The Russian Orthodox Church: Pessimism, Idealism and Realism

Any reading of the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, not least from the many volumes of the biography of the Patristically-minded Metropolitan Antony of Kiev and Galicia (1), confirms that there were many negative aspects to her life before the Revolution. Notably, partly because she had been deprived of a Patriarch by Peter I some 200 years before, a careerist mentality had developed within her senior clergy, some of whom had become civil servant administrators on behalf of a bureaucratic State. This meant that many a bishop had been appointed to his position without reference to his zeal for the Faith or to any Faith in general, but only with reference to his ability to ‘administrate’.

Also the Academies and seminaries had become hotbeds of German Protestant and protesting philosophical influence. Some reckon that 90% of pre-Revolutionary seminarists were atheists and revolutionaries – among them many a Bolshevik, including Joseph Jugashvili, later called Stalin, who was ejected from one. An example of a product of an Academy was the very senior Protopresbyter George Shavelsky, a treacherous bureaucrat who had little time for piety, which he dismissed as ‘mysticism’. He was also an enemy of Tsar Nicholas II and the spiritually alive, as is made quite clear in his detailed and self-condemning autobiography (2). In the emigration his sympathies were entirely with the masonic-led Paris Jurisdiction which actually abandoned both parts of the Russian Church!

The paralyzing hand of State bureaucracy, eminently disloyal to the Tsar and infected with the Revolutionary virus, with its careerism, conformism and nationalist centralization seemed to penetrate everywhere. These bureaucratic abuses all formed the suicidal basis of the later Soviet regime, in which the old ‘chinovniki’ (civil servants) simply turned overnight into Communist ‘apparatchiki’; their stifling spirit, so detested by the people, was exactly the same. Thus, the State bureaucracy had made the ancient Church of Georgia into a department of the Russian Church! And when Russian forces at last liberated Eastern Galicia (the area centred around Lvov) from Austro-Hungarian control in 1915, incompetent Saint Petersburg bureaucrats soon turned the people away from Orthodoxy and back to Uniatism.

Sadly, there was decadence in many a wealthy monastery too; the stories are legion. As for some village priests, often through no fault of their own, their lack of education, impoverished situation and need for money simply to survive had discredited the Church in many places. The fact is that the Church looked after the State, but for the most part the State did not look after the Church. This was because the State was increasingly run by atheist bureaucrats, which is why they had no problem in serving the atheist Bolshevik State and why the State machine, Duma masons and generals among them, betrayed the Tsar, the Lord’s Anointed. For example, the grandfather of a relative of mine was the last pre-Revolutionary ambassador to Washington – and an atheist….

Indeed, a generation or two ago there was no need to read to read about all this. It was enough to talk to old émigrés who had been adults before the 1917 Revolution or whose parents had accurately described the then situation to them. They were the best remedy for the idealism of later émigrés and others who idealized pre-Revolutionary times for ideological reasons. I well remember one émigré’s grandson who condemned contemporary Russian bishops for having comfortable black cars, driven by their deacons. The ever-memorable patriot and missionary, Archbishop Antony of Geneva, soon corrected him: ‘And what about pre-Revolutionary bishops who each had a black carriage and horses with their driver?’

Another émigré, Prince Boris Galitsin (may his memory be eternal), told me of his youthful naivety and that he only realized that brothels had attached themselves to the First World War Russian Army when he was in his thirties. (Though any reader of the late Archimandrite Sophrony’s version of the life of St Silouan can read of the same and also of how the future saint had lived before the Revolution, not keeping the fasts and getting a village girl pregnant). Another émigré aristocrat told me that the Church in the emigration was like a glass of clear water, inside Russia it was dirty water. I asked him why then we in the emigration had so many defrocked priests and such a severe shortage of priests in general. He had no answer.

The simple fact is that if the members of the Russian Church had all been as they should have been, then no Revolution would ever have happened. The betrayal of the living spirit of the Church is why some bishops then betrayed the Tsar in 1917. This is why the 1917-18 Church Council took place without freedom, under the masonic influence of the democrat Aaron Adler (later called Alexander Kerensky), though it did at least restore the Patriarchate, despite the vigorous opposition of many lay professors of theology and bishops. One of Kerensky’s first and typical acts had been to remove the saintly, such as Metr (now St) Macarius of Moscow. No saints for him! This is why the Bolshevik-sponsored Renovationists (under Metr Alexander Vvedensky and his three wives) prospered for a few short years, many of their clergy being graduates from the decadent pre-Revolutionary Academies and seminaries.

