Wednesday, April 03, 2019

2019 Moscow Trip -- Part 1

I was unexpectedly able to travel to Russia for the first time since 2007 (to read about that trip, click here). In late January I received an e-mail from Fr. Paul Ermilov of St. Tikhon University in Moscow, which asked if I would be willing to speak at a conference they were going to hold at the end of February on the crisis in Ukraine, which has resulted from the intrusion of the Patriarch of Constantinople into the territory of the Russian Orthodox Church. He said he was not expecting an academic presentation, but simply reflections from a priest in America on the issue -- and he said that the University would cover my travel expenses. My initial reaction was to think someone was pulling my leg, and so I forwarded the e-mail to Deacon Sergei Baranov (who was ordained at St. Jonah's in Spring, Texas, but who is currently lives and works in Moscow), to ask him if he could confirm that this was a legitimate request. Within a few hours, he responded that indeed it was, and that he had spoken to Fr. Paul about it. He also offered to show me around after the conference, if I was able to make it.

The biggest hurdle was getting my visa in time, but fortunately there is a Russian Consulate in Houston. It took a few weeks to get the invitation done on the Russian end, and then I was able to get the Visa on my end, with about a week to spare.

The last time I went to Russia, was in the spring, and so the weather was beautiful and warm. This time, I knew it would be quite a bit colder. And so I had to buy a pair of water-resistant cowboy boots with slip-resisting treads -- which worked well in the snow and the slush. I almost slipped on a few occasions, but didn't. On Fr. Sergei's recommendation, I flew on Lufthansa, which I believe is the best airline I have ever flown on.

I left Houston a bit after 4 p.m. on Friday, February 22nd. I packed several books, primarily for my return flight. During this flight, I was focused on preparing for my talk. I had a month to think about it, but didn't have much of a chance to organize my thoughts, and put them on paper prior to then. Starting with Theophany (January 19th, on the civil calendar) up until the beginning of Lent, I am exceptionally busy, because almost every evening I either was blessing the homes of parishioners (this is done every year, around this time, according to custom) or had an evening service. I am retiring from my secular job at the end of April, and so next year things will hopefully be different, but that is how it has been in the past, and this year was no exception. I don't use a lap top, or an iPad, and so I composed my notes the old fashioned way, with pen and paper.

A Room with a View

Flying from the west to the east is a bit like flying into the future, and so after a lay-over in Frankfurt, it was about 6 p.m. Saturday evening, when I landed in Moscow. I was met by a kindly young deacon, sent by the University, and taken to an apartment they use for guests, to the south of the Moskva River in central. I knew it was near the Convent of Ss. Martha and Mary, founded by the New-Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth, but I didn't realize how near it was until I woke up Sunday morning, looked out of my window, and recognized the distinctive features of the Convent Church, right outside.

St. Elizabeth was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and a German Princess (her mother married a German Prince), and she was raised Lutheran. When she married into the Russian royal family, she was not obligated to convert, but did so after many years of study, of her own free will. When her husband (Grand Duke Sergei) was assassinated, in 1905, she established this convent, and dedicated the rest of her life to serving the poor, but was martyred by the Bolsheviks in 1918, one day after her sister, the Tsaritsa was also martyred, along with the Tsar and their children. She was targeted because she was a member of the Romanov family, and her work in Moscow among the poor, ran counter to the narrative the Communists were trying to tell about pre-revolutionary Russia.

The St. Mary Magdalene Convent, on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, which was built largely through the efforts of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth and her husband. 
After the White Army recovered St. Elizabeth's body, it was brought to the Church of the Martyrs in Beijing (when they retreated into China at the end of the Russian Civil War), and then the British Royal Family paid for it to be brought to this Church, along with the relics of St. Barbara, her faithful assistant, who refused to be separated from her, even though it meant that she was martyred along with her.

I named my firstborn child after St. Elizabeth, and we celebrate every liturgy at St. Jonah over her relics. In 2014, I was also able to venerate her relics at her final resting place at the St. Mary Magdalene convent in Jerusalem, but it was a special blessing to begin my visit to Moscow so near to this convent, founded by such a dear saint.

St. Tatiana

The Icon and Relics of St. Tatiana at St. Tatiana's in Moscow

Fr. Sergei came by on foot at around 8:30 a.m, and we walked to the nearest Metro station (their subway) and took a train that brought us to within walking distance from the Church of St. Tatiana. The Metro now makes all announcements in English, as well as Russian, and so it is possible to navigate around the city even if you do not speak Russian. St. Tatiana is the parish that Fr. Sergei is on loan to while in Russia, and is at Moscow University. It has inscribed on the exterior of the Church the words from the Presanctified Liturgy: "Свет Христов просвещает всех," which means "The Light of Christ Illumineth All."

