A Conversation between His Grace Benjamin, Archbishop of Vladivostok and the Coastlands, and the writer Andrei Khvalin.

We have translated the following to illustrate the present direction of the contemporary Russian Orthodox Church. It is a description of the Russian Orthodox Diocese which is situated on the Pacific Coast, bordering China and North Korea and close to Japan, a region nearer to United States territory than Moscow.

Please note that wherever His Grace uses the word ‘Rus’, we have avoided the translation ‘Russia’, which does not correspond to it, and simply left ‘Rus’. Rus signifies not only Great Russia (effectively the Russian Federation, covering one seventh of the planet), Little Russia (the Ukraine), White Russia (Belarus) and Carpatho-Russia (Transcarpathia and the area around it, sometimes known as Ruthenia), but all who belong to the Russian Orthodox Tradition, on whatever part of the planet we may live and whatever our nationality may be.

Archbishop Benjamin

Archbishop Benjamin (Pushkar) of Vladivostok and the Coastlands
Andrei Khvalin: Your Grace, you have been Bishop here for over ten years. If we were to compare the situation here today with that before you were appointed, even those who know very little can see how the Diocese has grown and flourished and how well organized it is. Could you describe the basic directions of Diocesan life at the present time and the achievements and the prospects for the development of Orthodoxy in the Coastlands?

Vladyka Benjamin: October 2006 marked the fourteenth anniversary of my arrival in Vladivostok. With God’s help and the blessing of His Holiness the Patriarch, I began my archpastoral tasks. At that time the general direction of life in the Russian Federation had taken a 180-degree turn and conditions favourable for the rebirth of the Orthodox faith had arrived. When I came to the Diocese, there were only seven churches and church communities here. Gradually their numbers have increased in this Divinely saved land.

When the owner of a house is at home, then even if he is not a good owner, his house stands, his windows do not get broken and everything is normal. But when he leaves his house, even for a week, and there is no-one at home, then everything gets broken. I have always remembered this popular wisdom and tried not to leave the Diocesan ‘house’, striving to do as much as possible. Of course, what are we, if not the Lord’s? So I consider that I do not have any great merit. Perhaps another Bishop would have done more in that time than me or my helpers. But the Lord judged that I should be Bishop here now and has given His blessing that the number of churches and communities in the Coastlands should increase. Although these churches are not all strong or fully-developed, nevertheless there are already over a hundred in the region.

Now, thank God, a large church dedicated to the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God is being built at Nakhodka on the very edge of our Homeland, a church dedicated to St Nicholas is being built in Ussuriysk (1), at Lesovodsk there is a new church just above the River Ussuri, the foundations for a new church have been laid in Spassk. A ruined church is being restored in Pokrovsky Park in Vladivostok - it reminds me of the blue cupolas of the Holy Trinity Monastery. Some beautiful chapels have been built in the centre of the region: at the Naval Hospital, dedicated to the holy admiral Theodore (Ushakov); on the Quays, where they have naval parades, there is a chapel dedicated to the holy First-Called Apostle Andrew. May the Lord save the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Victor Dmitrievich Fedorov, to whom we are so grateful, who encouraged this development; a chapel has also been built next to the police station at the Dynamo Stadium, in memory of those who fell defending law and order.

It seems that the building of a Cathedral has taken off thanks to the present regional authorities, who have turned to the Church. We pray that the Lord will give us the opportunity to raise up this church on the Quays, in the heart of Vladivostok. Foreign visitors will come and look and say: yes, this is Russia, an Orthodox land. May God grant this!

We rejoice that two monasteries and three convents have opened in the diocese. We pray to God that they will strengthen and develop.

However, I think that our success has not only been in the quantity of new churches and communities. Above all, a Christian people is being reborn, strong in spirit and faith. For our part we work hard so that the newly converted firmly take on board the fundamentals of the Orthodox faith and act responsibly in their hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. As far as possible we are trying to enlighten the people, so that they see beyond the ritual side of Christian life.

Together with the new parishes we have also opened an Orthodox school, which is attached to Sts Cyril and Methodius Church in Vladivostok. It is attended by 150-160 children and its work has been greeted positively. If we have the opportunity, we are thinking of setting up a school for naval cadets, which will have State and Diocesan status. The younger children will study together, but then be educated separately, the girls attending school normally, the boys as cadets. That would be excellent. The rector of the church and confessor of the school, Fr Igor Tanko, is actively setting about this undertaking.

