Category Archives: Oxford

An Interview: University College, Oxford and Russian Orthodoxy in Oxford (1974-77)

Christ is Risen!

He is risen indeed!

What made you choose Oxford to study over forty years ago?

I did not choose to go to Oxford, Oxford chose me. Had I known what it would be like, I would have chosen to study at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies in London. But I was given no advice and so knew no better.

What did you make of Oxford University in general?

At that time it was a University of public school snobs, a clique who froze out anyone unlike themselves. Those who did not come from public schools and rich families either, as Establishment careerists, conformed and pretended to be public school elitists, or else, like myself, as free spirits, effectively had as little as possible to do with the University. Thus, I spent my time at the Russian Orthodox church in Oxford and reading about Orthodox theology and history, Russian literature and history and the history of England – my three great interests.

Which college did you study at?

University College, the oldest in the University.

What did you make of University College?

University College was and is famous for Alfred the Great and infamous for the decadent Prince Felix Yusupov. The first is said to be its founder. Of course, this is a myth, but with my lifelong veneration for King Alfred and later as the compiler of the Church service to him, it was pleasant to think of this while I was there. As for the transvestite occultist Yusupov, a graduate of the College, his room was still there and he is infamous as the sadistic torturer and mutilator of the holy monk Gregory Rasputin-Novy. Called Gregory the New, he was the first martyr of the British-orchestrated Russian Revolution and was murdered by a British spy, whom Yusupov had met in Oxford.

Did you meet anyone well-known at the College?

Two of my contemporaries became government ministers. Lord Moynihan and Philip Hammond, but I had and have nothing in common with them. Others are millionaires, academics, judges, barristers, businessmen, civil servants, writers and so on. There were other famous/infamous people at the University then, such as the assassinated President Benazir Bhutto and a couple of BBC correspondents who are very well-known in the UK. But they were Establishment types, without independent personalities, just tide-swimmers, and I had little to do with them.

What did you think of your tutors?

They were very clever people and I profited from listening to their knowledge. But I also saw their severe limitations and they helped me to understand once and for all that the aim of human life is not to collect knowledge and that the source of knowledge is not in books, but in a clean soul.

What did you specialize in as part of your course?

Russian religious thought. The tutor was an Anglican vicar and the course was very disappointing, as it referred only to the thought of intellectuals and philosophers of the Parisian type, whereas I was interested in real Russian Church thought, which is totally different, as it is the thought of saints, gathered from a clean soul.

What did you learn from Oxford?

I learned about the arrogance and elitism of the Establishment and learned distrust for its inherent corruption and decadence.

How did Oxford shape you?

I am not sure that it shaped me, as I already knew what I wanted and where I was going in life, that my place was in the Russian Orthodox Church, beyond all sectional labels. The essentials of my world view had already been formed. But in Oxford I was able to work out details and to verify what I knew by instinct.

What was the most memorable phrase you heard in your time there?

I think it was when a typically elitist Oxford Orthodox priest (now defrocked) told me in 1975 that ‘there is no such thing as ordinary people’. He was effectively saying that the vast bulk of humanity, myself included, had no existence or reality for him. At that point I became interested in the real Russian Orthodox Church elsewhere, outside the limited confines of academic intellectualism, in the real world, where I had come from.

What can you say about Russian Orthodoxy in Oxford of that time?

What was interesting here is that all the different trends, both good and bad, were present. This was because the University had attracted Russian academics.

For example, there were a mother and daughter who were very right-wing, sectarian and nationalistic and would only attend the Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) Cathedral in London and like several there had probably worked for the British secret services. Anti-Communism seemed to be far above Orthodoxy for them. They were also so nationalistic, not to say racist, that they were opposed, like most of the ROCOR emigration in London, to the use of a single word of English in services. At the other extreme there were the Patriarchal Lamperts, equally nationalistic and racist, but in the Soviet sense. They were convinced that Communism, Lenin and Stalin, were wonderful and that there had never been any persecution of the Church in the Soviet Union. Their nationalism had also made them completely blind to reality. Extraordinary!

Inbetween, there was the third extreme, equally blind, the extreme of him who had chosen to be my godfather Nicholas Zernov (which was the extreme of most of the others in Oxford). He was Parisian to the core and preached a sort of Anglican Orthodoxy, in which he saw no contradiction between conservative High Anglicanism and the very bourgeois Parisian Orthodoxy of liberal intellectuals and freemasons. Among such people there was the Anglican convert, Fr Kallistos, a public-school gentleman of the old type, who had made a liberal, ecumenical compromise between Establishment High Anglicanism and Paris Orthodoxy under the US-run (formerly Anglican-run) Patriarchate of Constantinople. He was beloved by Anglicans and ex-Anglicans, but did not appeal to those of other cultural backgrounds and never became a diocesan bishop.

Where did you fit into this panorama?

I would say that there were three people whom I admired in Oxford. One was an elderly Russian peasant woman from Latvia called Ala. She had settled in Oxford after 1945 and was very simple and lived in a council flat in the poorest part of the town, well outside the elitist and wealthy University. She was a granny with a heart of gold and had nothing to do with Parisian professors, who ignored her anyway as a result of their academic snobbery. As for her, she had no understanding of their prejudices and ideologies and also little understanding of English. To me she was a beacon of real Orthodoxy.

Then there was the elderly Countess Elizabeth Kutaisova, from a famous aristocratic family. She was the epitome of the best of White Russia, a real gentlewoman, noble, traditional, elegant, tasteful and patriotic. I will always remember her sitting on a bench in front of a flowering shrub in the Oxford park after church, reading the Russian emigre newspaper Russkaya Mysl.

And finally there was Sir Dimitri Obolensky, whose lectures on King Arthur I attended. A distinguished scholar, he was both a Russian prince and a courteous English gentleman. I discovered more about him in the 1990s through a parishioner and his childhood friend, Baroness Olga von Uxkull, who so fondly referred to him simply as ‘Dima’ and gave me a 1930s photograph of him, which I still have. Dimitri had fallen neither into émigré right-wingery, which put anti-Communism above the Church, nor into the illusions of Soviet patriotism, which put the Soviet Establishment (and personality cults) above the Church, nor into bourgeois Parisian Orthodoxy which so despised Russia that it put the West above it, but had remained faithful to the eternal Russian Orthodox Church, where I too belonged and belong.

In other words, unlike the vast majority, the above did not put their secular prejudices higher than the Church. I think all three of them represented the real Church beyond man-made jurisdictionalism and narrow sectionalism, which had so divided the Church in the emigration. They were all waiting for the great restoration, which has been under way in Russia for the last 25 years, but which still has so far to go. They were what the Church outside Russia should really be about, instead of various sorts of sectarianism.

Thank you.