That's an idea I may steal as we design our new Church in Spring.

St. Tatiana is now considered the patron saint of education in Russia, and this is because it was on St. Tatiana's day that the Empress Elizabeth granted the petition to establish Moscow University in 1755, and so this Church was built on the campus and dedicated to St. Tatiana. Her feast is now celebrated throughout Russia as "Russian Students Day," and marks the end of the winter term of school.

Fr. Vladimir Vigilyansky

I was warmly greeted by the rector of the parish, Archpriest Vladimir Vigilyansky. But while I had assumed I would have little to do as a visiting priest, he immediately asked if I could serve proskomedia, so that he could help the other priest who was hearing confessions. That other priest continued to hear confessions throughout the entire liturgy. In fact, I don't think I got to meet him, and so he may still have been hearing confessions after the service was over.

The Parishioners during the Liturgy

I was planning on doing whatever exclamations I was given to do in English, but Fr. Vladimir wanted Fr. Sergei to do some of the litanies in English as well, evidently thinking the people might enjoy hearing part of the service in English. Ironically, we did more English in that service than some Russian parishes typically do in the United States. Fr. Sergei didn't think to bring his copy of the service book in English, and so he had to borrow my book for one litany, which meant that I ended up having to do the exclamation in Slavonic, because I had to use Fr. Vladimir's book in the absence of my own.

As I was about to hand off my service book to Fr. Sergei

Another interesting thing about this parish is that the Holy Table is the largest in Moscow. Not even Christ the Savior Cathedral has one larger.

During the announcements, Fr. Vladimir introduced me, and told the people that this was the first time Fr. Sergei had been able to serve with both of his rectors at the same Liturgy.

The Iconostasis

Their current Iconostasis is a reproduction of the one they had before it was destroyed by the Soviets. Interestingly, from 1998 up until 2014, they were using an Iconostasis which came from a parish dedicated to St. Seraphim in Manhattan, which was donated by the late Fr. Alexander Kiselev:

This iconostasis is still used in their lower Church.

The Church interior, after the service

After the Liturgy, they had trapeza, and I was able to visit with Fr. Vladimir and other members of the community a bit more. After that, Fr. Sergei showed me around, and among other things, he showed me a calendar which listed all the services and activities in the parish, which fill up much of every day of the week. For example, on this day, they held an exhibit, complete with lectures on the life and ministry of St. Nicholas of Japan -- who was one of the most successful missionaries in the history of the Church. We weren't able to stay for the lectures, and my limited Russian would have made that difficult, but the exhibit itself was very impressive.

Walking Through Moscow

Then we set out on foot across the center of Moscow. When you drive around a city like Moscow, you only see things as you speed past them, but walking through a city allows you really see it.

I was able to see a good bit of the Kremlin in 2007, but this was the first time I was able to see the inside of the Kazan Cathedral.

This was another Church destroyed by Stalin in the 1930's, but rebuilt in the 1990's exactly as it was before.

Of course, no trip to Moscow would be complete without a visit to St. Basil's Cathedral.

The mostly still frozen Moskva river:

We made it back to my apartment, and so I was able to drop off my vestments. Then we visited the inside of the Ss. Martha and Mary Convent next door.

They have signs in several languages explaining the history of the Convent, as well as it's current purpose, which is again to minister to the poor.

They have a statue of St. Elizabeth in the court yard.

You can tell by the white walls that this is a Church that was destroyed on the inside by the Communists, and is still in the process of restoration. You can see some of the nuns cleaning the Church in the pictures.

In the Church they have a reliquary with a relic from St. Elizabeth's right arm, which was given to the Convent by the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem.

We then went to see some of the other sites in the area, including a Church dedicated to St. Clement of Rome, which had been a long time in restoration, but when we saw the inside, it was easy to see what took so long.

While we we walking about, a young Serbian man named Darko, who is currently a student in Moscow, walked up to me and introduced himself. It turns out he is a Facebook friend who saw my first posts about being in Moscow. It's a small world.

At one point we walked by this place:

That sign says "Louisiana Steakhouse." Those familiar with the swamps of Louisiana will find the Cacti quite humorous. But since I can get Texas steaks and Louisiana cooking anytime, we decided to eat dinner at a Russian Bistro. The food was quite good.

Throughout the afternoon, Fr. Sergei was telling me about all the places I could walk to and see on my own that evening. He needed to return home. I make a point of walking in the morning for exercise, but I had already walked a lot more that day than I was used to, and either that, the jet-lag, my age, or all three were catching up with me. When I finally made it back to my apartment, I was in no condition to go anywhere else. So spent a little bit of time going over the talk I would be giving the next day, and then I went to sleep.

To be continued...