13 July 2018

The saints who are here, part 2: St John of Riga


I was received into the Holy Orthodox Church by chrismation on 17 February 2014, by Fr Sergiy Voronin, the rector of Holy Dormition Church in Beijing. Fr Sergiy asked me before I was chrismated there if there was anyone I wanted to have witness the ceremony – I wanted two of my friends from Beijing to be there, but unfortunately both of them were out of town that day. When I was chrismated, then, it was just me, Fr Sergiy and an empty sanctuary. But: no Orthodox sanctuary is ever truly empty; the Father, Christ and the Holy Spirit are all very much present there. In addition, there truly was someone witnessing my chrismation that day, though his presence was at that time unbeknownst to me. At the foot of the altar before which I was anointed and before which I made my profession of faith and renunciation of the Evil One, there lay the relics of Saint John (Pommers) of Riga.

I’ve suffered from convertitis myself, and quite badly, as I’ve explained before (and likely demonstrated, on this same blog). But if I’ve been spared the excesses of it at all, I feel as though that would be owing to the prayers of my priests, and also to Saint John’s prayers. Saint John was, after all, a steady and level-headed Latvian peasant. As a young man he herded sheep, and worked on his parents’ farm during the summers even after he started going to school. He loved the Church – what hagiography of a saint of the Russian Church would say otherwise? – but he always had his eye on what was close at hand: he was doyiker (after my ‘spiritual’ usage of the word). He attended to the needs of his parents, and he lived a very frugal and practical life. He kept an eye on local public matters: he advocated for literacy and sobriety among the peasants, helped the unemployed, and worked as a peasant organiser even as he began his monastic life.

And he found himself being drawn into politics. He was ordained a bishop by Patriarch Saint Tikhon (Bellavin), with whom he had a close and friendly relationship, and regardless of where he went he gained the trust of the common people, both the peasants and the workers. He didn’t hesitate to speak on their behalf, and he was willing to do the hard grassroots work, building labour unions among the peasantry. Most of Latvia’s Orthodox population were, in fact, poor peasants who had been landless. In the late 1830’s there was a great mass conversion of Latvian peasants and agricultural labourers to the Orthodox Church, and most of these peasants belonged to the lowest rung of the ladder. The Pommers family to which Saint John belonged, however, had been Orthodox long before that.

After Latvia gained its independence and the Latvian Orthodox Church was granted a certain degree of autonomy, Saint John joined the Saeima (the Latvian Parliament) representing an Orthodox populist party together with his Russian colleague, teacher and labour unionist EM Tikhonitsky. The programme of the Party of the Orthodox may sound familiar: land reform and peasant self-organisation; mass education and literacy; religious and cultural rights for Latvia’s Russian minority. Though it broadly fit into the agrarian politics of interwar Eastern Europe, the Party of the Orthodox didn’t map neatly into the contemporary political landscape. Latvian left-wingers distrusted Saint John of Riga as a Tsarist; rightists distrusted him as a peasant rabble-rouser. Ultimately, in all likelihood, it was a Soviet agent who killed him on account of his political efforts.


Saint John’s holiness has a certain worldly quality – I say that meaning, ‘free from illusions’. Again, I don’t trust coincidences in the church – I don’t think it was an accident, therefore, that Fr Sergiy gave me as a baptismal gift the book Everyday Saints by Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov). Saint John was not a typical monk, not a typical bishop – he had been a hard-working and practical peasant, a filial son and an activist in his sæcular life, and he remained very much himself even as he became a monk and a bishop later in life. There are many kinds of holiness. Each must choose to carry her own cross. Sudden transformations of spirit are not the universal rule. If I came to realise that in any fragmentary form, backing away from a rigid hyperdox zealotry, again I wonder if I oughtn’t to attribute that to the prayers and efforts of Fr Sergiy and Saint John of Riga alongside him. The martyr of Riga, his relics at rest in a small Chinese mission church, was here, at my baptism; he is here still.

Holy New Hieromartyr John, I know you’ve been praying for me these past four and a half years, and I thank you. Pray for me still, an unworthy sinner, and bless my hands and heart to the work before me.

