Pilgrimage in Russia (1997)

Bishop Seraphim : Report
Pilgrimage in Russia
30 September - 15 October, 1997
[Published in the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”, Spring 1998]


For many months, the Vicar-Bishop of Kashira and Administrator of the Patriarchal Parishes in Canada, Bishop Mark in Edmonton, had been suggesting that we go together to Russia, and that we treat the visit as a pilgrimage. Although I wanted to go, I had no idea how it would or could be financially possible. There is also my calendar, which has this year been more overcrowded than ever. I was so sure that there already existed too many obstacles for this to happen, that I foolishly accepted another request. Then, at the last minute, everything fell into place and it was clearly evident that it was God’s will that I go. Therefore, leaving some people disappointed, and with a few typical eleventh-hour obstacles, I left with Bishop Mark for Moscow on 30 September.

Upon arrival on Wednesday, 1 October, it was a blessing to be greeted by Matushka Evdokia Hubiak, wife of Protopresbyter Daniel Hubiak, Rector of our OCA’s Representation Church of Saint Catherine in Moscow, and to meet Father Igor, who is expected to come to Canada to serve the patriarchal parishes when Father Alexander returns home. I was taken to Danilovsky Hotel, beside the Danilovsky Monastery, and began to rest – Bishop Mark having very thoughtfully not organised much at the beginning, specifically to allow for stillness, silence and prayer.

The drive into Moscow had been quite a revelation to me. Although this was my first visit to Moscow, when I lived in Finland at New Valamo in 1980, I had been sent for a weekend to Saint Petersburg, and so I had had a taste of Russian (or rather Soviet) society and Church life at that time. What a contrast now : so many cars, so many newly-painted and renovated buildings (in so very many pastel colours). I had heard of the greyness of the past decades, in contrast to the traditional colourful appearance of the more distant past. Amazing, too, were all the billboards, what was advertised for sale, and the multitude of small shops.

Already I could sense the different atmosphere. Before, there had been a heavy weight of caution (even fear), not only in relationships, but also in the whole of life. Now, even at the passport control, there was no longer any sense of that, even though people do speak of the high cost of living and the high crime rate. The weather for the 2 weeks of my visit was cool, sometimes clear, most often a bit rainy. Nevertheless, on all the important occasions, whenever there was an outdoor procession, it would be dry. It was very good, and a relief to retire after a long day.

It was a special blessing for me to be able to awaken on Thursday, 2 October, to the ringing of the monastery’s bells before the early Divine Liturgy, and to spend several hours quietly alone. In the afternoon, Father Daniel Hubiak took me first to Protodeacon Vladimir Nazarkin, the chargé for Protocol in the Patriarchate’s External Affairs Department. Some details of the coming week were clarified, and then I was introduced to our Representation Church on Bolshoye Ordinke Avenue. We have a very nice Temple in Saint Catherine’s, but the structure needs much repair yet, and the art-restorers still hold more than two-thirds of the building for their studios. They should have left long ago, but the new facilities elsewhere for this company are slow in being completed, and so the artists remain. This is a common story for parish churches in Moscow and elsewhere : having the right to a building is still far from actually having it and occupying it.

After a brief visit to the Patriarchal Offices on Clean Street, we returned to Saint Catherine’s, and Father Christopher, one of the assistant priests, walked me to the Tretiakov Gallery and to the Icon Section therein. It was wonderful to come to the room where the Vladimir Icon of the Theotokos hangs, to sense the holy atmosphere, to see the many people whispering together an Akathist, and to be allowed to venerate the Icon by at least kissing the case – at the direction and permission of the on-duty supervisor. Especially in this room and in others where the icons of Saint Andrei Rublev and of other iconographers are found, there was definitely a prayerful atmosphere amongst the many visitors.

I was also given a brief walking-tour of the nearby area, on the south side of the Moscow River. In the course of this excursion, I venerated several well-known wonder-working icons, amongst them the Theotokos, Joy of All who Sorrow. As I have before witnessed in Ukraine, so also I saw here, that the rebuilding of Temples and communities presses on, with a strong sense of commitment amongst those who are believers, and with a great deal of searching amongst those who are not. On my return to Saint Catherine’s, I met with Dr. Alexander Dvorkin, a former classmate from Saint Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, who now lives and teaches theology in Moscow.

