In the Uplands of Russia,
A Congregation United in Service

 By Sue Talley

This past summer, Dana, Sue, and Jonathan Talley again had the opportunity to visit Russia, bringing with us concerts of music, the preaching and pastoral visits of The Rev. Michael Meerson, of Christ the Savior Church, New York City, as well as gifts of love, and the encouragement of the Orthodox faithful of the United States, who, by their prayers and financial assistance, make it possible for us to make short missionary journeys to Eastern European countries.  It happened to be our seventh trip to Russia, and it was especially exciting to us, because this time we were leaving the big cities and traveling into Russia's magnificent northern countryside.

 An unusual contraption pulled up to our Moscow apartment in the early dawn to take us on our eight-hour journey.  Five of us piled into an ancient ambulance, humbly equipped with benches along the side instead of chairs.  It was sent by the priest of Karabanova, Fr. Georgi Edelstein, and it was the normal conveyance used to take his orphan family to their summer camps.  The driver was unfamiliar with Moscow; at one point, a swift U-turn sent me flying off the bench and laughingly onto the floor, where our son, Jonathan, and Fr. Michael's son, Ilya, were attempting a game of chess.

 "Another adventure," Fr. Michael announced with a grin.  And so it was.  Especially for those of us who, not having expected sleet in July, had various maladies.  Six to eight hours of bread and Georgian cheese and pickles, no stops (there were no bathrooms, anyway) and those other little trials which make every expedition an occasion to give thanks for the many conveniences we Americans take for granted.  And to gaze upon the graceful beauty of rural Russia--making it all worthwhile.

 "You want to be prepared for anything with Fr. Georgi," Fr. Michael had warned.  "Some Boy Scouts went to see him, and they wound up going into the fields to dig up their dinners--beets and potatoes and onions for soup."  We were not, therefore, surprised when the last wretched bus had left Kostroma for Karabanova by the time we arrived.  Rattling along on the suggestion of a roadbed, our dauntless driver took us to the orphanage near the village, where the dog barked and we hallooed until the directress appeared and graciously gave us shelter for the night.

 The orphanage, stark on the outside amid a huddle of ugly out-buildings, cheerily shelters twenty-five delightful Russian children, most of whom have parents who are unable to care for them.  The area is desperately poor and the winters are dark and severe; alcoholism is a major problem, and the children have been abused.  You wouldn't think so, to meet them.  Fr. Georgi is their Spiritual Director, and the whole village looks after them with tender care--so much so, that sometimes the orphans eat better than the villagers, from their generous gifts of produce.  We were given an extensive tour of the orphanage and the treat of a folk-dance by some of the teenage girls.  The next morning, we were taken to Fr. Georgi's home, where we were guests for several days. Fr. Georgi has a strong and angular face, piercing blue eyes, and snow-white hair.  In the midst of a dilapidated collective farm, his home is an oasis of peace and beauty, a real little dacha of pine wood, with a "beautiful corner" with the Savior's icon, and shining wooden floors.  Our meals were modest, in accordance with his desire to "be with his people in everything," and not to live better than they.  Outside, several burly fellows were attacking the front yard with scythes; others worked in the churchyard.  We were to learn that most of them were recently-freed young prisoners, and the three burly fellows were Presbyterians on holiday from Florida, "going about doing good". 

It is the eighth church Fr. Georgi has been called upon to renovate, with no financial assistance from either the State or his beloved mother church, the Moscow Patriarchate,  and he is grateful for those, of whatever faith, who have come to help.  "Well, I don't let them teach theology," he says with a twinkle, "and I will gladly go to their churches and speak about Orthodoxy..."  He means it, too!  

(a second village church, thousands like this are in need of repair)

The fragile domes of the church were beautifully framed by the big trees in front of the house.  "I love that view, too," said Father quietly, as I admired the prospect from the porch.  It was late spring.  The wildflowers had just figured out it was warm enough to bloom; we were confused and delighted by the long summer days of that latitude; of the famed "white nights".  We made our way to the church through the shy ex-convicts and friendly Presbyterians, the dog nipping at Jonathan's heels.
The temple is just across the street.  It is tall and fragile-looking like Father, but like him, it is a pillar of strength in the small, poverty-stricken community, where even the pension of about thirty dollars per month has not been paid by the State for over a year. 
"The church had only three walls when you came to restore it, and no roof, but you immediately had services in what was left?" Dana was asking.   Happily settling into his storytelling mode, Fr. Georgi began retelling the church's history. 
"After the communist revolution, tractors were stored and serviced in the church.  Do you think they could get them through those narrow doors?  Of course not.  So, they simply tore down a wall. "The church was consecrated in 1833.  The frescoes you see in the summer church were not painted over, but that part of the church was used as a granary, and the winter church was used for the tractors.  You can see where the top level of the grain came; all the fresco work below it was destroyed.
"The most interesting thing in this church is that door.  It is iron.  We brought it back from the local missile silo.  You remember the verse,  'They will beat their swords into ploughshares...'  There are three more in the yard, and I'm sure you can't lift them!