11 July 2018

Heilaga Helga inn fagra, Jafn við Postulana


Saint Olga of Kiev, Equal to the Apostles, has a privileged and – in my view – admirable place in the sanctuary of Saint Herman’s. A Scandinavian saint of the Orthodox Church, standing alongside Saint Moses the Black and Saint Herman the Wonderworker of Alaska, her presence and juxtaposition seem to offer a gentle, subtle rebuke to those in the Church who would promote certain racialist political agendas. Saint Moses the Black, of course, had been a slave and a bandit who later turned to the monastic life; Saint Herman was a missionary monk among the natives of Alaska and a fervent advocate for their rights and dignity comparable to Bartolomé de las Casas among the Spanish. I don’t know if this placement of Saint Olga alongside Saints Moses and Herman at our parish was planned or a deliberate choice, but I do not trust coincidences, particularly not in the church.

There are other factors which make such a placement appropriate. Saint Olga – likely named Helga in the Norse – was born in the countryside around Pskov (then Pleskov) to an East Norse Varangian noble family in the Izborsk lineage, and married in her youth to Ívarr of Kœnugarðr (Kiev). At this time, the Rus’ polity was still pagan, and Ívarr had to deal with the problems typical of a tribal Norse leader in the midst of Slavic pagan peoples. The tributary Slavic nation, the Drevlyane, had stopped paying the tribute to Ívarr’s predecessors, and Ívarr himself was determined to restore the relationship. He went to Korosten’ to collect tribute from the Drevlyane, who – not being impressed by Ívarr’s ouvertures – lynched him in a grisly way: by stringing him up between two bent birch saplings and then letting the saplings go, tearing him apart.

The Drevlyane expected Ívarr’s widow to be meek and easily cowed. Their prince, Mal, offered to marry her and seal the alliance that Ívarr had sought to restore – on terms favourable to them. Olga, receiving the Drevlyan prince’s twenty heralds, had them all buried alive under their own boats. She then sent a messenger of her own, pretending to accept Mal’s proposal and asking that she be given an escort of Drevlyan noblemen suitable to her status as the lady of Kœnugarðr. Mal sent his best men to retrieve her. She sent them to wash off in the sauna, but then had the doors barred and the sauna set alight, burning the entire Drevlyane escort to death inside.

She then went herself to Korosten’, to mourn her husband’s death before she would wed Mal, and arranged a large banquet to be held. Despite not having heard back from either party of their messengers, the Drevlyane feasted and got themselves drunk at the banquet, and when they were all intoxicated, she ordered the men she had brought with her to put them all to the sword – five thousand Drevlyane were thus gruesomely dispatched.

This was still not the end of her bloody vengeance on behalf of her murdered husband, though. Her armies laid waste to the lands of the Drevlyane, until they had to beg her to make peace on them, offering her furs and honey if she would only stop attacking them. Seeming to soften, the Primary Chronicle notes, she asked:
Give me three pigeons and three sparrows from each house. I do not desire to impose a heavy tribute, like my husband, but I require only this small gift from you, for you are impoverished by the siege.
The Drevlyane complied. What Helga did with this tribute of live fowl is the stuff Icelandic sagas are made of.
Now Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow, and ordered them to attach by thread to each pigeon and sparrow a piece of sulphur bound with small pieces of cloth. When night fell, Olga bade her soldiers release the pigeons and the sparrows. So the birds flew to their nests, the pigeons to their cotes, and the sparrows under the eaves. The dove-cotes, the coops, the porches, and the haymows were set on fire.

