April 1, 2008
The Church is a Key Institution Preserving Russian Identity Around the Globe
Every Sunday morning, several dozen people, most of them Russians, drive from Johannesburg to Pretoria and from Pretoria to Johannesburg. They meet half way in Midrand, where several years ago the five-domed Russian Orthodox Church of St. Sergius was built amid the well-off South African suburbia. On big holidays the crowd grows to several hundred people, some of whom fly in from Cape Town, Durban and neighboring African countries.
According to Father Ioann Lapidus, the rector of St. Sergius, about 60 percent of his parishioners are people who had not been religious until they left the former Soviet Union, mostly in the 1980s and 1990s. “Now the nostalgia for the Motherland has brought them to church,” Lapidus said in a telephone interview. “The Russian Orthodox Church of St. Sergius is not only a place where they can pray in their native language, but also a center of gravitation for the entire Russian diaspora in South Africa, where people can talk in Russian and touch base with their roots.” Hence the parish activities, including a Sunday school with a Russian class and a club for young mothers.
Services at St. Sergius are partly held in English but mainly in Church Slavonic, and Lapidus stressed that they are open to anybody—“blacks or whites, Boers or Afrikaners.” There is a group of Boers who converted to Orthodoxy.
Yet the church complex is meant predominantly as a spiritual home for the broader Russian community in South Africa, which Lapidus estimates to number about 6000 people. Some 20 mostly elderly people belong to the post-revolutionary and World War II waves of Russian emigration. The majority, however, left the Soviet Union after perestroika, and although small compared to Europe or the United States, the community constitutes the biggest Russian diaspora in sub-Saharan Africa at present. There are Russian doctors, physicists, professors, businessmen in trade, transportation, tourism and other fields. In 1998 they organized a parish, bought a land plot in Midrand, and with generous help from the Stroytransgaz pipeline construction giant and support from the Russian Foreign Ministry, built the most impressive new Moscow Patriarchate church outside the former Soviet Union.
Russian Orthodoxy abroad
Russia’s willingness to invest in a church and community center for its former countrymen thousands of miles away illustrates the post-Soviet reality both in Russian state-church relations and in the country’s attitude toward its diaspora. For most of the 20th century, Russia destroyed churches at home and sold them abroad. It persecuted or neglected its émigrés. Yet, in line with the more classic diasporas like Jews, Armenians or Greeks, Russian Orthodox Church communities around the world served as the focal points of émigré community life, and the only enduring institution capable of preserving the Russian identity in foreign environments. Some were in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate and others were bitterly opposed to it; some used magnificent churches built in European capitals and resorts by pre-revolutionary Russian royalty and aristocracy, while others cobbled new ones out of garages and residential buildings, rarely raising enough private funds to build a proper church.
While the Communist regime carried out the policy of eliminating and subjugating the Church, the émigré community, for whom the catastrophe of 1917 and the ensuing exile was a profound conversion experience, saw its mission in preserving and developing the great theological and cultural tradition of Russian Orthodoxy, not just to one day “return” it to Russia, but also to bring it to the far flung corners of the world.
For one part of this community, mainly represented by the conservative and monarchist Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) which broke away from Moscow ecclesiastical authorities following their declaration of loyalty to the Soviet regime in 1927, it meant temporary self-isolation. Over generations, while integrating into the Western lifestyle, its adherents preserved a very traditionalist and characteristically Russian church life.
Another, more liberal part, found inspiration in the so-called “Paris school” of Russian theology, which formed among émigré church intellectuals in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. It sought development of Orthodox Christian theology either in a return to the Church Fathers or in a broad adaptation of contemporary Western Christian and secular scholarship. In the decades when hopes for the Soviet regime collapse were dimmed, this tradition also implied a localization of their Orthodoxy, including the translation of the liturgy into English, French and other languages, a shift to the Western calendar, and other synthesis of an Eastern Orthodox tradition with a Western identity. Today, followers of this tradition are mainly found in the Paris-based Exarchate of Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe, under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA).
With the arrival of a vast number of Russian “displaced persons” in the course of World War II, the émigré churches were reinvigorated. Some pastors and parishes turned out to be successful missionaries, and supplemented their Russian communities with local converts. The predominantly Jewish Soviet emigration of the 1970s and 1980s formed a largely separate community, often at odds with the old-timers. Yet there are groups of Russian Jews who converted to Orthodox Christianity both in the United States and in Israel.
Restoring lost unity
After 1988, the church life in Russia was liberalized, paving way to the revival of church life. Both of the major émigré schools of church thought gained influence in Russia and were accepted, in various degrees, by respectively traditionalist and modernist groups. In terms of organizing parish life with a need to preserve Russian Orthodox identity and bringing up children amidst increasingly diverse secular and consumerist societies, foreign experience with summer camps, charities, conferences and other non-liturgical activities has been in high demand in Russia across the ideological spectrum.
“In our foreign conditions the Church has always been the axis around which our life was built,” Metropolitan Laurus, the First Hierarch of the ROCOR, said in his address to the Moscow Patriarchate-sponsored World Council of the Russian People in late February. During the 10 day Moscow visit, he was awarded the “Compatriot of the Year” award by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and the St. Andrew Prize by the influential St. Andrew Foundation, led by one of President Vladimir Putin’s close associates, Russian railways head Vladimir Yakunin. The visit was meant to underscore the newly found unity of the two parts of the Russian Church. “The Church supported Russian charities, cultural, youth, sports and other organizations, created a network of Sunday schools and involved children in an active participation in church life as sacristans, readers and singers. The results of this work are obvious—the youth, which is close to the Church already in the fourth generation, have preserved their faith, their Russianness and their language,” said Metropolitan Laurus.