"I have been working on this church restoration for six years.  There was a man here, living opposite the road, who was a very ardent atheist and communist, and who made it his project to close the church, and he succeeded.  He is buried right next to the church.  Why?  Because it is his son who made it his business to open the church.  His son came to me and asked me to reopen it, and therefore, I asked my bishop to send me here.

"So, I came here for the first time on Pascha.  I went to some ladies who were gathered by the store next door and I said, 'I have come to reopen the church.  Let's go and pray for those who opened the church a hundred-fifty years ago, for those who could not pray all this time, and for those who are buried in the churchyard.'  The ladies looked at me suspiciously, and said, 'Father, you should look at it first, and then see whether you are ready to restore it.  They repaired tractors here, but that was not the most disastrous.  They kept fertilizer here for ten years, and there was no roof and no ceiling, and all the rain and snow fell into the church, and the fertilizer turned to liquid.  That was extremely harmful to the brick.  And it is knee-deep in wet fertilizer inside, and if you stood inside for half an hour, your boots would be destroyed, and they are expensive to replace.'

"So they stood outside the window, and I stood inside, singing 'Let God Arise', since it was Pascha.  My little congregation heard every word of it.  Then I went 'round the church for the Paschal procession, and two or three women went into the churchyard, and we brought a table from the house opposite the church, and that was our first service.  About fifteen people were present.

"I remember our first collection; I received eighteen dollars' equivalent--quite a lot for only fifteen people at that time.  Then I received money from fifteen young Norwegian Lutherans who  had interrupted their vacation to help restore the church; each sent me a thousand dollars.  One day a Baptist from Canada appeared in the yard, saying nothing for two days, and then handed me a check for fifteen hundred dollars.  A group of Catholics from Ireland, who had met me at a conference, gave me the money we are using to restore the summer church."

We looked around at the church, which is growing more beautiful every day, with the intense sacrifices of the congregation, and the gifts of love from those who pass by.  We could but wistfully think that it would be wonderful if many passersby would stop and build the dilapidated little Orthodox churches between Moscow and Karabanova, whatever their confession. Surely God would bless them for it!  We had the opportunity to join the small community for Divine Liturgy on Sunday, and heard the fervent voices of the congregation as they joined the choir, singing along by heart.  Jonathan was permitted to read the Psalms during Confession, and Father, reading the puzzled looks on the faces of the older ladies, explained that we were visitors from America and therefore permitted to use our own language for the Liturgical text, and we were embraced and given Prosphora bread by the ones who had regarded us, earlier, with doubtful looks.  Of course, many were invited to luncheon at Fr. Georgi's home, and there was tasty fried sole in addition to the usual soup, and good Russian bread. 

Our conversation once again focused upon the merits of the little community, who, though small in numbers and very poor, gave so openhandedly to others--not only to the orphanage, but to the prisoners and to the construction of the church.  On Pascha, he was saying, the members of the congregation go to the prison after the Paschal breakfast, taking hundreds of colored eggs with them to share with the forlorn young people, who languish in the cold confines of their cells.  They also cheer these detainees at Christmas and on their birthdays.

Fr. Michael had met a young man in Washington, D.C., who had actually been a prisoner, rehabilitated through his acquaintance with Fr. Georgi.  "Sergei will graduate next year with a Doctoral degree," he said, "And what a good graduation--from prison to theology--since Russia needs more theologians!  As we can see, there are many cases where Father Georgi takes good care of his inmates..."

"Well, you know, these young men often tell you that it's all right in prison--they have a kind of shelter--food--not very nourishing, but better than nothing.  When they are released, where do they go?  Forty-six of them, our orphans, have no family, no lodging--there is no place for them, except back in prison.  They very often come to me, or to some other place, especially in October and November," Fr. Georgi went on.

"We have three houses here, and now I hope I can build one more.  This past winter there lived eighteen people in the houses.  I'm sorry to say they were overcrowded, but they lived there.  Now there are only eight; in spring and early summer, they go and find work--it's very difficult to find work in winter.  Most people in our village are unemployed, so who can employ these convicts?  If the Church does not take care of these people, who will?

"Of course, my congregation is one of the poorest in our diocese, and still we manage to do something, and I'm very thankful for people in other countries who very often give me money so that we can go to the prison on Christmas or Pascha to do something.  This April, I was in the United States, and received money, and now again I can do something in my church--make a new iconstasis--and I can help the orphans; you visited the orphanage, also, you remember."

"When we were visiting," said Dana, "the director said that six more orphanages have opened in the Kostroma area, this year alone.  I don't know how your little parish is able to do what it does."

"These children are not adoptable, but they still need parental love.  If you adopt children and take them to the States, it's very difficult, not only for the children, but for the parents, too.