There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught on fire at once. The people fled from the city, and Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them. Thus she took the city and burned it, and captured the elders of the city. Some of the other captives she killed, while some she gave to others as slaves to her followers. The remnant she left to pay tribute.
The fearsome destruction and the insatiable fury wreaked by the widowed Helga, as described in the Tale of Bygone Years, has been glossed thus by our hagiographers:
Having sworn their oaths on their swords and believing “only in their swords”, the pagans were doomed by the judgment of God to also perish by the sword (Mt. 26: 52). Worshipping fire among the other primal elements, they found their own doom in the fire. And the Lord chose Olga to fulfill the fiery chastisement.
As a pagan, Olga gained still greater reputation as a skilful manager in peacetime, establishing a system of pogosti across the lands of the Rus’ which served as legal courts and administrative centres for the collection of tribute. However, she did not remain a pagan long after this. Very much like her grandson, the saintly Valdimárr Sveinaldsson (Prince Vladimir of Kiev), baptism into the Orthodox Church seems to have truly transfigured her. Even though, as one of the first of the Rus’ to be baptised into the Christian faith, she was immediately embroiled in civil and religious struggles with her pagan kin and vassals, she would never again use the kind of ruthless tactics of war she had deployed against the Drevlyane. Instead, she sought to exercise influence through moral suasion. In the case of her son Svenald Ívarsson (or Svyatoslav Igorevich), she did not succeed. However, she managed to keep a firm hold over her grandson’s upbringing, which no doubt influenced his ultimate decision to become baptised an Orthodox Christian himself – along with his entire revenue, at Korsun’.

This kind of transfiguration – with her will and personality intact, but her vengeful and violent tendencies transmuted into the peaceable weapons of faith – very closely mirrors the life and spiritual trajectory of Saint Moses the Black: another reason why I think the juxtaposition of these two icons is so apposite. Saint Moses began his life as a slave, who committed a murder and joined a band of robbers in the Wâdi al-Natrun. As he was physically the strongest and temperamentally the most ruthless of these bandits, he quickly made himself their leader, and committed numerous acts of butchery and banditry in this life. Suddenly and unaccountably, though, Saint Moses was taken with remorse, and begged to be admitted to the monastic life of the hermits in the wâdi. This sudden transformation and acceptance of Christianity deeply influenced Moses’ character; although he lost none of his physical strength and none of his strength of will, he practised a demanding form of self-abnegation. He refused to pass judgement even on his brothers who committed faults.

There were other facets to this baptismal transfiguration in Saint Olga’s case. Saint Olga of Kiev also turned her formidable administrative talents after her conversion from the collection of tribute to the establishment of hospitals and the distribution of food and necessities to the poor. Though she did this mostly on an individual basis as the mother and regent of the king of Kœnugarðr, this kind of public philanthrōpia would later become a bedrock of Rus’ social ethics when the entire polity became Christian. For this reason among many others, we truly call upon Saint Olga as an ‘equal-to-the-apostles’. She did most of the heavy labour of bringing Christianity to the Russian world; whether in her personal witness, in her public comportment, or in the raising of her grandson. Saint Olga, Right-Believing Princess of Russia, pray to God for us!
Giving your mind the wings of divine understanding,
You soared above visible creation seeking God the Creator of all.
When you had found Him, you received rebirth through baptism.
As one who enjoys the Tree of Life,
You remain eternally incorrupt, ever-glorious Olga!

10 July 2018

Russophobia as orientalism


Well, the Wall Street Journal cover story this week, with the artwork featured above, is something truly awful. But, even an awful picture can be worth a thousand words. As The People’s Lobby’s Tobita Chow put it in his Facebook comment on the story: ‘On the bright side, this saves me the trouble of having to make a bunch of careful arguments to show that Russia has been Orientalised.

I have indeed tried to make such careful arguments a few times before, though I have had to fight explicitly against the likes of the old racialist dreck of the Marquis de Custine being peddled about behind the convenient shield of Czesław Miłosz (and if I were feeling particularly uncharitable, I could link de Custine’s dreck explicitly to that of Arthur de Gobineau; they stand firmly in the same tradition). But this recent bit of overt old-school orientalism from the Wall Street Journal does indeed make my job significantly easier. News Corporation has grown significantly more bald-faced with such things of late. Even though cable-news ‘personality’ Tucker Carlson seems to have a soft spot for Russia, his tirades against China tap into some Gilded Age neuroses about the Yellow Peril, and Trofimov’s piece linking Putin’s Russia to Jıngghıs Khan links up with that neatly.

