From Prison to the Sweet Life

Beekeeper and Thousand Oaks resident Vadim Manzhos may seem unassuming, but his life has been full of twists and turns, and includes time spent as a political prisoner in the former U.S.S.R.

Today, as owner and operator of Holy Bee Christian Trust, a local beekeeping business with hives throughout the nearby mountains, Vadim’s knowledge and passion for making honey are impressive.

“It is almost like the perfect food,” Manzhos says. “It’s a very complex carbohydrate, but the honeybee has done all the work for us. The poly-molecule of nectar is broken down into the mono-molecule of honey by the bee. It’s so easy to digest that it goes into your bloodstream within seconds.”

Manzhos has been working with bees since the late 1980s where he learned about producing honey from the professor of beekeeping at the Agriculture Academy in Kyiv (Kiev). Manzhos now produces about 5,000 pounds of honey a year from 50 hives he keeps in the Santa Monica Mountains.

He has found a life of sweetness far from his native home.

As a boy, Manzhos lived with his parents and younger brother in a cramped flat in Ukraine, later moving to Kyiv where his father got a high position in construction for the movie industry. It was a happy time for Vadim, who at a young age took up hockey and even appeared in a few hockey films thanks to his father’s connections.

Even so, Manzhos remembers long lines for food — and key advice from his father.

“The regime was so suppressive that my father always taught me not to speak up,” he says.

Ukraine had been forcibly subjected to a man-made famine by the Communists in 1932-33. Ten million people died because of food confiscation, rejection of outside aid and restriction of movement. It remains one of the great horrors of the twentieth century.

Still, at age 19, Manzhos joined the Soviet army and found himself in Turkmenistan. There, he violated his father’s advice about keeping his mouth shut and criticized the reasons for the Soviet presence in Afghanistan in front of a fellow soldier who, it later became known, was serving as an undercover KGB agent.

Retaliation was not swift, but it was sure. A few years after his release from the army, Manzhos was teaching middle school children about technical subjects when a friend asked him for a loan to pay for various expenses and his wedding. The man never ended up marrying, but offered Manzhos $260 U.S. as collateral until he could repay him in rubles. Knowing it was illegal to possess U.S. dollars, Vadim accepted the money anyway and was immediately apprehended and eventually sentenced to four years in prison.

“I didn’t know the real reason why I was arrested until much later when I was already in America,” he recalls. “My ex-wife happened to be talking to a co-worker whose husband was a KGB investigator. As soon as she mentioned my name, her co-worker grew very quiet. Her husband had been assigned my case and was involved in setting me up. They knew the exact conversation I had when I was in the army. This was the real reason I had been put in jail.”  

Prison life was cold and harsh.

“The winters were bad,” Manzhos remembers. “We were given only the minimum amount of calories. The guards were corrupt and stole the meat and fish. Even our faces swelled up because of constant lack of food.”

Even so, Manzhos managed to get something of a second education while there, meeting many professors, scientists and doctors. But the man who impressed him the most was a Jehovah’s Witness adherent named Anatoly Dykyi.

“He was a very small man. He barely came up to my shoulder. But he would talk to me about God. Everything he said was shocking to me! I had never known about God before,” Manzhos says.

Dykyi made the most of his time in prison by talking to others about Jesus. This angered the warden so much that he made a bargain with him over the prison loudspeaker system: denounce his God and be set free, or serve out the last nine years of his ten-year sentence. Vadim’s eyes tear up as he relates Dykyi’s response.

“Then he raised his hands to heaven and said, ‘How can I go anywhere when God has told me to stay here and save all these souls?’” Manzhos quotes.

After that, even the prison gang leaders and guards asked to speak with Dykyi, and the warden was compelled to give him a special position in the prison office for the remainder of his sentence.

Then Manzhos experienced something of a miracle. After two years in prison, he had a hearing to find out if he could serve in the work furlough program, a step up in comfort from the jail itself. But Manzhos had four violations and knew there was no real possibility the judge would rule in his favor. Nevertheless, he asked Dykyi to teach him to pray. What happened next “was probably the first miracle I witnessed in my life,” Manzhos says.