We also have a Theological School. My predecessor, Vladyka Nikolai, opened it. The address was his apartment. At that time we had nothing, no Diocesan premises, no material base, nothing. He did a lot to set up the School. Today, we have premises, staff and fourteen years of experience. Now we want to raise the level of the School to make it into a Seminary. This is no easy task, but we are preparing everything we need in order to do it.

For example, as we do not have the know-how, we have created a solid teaching base. For seven years now there has been a Chair of Theology and Religion at the State University of the Far East. The second batch of students will graduate shortly and a second group has also graduated from a special course in Theology for those who already have a University education. In this way we will be able to select teachers for the Seminary. Of course we would like the Seminary staff to be ordained and have a Seminary education themselves, so that they can pass on the Seminary spirit. At University this is not compulsory. Today, the Diocese has priests with a Seminary education and even education from one of the Theological Academies. In this way we have all that is required for the School to become a Seminary.

We have asked the Synod and His Holiness about this change, but we have been slowed down, because a Seminary has opened in nearby Khabarovsk, thanks to the efforts of the governor V. Ishayev, who built a whole group of buildings for them. There they ‘parachuted in’ a group of teachers from the Seminary and Theological Academy in Moscow. God bless them, we are happy for our neighbours, it is not easy to open a Seminary in the Far East. But I think that with time everything will fall into place. God willing, we will open a Seminary in our Diocese too.

Today we have fifteen different departments in our Diocese. The educational department, headed by Fr Rostislav Moroz, stands out. We are trying to introduce ‘The Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture’ course into the schools in Vladivostok and other towns and villages. Of course, there are difficulties on the part of some headteachers, but the situation is easier than it was. We teach ‘The Fundamentals’ to teachers who wish to improve their qualifications. Already over 200 teachers from all over the region have been certified as having taken the course.

Every May for the last five years we have organized ‘Sts Cyril and Methodius Readings’. Now we are preparing for 2007. Between one May and the next, we travel round the region and hold teaching conferences. In many places, especially in Lesozavodsk, they are remarkably successful. Fr Rostislav goes to these conferences and the teachers are catechized.

The role of the press is especially important in Christianizing and catechizing the people. If only the press were on our side! For the moment the regional media are passive and do not especially help the Diocese. On the contrary, the press blows up negative points, which turns people away from the faith.

As regards the Diocesan departments, generally speaking, I would point out the lack of personnel. If you take a good priest into the Diocese from a remote parish, then there will be a gap. I do not have enough priests to hand so that I can just produce them at any time and on any occasion. I think that the problem of priests, of ‘good shepherds’, exists in all dioceses, and even in secular life, I suppose that the problem of ‘managers’ is just as acute. But I always have the feeling that we should not stay where we are now, but continually move on. So I always say, this is not enough, not enough, we must do more.

A.K.: Vladyko, in the words of the holy martyr John Vostorgov, Russia came to the Far East with the Cross and the Gospel. I would like you to give a few details about your relations with our neighbours. On television I have seen that you are even training two deacons from Korea. I know that they gave permission for an Orthodox church to be built in Pyongyang. You yourself often travel abroad. What are the relations between the Diocese and neighbouring countries? What sort of missionary activity do you have?

- Of course, we remember the fine words of Fr John Vostorgov, about how we must not go to the Orient with guns in our hands, but with the Cross, and live as good neighbours. And then the Orient will not take up arms against us either. Neighbours reply to a gun with a gun and that leads to a senseless and murderous war. That is why the external mission of the Russian Orthodox Church consists in strengthening peace between different peoples.

In the last century Russia went through a lengthy period of atheism. In 1917 the country fell into a whirlpool of troubles; everything our forebears had built with tears of joy was trampled down and churches were destroyed. And the fact that they scattered and ruined what was made of brick was only half the catastrophe. The real catastrophe was that they trampled down the churches in our hearts. So we came out of that atmosphere of atheism sick, spiritually crippled. So, first of all, we have to repair our own ship, the Russian Church, and direct our missionary efforts inside the country, to our own people. If we put all our efforts into, say, China or Korea and teach only Oriental languages in our institutes and send our missionaries to those countries, then our own people will not be adequately fed. Our priority is to call our own atheists to Christ. But at the same time that does not mean that we must turn away from our neighbours, not at all. We live next door to them, we must be in contact with them.