This betrayal is why Metr (later Patriarch) Sergius could make his infamous Declaration of loyalty to a militant atheist government, thus guaranteeing division, so that many inside enslaved Russia and virtually everyone in the entirely free Russian Church in the emigration would not follow him. This is why one small part of the emigration, members of which had created and welcomed the February Revolution, left the Russian Church altogether. And this is why such second generation émigré Parisian academic rebels like the late Fr Alexander Schmemann (born 1921) and their American disciples turned to cynical Renovationism, denying that Holy Rus had ever existed (!), and that the only hope for the Church (!) was in its thoroughgoing American-style Protestantization, that is, Desacralization, which produces not a single saint. These were words he said to me, but also words that he wrote in books that are heretical.

So much for both second-generation emigre cynicism and second-generation idealism. Fortunately, that is only part of the story and, by far the least interesting part. Beyond the superficial froth of both faithless, academic cynics and naïve and ill-informed idealists there is a far deeper story, a real story, an edifying story, the story of saintliness, of the real Church of God.

Before the Revolution the Russian Orthodox Church was what any real Church should be – a seedbed of saints, a saint-making machine. We only have to think of St Seraphim of Sarov, the Optina and Glinsk Elders and St John of Kronstadt. But above all we can think of the preparation of the millions of martyrs and confessors for the Faith under the Soviet yoke (3), the tens of thousands of martyred and confessing clergy and laypeople, as well as confessor-saints like St Seraphim of Vyritsa, St Matrona of Moscow and St Luke of Simferopol, who had been prepared by the pre-Revolutionary Church. It was their victory that guaranteed the cleansing of the Church inside Russia by blood and persecution from the abuses from before the Revolution and her Resurrection after the atheist Golgotha was over.

However, there was a parallel situation in the emigration. We can say that perhaps 50% of the emigration was not only anti-Orthodox, but also (and as a result) anti-patriotic. These were those who had carried out the Revolution with pride, largely aristocrats. In the emigration, highly politicized, they deserted the Russian Church and Russian history, and went to one or another extreme. Either they became unChristian, narrow-minded nationalists who died out and disappeared, or else they became enamoured of the countries where they lived, lost the Russian language, culture and culture and never even thought of repenting for their treason, cowardice and deceit. Just the opposite – they actually justified their apostasy! Not for the Parisian Renovationists either St John of Kronstadt or St John of Shanghai, both of whom they ferociously slandered and rejected, and I am a witness to this.

However, another perhaps 50% of the emigration were not only Orthodox but also, and as a result, patriots. Indeed, the more saintly the Orthodox, the more they were patriots. For them exile was a call to repentance, a chastisement deserved for the sins of the fathers. The cases of the saints of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, St Jonah of Manchuria, St John of Shanghai and the future St Seraphim of Sofia, are well-known. However, there were a great many others, their graves scattered all over the world, seeds of spiritual renewal for the whole earth, from France to Serbia, from Brazil to Australia, from Ireland to New Zealand, from Canada to Germany, from Italy to Venezuela, from the USA to Portugal, from Finland to Tunsia.

Among those I could mention are the holy cave-dwelling hermit Archbishop Theophan of Poltava, buried in the tiny village cemetery of Limeray near Tours in western France. Viciously condemned by Paris émigrés for his love for the saints, surely the relics of this highly-educated ascetic will soon be taken up from obscurity and oblivion and moved to the new Russian Cathedral in Paris? What of the White Russian general Anton Denikin, whose last words in distant exile in the USA in 1947 were: ‘So I shall not see how Russia will be saved’, demonstrating his innate faith that Russia would be saved. What of the great Russian philosopher and patriot Ivan Ilyin, whose words are now rightly considered as prophetic?

