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With the White Russians in Paris

Dedicated to Vladimir Ivanovich Labounsky, the last White officer of Meudon (1900-1994)

We are the grandchildren of Red Army soldiers and commissars. We are beginning to realise with horror that the Bolsheviks have dragged us down into an abyss…We have been duped by a past of lies…Truth, Honour and Russia were on your side. We regret that you did not win…You did all you could. For that we thank you…Pray for us.

From a letter written in Moscow in 1982 and addressed to exiled White Russians.

The first generation of White Russian émigrés, those who were adult before the Revolution, passed on at the end of the last century. They came after the generations before them, born in the nineteenth century, even in the mid-nineteenth century, who left this world from exile in France. Thus, in Cannes as recently as 1970 there died the daughter of one of the heroes of the defence of Sebastopol during the Crimean War (1854-56).

Now is passing away the second generation. They are those who were born in exile, in Constantinople, in Bulgaria, in Yugoslavia - a country that no longer exists – and in France between 1917 and 1940. To this generation belonged Kyrill Rennenkampf, at whose funeral, led by Bishop Michael of Geneva, I served in Meudon on Friday 11 February (As his father was an Englishman, it was only appropriate that an English priest should serve at his funeral). His generation is and will be mourned by the third generation (my own), born in the 40s, 50s and early 60s, by the fourth generation, born in the late 60s, 70s and 80s, and by the fifth generation, born in the 90s and in this century.

The Russian emigration to Paris was and is unique. It was and is full of tears, tears beyond measure, tears of exile and melancholy longing for Russia. Even in the 1970s there were elderly Russians who still had their suitcases packed ready to return ‘home’. I met such a one in 1974. But that emigration was also full of culture, of joy, of that noisy, spontaneous, elemental, chaotic, anarchic, free, and excessive Russian spirit, as broad as Russia herself. It is the spirit of families living in tiny apartments, with shouting, singing, balalaika and guitar music, arguments, forgiveness, tears, laughter and yet more tears and then yet more laughter. Among Orthodox, joy, however, always prevailed over sorrow, because for the believer joy always overwhelms sorrow, on account of the firm assurance of our faith in the Resurrection, the Victory over Death, which is proper to Orthodox Christianity alone.

There is no word to express this Russian Orthodox spirit in English, but if I may invent one, I would call it HEARTFELTNESS. (The word ‘sincerity’ is far too weak, for Russian Orthodox everything is felt. Sincerity sounds too much like an abstract idea. Only Western people have ideas, Russian Orthodox have feelings). Heartfeltness expresses that utter spontaneity and frankness, that utter lack of hypocrisy, that hypocrisy which is so characteristic, alas! of Western peoples. It is this charm alone which enables others to forgive Russian Orthodox everything. I well remember how Archbishop Seraphim (Dulgov) – may the kingdom of heaven be his! (+ 2002) told me last century how, ‘We exiled Russian Orthodox bishops have made mistakes, but we were always sincere (heartfelt) in our intentions’. And so they were. The excess of feeling, emotional excess and anarchy, can lead astray, but how much better to be led astray by heartfelt feelings than by the cold, calculating and usually insincere and hypocritical Western approach.

Today the Paris emigration does suffer from a lack of Russian, as the linguistic abilities of the children of successive generations, and sometimes mixed marriages, lose their Russian. On the other hand, it does not seem to have lost its Russianness. Today’s Paris emigration is not so much Russian as Franco-Russian. Most parishes have realised this and have switched to bilingualism (but not prematurely to purely French services, which present huge difficulties and temptations and are not desirable or needed). As long as the spirit is kept, all will be well.

The heartfeltness of the Paris emigration makes the heart beat more quickly and sing.

But there is also a dark side, a haunting and daily tragedy to the Paris emigration. And this is its divisions. Since 1925, when the Rue Daru group of St Petersburg aristocrats and ’intelligenty’ (intellectuals) left the Church Outside Russia, there has been a division into two. And since 1930 a division into three, as Rue Daru itself divided. In recent years the divisions have multiplied even further. There are now at least five jurisdictions of the Russian Church in the Paris area since the tragic departure of the Lesna Convent, which left our hearts bleeding. As a result the Church Outside Russia is now the smallest of all the groups. The majority are in fact dissident.

And all this without the internal divisions among the divided, such as the utterly painful division just now in the Rue Daru jurisdiction. This division is about whether to remain outside the Russian Church (the line taken by the modernist Russophobes) or else to return to her, either directly under Moscow or, perhaps more easily, indirectly by attachment to the Church Outside Russia, which is attached to Moscow, but still independent. With only one active bishop left, increasingly weaker, Rue Daru seems to be at the end of an age. The spirit of fin de siècle reigns. And all these divisions do not include the divisions inside parishes about which language, Slavonic or French, is to be used for services. Let us hope that the new Russian Orthodox Cathedral, to be completed within the next three years, can be a beacon of unity for all.

Only recently the tragic of death of Andrei Malinin brought together the three Russian bishops. But why did it take the death of a young man to unite? Why cannot life, and not death, unite?

What is clear is there can be no unity, if minds are not open and opened. What is clear is that the Church is God’s and that God is Love. Therefore, where there is no Love, there is no Church. Therefore all these divisions are about politics, the things of men, not the things of God.

The divisions in Paris come from two conflicting visions of the spiritual meaning of Russia and therefore of Russian Orthodoxy. The first one is narrow and ideological. The second is universal and Dostoyevskian. The first vision is deathly because it sees no future either if the Russian language is lost or else if an anti-Tradition ideology is lost. Yet both will be lost, as the fifth generation of the emigration is born and grows outside Russia. On the other hand, the second vision is the vision of the Russian Orthodox as universal man, ‘Vsechelovek’, which says that Orthodoxy alone unites, all else divides. It says that just as Christ preached to Jews, Romans and Greeks, so we Orthodox too must be Russian with Russians, English with the English and French with the French. The compassion and empathy of authentic, and not nationalist or ideological, Russian Orthodoxy is universal because it results from the Incarnation of the Universal God become universal man.

This vision is expressed in ‘Daybreak’, a poem by Boris Pasternak in his novel Dr Zhivago. This speaks of the daybreak in a man’s heart as he reads the Gospel, recovers his faith and day breaks in his soul. It is a parable of the Eternal Russia which has returned. This is an extract:


Везде встают, огни, уют,
Пьют чай, торопятся к трамваям.
В течение несколко минут
Вид города неузнаваем...

Я чувствую за них за всех,
Как будто побывал в их шкуре.
Я таю сам, как тает снег,
Я сам, как утро, брови хмурю.

Со мною люди без имен,
Деревья, дети, домоседы.
Я ими всеми побежден,
И только в том моя победа.


All around people get up, lights, cosiness,
They drink tea, hurry to the trams.
Within a few minutes
The town is beyond recognition...

I feel for all of them,
As if I were in their skin.
I myself melt like the snow,
I myself frown like the morning.

With me are people without names,
Trees, children, those at home.
I am conquered by them all
And this is my only victory.

When the Paris Russians realise that to be true to their Russianness, they also have to feel for all, for the whole world around them, for Paris and France too, and to be in their skin, in their hearts, and present them at the throne of Christ, so that they too can meet the Lord, then this will be their victory.

Archpriest Andrew Phillips,

2/15 February 2011
The Meeting of the Lord

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