Faithful Interviews Kozhevnikova, Alena Media

Invariably the “Russianness,” is Going to Dissipate With Every Congregation

Alyona Kozhevnikov (nee Berdnikov) comes from an aristocratic Russian family. The three brothers Engelhardt came to Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great, and were granted lands. Among Alyona’s ancestors was the hero of the Great Patriotic War of 1812, Pavel Engelhardt. The famous poet Taras Shevchenko was once a serf of the Englehardt family.

Alyona graduated from Melbourne University with a double major in Russian Language and Literature, and several years later was invited to work on the Russian news desk of Radio Liberty in Munich. Among her duties was contributing to religious programming. In 1978 she was invited to the UK by Keston College, a distinguished research institution on the situation of religious believers in communist countries. She set up and headed the Information Service of the College for 12 years, and at the same time was on loan to the BBC Russian Service to present and co-author the weekly Russian language religious program together with the late Archbishop Basil (Rodzianko) and Metropolitan Anthonii (Bloom) of Sourozh. (In the interview in Russian posted here last Alena tells us about Metropolitan Anthony (Blum). Now Alyona is sharing with us her experiences growing up and living in the Russian Church Abroad.

I come from what is known as the white Russian emigration, in other words, those Russians who left Russia just before the revolution, during the revolution, or just after. My family lived in Yugoslavia for twenty five years. My mother was four years old when the family left Russia. She was the youngest of three children. She grew up in Yugoslavia, went to Belgrade University and met my father there. He arrived in Belgrade by a totally different route, from Siberia via the Far East. I was born in Yugoslavia. I make no secret of the fact that I was born in 1943, so I’m an old lady of seventy at the moment.

I was four years old when I have my first recollections of church. Like all of the so-called “old emigres,” we were members of the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile or the Church Abroad as it’s been various called. The first Church was in a refugee camp in post-war Germany. We were in the American zone. They were all prisoner-of-war camps that had been converted into refugee camps. This first one was near Kassel in Germany, a place called Moenchehof. These are the first recollections. I remember the old barracks in which every family had a room. We were next door to the barracks that had been converted into a church; because everywhere that there were Russians you would find that a church would spring up very, very quickly.

We moved from there to another refugee came near Munich — Schleisheim. I have more memories of the church there because I was older. My family was very much involved in church affairs. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a member of the diocesan council. So, from an early age, you could say that I had very close and warm ties with the clergy of my church. That includes bishops and archbishops, as they were at various times. I think the thing that sets the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile — I’m sorry. I’ll go on calling it that because that’s what it used to be. — the closeness between the clergy and the laity. Our bishops were really, you could say, in the same boat as we were. We were all poor. We had nothing, nothing at all. We had to share, and we had to make do as best we could. We could approach our priests and bishops at any time. They knew us all by name. There wasn’t this gulf which, unfortunately, I found to exist when I was posted to work in Russia. That was very strange to me. There were no priests, with the exception of one or two in Moscow, to whom I could speak, for lack of a better expression, as normal people speak to one another. That doesn’t mean disrespect. My grandmother taught me the fundamentals of the Orthodox Faith. She taught me to pray. She taught me to respect the cloth, which I do. But this total division, which I think exists even now — I left Russia almost a year ago when I retired from work. I was posted there. — Somehow I never felt at home in the churches there, because the minute you walked in …I don’t think this is particularly Russian trait, whether the Church Abroad was more tolerant, but you didn’t have anyone leaping at you saying “Why aren’t you wearing a headscarf?! and “Why are you standing here?!” and “Why have you crossed yourself there?!” You think, “Maybe I should just go away and not get in the way of everybody who prays.”

It was so different growing up in the Church in Exile. As I said, we were all in the same boat. We were all the first batches of emigres. I think there was more of a tendency to stick closer. In the Australian community, it was one where you went to school, you went to work.

You moved to Melbourne, right?

Yes, to Melbourne Australia. I don’t know how it was for my parents. Their contacts with the Australians were as between workmates. In my case it was a sort of benign schizophrenia. You had the Russian language at home, the Russian Church. Then you had your school days, where everything is Australian. Somehow those two worlds managed to coexist. But I would say, certainly for my generation of emigre children, the church was a focal point. For the adults, of course, it was probably more a matter of faith. Everything hinged around the church. It was a rallying point, the national rallying point, where you had, apart from the church [services], any amateur dramatics, groups that had formed or choirs, or balalaika orchestras or childrens’ plays — we were all roped into doing that sort of thing.

Ladies’ committees.