We desire at least to introduce them to our faith. Therefore, the Diocese has interests in Japan, Korea and China. If it is possible, if we find such gifted people, let them go to University, to the faculty of Oriental Languages and there we shall look for worthy young people. Perhaps one of them will become a priest, or, if not, simply be a good Christian, so that, when he is in China, Japan or Korea he can help our Diocese, and so, the Russian Church.

Even now we have working contacts with Japan, for example. Sixty miles from Tokyo we have set up a little Convent. There are two nuns there from our Convent of the Nativity of the Mother of God. They have been there for over three years now and have the obedience of looking after Vladyka Nicholas of Tokyo who is retired there. The nuns change over from time to time and Mother Barbara, the Abbess at the Convent here, goes to see them, to support them. We do not have enough people here, so we have only sent two nuns to Japan, otherwise we could have sent more. They may give the land on which the Convent stands to the Patriarchate. Vladyka Nicholas has prepared everything. We also went there with His Holiness to make Archbishop Daniel Metropolitan. Such are our relations with Japan.

As regards South Korea, we visited it on the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Russian warship ‘Variag’ (The Viking) and we set up a memorial to our sailors who perished there. Generally speaking, it must be said that as a result of Soviet policy we lost our Russian mission in Seoul. South Korea is now under the patronage of the Americans, who handed everything over to the Patriarchate of Constantinople (2) and so their jurisdiction is spreading in a territory where there are very few Orthodox churches. I know Bishop Satirius, who they have now made Metropolitan of All Korea.

At the request of the North Korean government, an Orthodox church has been built near the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang, with the aid of the Russian Orthodox Church. A number of Koreans have studied at Seminary in Moscow, but only two of them have been ordained deacon. They came here for practical training in Vladivostok and then returned home. When the church was consecrated, they were ordained priest with the help of Vladyka Kyrill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad. Now we are waiting for them to come back here to receive more practical training.

We understand how difficult it is for Orthodox North Koreans in their present circumstances, so we look after them and help their church as far as possible. Last time we bought them a car and gave them other things. We try to visit them and encourage them. Our last routine visit to Pyongyang was before Christmas. I think that every important affair always starts like this – with little things.

As regards China, Orthodox churches have survived in Harbin, but there is not a single priest there. The last Chinese priest passed away. Because there was no bishop in Harbin, a priest from the local population could not be ordained and so today there is no-one to do the services. Chinese government policy is to ‘freeze’ the situation. Al least the Chinese border authorities are generally well-disposed to us. Thus, Gennady Ivanovich Lysak, who is a businessman, has built a church on the border with China. However, future developments and contacts will depend on the ‘blessing’ of Beijing, on changes in central government policy and that is not so simple. They will not even let the Russian embassy in Beijing build a church.

The Chinese only allow private trips, which we make when we need to. Thus, there was an old Russian émigré was dying in Harbin and asked for a priest. Fr Alexander was despatched on a tourist visa and he served the liturgy in a small room. That is more or less allowed, but of course...Even if a church was set up, it would be like a museum, they would not let a priest in. In Harbin there is a big synagogue, a large mosque (there are some 10,000 Muslims there), but no Russians and, moreover, as I said, the last Chinese priest passed away and we are not allowed to send anyone. Nevertheless, we are neighbours, we need to keep up relations somehow or other and, please God, with time, the ‘frozen’ atmosphere may change.

In general I think that, with the blessing of His Holiness and together with the Department of External Church Relations, our Dioceses must turn to Korea, China and Japan.

A.K.: Many observers of the political and geopolitical scene, both Russian and foreign, and particularly hysterically the American Z. Brzezinsky, are now forecasting the Chinese occupation of Siberia and the Far East. Your Grace, what do you think of such a danger?