On Friday, 3 October, Feodor Konin (a translator for the Patriarchate’s Department of External Affairs) escorted me to the Donskoi Monastery, which now has 20 monks. In the large summer Temple there, I venerated the Holy Relics of Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow, the former Archbishop of North America, who was responsible for incorporating our Canadian diocese in 1903, and who consecrated many of our Temples in Canada in about 1904.

We then visited the new Christ the Saviour Cathedral, which is amazingly and rapidly replacing what had been razed by Stalin. The already completed exterior of the cathedral, with its white walls and gold-coloured cupolas, once again dominates the architecture of central Moscow. The basement Temple, which is finished except for some decorative carving of the walls of marble from Bethlehem, is a new addition to the Temple structure (there was no basement before), and there is even an underground parking garage below it, as well as various meeting-rooms. This basement Temple with its 3 Altars is already functioning fully on weekends. This Temple is very beautiful, accommodating several thousand people. On weekdays, faithful people come to pray and venerate icons in its entrance-hall.

The interior of the main Temple is far along in its construction (they seem to work night and day on these Temples), and I understand that its walls will be covered with Siberian marble. People seem to have confidence in the strength of the new structure, and all are amazed at how swiftly it has gone up (so far just over 2 years, compared to the 40 years of the first building). It will be the third-largest European church building. It is expected that if both the upper and lower Temples are used on a great occasion, about 23,000 people could be accommodated. A figure such as that can scarcely be comprehended in Canada, but it is quite possible to have such congregations in Russia. I was taken by elevator to the top of the Temple, and we walked around the whole perimeter. The bells at each corner were truly impressive, one of them being the largest cast in this century in Europe. Also impressive was the view of Moscow from this vantage, and the great variety of pastel colours which were very warming to see on a cool, windy day.

After this experience of central Moscow, I visited Poklonnaya Gora on its western edge, where there is a war memorial containing a large collection of World War II armaments. There is also a small but beautiful memorial Temple which offers regular services. The area also contains a memorial mosque, since many Muslims fought alongside the Orthodox in the armed forces. On the edge of this large territory, closer to the city’s dwellings, a small memorial Cross has been erected by the clergy. All these details help to explain the name of this place. It is a hill (hence gora) on which anyone approaching Moscow from the west would be expected to pay homage, as it were (hence poklonnaya, meaning “bow down” or “prostration”). This hill gives the highest elevation in the region. Therefore, historically, this hill had great strategic importance, since it offered the best view of the Russian capital. In 1812, this is where Napoleon waited in vain to be given the keys to the Kremlin by the Russian inhabitants. It is now principally a war-memorial where people pray for those who died in the various wars from which Moscow suffered.

The next day was a quiet, restful Saturday (4 October). During this day, I went with Father Daniel Hubiak to the 300-year old Holy Trinity Church, near to Poklannaya Gora. It is one of the very few Temples which survived the Soviet era without ever being closed, despite the fact that it is right on a main road. In the evening, I served at Vigil in Saint Catherine’s Church with Father Daniel, and his assistants Fathers Christopher and Hilarion, and Deacon Michael. It was a beautiful service, and the small choir was very good. Afterwards, I again spoke with Sasha Dvorkin, and also with Sergei Chapnin, whom I had previously met at Saint John the Baptist Monastery in Essex, and who is helping to publish books, newsletters, and to provide an electronic news-service.

The following day, Sunday, 5 October, was the main commemoration of the glorification of Saint Innocent, Metropolitan of Moscow, Apostle to America. In the historic Ouspenski Sobor in the Kremlin, I concelebrated with His Holiness Patriarch Aleksy II and 16 other bishops (including our Bishop Mark), and many priests and deacons. The congregation numbered only a few hundred, since the state strictly limits attendance in this museum-Temple. Afterwards, “tea” was served in the patriarch’s token official residence (in Russia, “tea” always includes plenty of food). This residence is nearby, across the open square within the Kremlin (this residence is also part of the protected historical buildings which are next to the former imperial quarters). Patriarch Aleksy rightly made humourous references about this meal, because the tables were “groaning” with food. Very soon afterwards, everyone departed for Saint Philip’s Church, the grounds of which contain the new Siberian Representation Temple, a small hospice for Siberian travelers, and offices, all of which were to be blessed by the patriarch.

