The Orthodox Church in Subcarpathian Russia

The Orthodox Church in Subcarpathian Russia

By Father Savva Struve

Far away, on the eastern borders of Czechoslovakia, lies a country, populated by a branch of the Russian people, where the age-long traditions of Holy Russia are devoutly preserved. Western civilization penetrates but slowly there and the people continue to live their traditional national life. It is hard and scanty, the life these Russian farmers and cattle-breeders have to lead; they live in great poverty and social insecurity, but all their life is permeated with real piety and deep faith.

This corner of the Russian land counts at present over half a million of aboriginal Russian population. There was a time when this country, together with Galicia, formed part of the principality of so-called “Red (Chervonnaya) Russia,” and was incorporated in the early Russian State. But as early as the twelfth century the population of Carpathian Russia fell under the Magyar rule and right until 1919 it formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Carpathorussians received their faith from Kiev Russia, and in spite of the repeated attempts on the part of Rome to win them over they piously preserved their Orthodox faith until the seventeenth century. In 1649 the so-called Union was introduced in Carpathian Russia. It can be described as a false coin used by Rome to deceive the people. Rome regarded it as a first step towards the complete Romanization of the local population. But the clergy which had accepted the Union stuck firmly to all the traditions of the “Russian faith,” and in the nineteenth century it even fought in its Press “for its sacred possession, its catholic Orthodox faith, its Eastern, magnificent divine ritual” (Listok, published by the Revd. Eugene Fencik, 1886, No. 23).

As regards the people, they continued to regard themselves as Orthodox and did not even suspect that they belonged already to the Roman Catholic Church. It was only at the beginning of our century that their eyes were opened, and in their stand for the Orthodox faith they gave proof of most remarkable heroism. They wished to break away completely from the “Union.” For ten years they remained without priests, without Communion, their children were not baptized, their marriages not consecrated, they buried themselves their dead, saying prayers over them. All those years they lived in an atmosphere of severe religious persecutions. At last in 1910 the first Orthodox priest Father Alexis Kabaluk came to visit them; disguised as a Jewish tradesman, he went round the Orthodox villages with the antimins on his breast and a portable ikonostasis 0n his back, and at night celebrated secret services in the peasants’ cottages.

In 1913 there began in many villages domiciliary visits and arrests accompanied by beatings and tortures which remind one of the times of the Inquisition. Over a hundred peasants from different villages were taken to Marmarosz-Sziget and imprisoned there. At the trial all the questions bore on the differences between the Orthodox and the Uniate creed; all the prisoners were accused of high treason, and yet on the table before the judges lay not bombs or arms, but Gospels, service books, psalters, priestly garments, chalices, ikons. Against 32 out of the 100 of the accused the charge of high treason was nevertheless maintained and they were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment (from two to six years).

Then the war broke out, and new calamities befell the peasant population of Subcarpathian Russia: most men were enlisted as soldiers and the old ones were interned in concentration camps. But the movement in favour of the Orthodoxy went on growing. The Government introduced the new style and forcibly drove the Orthodox to the Uniate churches making them confess and even take the Holy Communion there. Several Orthodox villages became like unto a living monastery. The peasants now recollect those hard times as a happy period in their life. In the day they carried on their usual routine of work and at night they assembled for worship and prayed secretly from seven till two in the morning. It was indeed a time of great spiritual fervour and amazing heroism. But the most remarkable thing was the heroic behaviour of some peasant young girls who became secret nuns. In 1910 they started in the village Iza a small secret convent. It was housed in a cattle-shed. In December, 1912, on a frosty night, they were arrested by the gendarmes and led barefooted and half-dressed over the snow to the barracks where cold water was poured on their half-frozen feet-all this simply because they refused to renounce their Orthodox creed and their monastic vows of virginity. During the war it was they, these meek and gentle girls, who bore on their shoulders the Orthodox faith. Their number grew to 100. It is difficult to imagine and describe the tortures they had to undergo. Like early Christian martyrs they bore them patiently and had only one answer for their tormentors: “Our Lord has told us not to fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” The crowning feat of this national heroism was the case of a few young peasants who, for the sake of the Orthodox faith, took upon themselves the hardest service a Christian can do-that of “foolery in Christ.”