This line of discourse in Western thought goes back much further than Custine, of course. The orientalist dichotomy between a virtuous republican West and a decadent despotic East was central to the thinking of Machiavelli, Smith, Montesquieu and Mill, and it exerted a significant influence as well over Hegel, as well as Marx at certain stages of his career, though the Marx of die Grundrisse was noticeably more sympathetic to Asia in general than the Marx of das Kapital. The question of whether non-Western Europeans are capable of philosophy is one which has had a shamefully long life, spanning from Kant to Derrida (and Žižek).

But this question becomes much more complex (well, maybe not much more) where Russia is concerned, in part because ‘Russia’ – and here I include all of Kievan Rus’, the principalities of Rostov-Suzdal-Vladimir, Novgorod, Pskov, Tver, Polotsk, the Tsardom of Moscow, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union as well as the modern Russophone lands – is a contested space where civilisations collide; Russian thinkers and artists been both the authors and the self-aware objects of orientalist fantasy. There has long been a tension between those Russians who face ‘West’ and those who face ‘East’; the result is that some ‘Eurasian’ thinkers, such as the martyred Saint Il’ya (Fondaminsky-Bunakov), have approached the question of where Russia belongs in stunningly creative and multifaceted ways.

Sadly, this entire history of engagement, and its fruits, are sent into oblivion with a stereotype, wrapped in a cliché, inside a caricature. The Wall Street Journal plays into a long-standing genre in the Western press (and more broadly into the Custine-Gobineau tradition of polemical literature) portraying Russians as ‘barbarians from the East’: Tatars, Mongols and Turks bent on bloody conquest for reasons inscrutable to more civilised (Western) minds – and, in Trofimov’s breathless hyperbole, constitutes a threat to the ‘very concept of the West’ itself! (Of course Aleksandr Dugin gets name-dropped here, despite being a marginal figure at best in Russian public life.)

One has to understand that Trofimov is not arguing from a neutral perspective. He is a Ukrainian ‘liberal’ nationalist, and writes from a historiographical perspective indebted to Mikhail Hrushevsky. Hrushevsky was a far better ideologue than a historian; his aim was to create an ideological space for a Westward-looking Ukraine that could distinguish itself from Russia, and the existing orientalist mythos was a tool ready to hand. Though Hrushevsky himself may or may not have been an anti-Asian racist (as alleged by Sergei Samuilov among others), his assertion of a ‘rupture’ between a Kievan Rus’ belonging to Europe and a Rostov-Suzdal-Vladimir belonging to Asia absolutely did borrow heavily from Machiavellian orientalist fantasy, and certainly did set the stage for later racialist theorising about the Asiatic Mongol-Turkic-Ugric heritage of ‘Muscovy’ which renders it alien to that of Kievan Rus’. Actual history tends to be slightly more complicated. But here’s the real kicker. Trofimov spent much of his life outside the West, as a reporter on Middle East politics and current affairs. Familiar as he is with the ‘near East’ and its history, there is no way he is repeating these orientalist canards about Russia without an understanding of the ideology he is reproducing, which is what makes the Wall Street Journal piece more galling even than the laughably ign’ant screeds which make the rounds on Euromaidan Press.

Of course, as mentioned above, this entire discourse is made further complex by the fact that there exists a strong tendency within Russia and the diaspora to embrace the East, to override the ‘me/them’ dichotomy and replace it with something like a ‘we’. Dugin is far from the only, and far from the most interesting or sympathetic, of the thinkers representing this tendency. I mentioned Saint Il’ya (Fondaminsky) already; his compatriots Mother Maria (Skobtsova) and Nikolai Berdyaev were in some degree also influential here. The idea of an as-yet-incomplete creative synthesis of West and East held resonance with several thinkers in the Russian diaspora and within Russia itself. It remains influential, but it’s not a threat save to those to whom the radicalism of Christianity itself is already a threat.