After the blessing service, there were speeches given by both Patriarch Aleksy and the mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who had found funds to aid the construction of this representation-Temple. The choir for this occasion included many young soldiers, some of whom had relatives in Canada. On this occasion also, it was a delight to surprise Father Oleg Kirillov. He is a priest of our Canadian archdiocese, but he is serving in Moscow at this time, and he had not yet heard of my arrival. Then, after another offering of “tea”, it was time to go to Sergeiev Posad and the Trinity-Sergius Lavra for Vigil, where a special surprise awaited me : participating in this Vigil were Archbishop Onufriy and Bishops Sergei and Feodor from Ukraine, whom I know from my pilgrimage there. It was a lovely surprise, and a warm reunion.

On Monday, 6 October, at the Trinity-Saint Sergius Lavra, the 200th anniversary celebration of Saint Innocent was kept. It was in this monastery in Zagorsk that the saint spent much time, and where his relics now rest. After venerating them (as well as those of Saint Sergius), I prepared to serve again with Patriarch Aleksy, 20 other bishops, and many priests and deacons. Several thousand people were in attendance at this Divine Liturgy, as well as at the Moleben to Saint Innocent, and the veneration of the Holy Relics of Saint Innocent which followed it.

The meal afterwards included speeches about Saint Innocent, the current patriarch, and the missionary activities of both. Then, Bishop Mark took me for a walk through the grounds ; and after a rest, we attended the Solemn Assembly of the Moscow Theological Academy in honour of Saint Innocent. There were many speeches about Saint Innocent and his missionary labours, and about the need for missionary work in Russia and abroad, today. The main presentation was by Bishop Evgeniy, rector of the Academy. After that came a programme of singing, both liturgical hymns and spiritual songs related to Saint Innocent, led by the famous Archimandrite Matvei. There were also poetic recitations by schoolchildren.

At this point, I should explain that the Theological Academy is only one of the many components of the Lavra community. Besides the monastic brotherhood itself, there is also a seminary, an academy and a school. While I was at the Lavra, the mayor of the town of Sergeiev Posad, in the presence of the patriarch, stated that because of the academic atmosphere and resources of the Lavra, an Orthodox school will soon be opened in the town. This announcement was quite significant, because until recently, these near neighbours of the Lavra had not been so friendly nor even interested in such an idea.

All was restful and quiet for me at the Lavra on Tuesday, 7 October, until 1500 hrs, when we gathered in various Temples to serve Small Vespers and the Akathist to Saint Sergius, whose autumn feast-day was beginning. Bishop Mark and I served with about 16 bishops in the Trapeznaya Temple. Then, from 1600 until 2000 hrs., he and I served Vigil along with many hierarchs in the Lavra’s Ouspensky Sobor. I was one of the 3 bishops anointing the people during Matins, and I did so for over half an hour.

At the Divine Liturgy on Wednesday, 8 October, the Feast of the Lavra’s patron, Saint Sergius of Radonezh, I served in Ouspensky Sobor together with Patriarch Aleksy II, Bishop Mark, and about 20 other hierarchs. There were bishops serving in 3 other Temples within the compound at the same time, numbering about 55 bishops in all. I have never before experienced anything like this. In Ouspensky Sobor alone there were 7 chalices, and giving Holy Communion to the people took about half an hour. Concelebrating with the patriarch were also representatives from the Constantinopolitan and Serbian Churches, and our OCA representative, Father Daniel Hubiak.

The clergy had all processed from the various Temples to greet the patriarch before the service, and we all again processed into the open square of the monastery grounds afterwards, with many thousands of people, to serve the festal Moleben to Saint Sergius. The massed choir led by Archimandrite Matvei sang higher than I ever recall hearing a choir sing. After venerating the patronal icon, there was a festal dinner in the patriarchal residence, where I met Archbishop Nikolai (Shkrumko) who had once served in Canada. There were several interesting speeches, and for me many warm encounters with various Russian bishops, which resulted in invitations to visit Siberia : Omsk, Alma Ata, Vladivostok. Following numerous pleasant conversations, I returned to Moscow and the Danilovsky Hotel, where I had supper with Father Oleg Kirillov.

For the commemoration of Saint Tikhon of Moscow on Thursday, 9 October, Bishop Mark and Protodeacon Vladimir Nazarkin took me early to the Donskoi Monastery, once again to concelebrate with His Holiness, Patriarch Aleksy II. This celebration was a smaller one – only 9 bishops – but it was again very beautiful. After the Divine Liturgy, we served a Moleben to Saint Tikhon ; and towards the end, after the patriarch had venerated the Holy Relics of Saint Tikhon, we bishops took up the relics in their reliquary, and we moved in procession from this summer Temple to the nearby winter Temple where the relics remain until 25 March. Following the Moleben, we dined with the patriarch in the igumen’s residence. Just as before, the speeches paid attention to missionary work, and to the patriarch’s good example.