Oh, ladies’ committees — certainly! Nothing could happen without them. Various political groups — one would be meeting at one end of the church hall, and another, maybe totally opposed to them, would be meeting at the other end of the hall. It was a life within a life, I think. Without the church it would not have happened. The church gathered us in, as you might say. I didn’t sense this in Russia when I went to work there. I’m ashamed to admit it, but when I was growing up the church was always far away. Everyone lived a long way from the church. It seemed to be one of those things that had to be. You had to go by train, you’d have to go by tram, then you’d have to walk a little bit. Whereas when I was living in Moscow there were churches all around me; and I must admit that I went to church less frequently there than I did when it was a long hike to the church every Sunday. It was so unwelcoming in Moscow. The minute you walked in someone would be bound to come up to you and, more or less, ask you, “What are you doing here?” No. It was just too different approaches.

You mentioned previously about three different groups of Russian emigres in Melbourne. What were they?

That, when you look at it, is quite funny and terribly human. That didn’t just happen in Melbourne. It happened all over, in Sidney, in Brisbane as well. The first group was the old emigres — the “Bloody Bourgeoisie” as the communists call us. That was the first emigration. Then there was another significantly larger wave of people who had been Soviet citizens, from all over the USSR. Ukrainians, Russians, you name it. They were there.

During the War years?

Yes, this was straight after the War. They had been prisoners of war. By hook or by crook they were in Europe and then they managed to avoid being repatriated, even though hundreds of thousands were forcibly repatriated and perished in the camps. This is a historical fact. Of course there were difference between these two groups. One lot — for example my grandmother, who spoke a very literary Russian, and had very set ideas on … I mean the family were obviously monarchists and abhorred the assassination of the Royal Family. And then you had a generation that had already grown up under the Soviet system, with everything that’s involved in that. Of course, everyone has their own propaganda. Probably the old emigres had their own views too, which were inflexible. Certainly, it happens. But this lot here — you get a clash, not so much of ideologies, because these had experienced the Soviet Union of their own backs. That’s why they did everything they did not to go back there. But they’d still been brought up under the Soviet system. They’d gone to schools were they’d been taught about the bad old days. I’m not saying that the good old days were awfully good. They were the bad old days in many respects. But, of course, there was this tendentious teaching. Of course one lot thought that the Soviet emigres — for convenience sake we’ll call them that — were uncultured slobs and had no table manners and that sort of thing, whereas they, in their turn, thought that all the old emigres were snobs, and it was a pity that they weren’t killed off as well, who thought that they were God’s own bandmaster, that type of thing.

However, they had to subsist side-by-side, again, because the only rallying point was the church. I don’t know whether one can really translate this, because a lot of the people who came from the Soviet Union were atheists. All the old emigres, at least nominally, were religious believers. They used to say to say — and I’ll say this in both languages — “Вы ходите в церковь или под церковь?”, “Are you going to church, or going to be near the church?” So there were those who just went there to socialize, and of course they never stepped into the church.

But nonetheless, after a while some kind of modus vivendi emerged from all that … until! Until the so-called Chinese emigration started to appear around 1955, as I recall. I was only in my pre-teens then. They suddenly appeared, and nobody knew who they were. And they’d say “We’re from Harbin.” And everyone said, “Where’s that?” And they’d say, “It was the Paris of the Far East!” And those who had lived in Paris and had emigrated to Australia said, “Oh, yes?”

Of course, it didn’t make for cordial relations immediately. They were mainly from Manchuria. It was a Russian community that had been there since the mid-nineteenth century. They built the Trans-Siberian Railway, and a lot of them actually stayed on there. Harbin was, in fact, a Russian city in the full sense of the word. You had Russian churches. There were trading companies and everything. In fact, it was a joke that the local Chinese had to speak broken Russian in order to be understood.

They did suffer a reversal of fortunes in 1945, when the Soviet army came in. All the teachers, from then on — my husband, for example, he went to school in Harbin and all his teachers were from the Soviet Union. They were taught, obviously, Russian. Then when the so-called eternal friendship between the Soviet Union and China broke down, some did actually go back to the Soviet Union. There was quite a lot of pressure on them to go there. My ex-husband recalls that their teacher would say, “Why don’t you all go back as a class? You can live in the same town and be in the same class? It doesn’t matter what your parents say.” It was that bad.

Some did, in fact, go back. Of course, none of them went back to where they wanted to go. They were left in central Asia to raise the virgin soil, and they died there. But others dispersed elsewhere, and quite a lot of them came to Australia. Of course the first disappointment was that nobody knew where the hell Harbin was, and that it was the Paris of the Far East. And then little cracks began to emerge in relations, because everyone thought they were better than the others.

So the first emigration and the Soviet emigration closed ranks against the Chinese emigration. There was a lot of back-biting. I’m not proud of it, but it was an incident .. All of us, of course, were from the old emigration or the Soviet emigration … and it’s cold in Melbourne whenever Easter comes, because it’s the end of Summer, going into Winter. And all the ladies from Harbin used to come in fur coats. At that time there was just the one church in Melbourne, and everyone with their lit candles. And we kids used to sneak up behind these ladies in their fur coats and singe them. Children can be extremely nasty, much nastier than adults!