“The church has always put forward spiritual tasks of guiding people, helping them save their souls, but there is always—as a free supplement—the cultural aspect,” said Archpriest Peter Holodny, the treasurer of the ROCOR and a third-generation Russian raised abroad. “People who preserved their Russianness in the West are just the people who were part of the Church. People who were not part of the Church assimilated very quickly.”
Holodny’s grandfather, Protopresbyter Alexander Kiselev, born in Russia but raised in independent Estonia, was a pastor to the anti-Soviet, Nazi-affiliated army of Gen. Andrei Vlasov. He founded the “Merciful Samaritan” house in post-World War II Munich—a combination of a church, school, clinic and dormitory, where first-wave Russian émigrés were helping desperate Russian DPs. When he moved to New York in the 1950s, Kiselev created the St. Seraphim Foundation, with a church and concert hall becoming a religious and cultural center for many Russian American intellectuals. A champion of unity between ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate, he died in Moscow in 2001, when his dream (fulfilled six years later) appeared unreal and his own family was divided along the lines of cooperation or continued opposition to the Moscow Patriarchate. Holodny’s father-in-law, Archpriest George Larin, runs one of the largest foreign Russian parishes and community centers in Nyack, NY. It is at his parish that one of the first conferences bringing together Moscow Patriarchate and ROCOR priests took place in 2004, following President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with ROCOR bishops in Nov. 2003 and the beginning of the rapprochement.
The fate of families like this illustrates the scope of the drama which came to a highly symbolic resolution on June 17th 2007, when Patriarch Alexy II and Metropolitan Laurus signed the Act of Canonical Unity and celebrated together their first Eucharist—the ultimate manifestation of unity in faith for Orthodox Christians. The ceremony, broadcast live on Russian national television, was presented as a symbolic end of the Civil War and a spiritual precondition for the unity of the Russian people at home and abroad, following the cataclysms of the 20th century. Holodny was unable to hold back his tears, watching members of the once bitterly opposed churches taking communion from one chalice.
“The division inside the church emerged as a result of the deepest political schism of Russian society itself,” President Vladimir Putin said at the June ceremony. “Today, after decades of alienation, we can say that there were no winners in the church-political conflict. But everybody lost: both the Church and the believers, who had to live in an atmosphere of mutual distrust. Russian society at large lost. The revival of church unity is the main precondition for restoring the lost unity of the entire Russian realm, one of whose main spiritual foundations has always been the Orthodox faith.”
At a more practical level, the canonical unity has resulted in a closer cooperation between Russian Orthodox parishes and dioceses abroad, as in the case of Germany, where profuse recent immigration from Russia has filled the churches of both the Moscow Patriarchate and ROCOR. The dioceses instituted a series of meetings to coordinate their pastoral work.
Ensuing tensions over Russian identity
Despite the significance of this act, it did not abolish all divisions in the Orthodox Churches of Russian tradition around the world, typical of Russian émigrés who have always been notorious for their infightings. A relatively large part of the ROCOR split from the Church over its unity with Moscow, saying that by signing the act, ROCOR lost is purity, having aligned itself with the Moscow Patriarchate which remains subservient to the state and maintains ecumenical relations with non-Orthodox Christians. The exact size of these groups is hard to establish. While the opponents of unity with Moscow cite the number of as much as 100 parishes, just under one third of all ROCOR parishes prior to June 2007, Holodny estimated the number as under 10 percent. The website of the largest split-away group, Provisional Supreme Church Authority of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, lists about 50 clergy and parishes mainly located in the former Soviet Union where groups had joined ROCOR over the last 20 years primarily out of their opposition to the official church. Holodny also said that some of those who split away are beginning to rethink their position, but refused to elaborate on whether anyone had actually returned.
Ironically enough, the Paris-based Exarchate of Parishes of Russian Tradition, having been closer to the Moscow Patriarchate in the recent decades than ROCOR and remaining in communion with Moscow through the Patriarch of Constantinople, is currently locked in a bitter dispute with the Moscow Patriarchate over what it sees as Moscow’s expansionist policies, including the ongoing legal battle over a landmark Russian church in Nice. Moscow claims that the church should be returned to the Russian state after the 99 year long lease.
In Britain, the split pitted a small community of old émigré Russians and converted Brits against a large number of newly arrived Russians, who have boosted the UK’s Russian community to hundreds of thousands. In 2003, after the death of the much revered pastor, thinker and missionary Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom), his successor, Bishop Basil (Osborne), left the Moscow Patriarchate and joined, with much of his flock, the Paris-based Exarchate under the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Metropolitan Anthony had built his diocese in Britain as a highly autonomous part of the Moscow Patriarchate, which many saw as a prototype of a united Western European Orthodoxy trespassing ethnical boundaries. His personal charisma managed to unite the culturally diverse groups. The new bishop sent from Moscow reformed the remaining, now predominantly “new Russian” church, along the standard lines of a contemporary Russian Church.
Apart from the rivalry between the numerically largest Patriarchate of Moscow and the historically preeminent Patriarchate of Constantinople, both of whom claim jurisdiction over Russian diaspora, the conflict in Britain underscores the Moscow Patriarchate policy of stressing the Russian cultural identity over local integration in its dealings with the emigrants. It also explains why unity with the largely isolationist ROCOR was achieved, while relations with the largely integrationist Paris-based church worsened.
“We are striving for the Russian diaspora to maintain their spirituality and their identity,” said Bishop Mark (Golovkov) of Yegorievsk, Deputy Head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations, who oversees parishes abroad. “That is our main task. The very logic of our moves is to integrate the Russian realm independent of the jurisdictional boundaries.”
Photo: courtesy of St.Sergius Church