After I had returned to my hotel, Matushka Hubiak came for me. We drove to Red Square where we walked, and saw the exterior of the famous Saint Basil’s Sobor. This very old structure comprises several chapels and small Temples within the one building. We also visited the newly-reconstructed Sobor dedicated to the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God. It is of modest size, and quite beautiful in its new iconography. We also venerated the Iveron Icon of the Theotokos in its newly-rebuilt shrine, which is just at the entrance to Red Square. It is a small chapel constructed specifically for the veneration of this wonder-working icon.

On the following morning, Friday, 10 October, I was driven more than 300 km (4 hours by car) south of Moscow, to the Optina Monastery, in the province of Kaluga. The area feels to me to be some sort of blend of Alberta and Ontario in ways hard to explain. I have never seen so many birch trees in my life. Canada has some birches, but not to “hold a candle to” Russia’s birch-forests. The monastery is by a river, on arable soil but surrounded by a forest. I arrived, and was greeted with ringing bells, and went as is customary to the Entrance of the Theotokos Temple to venerate Saints Amvrosy, Moses and Nectary. Afterwards, we went to the Kazan Temple, where we had the blessing to venerate many other saints. During lunch, I talked with Archimandrite Benedict, Schema-Igumen Elii and others ; and afterwards, I toured the monastery grounds and observed the immense reconstruction work in process.

After a brief rest, I was escorted, walking, to the Skete, prayed in the Church of Saint John the Baptist, and was given time to sit and pray in the cell of Saint Amvrosy. By this time, Bishop Mark had arrived, and we had supper with the brotherhood in the trapeza. The currently recognised saints of Optina are Moses, Leo, Makary, Anthony, Amvrosy, Anatoly I, Joseph, Barsanoufy, Nectary, Hilarion, Isaac I, Anatoly II, Nikon, Isaac II, and Sebastian. There are also graves of 3 monks considered martyrs who were murdered at one recent Pascha by apparent Satanists. What I saw in Optina I have seen in other places as well : that despite the devastation by the godless, the Lord made blind the eyes of many authorities, or softened their hearts, and much that might have been destroyed remained as seed for the present resurrection of the Church in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere.

The next morning, Saturday, 11 October, Bishop Mark and I were in the Temple at 0530 hrs for Midnight Hour, Hours and Divine Liturgy. The monastic singing was very quiet and peaceful, and there were many pilgrims attending, many of whom were also communicants. After the Divine Liturgy and a brief interval, we drove back to the Skete and again received the blessing of being and praying where the great Optina fathers had struggled in Christ. We drank water from the holy well outside its walls.

Then we walked around the multitude of works associated with the life and reconstruction of the monastery which has many hectares of land to farm. There are huge piles of construction supplies, many buildings to house people and visitors, and numerous barns and workshops. Mostly from their own land, the monks feed over 800 persons daily in winter, and over 1000 in summer. There are 19 tonsured monks in the brotherhood of the main monastery (12 more in the skete-community), many novices, and very many others who live there, work there, and make a sort of village outside the walls. A special Temple is being built for them, too.

After this, we were taken through the nearby town of Kozelsk (12 km distant from Optina) to the Women’s Monastery of Our Lady of Kazan at Shamordino. This women’s monastery, where 100 nuns now live, came into existence as a product of the life of the original Optina Brotherhood. It was revived by the same brotherhood. Reconstruction of this community moves quickly. They have renewed their work with the retired, and I have hope that they will in time renew their orphanage as well. Because it had been raining, on this day of the tour I received an especially close experience of Russian mud. We returned to Optina in time for Bishop Mark and me to serve Vigil together as bishops. After the Polyelei, I anointed – which took a very long time because there were so many faithful present.

On Sunday, 12 October, Bishop Mark and I were escorted to the main Temple by Archimandrite Benedict for the Divine Liturgy at 1000 hrs. We numbered 2 bishops, 10 priests and 4 deacons, serving quietly and without rushing, and afterwards serving a Moleben to Saint Amvrosy and venerating his Holy Relics. After the formal meal in the trapeza, it was time to leave ; but we lingered – talking, taking photographs, longing to remain in this holy place. When we finally found our way to the main highway north, there was plenty of traffic, as there might be in Canada on a Sunday afternoon, so it took a long time to return. Bishop Mark and I then parted, since he was to leave the next day to see his family in Ukraine, and I returned to the Danilovsky Hotel.