"However, I think it would be very easy to 'adopt' these twenty-five children.  Let the children stay here, and let them know that they have a godfather or godmother in the United States, and maybe that person will send them two or three letters a year, on Christmas, Pascha, or their birthday.  Send the letter to me, and I will give the child any present the godparent tells me to give--chocolates, anything.  Even if they don't send money, they could send a card or letter, letting them know that they have somebody who cares for them, who remembers them in his prayers.  I'll be thankful for money, but if it is not possible, it is more important to have contact.  If the child knows that his natural mother was a drunkard; if she has been deprived of her rights and cannot even be called 'mother'; if he goes to see his mother in prison, you know, and she doesn't look very reputable, very decent--let him know that there is somebody else who loves him, cares for him, that's all.  Adopt one."

"You are always mentioning the positive things your congregation does, and we can do, to fulfill the commandments of Christ," observed Dana.  "So often we hear people in the church speaking about superficial things--dress, language, length of service.  I liked what you said about the fact that we need to go to out to people, not just wait for them to come to us.  And that's not just for the clergy, it's for all of us, don't you think?"

"Are you kidding?" responded Father Georgi.  "Why are you quoting me?  It's Jesus that told us to.  He sent His apostles--His disciples--and He sent every Christian to do it--didn't He?  If you open the Gospel, read what Jesus told you and me, and all priests, and do it.  There is only one way to be a Christian, and we read it on the Sunday of the Last Judgment.  Jesus didn't ask what confession you belonged to, and what language you speak, and how high your iconstasis was.  He asked only, 'What did you do?  How did you help your neighbor?'

"It happens that a priest not only teaches, but he learns--things which one never learns from seminary.

"At one time, we received an excellent supply of jeans and nice clothing from abroad, and I gathered the poorest children in the orphanage and the village and passed them out.  But in a couple of days, some of the boys came to the church and gave me the things back.  I couldn't understand why, but their parents told me that other boys, who came from more well-to-do families, but who could not afford things that came from the United States, were teasing the boys and saying, 'Well, you are beggars, and maybe your American uncle will give you something else, if you go to America and beg.'  Of course, the orphans felt humiliated.

"So then, we organized all the children of the community into eight groups, according to their age, and I said there would be a competition to run from one church to another, and back, for boys sixteen or seventeen.  Others were to run a shorter distance, down to only one hundred meters for kids of seven or eight.  On a table, kids could choose what they wanted from what we had received--the first-place first, and the second next, and so on.  That gave us the possibility to give to the needy without making the children feel beggarly.

"When the competition was over, I went out of the church and heard a girl crying bitterly.  Her grandmother was dragging her home, but she didn't want to go.  The grandmother explained that she was the second in her group, but was accidentally overlooked for a prize.  Well, she was very upset, and I told her, 'Oh, but your prize is in the church.  Let's go there.'  So we went there, and there were fifteen or twenty dolls there--Barbie among them.

"At that time, every girl in Russia was dreaming of a Barbie.  So I said, 'Just choose any of them, and take it.'  So, after looking them over carefully, the girl took a dirty old doll with one arm loose, and something else missing, and she said, 'I'll take this.'  But I said, 'There are better dolls here.'  'No,' she insisted, 'I prefer this.  This one looks like my child.'  I asked her to explain why, and she said, 'Well, Father, you teach us to take care of the poor and the miserable, and I feel that this doll needs me more than Barbie.  Barbie is happy.  But this doll is miserable.  I'll sew on her arm and give her a good dress.'

"I met the girl in two days, and, I am sorry to say, I tempted her.  I said,'Maybe you'd like to play with Barbie, and take her.'  She looked at all the dolls attentively but indifferently and said, 'I was right.  My girl is not beautiful, but she looks happy now, and I am sure she will love me as much as I love her.'

"I was trained as a priest to understand such things, but I think that if you gave me the possibility to choose anything material, I would always choose the best.  This girl didn't, and I think any priest in Russia can tell you hundreds of such stories--how we always learn from our congregation.  I am sure that of the people we saw today, fifty percent are better Christians than I am, simply because they feel it in their hearts, you know?"

For just a few short days, our hearts were warmed with stories such as this one, and then we returned to Moscow  in our remarkable conveyance, to give a concert there in the Children=s Hospital, run by such a selfless and loving priest and staff.  And, finally, to the beautiful church of St. Catherine, where Fr. Daniel and Matushka Dunia Hubiak, representatives of the Orthodox Church in America to Moscow,  welcome one and all so warmly and graciously that their chapel is always full to overflowing.  These, too, are islands of love in a troubled sea, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who said, AWhatsoever you have done to the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me.

This is an especially hard winter for northern Russia. The crops upon which the people of Karabanova depend--potatoes, cabbage, carrots, beets--have failed.  Perhaps you will want to write Fr. Georgi,  and see if there is something you can do to help his church, the prison, or the orphanage.  A post-card is most likely to reach him, because the mails are often robbed.  He will give further instructions if you wish to Aadopt@ a child, or perhaps a prisoner, or send money.  His address is: The Rev. Georgi Edelstein, 156006 Kostroma, OSPYNAYA  H3 Ap. 58, Russia.

Here is the Church as it looks today


This site was last updated 09/11/03