05 July 2018

The saints who are here, part 1: St Aleksandr Nevsky

I am an amnesiac. I am an American. The two go together, and not altogether on account of the alliteration. And it would go together with being a son of Adam, for that matter – poor bloke got tricked into eating a fruit and forgot what good and evil were. My amnesia gives me a double mind; it is not the cause of my guilt, but I am guilty of it anyway. Věra Danzer Cooper – the Jewish grandmother I never knew, and never knew I had until high school – has been something of a haunting presence in my life: more so than I would have thought possible at the time. The sweet and smiling face in the yellowed photographs, almost the double of my younger sister’s, somehow ‘clicked’ something in my mind. Separated as we were by generations (but not by gæography, she also a Wisconsin girl planted in Rhode Island!), she made certain abstractions concrete. She sparked in me a fascination with genealogy, which in turn led me to discover certain rhymes and patterns in my own family life. Blood is thicker than water. Water evaporates. Blood leaves marks and scars. Both flowed from the side of Christ, pierced by a Roman spear at the behest of my kin. Tertullian talked about the ‘blood of the saints’ as the ‘seed of the Church’. There’s a truth in that, but we’ll get to it later.

Blood links me indelibly to Wisconsin and to Rhode Island – both of them my childhood homes; both of them my Jewish forebears’ homes. The blood of my working-class Moravian-born immigrant great-grandfather was spilt, probably in France, in order to seal that link forever. ‘דאָרטען, װאוּ מיר לעבען, דארט איז אונזער לאנד. Dorten, vau mir lebn, dart iz aunzer land. Alfréd Danzer may not have been an ideological Bundist, but he lived and suffered like one. How strange it is, then, that I should be a migratory bird, a weird and hopelessly-fragmented kind of pilgrim, an assimilated-apostate Jew wandering in search of Christ on the wrong end of another continent!


So there I was in Qazaqstan: a nervous wreck and a broken failure on the verge of washing out of Peace Corps. I went to the hram of Saint Aleksandr Nevsky looking for… I don’t even know what it was anymore. Father Valery (Shurkin), the rector of that parish where Saint Aleksandr was the patron, welcomed me as warmly as if I were another Russian. And he asked me if I was Orthodox; I replied in my broken survival Russian that, no, I belonged to a ‘peace church’. He replied to me, gently, in paraphrase – though I didn’t and couldn’t have known it at the time – the wisdom of Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco:

The closer we approach God, the closer we approach each other, just as the closer rays of light are to each other, the closer they are to the Sun. In the coming Kingdom of God there will be unity, mutual love and concord.

That the Kingdom of God is only as ‘close’ as we are to each other, and functions as a kind of inverse-square law bringing people closer as they draw near the source of that radiance, made a kind of intuitive sense to me. It also, I realise in hindsight, authorises a spiritual directive to ‘be where you are’: the light reaches everywhere; you do not have to, and should not, pack up and leave to find it. ‘Dorten, vau mir lebn, dart iz aunzer land.’ (The irony is that I had to travel to Qazaqstan and China to figure that out.) Saint John was a Russian-speaking ethnic Serb from Khar’kov; not a Yiddish-speaking Jew from Kiev. And yet even that propinquity is not an accident; as God sees it, nothing can be. If Jewish Bundism was a political reaction to a bloody kind of settler-colonial imperialist impulse on the part of our own people, then here is the spiritual mirror of that belonging. Orthodox Christianity, too, is a church of empire that doesn’t have to be.

To be a church of empire or a church of the crucified: that was the choice that the princely Saint Aleksandr, the patron of that little hram in Saimasai, had to make. He had cultivated the habits of ‘here-hood’ in his early life by attending closely to local administration in Novgorod and Vladimir, and settling disputes between merchants and craftsmen and boyars. He is most famous, though, for his military victories: winning Davidic battles against the Teutonic Goliaths on his Western frontier – the Swedes at Neva; the Germans and Balts at Peipus. Saint Aleksandr’s military prowess is commemorated in the legendary Sergei Eisenstein film bearing his name, but this is not the most important aspect of his life or character.