- I do not feel that there is any truth in this. Everything is in God’s hands. Such forecasts are made to stir people up, so that they worry, then these people can implement their policies when people are in such a state. As regards different peoples and their life together, the situation is at present stable, though only up to a certain point. If we do not repent and are not better, then all the laws can shift and one people can rise up against another and then anything can happen. Local conflicts can grow into global conflicts and a whole world war can be set off, as happened before the Second World War. Then Brzezinsky, and everyone else, will have something to worry about.

A.K.: Your Grace, in connection with present terrorist threats to states and nations, including to our own country, I would like to ask the following question. Nowadays, many people are talking about the introduction of military chaplains into the Russian Army. How did this idea come about and what can be done so that our Army, which is going through this complex reform stage, can inherit the victorious traditions of the Russian Imperial Army and be transformed into a Christ-loving Army?

- I think that the initiative to introduce chaplains into the Army came both from the grassroots and from the top. There is a desire on the part of our Church administration, and from Church people, to begin living as our valiant and Christ-loving Army always and at all times lived. In my opinion, the movement is coming especially from the grassroots. Both the priests in the field, in the parishes, are showing initiative in developing relations with military structures, and the dioceses are setting up such departments for relations with our Russian soldiers and so on. Of course, the Patriarch is not indifferent to this either. Sometimes he even urges on the bishops. The secular authorities are also interested. Otherwise what will become of the Army?

Today we can see the rule of old folk, an ideological vacuum as the result of recent events, when all restraints were removed and the strictness of the past was replaced by permissiveness. Therefore, we need to instil the Orthodox, Gospel teaching in our soldiers. Of course, when young people join the Army and, aged eighteen, have never heard of Christianity, then it is difficult to do anything. We have to start with the family, with the kindergarten, with the school. So there is no doubt that it is vital to introduce the ‘Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture’ course. Future soldiers must know their own history, know that Alexander Suvorov, in many people’s opinions, was simply a saint and know how he won victories with God.

Take the invincible Admiral Theodore Ushakov and other military commanders who loved Christ. According to witnesses, even in Soviet times pilots, who were mainly Communists, who had been shot down with their planes in flames and who had not managed to shut off their radios, would pray: ‘O Lord, take my soul’.

I think that the Christian faith would strengthen the Army. The thing is that without Christ’s teaching, without eternity, without the Resurrection, in the name of what are you going to your death? For these, for those, like an animal protecting its cubs. But here the values are different: if you are a true Christian, and not just some ritualist, then you know that after this life, it is not finished, you are going on to another life. If our soldiers and officers are guided by these values, then what an Army we will have!

A.K.: The Church of Christ exists side by side with all sorts of earthly governments and the gates of hell will not prevail against Her until the end of time. The Lord laid the cornerstone of the foundation of Her existence, the rules of life were set by the apostles and the Church Councils. Acting in this world, the Church in Her history comes into inevitable conflict with various forms of government and society. Today, the Russian Orthodox Church lives with His Holiness the Patriarch, but without the Lord’s Anointed – a Monarch, an Emperor. To this day the last Monarch was the Emperor of All Russia, Nicholas II, who was glorified by the whole pleroma of our Church and is revered and loved by the Russian people, who well know the weighty contribution that the Diocese of Vladivostok and the Coastlands made to the canonization of the Holy Martyred Tsar. In this regard, Your Grace, I have a number of questions with a common theme – the Church and the Monarchy: what has the spiritual fruit of the canonization of the Imperial Family been and how has veneration for them developed in the Diocese? What role does the monarchy play alongside other forms of political organization and what are the preferences of the Orthodox Church? Is Constitutional Monarchy possible for us and is it necessary?

- The Holy Imperial Family, with the Tsar at its head, is revered in our Diocese. In the centre of Vladivostok there stands the restored Arch, which commemorates the visit to our city of the then Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich in 1891. Churches have been consecrated here in honour of the Holy Imperial Martyrs, for example, the church in Kavalerovo has already been open for several years. The Dean, Fr Alexander, has a great veneration for the Royal Passion-Bearers.

The Lord placed in my heart the desire to build a chapel in honour of the holy Imperial Martyrs in woods near the Convent of the Nativity of the Mother of God near Ussuriysk. I think that when it is finished, in all the churches of the Diocese we will begin to commemorate the birthday of Emperor Nicholas and the day of the repose of the Imperial Family. In the chapel itself we will be able to serve the liturgy on the days when we remember the Imperial Martyrs and most of the faithful will gather in the woods. It will be like on Red Square: the Church of St Basil the Blessed, of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God – this is like the sanctuary and the rest of the church is the whole Square, so with us the woods will be the rest of the chapel.