What of Metropolitan Antony of Kiev, whose relics lie in Belgrade and whose works are still slandered and deliberately distorted by modernists, but are loved by the saints like St Justin of Chelije? What about Archbishop George (Tarasov), Bishop Methodius (Kulmann) and Bishop Roman (Zolotov) in France? They all loved the Church and Russia to the core. Then there was Bishop Mitrofan of Boston, a man ingrained with patriotism who desperately wanted to return to Russia. Or Fr George Sheremetiev in London who, as Count Sheremetiev, went from being one of the richest men in Russia to one of the poorest men in England, so that he could repent for the sins of his class, whose betrayals he blamed for the Revolution.

What can I say of the patriot parish priest Archpriest Igor Vernik in Paris? Or, in the same city, Vladimir Ivanovich Labunsky, the last of the 4,000 White Russian officers in our parish. In 1990, on introducing him to the first visiting priest from Russia, he begged him: ‘Bless me with the blessing hand of Holy Rus’. He was typical of so many. And what of the suffering heart of Lyudmila Sergeevna Brizhatova, the delightful Russian émigré poetess, faithful to the end in her lonely Parisian exile? The more saintly, the more Orthodox, the more missionary-minded but also the more patriotic. To some the idea of being both Russian patriots and missionary-minded may seem contradictory, but it is not.

This is because those who were Russian patriots were not simply patriots of Russia, but patriots of Holy Rus, the multinational ideal of the Orthodox Church, the Imperial ideal, the missionary ideal. Not for them nationalism and narrow-minded chauvinism, but the message to the whole world that God is with us. Not for them treason, cowardice and deceit, the slogan of the other 50% of the emigration, but faithfulness, courage and the truth. Faithfulness to Holy Rus, courage in the face of temptation, slander and exile, and words of truth against both the lies spread by the Bolsheviks and against the Russophobic myths spread by Western academics and politicians.

As widespread repentance and so the restoration of Holy Rus begins (and it has only just begun – you have seen nothing yet), old bad habits, a casual and nominal attitude to Church-going, fasting and prayer, a superstitious mentality based on ignorance, a few money-grubbing and compromised clergy, still exist. However, since 1917 the Church has been through a great movement of cleansing. Inside Russia, she has been cleansed by blood and persecution; outside Russia she has been cleansed by poverty and confession. Temptations have been taken away so that we can be faithful.

This is why, in 2007, at the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion by both parts of the Church, inside and outside Russia, there took place not the ‘reunion’ of the two parts of the Russian Church, inside and outside Russia, but the reaffirmation of our mutual unity, which had always existed, for we were always One and never spiritually divided. We, the faithful of the Russian Orthodox Church of all nationalities and tongues, have always believed in the Resurrection, Restoration and Recreation of Holy Rus, not in her national garments from before the Revolution, but in her heavenly raiment all over the world.

The Russian Golgotha delayed us for 100 years, but it has not stopped us, on the contrary it has strengthened us. Thus, one hundred years ago the Russian Church was on the verge of creating Metropolitan districts so that the people and the bishops would be brought together. That is at last happening only today. 100 years ago the most devout and much slandered Metr Pitirim of Saint Petersburg, in charge of churches outside Russia, was proposing to build a Russian church in every Western capital and translate the liturgical treasures of the Church into every Western language. That is at last happening only today. As the deputy of the last lay administrator of the Most Holy Synod in Russia, the spiritually alive Prince D. N. Zhevakhov, wrote prophetically over ninety years ago:

‘Educated society in Russia neglected its duty before God and the Tsar and cast Russia into such a state of terrifying chaos that only God and only a Tsar can extract her from it’ (4).

Notes:

1. See especially the first four of the seventeen volumes of his biography, as compiled by Bishop Nikon (Rklitsky), Jordanville, 1957-1971. Characteristically frank, Metr Antony, who taught in all the Academies, leaves us in no doubt as to the real situation of the Church at the time.

2. Fr George Shavelsky’s autobiography was first published in New York in the 1950s, but is now freely available electronically in Russian and also in a recent French translation.

3. See especially the two volumes of lives of the New Martyrs of Russia by Fr Michael Polsky (original editions in 1957 and 1980) or the thousands of pages in the more contemporary volumes researched and written in Moscow by Fr Damaskin Orlovsky.

4. P. 338 of the first two volumes of his 900-page ‘Reminiscences’ covering 1915-1923, first published in Munich in 1923 and republished by Tsarskoe Delo in Saint Petersburg in 2014. Sadly, the two later volumes are still lost.