When it came to a true choice between worldly glory and Christ-like humility, he opted for the latter, the way of nonviolent resistance and self-abasement over the way of triumphalism. He has never been wholly forgiven for it since (and particularly not by Western-looking Slavs nor by cold-war liberals). The louder the schismatics cry out in false umbrage that he is a proto-Stalinist, the more intensely his example of sublime meekness in the spirit of Saints Boris and Gleb puts the lie to their canards and calumnies. Saint Aleksandr made a prudential decision to surrender his independence to the Khan of the Golden Horde. He gave over vain promises of imperial glory and even his state’s independence from the Tatars, in order to save the lives of his people and the spiritual character of his country. He had to put aside any illusions or delusions of grandeur he might have entertained, and make a decision here and now. He decided in that moment that ‘dorten, vau mir lebn, dart iz aunzer land’, and not some other. He didn’t have to travel to France and fight to seal the link to his home in blood. He did it merely by refusing to run, by refusing to fight, by bowing his head and bearing the Cross where he stood. To that heartsick ‘peace-church’ stranger standing in his temple, somehow he drew close: a ray of light pointing toward the Son.


At the time, the importance of my visit to the hram of Saint Aleksandr had not made itself particularly strongly felt. It was only with a certain distance of time that the full effects of that ‘fragment’ came. But the saint was ‘here’.

In the sense I’m using it, all saints are ‘here’, insofar as they are in Christ. As Saint John says, all those who have drawn close enough to God to be so glorified have, by so doing, drawn close to those here on earth as well. Grace knows no worldly borders. Rather, Christ and His saints draw near to those of us who are in need of grace. Christ’s blood is indeed a seal upon us, linking us indelibly to the Heavenly Kingdom in the Eucharist, no matter where we are. ‘Dorten, vau Dir lebn, dart iz aunzer land.’ The Crucifixion and Resurrection are historically- and gæographically-particular events that themselves shatter the logic of history and gæography. It is only we, limited as we are, who are in need of particularity and mediation. In that sense the blood of the saints truly is a seed. It falls to us to cultivate it.

I am tied to my homeland – the Upper Midwest, broadly – in a way which is completely belied by my peregrinating youth and young-adulthood. Bundism is in my Jewish-American heritage even if my amnesiac double-mindedness ‘forgets’ it, strives and rebels against it; though it belongs to a non-Christian tradition it nonetheless informs my Orthodoxy. And there, in that space where the local and the universal dissolve, there are some voices and some faces that figure with greater prominence. The humble Saint Aleksandr of that Qazaqstani temple is one. The others may be familiar to readers of this blog. Some, like Saint John of Riga, drew near to me in my wanderings abroad. Others, like Saint Alexis of Wilkes-Barre, were waiting for me at journey’s end. The examples of these saints, already remembered eternally by God, can help me – an ignorant slave, like Meno’s – to remember what I have forgotten.

04 July 2018

Against implicit anarchisms disguised as Christian

It is easy for the literary-artistic bohemian to get caught up with a vague anarchism. But this does not enhance the type of soul for anarchism. And this is because the literary-artistic bohemian is usually one who has lost his spiritual centre and the deep connexion with the wellsprings of life. In the anarchistic approach of the bohemian type there is no selection of qualities, there is no aristocracy of soul, there is no consciousness of the higher dignity of man as a son of God, there is no manful spirit…

Chaos seeks to overthrow the cosmos, appearing in the guise of good, in the guise of the spirit of freedom… In anarchism it is not the creative spirit that finds uplift. And the genuine creativity of man cannot but oppose anarchism.


- Nikolai Berdyaev
It may shock some of my readers to see quoted thus one of the great ‘anti-authoritarian’ religious philosophers in the Russian Orthodox diaspora, and to see him cast many harsh words at the anarchists, with whom he is so often identified. In The Philosophy of Inequality, which is Berdyaev’s jeremiad against all manner of ideologies which have surfaced within the ‘New Russia’ from which he was exiled, the anarchists (including voices as diverse as Bakunin, Stirner and Tolstoy) are indeed berated for – among other things – the ‘shallow, empty pretension’ to a ‘boundlessly free and autonomous’ existence, their ‘self-adulation’, their ‘irresponsibility’, their ‘meonic lie’, their ‘passivity of spirit’. Berdyaev, being close to anarchism in a way rivalling that of William Morris, indeed completes and deepens Morris’s rejection of anarchism.