If we speak about monarchy in general and define its place among the various forms of State organization, then first of all we must point out that the very best, most ideal form of government for people is theocracy. This is how we pray in ‘Our Father’: ‘Our Father, may Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. God is King in heaven and on earth. That is how it was among the ancient Jews from Sinai and Moses until the age of the Judges. Time passed, Samuel was the last judge, prominent, spiritual and aged (I Kingdoms 8, 1-22). And the people of the Jews gathered and said: we respect you, but you are old and you can no longer govern us and your sons will not follow in your path, therefore choose a king for us, as do other peoples. And Samuel was sorrowful and prayed to God. And the Lord said: Why do you sorrow, they have not rejected you, but Me. Choose a king for them. I will send you a young man and you will anoint him for the kingdom and they will obey him, as they do Me. In other words, God delegated His power to a monarch, and he is the anointed one. Not as among the pagans, but according to God’s will. Monarchy is already the second level, it was given to us through Divine mercy. So it was among the ancient Jews, so it was in Russia. And then we laid our hands on our monarch and allowed regicide to take place, and so now we are suffering. They wanted to limit our monarch before they murdered him, to create a constitutional monarch, but this would have been a fiction. And today we do not need a constitutional monarchy. Why play, it is better to have real monarchy immediately.

As for democracy...I think that Plato did not have an ideal democracy. It cannot exist. When God is all things to all people, then there will be theocracy. But we cannot keep theocracy, inasmuch as we must wholly rely on the will of God and Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Yes, Lord, do with me as Thou wishest and I will do Thy will. But where now is there such faith among people? Everybody wants to do their own will. Therefore, theocracy will never last with our sins. But monarchy is so natural. Imagine a family, ten children. A mother, a father, the children have sat down, they are speaking together in a family council. The children say: Dad, go and get some bread, mum, clean the toilet, and we will see to democracy. Now when did that happen in the history of mankind?! This is the way it really is. The father is the head, the mother is the helper and the children do their obediences. That is monarchy. It exists in everyday life, it is natural. From here, from family life, there came tribes and principalities and so on. Naturally!

True, some kings and emperors were usurpers and tyrants, when they were not guided by a ‘heavenly constitution’. All kings, and our Russian Tsars also, held to a heavenly constitution. The king is brought up and prepared to rule, he is already a martyr by birth, he takes on a terrible cross - to bear the will of God amid his people. Here is one who is a true monarch. But democracy with its bankers and its parliamentarians, this is all muddying the waters. It exists only so long as there are no crises. As soon as there is a war or some great disaster, then at once the reins of government fall into the hands of one person. So monarchy is the best form of government of all the others, which are practised on earth today. The best.

A.K: Your Grace, how do you see the rebirth of the Russian people?

- If Rus does not become Orthodox and turn to God, then everything will be upside down. But if we live with God, then everything will fall into place. Today many are looking for a national idea in an unspiritual world: they are trying to fit Russia into what is American, French, German...But why, when we have long had our own idea, a system of values by which Rus has already lived for over a thousand years. When the Grand Prince St Vladimir baptized Rus in the great font of the River Dniepr, he said: ‘Here, Rus, is your strategic path. Keep the Orthodox faith, in this is your salvation and confirmation and greatness’.

The idea of the Russian, of the Orthodox Christian, is holiness. And Rus lived according to this idea, that is why she was called Holy Rus and our people was called the people who bore Christ, who bore God. Not because they did not have any sins and impurity, much impurity stuck to them, there are even spots on the sun. But it was because Rus loved Christ, the Mother of God, the saints and desired to put Christian ideals into practice in her life. And so it happened: our land gave birth to so many saints in heaven, more than any other land. This is not pride, not nationalism, but a factual historical statement.

October 2006- February 2007

Translator’s Notes:

1) On 15 February 2007 Bishop Sergius, a vicar-bishop for the diocese, was consecrated for this town.

2) Although it is true that the Patriarchal Church has no mission in South Korea, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia does.

Translation: Fr Andrew

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