstan)
male; clergy and religious; survived