On Fr Stephen Freeman’s excellent blog, Glory to God for All Things, he has recently put up an article with which I find myself in deep agreement on most particulars, but whose overall shape has a certain lack of form, a certain incompleteness and a certain ‘anarchistic’ lacuna, which troubled me deeply. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Fr Stephen. I do think he is profoundly correct in his descriptions and diagnoses of modernity. (And I’m certain that Berdyaev would agree with these diagnoses, as harshly as he indicts the ‘bourgeois spirit’ and the anti-personalism at the core of the modern myth of progress.) Moreover, I tend to suspect that most of Fr Stephen’s conclusions are necessary correctives to the excesses of modern American political culture. However, there is something in his prescriptions which strikes me as a bit off, however well-intentioned (I use the term advisedly) they may be.

We do live in an age, much like the last, in which progress is seen as a paramount good by all political ‘sides’, and action (or activism, or engagement) as the preferred means of attaining it. This is as true of (what used to be called) Tea Party Republicanism as it is of Black Lives Matter. However, we are seeing the failures of all this action and engagement all around us. Far from the triumphs of rationalisation and the scientific-technological society that were promised to us, all we have found is further alienation. As Christians, we do need a critique of action and progress which the dominant ideologies of the age do not provide. We do need to be sceptical of ideologues of all stripes promising a better world through their grand plans. We do need to reject homo œconomicus as the yardstick of our own well-being. We do need to understand that, as Berdyaev himself says, ‘the Kingdom of God cometh not with notice and the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world’. All of this is true, and all of it Fr Stephen points out with admirable justice and prudence.

On the other hand, I feel like there needs to be, not only more of Berdyaev’s critique of anarchism, but also more Solovyov and more Basis of the Social Concept in this message. The literary-bohemian anarchism-but-not-quite of, say, Will Willimon or Rod Dreher, may sound Christian with its message of alternative intentional community-building and disengagement, but it’s not. It’s Essene. And it works only for the ‘literary-artistic bohemian’ mentioned by Berdyaev. Such disengagement is not actual repentance. It is not transfiguration. It is all the more dangerous because it tends to look so much like both. There is no resurrection and no place for the æternal Kingdom in disengagement, only the semblance of both.

Bringing the subject back around to ‘the state’. Insofar as Fr Stephen’s is a revolt against ‘politics’ in sum, against ‘civil power’ per se, his latent Tolstoian (and thus very modern) anarchism becomes that much more apparent. And when he denies outright the ‘responsibility as citizens’ which comes with belonging to this city, he unfortunately steps straight into Berdyaev’s crosshairs as the latter takes aim at the spirit of anarchism as a whole. The state, this city, may indeed be intrinsically violent. But the state is also needful as an instrument of organised pity, precisely because of our fallenness, of the failures of our action, of our inability to do anything good out of ourselves. And if we are, even for a brief moment of history, part of that state, we do have a certain set of obligations that can align with our participation in the ‘other city’, the heavenly kingdom.

For Solovyov, ‘The purpose of [civil power] is not to transform the world which lies in evil into the kingdom of God, but only to prevent it from changing too soon into hell’. The historical witness of the Orthodox Church (likely under Solovyov’s influence) says the exact same thing; does not oppose Aristotle when he describes us as political animals, nor Plato when he enjoins those of us who have ‘seen the light’ to go back into the cave. Funnily enough, none of these people were, or thought like, Americans or moderns. There is indeed a kind of responsibility demanded of us here in this city (not just the other one), even if it is not the kind of ‘engagement-action-activism’ the apostles of progress enjoin on us.

Christ did not tell His followers to join the Essenes; neither did He pick up a sword and fight the Romans with a host of angels at His back. If He did not succumb to the three temptations of the Evil One (at least two of which were explicitly political), neither did He stay in the wilderness! Instead He taught, He healed the sick, He fed the hungry, He had His disciples do the same – and He shared the same suffering and ignominious death on the Cross of two kana’im (violent political rebels or ‘bandits’), one of whom became the first of our saints.