But that too, in time, simmered down. Peoples lives worked out somehow. There wasn’t this pressing need to see everyone all the time. But the church still remained the focal point, because any community undertaking was always around the church. It was very strange that there were some Russians — not many — who didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

From all the emigrations?

The older emigration, a lot of them had died by then anyway. My grandmother spoke fluent French and German. She hated English because, she’d say, they write “Liverpool” and pronounce it “Manchester.” Babushka never took the English language. By then a lot of them had died. Of course, the younger ones, my parents’ generation, had already had time to get work, to assimilate to a certain degree to living in the Australian world, so to speak. But even for my generation, mixed marriages with Australians were very rare. It was par for the course that you married a Russian boy or a Russian girl. It was just one of those things. Whenever there were mixed marriages everyone felt terrible sorry for the parents of the bride or bridegroom who was Russian. “Oh, poor things. Their kids are never going to speak Russian. Are they going to be baptized Orthodox.” There were all these heart-rending problems coming up in that respect. But it’s not quite so strongly felt now.

It’s a paradox that a lot of the mixed marriages, where the Russian partner would drift away from the Russian community for a while — when the kids came along they’d come, even if they themselves didn’t speak very good Russian; they’d have their kids baptized in the church and send them to the Saturday Russian school, and so on. To do them credit, the Australian partners never really had anything against this. They either remained neutral or they found themselves drawn whether they liked it or not into the Russian roundabout.

They, at least formally, would join the Orthodox Church.

Not necessarily. A lot of them were married in the Russian Orthodox Church without being baptized. I don’t know. This is my personal belief. I don’t think you should baptized anyone against their will. If they are a believer and if they have been already baptized. I think — I may be wrong — that as far as, say, Catholics are concerned, to the best of my knowledge, all you need to do is read the Nicene Creed with the dreaded “Filioque” said the way that we say it. And that is sufficient.

It is different with the Russian Church Abroad, but I see what you mean.

I know that it’s sufficiently widespread now for it to be accepted, and for the children to be christened Russian Orthodox without prejudice, so to speak, no matter what the other parent may be. But it really is a paradox, because these young people who had not been brought up in the Russian community or in the Russian Church suddenly discovered this need within themselves to maybe learn some Russian. It’s not a problem now, because you get congregations now were practically everyone speaks both languages. So the language barrier as such doesn’t really exist. But they want their children to become part of this community which, in many cases, they had no part of since they were children themselves. It’s a draw. I don’t know; call of the blood or something like that.

What do you think know, retrospectively, might be problems of the community. You mentioned what enriched the community, very justly. The problem for Russia might be that she doesn’t want to confront her history, and so on. But what would be the problems for the Russian emigration?

Concerning themselves, you mean, or with regard to Moscow?

Concerning themselves.

I think it’s not really a problem, but something that would settle out. When I was growing up the services were invariably in Slavonic. There was no need, really, for anything else. I remember, actually, I was in Jordanville giving a talk on the situation of believers in communist countries at the time when we were celebrating the millennium of the baptism of Russia, and talking to the Metropolitan. I mentioned that I felt that there is room in the church in Russia for some of the services to be conducted in the vernacular. After all, that’s what Cyrill and Methodius did for us way back then, that the services were no longer conducted in Greek. It wasn’t a problem for me, because my generation still could read Church Slavonic. But in Russia it is a problem. People say, “I go to a church and I can’t understand a word they say.” It’s exactly the same problem in the Church Abroad, be it in Australia, America, Argentina or wherever. Because the children, even if they speak reasonable Russian at home, it’s not the language of the church. I think the problem facing both churches now is whether it’s more important to understand what’s being said during the service or to just stand there and let it roll around you.

I don’t have a view on that simply because I have no problem with the Slavonic service — but I know a lot of people do. I mentioned this to Metropolitan Vitaliy, that there were in fact several priests in Russia who had had terrible trouble because they had served in the everyday language. He said, “No, absolutely not.” I said, “Vladyka, why not?” He said, “People come over here from Russia and they have told me that by no means should this order be change from Slavonic into a modernized version.” “But that the person who’s new to the church might be able to understand what’s being said?” “No, no, no — absolutely impossible.”

Shortly after that I was in Australia, talking to a lady in Sydney who was sort of the doyenne of the ladies’ committees there in Sydney. I said to her, “There are so many young people now for whom the Slavonic is a dead letter. Surely you can do what’s done in London.” I think it’s a fabulous idea. On this side they’ve got the Slavonic, on the other side a translation into English — so those who don’t know Slavonic can still understand the service. She said, “No, no, no … They’ve all got to learn Church Slavonic.” I said, “They’re not going to. They’re going to just stop going to church. They’re going to go to some other church, if they feel moved to go to a church. They’ll go to another church where they can understand. You’re alienating people for the wrong reasons.” What does it matter? God isn’t Russian. God understands all languages. Why can’t we praise Him in all languages?