But the destinies of the Orthodox Church in Subcarpathian Russia are a good illustration of the words of Apostle Paul in the Epistle to Corinthians: “That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die” (I Cor. xv, 36), and “It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power” (1 Cor. xv, 43). Before the war there were a few hundreds or perhaps a few thousands of the Orthodox there. Since 1919 there is a powerful national movement towards Orthodoxy, and in spite of all the difficulties and obstacles which still exist there are now over 120,000 people belonging to the Orthodox Church. About a hundred new churches have been built, there are four monasteries for men, three hermitages, and two convents for nuns, one of them numbering over 8o nuns.

Subcarpathian Russia is in the jurisdiction of the Serbian Patriarch, and at the head of her Church stands Bishop Damascene, a young, energetic and highly-cultured man, a professor of the University of Belgrade.

Last year the national movement towards Orthodoxy affected also the intelligentsia of the country. Students, and then lawyers, teachers and other members of it, began to go back to the Orthodox Church.

* * *

Among this people, in the westernmost part of Subcarpathian Russia belonging now administratively to Slovakia, is working a little mission monastery of St. Job of Pochaev, founded by Archimandrite (now Bishop) Vitaly. The work of this monastery far surpasses the boundaries of Subcarpathian Russia: it is in fact a little bulwark in the struggle against godlessness. It is at present the only Russian Orthodox ecclesiastical printing-office where service and school books are being printed by voluntary monastic labour to be afterwards distributed among the Russian emigration all over the world. In Russia all ecclesiastical printing-offices have been suppressed, the Church Slavonic founts have been used for munitions, service books burnt and destroyed. A dreadful spiritual famine is threatening Russia, the famine which Amos the Prophet had once prophesied. The need in service books outside Russia is so great that often loose sheets are being ordered as they come out from the press, before the whole book is completed.

The founder and head of the monastery is Bishop Vitaly (he was consecrated Bishop quite recently), a quite remarkable personality. The greater part of his life (he is now 64) has been devoted to the printing and propagation of the Word of God. In Russia, from 1902 onwards, he stood at the head of the historical Church Press of Pochaev Monastery, founded in 1618 by St. Job of Pochaev. Under Archimandrite Vitaly this press was organized according to the latest European models; its religious publications supplied the wants not only of the whole of south-western Russia, but also of Galicia, Bukowina, Carpathian Russia, and even the Balkans. He was so fond of and so devoted to his work that on more than one occasion he declined the high episcopal dignity that was offered him. His heart’s desire always was to create a monastic order of printers, of men wholly devoted to the printing and propagation of the Word of God in all its forms. His object was to give the people cheap but well printed religious books. The Pochaev Press published in great quantities big service books (from 2,000 to 10,000 copies), popular prayerbooks and scholastic textbooks (up to 100,000 copies) and issued five periodicals. The printing brotherhood numbered from 120 to 150 members. Father Vitaly, himself a monk of strict life, through his periodical called The Russian Monk and through the monastic conferences organized by him, fought a great deal for the purity of the Russian monkhood. He is a strict ascete but his asceticism consists rather in toiling than in fasting and praying. Even in Russia he was in favour of work being admitted in the monasteries, on the same footing as prayers and fasting, as the foundation of monastic life.

