They realized too well what awaited them…
…And fled again to find themselves here. Another immigrant, Vera Nikolayevna (don’t remember her family name), moved to Florida from Chile. She was a very old woman and sang in our church choir. She had a beautiful voice and she sang like a young woman. Before the Bolshevik revolution she sang in the Kiev cathedral. There was also Vera Alexandrovna who had served as a nanny in wealthy Russian families. When the revolution broke out she left Russia with her masters. Once in New York she encountered Feodor Chaliapin on the street. They recognized each other and he asked her about the common friends. Vera Alexandrovna said all of them had been killed. Chaliapin was so terrified by this news that he fell on his knees and sang “Get rest with the saints” and “Memory eternal”. She was very old, like Mania and other midgets. Raissa was a little younger, she was from the second wave. When we moved here, their fates were closely interwoven. Some Russians suffered from a generation gap - they were unable to foster the Orthodox faith in their children who were under a strong impact of American society and wanted to integrate into it… I remember an old lady, her name was Darya, she used to wear funny hats. But she was a very religious person, like the others. All her three little children were shot dead by the Bolsheviks who asked them if they believed in God. They were killed in the full view of their mother. She was so shy and modest that she always agreed to do the dirtiest job for the church. Vera Alexandrovna used to go to donuts shops and begged for unsold donuts for the church. The trouble was that many Russians lived far away from us and getting to the church was becoming more and more difficult for them. Vera Nikolayevna could hardly walk. Taking a bus to the church was almost an exploit for them. Vera Nikolayevna lived in North Miami Beach, there was almost no transport to us, only two regular buses on early Sunday mornings. So we bought a spacious second-hand station-wagon that could seat 8 passengers. We lived in North Palm Beach, which was ninety minutes’ drive from our church. On Sundays, we used to pick up the elderly Russians to take them to the church as they were too old to get there on their own. You can’t imagine how happy we were to help them.
Was the church the only place to unite these people?
Oh yes! And then the third wave appeared.
In the 1970s?
No, most of the Soviet emigrants in the 1970s were Jewish. Soon thereafter they were joined by people who could prove their kinship with their Jewish relatives. They got U.S. visas and stayed here for good. After that the U.S. government allowed Russians to immigrate. But, just as before, the old Russian emigrants were not eager to accept them.
No. There was a high unemployment rate back then. The “first” and “second” wave Russians got up very early to get to the church and they could find some job here. But the “third wave” was causing us great trouble. Because there was no job for them. Unlike the old Russian emigrants, they faced more serious problems as they couldn’t get work without job permissions. They found refuge in our church. Some of them jumped off Soviet ships to get to American coast.
Do you mean it happened in Soviet times?
Yes. First it was Soviet refugees or people with a U.S. visa which they didn’t want to prolong to stay here. Was it in the late 1970s – early 1980s? No, it began under Gorbachev, in 1989. I remember three refugees from the Kirov Theater Ballet, a man and a woman, they had lived in our garage until we found them other accommodation. We housed about 50 refugees in total. And all of them need to be taken care of, fed and employed. Most of them were unscrupulous people, fortune-seekers. And then came wealthy Russians. It was not until then that our elderly Russian emigrants realized that these people could afford to pay for memorial or baptismal services… These new Russians had possibly problems with their consciences and wanted to clear them by offering us to buy what we needed. And then these generations reconciled with each other. We never asked these newcomers who they were and where they came from. Because they would have lied. So we didn’t tempt them into sinning. Now we have good parishioners, they settled here to earn money and help their families in Russia. Some of them are very zealous Christians who live in accordance with the church teaching. Some people first come to the church after the death of a close relative, usually a mother, and they begin to discover the other world. Only here, in church, they can feel proximity to the dead. And feel relief… Others are being sent to us for community service for drunk driving, for example. We always welcome such people because we need manual workmen to mow grass or paint house. Some of them at first didn’t want to attend church, they just said, “please give us some job to work 50 or 100 hours.” Batyushka would give them rakes and say: come on, guys, go and pick up the leaves. They would come to us again, on the Easter you can often see both of those sentenced to community service and people whose mother had died. I recognize all of them now.
How many people are in your parish today?
About 40 people come on Sundays and 500 on Easter. But about one-half of these forty are always new people. About twenty people come once a month, there is a group of about 15 people who come every Sunday. It took them long to learn to practice Christianity because they hadn’t had a habit of going to church since childhood, unlike us, refugees. It’s really hard to get up early in the morning and realize that you must go to the church. It’s interesting to see how people come to the church. The Lord sends them to us in their own ways. I must apologize for being so unfriendly to you when you first called. I thought that spies have found out that George died and are smelling out something!
You shouldn’t apologize…
You know, two days before you called I commemorated Raissa in the memorial service. Batyushka paid no attention to it, he just read aloud her name along with others. It was my decision to commemorate Raissa because shortly before the service I’d seen her photos. Two days later you called.
Florida is a wonderful world. The twenty years that I have lived here I am following my instincts. I remember one shy young woman come to our church to baptize her child. She was totally ignorant of what she was supposed to do. She wanted to baptize her girl Natalia. She had no idea that that particular day was St. Natalia’s feast. Such things have happened many times. You could call them trifles, but if you sum them up you begin to realize that something special happens here regardless of me or Fr. Daniel because it’s the church. Our church is better than the others I have visited. All of them are beautiful but our church is prayerful. When people enter the church they begin to feel its special spirit. Because it is the church where Russian emigrants have prayed for years for Russia and for their families they lost. Every Saturday of remembrance of the departed parents we read aloud all old commemoration books.
There is a great difference between our church and some churches in Russia that before the restoration had been used as storehouses or clubs by the communists. It’s very hard to revive the same spirit in them, let alone the wall paintings. Our church was nice and clean from the very beginning.
I turned off my voice-recorder and thanked Matushka for the interview and hospitality. Before getting to sleep, Fr. Daniel showed me a video on the Russian emigration and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.
Early in the morning Fr. Daniel took me to the airport. We embraced farewell and I flew back to New York where I had yet to stay one more week. Finally, on Sep. 24, 2010, although not without some misfortunes, I boarded the plane flying back to Moscow. All the way back I was anxious about the suitcase with the Kogevin papers but my worries were proved groundless. The papers safely arrived in Moscow and there is no one but the Lord to thank for it.