Mind you, I used to annoy some of my colleagues in another job I had. They’d say something about God, and I’d say, “Of course God speaks Church Slavonic. He’s a Russian.” But when you look at it, it’s ridiculous. Mind you, I asked my son who was an altar boy in London for Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. Alex was about twelve at that time. They used to have what they called “English Sunday,” one Sunday every month the service would be in English. In fact the congregation previously had a vote on it. At that time the Russians were a minority, old emigres mainly. It’s only in the past twenty years that you’ve had more. They [the English] voted to have three Sundays in Slavonic, to become accustomed to it, and once a month in English. I said to my son, who does speak Russian, “Well, you must find it a lot easier when the service is in English, because then you can understand everything.” He said, “No, no. I prefer the Slavonic. The English doesn’t sound right.” So, obviously there are various views on this, but I think it is a problem. The churches abroad certainly have to look at it, because they are in a foreign environment. Are they just going to serve those Russians who like old Church Slavonic without understanding, or who do understand it and like it better? The “Russianness,” shall we say, invariably is going to dissipate with every congregation. So we come up against the problem of what’s more important — the Faith of the language?

That’s a serious question.

You really can’t confuse the two. I’ve come to this after thinking about it for a long time. If you’d asked me twenty years earlier, I’d have said, “Slavonic! If I can understand it, why can’t everyone else?” But that’s nonsense. Not everyone has to understand Slavonic just because I do. Even so, my knowledge of it isn’t perfect, so I can’t even make any claims. What I can demand, say, of my granddaughters? I want them to be Orthodox, whether it’s Russian, Greek, Rumanian or whatever. Surely the Faith should override external factors like that. We all have different customs. For example, I could never, somehow aclimatize to the wearing of headscarves, because it’s not a canon of the Orthodox Church. It’s a custom. But even so, it goes back to Judeo-Christian tradition where a married woman covers her head to indicate that she’s under the protection of her husband’s house. Whereas when I came to Russia I saw tiny little tots in their mothers’ arms with little headscarves. For heavens sake!

I saw at Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra a lady with a little girl who was about ten, I think. She had her little plats, and some officious old lady came running up to her saying, “Why isn’t the little girls head covered?” Her mother or grandmother said, “She’s only ten.” “She is going to give the monks salacious thoughts!” I said, well, you know, if a ten-year-old is going to give them salacious thoughts, then maybe they shouldn’t be at the monastery. This is something I could never accustom myself to.

It’s these things where trivia is elevated to the rank of dogma, and the spirit is seen as something subsidiary to that.

Alena, can you tell us also of your visit to Germany in 1971. How did you find church life there?

It was pretty much as I remembered it. I came to Munich to work for Radio Liberty. There was — I don’t even know if you could call it a barracks. It was in Schwabing, in a garden. You had to go through the garden from the street, and there was nothing to indicate there was a church there. It was a very small — I’d say it looked like a barracks. I don’t know how it was preserved there. It was decorated and made as a church. It was all terribly familiar, because you had these little paper icons, and little hand-made altar cloths and things like that. So really it was just like a trip back in a time machine. The crowd, the fact that everyone knew everyone, and our terrible Russian Orthodox habit of moving around the church whenever you feel like it, to say hello to someone who’s just come in. Somehow the spirit had been retained. The first church was a barracks, and this one was a barracks, albeit a bit smaller.

Later on the little shed had to be given up. There was a big church in Munich where they were allowed to use one of the premises inside that big building. I would say it was still pretty much the same. There was nothing different, nor something that I found strange or alien.

But then when I was posted to England, I did go to the Church in Exile. It was at Queen Anne’s Gate, I think. Gloucester Road — Emperor’s Gate or Queen Anne’s Gate, something like that. But it wasn’t there for an awfully long time. The congregation was not a big one. It was more mixed than I was accustomed to. You did have some Russians, but who had live in England an awfully long time, whose Russian was not all that great. But the services were — by this time quite a few churches were doing this in Australia as well — the key points like the prayer before communion were is both languages, to make sure that they key points of the service were understood by everybody.

Then that church had to be given up because it was prime real estate. The building of the church in Chiswick, I think they’d not even, at that stage, bought the lot. Or they had the land but the church had to be built from scratch.

So they used a house.

Yes. By that time I was already the presenter and co-author of the Russian religious program of the BBC, as well as doing some work for Radio Liberty; and that’s how I met Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. He used to give the weekly talk on the program.

I want to thank you kindly from the bottom of my heart for this interview. I am really moved. I appreciate you having me. We will pause here.

You are very welcome.

Conducted by Deacon Andrei Psarev

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