At the hearing, the judge did an unusual thing. He told Manzhos to stay after until all the cases were heard. At the end of the day, the judge spoke with him and asked him if he would work obediently during the furlough, or resist. Though Manzhos’ prosecutor argued ferociously with the judge, the judge released Manzhos into the work furlough program. A year later, Mikhail Gorbachev began pursuing perestroika, a great restructuring of Soviet policy, and Manzhos was released in 1987.

“Political prisoners were released first,” he says. “When I was called to the office of the KGB in jail, and they were getting ready the documents for my release, they called me an ‘anti-Soviet element.’ Some friends of mine in labor camp were also called anti-Soviet elements because they had their own business. You got two years minimum in prison for not officially working for the government.”

After his release, Manzhos and his brother Slavic wasted no time in availing themselves of the new freedoms. Slavic had learned beekeeping at the Agriculture Academy and introduced Manzhos to his instructor. Together, the brothers learned the trade, and in 1988, they started their honey-making venture in Ukraine, calling it “Nectar.”

But Manzhos’ family was still nervous that communism might return and that he would be put back into jail. It was time to go to America. 

As it happened, Manzhos’ grandfather was already there. Instead of serving in the Soviet army during World War Two, his grandfather fought with the rebel Ukrainian army. He was caught by the Germans and imprisoned in a labor camp. After the war, Stalin threatened to kill Ukrainians returning from Germany as prisoners of war for treason. But the western part of Ukraine still allowed people to emigrate out of the country at that time, and his grandfather was able to escape. This grandfather was living in Chicago and helped Manzhos apply for political asylum and come to the U.S. in 1990.

Over time, an old school friend from Kyiv invited him to California, where Manzhos worked in the restaurant industry until he met a man in the Ukrainian Catholic Church who needed help with his beehives. Soon the man gave Manzhos seven of his own hives to keep; it wasn’t long until he was back at his former trade. 

Today, Manzhos prides himself on making only the purest organic honey using wild nectar from trees. He can produce an amazing quantity of honey, at one point producing 287 pounds of honey from one hive. Commercial hives feed their bees high fructose corn syrup and use all sorts of chemicals and herbicides to kill pests like the varroa mite.

“I was reading a label for the strips that are used to kill the varroa mite, and I was shocked,” Manzhos says. “You can only use plastic gloves, not beekeeping gloves, to put these strips in the hive, being careful to dispose of the gloves after. And you can’t extract the honey for at least a month after putting the strips in.”

For consumers who wish to buy only organic honey, he recommends looking for honey that is “raw and uncooked.” Commercial hives cook or liquefy the honey for easier bottling. 

Life in the U.S. has served Manzhos well. He and his wife Oksana, a fellow Ukrainian, have a large home and six children, three still living at home. Not only does Manzhos sell and produce honey, he is part of the California Bee Association and educates others about how to produce honey without using chemicals. He also removes swarms from properties and gives individual lessons in beekeeping.

He has learned again that sometimes it pays to keep his mouth shut. In 2016, Manzhos was working part-time as a beekeeper for the private estates of three different multi-millionaires. During conversations, he made his political positions known, and soon after, all three employers abruptly terminated their contracts with him. Manzhos wonders aloud if people have become so divided that the country must create a separate economy just for conservative businesses to safeguard against such political discrimination. 

Manzhos, who is passionate about freedom, urges parents not to rely on school textbooks to teach their kids about American history but to study the principles of freedom this country was founded on themselves — and then pass it on.

“The Pilgrims and Puritans came to this country to practice religious freedom,” he says. “They brought with them their faith in God and a strong Protestant work ethic. They suffered much and were even robbed of their possessions on their way to Holland, but they were determined.”

He speaks knowledgeably about the Pilgrims’ time in Holland, where they prepared for their ultimate journey and became loved by the people there. 

Manzhos’ respect for America’s history is as strong as his Christian faith. Though the future is always uncertain, his business, and his belief in God and America, continue to burn brightly.

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