The first blow to Pochaev Monastery was dealt by the war and then it was finally destroyed and pillaged by the Bolsheviks. Yet Father Vitaly made efforts to restore it abroad. After the failure of his attempts in Poland and Serbia, he finally came in 1923 to Carpathian Russia, to the village Vladimirova. Here the Orthodox had neither a church nor a house for the priest. Father Vitaly took quarters in a peasant’s cottage and at once began to organize his life work, issuing leaflets for the people printed on a hectograph. After six months he received from Prague an old printing press dating from 1869, 200 kgs. of Russian type, 400 kgs. of bad paper and 30 kgs. of printing-ink. With this in stock he began his work, but there were no suitable premises in the village. He had to go to a neighbouring Uniate village three miles away. There he had to work under very hard conditions, in a hostile atmosphere, surrounded by the local intelligentsia. The printing-office was situated on the first floor, and on the ground floor was an inn from which came noise and drunken shouts and songs. For four years Father Vitaly worked almost alone, without permanent assistance, in dire poverty, without any working capital, himself doing the setting and printing. Everything was done in the same room; in the morning and evening the service was celebrated and in the daytime the work was done; here, too, the dinner was cooked, but often they ate only once a day and had to share between themselves a few potatoes.

The first books printed by Father Vitaly were the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the Liturgy of Basil the Great, Morning and Evening Services and the Liturgy of Presanctified Elements. His iron will, his angelic patience, his courage, but in the first place his ardent faith in God’s mercy, his firm conviction that this holy work was agreeable to God, helped him to tide it over till better times. In 1927 an excellent stone church was built in Vladimirova with a little house for the priest adjoining it. Hither Father Vitaly transferred his printing-office and began to gather round himself a monastic fraternity which by 1934 numbered 25 people, including novices and pupils. Among them were two monks from Mount Athos, including one hermit who had lived there for 30 years, one monk from Valaam Island, three former students of the Church Academy in Paris (of whom one has already died at his post). Here was begun the printing of large service books in Church-Slavonic characters: Office Book (1928), Remembrancer (1929), Orthodox Prayer Book (1930). But the work was slow and tiresome, for one had to use the small press set in motion by foot. It was only in 1931 that a proper press was acquired, but there was nowhere to put it, and for eighteen months it stood in a wooden shed and during the first summer months it had to be worked by hand for lack of means to buy an oil motor.

Life itself demanded an extension of the premises. There were no funds, but Father Vitaly did not give up his faith in God’s help, and in the summer of 1931 he began the construction of a new house. All the hard work was done by the Brothers themselves: one of the priests used to walk every day to a nearby ravine to break the stone with dynamite. In 1932 part of the building was completed and half of it fitted for the printing-office. It is spacious, light and clean and here the work goes on more easily and fruitfully: recently a big service book in three parts, of 1,000 pages, has been completed—The Great Miscellany—a symphony of all the Orthodox services. Besides, an Orthodox Calendar with a literary supplement is being issued annually, as well as a fortnightly religious paper called The Orthodox Carpathian Russia, which has a wide circulation not only in Carpathian Russia but also among the Russian emigration and in America. Among the books published we find the Way of a Russian Pilgrim, the first part of which is known to the English readers in the translation. But even now Father Vitaly and the brotherhood have to work in difficult and primitive conditions. The house remains unfinished and the temporary wooden roof leaks. We have as yet no binding workshop of our own. The brotherhood works eagerly from morning till night, and Father Vitaly more than anybody. Often he would get up in the middle of the night, light an oil lamp and go to the printing-office to complete some urgent work that had remained unfinished. The monastery is not self-supporting; its estate is very small.

Attached to the monastery there is a small school for boys. Those boys (some of them are orphans) come sometimes from remote parts of the country in search of knowledge. A youth of eighteen years walked 250 miles on foot to join us. They live with us, work in the printing-office, and in the hours of leisure we teach them different subjects. Bishop Vitaly hopes that in future when the educated members of the brotherhood will not be so tied up by hard manual work in the printing-office this school might evolve into a good training college for priests. And indeed one cannot imagine better conditions for spiritual education than our labouring mission monastery, remote as it is from urban life. The example of the Anglican training colleges, such as Kelham, Mirfield, etc., speaks in the same sense.

Father Savva Struve. “The Orthodox Church in Subcarpathian Russia.” The Christian East 15:1 (1935), pp. 21-26.