Notes of an Antediluvian Priest

In the Russian emigration, whatever our origin and generation, we are antediluvian, for the simple reason that our traditions go back before 1917. They are our lodestar, even today when the old pre-1917 emigration have long since died out and the majority of my 600 parishioners were born in ex-Communist Eastern Europe and their children in contemporary England. After over forty years since I was tonsured reader and nearly thirty-seven since I was ordained, I have to give my conclusion: there is nothing new under the sun. Here are some notes.

Some years ago I remember reading an article on a well-known Russian-language Orthodox website. It related the story of a young Russian man who had visited a certain Russian bishop in London, not long after the fall of the Soviet Union. He had met the bishop while the latter was sweeping the floor of his church. On seeing this, the naïve young man had concluded that the bishop in question was a saint! We fell about laughing for weeks. We knew both the bishop and the situation very well. The story said nothing about the bishop in question, but said lots about the inexperience of the gullible young Soviet man. The reality is that if you are a clergyman in the Diaspora and you do not sweep and wash the floor of your church regularly, you will be considered some sort of atheist. Washing the floor for a bishop is not some photo opportunity, this is just normal practice. We are far too poor to pay people to do such work. We all do it ourselves. Bishop or priest, we would never dream of not doing it.

Another example: a certain bishop was sent to Western Europe from post-Soviet Russia. The first thing he did was buy himself a rather luxurious black car. His reputation was finished in one day. The flock would never trust him again and indeed eventually he had to be replaced.

Some years ago, a young priest here made up the following advertisement:

‘Wanted: Married men with stable paid employment who are prepared to become Russian Orthodox priests. Training: Pay for it yourself. Salary: Nothing, though you will be treated by your bishop as though he pays you large sums of money for full-time work for him. He will also demand money from you, send you unjust, feudal decrees which are impossible to fulfil and punish and shout at you for doing missionary work on behalf of the people. Gratitude: Non-existent.  By the way, you will have to set up and pay for your own church and create a parish community. And your wife and children will have to agree to these terms. Any takers?’

Naturally, there are few people who come here from the countries of the ex-Soviet Union or anywhere else in traditionally Orthodox countries to become clergy. Not everyone is as crazy as we are. Our life here is not better than in such countries. In the Russian Church here we used to have a special word to describe our poverty. This word was ‘emigrantshchina’.

An example: In 1931 Maria Ivanovna donated a rug to our church. By 1991 it was, to say the least, very worn. But it could not be replaced because ‘it had been prayed on’ (‘namolennyj’).

Another example: One priest, a Belarussian, had taken to making candlesticks from leftover wood in his garden shed. He would then ‘decorate’ them with silver paper (aluminium foil) from bars of chocolate. He was very proud of his work. The diplomats among us simply kept quiet.

A third example: One emigre bishop had to make his own mitre. This involved making colour photocopies of the four icons which are on a mitre and sticking them into tiny plastic frames which he had stuck onto the cardboard mitre he had made for himself. You may laugh, but the intention was sincere. As one Russian archbishop said to me twenty years ago: ‘Yes, we made mistakes, but we were always sincere’. I did not answer, thinking to myself how history is littered with the wrecks of people, kings, presidents, dictators as well as every idealist under the sun, who were all sincere.

Emigrantshchina did indeed have its down sides. One of these was ignorance. A lot of clergy had little theological and liturgical education, and even if they did, it was on a very low level. They would justify the most absurd practices, such as communion once a year, on the grounds that ‘Tak vsegda bylo’, that is, ‘That’s the way it’s always been’. Just because the Russian Church before the Revolution with rare exceptions allowed communion only once a year, was this ‘tradition’ correct? Some émigrés would justify anything because it was ‘traditional’. I remember in a certain convent, they used to read the Lives of the Saints in the refectory in Church Slavonic. Hardly anyone understood anything, but ‘Tak vsegda bylo’. Or else there was a certain elderly Protodeacon in a certain ROCOR Cathedral, who always used to appear from the altar after the Liturgy, drunk. When I asked why the bishop (who admittedly had Alzheimer’s) allowed this, again I got the response ‘Tak vsegda bylo’.

What they meant by this was that the abuse which they both preached and practised was one which their parents and grandparents had also preached and practised. For instance, I well remember how in one parish a new priest was appointed who proceeded to walk around the church for the great censing, as is normal. Complaints went in to the bishop! The thing was that the previous priest, who had been extremely old and came from the Russia of before, had not for two or three decades done the great censing properly because he could not walk properly.

Some rather fanatical anti-diplomats today, both converts and third or fourth generation Russians, are still justifying practices that were never traditional in the Russian Church, but crept in from outside during the 1970s! Those of us who knew the Church before that period are amazed by such ignorance.

Here one of the greatest problems was that the Russian émigrés born here in the 1920s and 1930s were functionally illiterate; certainly they could speak Russian, albeit with an accent and sometimes with grammatical mistakes, but they could neither read nor write. I remember how in the old Western European Diocese there were only two people who had ever read the collected works of Metr Antony (Khrapovitsky), the founder of the Church Outside Russia. These were the ever-memorable Archbishop Antony of Geneva, who had been born before the Revolution, and myself. The significance of this is that Metr Antony had in no uncertain terms denounced in his writings all the many abusive practices of the pre-Revolutionary Church. As a result of their ignorance, most émigrés, born abroad in the 1920s and 1930s, were brought up with the ‘superstition’ (I cannot think of a better word) that everything had been perfect in the pre-Revolutionary Church (and they, pharisee-like, had inherited that perfection). Of course, this begged the eternal question: ‘Why then if it had all been so perfect, had there been a Revolution?’

Some people inside Russia think that the émigré Church is very rich. This also causes us almost hysterical laughter. After all, we are all aristocrats!! Many choir directors and singers came and come to us from the ex-Soviet Union and demand ‘jobs’ in our parishes. They have no concept that all our normal choirs are composed of unpaid amateurs, parishioners who like singing (though they do not always know how to). Like most of the priests, the choirs are nearly always unpaid. The professional choirs in Moscow and Saint Petersburg churches are, if anything, scandalous for us. Are we seriously saying that none of the parishioners there is competent enough to sing or wants to sing in their own churches? There again, as one senior priest in Moscow told me some years ago: ‘Our main problem in Russia is that we do not have any parishes. The concept does not even exist any more’. Indeed most churches in the cities in the ex-Soviet Union are little more than railway stations, full of passers-by, which no-one feels they can belong to. Though, in fairness, the situation is changing for the better in the suburbs.

The other great difference is of course that Diaspora clergy never give a thought to the State, any State, the post-Soviet Russian or to the State of the country where we live. This does give us freedom. However, it is always amusing to meet newcomers who think we all receive salaries from the Russian Embassy or, for example, from the British State! They therefore treat us like consumers in a supermarket. Priests must be available 24 hours a day, especially they must have their mobile phones on during services. The number of calls I get recorded on Sunday mornings and listen to on Sunday evenings is extraordinary! All of this ignores the fact that the contemporary post-Soviet Church inside Russia, unlike the pre-Revolutionary Russian Orthodox Church, is not a State Church anyway, whatever the mentality of some may be.

To be a State Church or not to be a State Church? The question is irrelevant for us. We do not have any choice in the matter. All of us just have to make the best of our incredibly difficult situations, wherever we are.

Would anybody like to become a Russian Orthodox priest outside Russia? We are very short of candidates….