On Monday, 13 October, I first spent some time with Father Daniel Hubiak. Then Irina Dvorkina came with Father Arkady, and they took me to an orphanage, which cares for 20 girls in very small quarters. The operators of the orphanage itself do not have access to all their rightful facilities, because a well-moneyed Protestant missionary holds on to at least half the building. Nevertheless, the residence was well-managed and very clean, and I could see by their behaviour that the girls were being well-formed. Their care-givers and teachers invited us to share lunch with them all, which we accepted, and I heard Pushkin’s story about the golden fish being read to them – with questions about vocabulary. The girls were very sweet, sending me away with keepsakes to remember them – it was very touching.

Then Father Arkady took me to the hospital operated by the Christ the Saviour Brotherhood and the Sisterhood of Saints Mary and Martha (founded by Saint Elizabeth). Having 1500 beds, it is the biggest hospital in Moscow. There is a large Temple dedicated to Saint Dimitry on the second floor. The hospital teaches and trains nurses, and it cares for over 30,000 patients a year. I visited during lunch time and saw the nurses eating, and listening to spiritual reading in their refectory. There is a semi-monastic environment here. Nearby the hospital is a hostel for the sisterhood, where some nurses also live.

Next came a visit to the Saint Tikhon of Moscow Institute, also operated by the Christ the Saviour Brotherhood. They have about 1,000 “resident” theological students, taught in various rented quarters, since they have no building for classes. There are another 1,000 students studying by correspondence and in small groups in far-away cities. The Brotherhood is also keeping a catalogue of new martyrs, and has a website. After seeing the various icon workshops, the library (which needs our donations) and other facilities, I visited Saint Nicholas Church nearby, and venerated the Icon of the Theotokos, Quench my Sorrows. This is another Temple that, by miracles and suffering, was never closed. The choir there is now mostly composed of students of Saint Tikhon’s Institute. It was the eve of the Feast of the Protection of the Theotokos, and I spent some time standing at Vespers.

Later during the service, Sergei Chapnin came and took me away to several other nearby Temples, which we found each to be in various stages of the Vigil. This experience reminded me of the manner in which many people will, on Great Friday, go from Temple to Temple to venerate the Plashchanitsa in each of them.

Sergei and his mother then drove me then to Kolominsk, on the Moscow River in the suburbs, the site of the former Tsars’ summer residence from early times. In this place are 3 beautiful Temples. We first visited the Kazan Temple, where Matins had begun, and we prayed there for a time. Then we walked past the impressive Ascension Sobor, which was not open. Along the river and up a steep bank was the Temple of Saint John the Baptist, which we approached. It was closed, but Sergei knocked on the door and gained admittance for us. We saw how this Temple (not long ago re-opened) was beginning to be restored, although it is only in summer use. There, we sang some of the festal hymns with the 2 women who were on care-taking duty. We then had tea with the women, and we heard how the local people in this region are descended from the servants of the Tsars, and how they are still attached spiritually to these Temples and the surrounding territory. The tea was made with water from a spring which had given water to generations of them, as well as to their employees. I was literally drinking in Russian history. This was truly a blessed and God-sent conclusion to this day.

Tuesday, 14 October, was the Feast of the Protection of the Theotokos, and it was my last day in Russia. I served at Saint Catherine’s Church with the priests Daniel, Oleg, Christopher and Ilarion, and with the deacon Seraphim. It was very pleasant, a “quiet” Hierarchical Liturgy, with a good attendance. “Tea” was served at its conclusion, and there was plenty of conversation. The rest of the day was spent in giving an interview, packing, and having supper with the Hubiaks.

Very early in the morning of 15 October, Father Oleg Kirillov came to collect me and my bags. He drove me to the airport, and he helped me with the first stages of checking in for the trip home. It was good to see him again, little changed in appearance, but flourishing in his presbyteral activity.

Thanks be to God for all the blessings that were so obviously poured out on this pilgrimage, for all the unexpected assistance given, and for the love expressed by all the people. Thanks be to God also, especially for Bishop Mark, and for all the people who made it possible for me to go, and who helped me with personal contacts. Although I cannot expect very soon to go to Siberia, it seems that it is time to try to organise a return both to Russia and to Ukraine, and that I ought to take a group of people, such as wish to go with me to each country. If the Lord blesses, I hope to prepare to do this in 1999, 2 years hence. Writing this now may give enough notice for anyone who may want to go.