Again, what comes above is not meant as a polemic against Fr Stephen or his work. I do not think that Fr Stephen is wrong, either about modernity, or about its ideologies, nor even about the remedies which must be used against it (stop worrying; be content; love people – especially enemies; express thanks; think local; learn another language or two). All of this is good and useful and necessary to hear, however hard it might be (especially for yours truly). But there are some questionable assumptions sneaking stealthily in under the good thrust of his argument. Neither politics nor war nor the state with its violence are uniquely modern concerns. Nor is living in a state somehow a new condition for the human being, that requires some kind of new quasi-anarchist, ‘anti-authoritarian’ or even ‘anti-political’ resistance.

02 July 2018

Archbishop Saint John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco


Archbishop Saint John (Maksimovich)

At Saint Herman’s in Minneapolis (my beloved OCA parish here in the Twin Cities), the southeast corner of the sanctuary by the ikonostasis is occupied by the images of our church’s patron, Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Seraphim (Moshnin) of Sarov and Saint John (Maksimovich) of Shanghai and San Francisco. Somehow one is drawn to this corner, as I am after every Liturgy. I ask for strength and endurance from Saint Mary of Egypt; to Saint Seraphim (the patron of Russia’s nuclear arsenal) I naturally address my prayers for peace. I don’t believe I’ve ever particularly asked of Saint John the Wonderworker anything in particular, but I’ve always venerated his icon in any event, never quite knowing why. It’s never even been the China connexion, which would appear obvious, or the fact that we are both ‘peregrinators’.

Saint John, born Michael Maksimovich to a landed Serbian family (which had settled in the governorship of Khar’kov and to which had also belonged the unmercenary friend to the poor Saint John of Tobolsk), was a sickly and quiet youth who nonetheless found a source of consolation and awe in the Church and the lives of the saints. He was taken under the wing of Metropolitan Antoniy (Khrapovitsky), who saw to his education. When the civil war came between the Communists and the Whites, the Maksimovich family fled to Serbia. One of his brothers became an engineer; the other joined the military under the Serbian Tsar Aleksandr Karađorđević. Young Michael studied at seminary, and there picked up a number of ascetic habits; however, he did not use asceticism as an excuse for self-display. Instead, his asceticism took the form of devotion to his fellows: he rarely slept, instead watching over his students and making the sign of the cross over them as they slept. The rest of his night hours he spent in prayer or at rest before icons.

He did not wish to be made bishop; indeed, when his superiors selected him as a young priest-monk to be made a bishop, he at first thought there was some mistake, and thus told a lady on a Beograd autobus that the hierarchs must have confused him with another monk named John. When the same lady saw him the next day, he told her sadly that it was indeed him they wished to make bishop. He had objected, claiming a speech impediment; to this they answered that Holy Prophet Moses had suffered from the same.

He was made bishop of the Orthodox Church in Shanghai, and made it his personal task to orient that church (no pun intended) to being a haven for refugees, orphans, the poor and disenfranchised. Vladika John began catechesis classes and established a parish school for young people, as well as supporting various orphanages and shelters. One of these, he dedicated to another great friend of the poor and advocate for œconomic justice, Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk! In the orphanages under his care, he made no distinctions between Russian, Greek, Serbian or Chinese; all were welcome and all were considered as children of God. Vladika John was not apolitical; his sympathies were strongly engaged on behalf of Tsar Nicholas II, who was murdered by the revolutionaries. But his was not a call to political violence or reaction, but instead to moral and spiritual renewal: the repentance of the entire Russian people.

Vladika John served as a bishop of the churches of the Russian diaspora in Paris and in San Francisco as well as in Beograd and Shanghai. He was remarkable not only for his inspired insights into ‘hidden things’ (a mark of wonderworking saints) nor for the miracles which manifested to those in his flock, nor even for the well-known rebuke which he issued to the slightly-wayward ‘intelligentsia’ of Paris (in particular Fr Sergei Bulgakov). But further: he was remarkable for his gentleness and calm, for his humour, for his simplicity of spirit and his (dare I say it?) here-hood, reflecting that of the Holy Theotokos. Indeed, it is precisely expression that I see on his icon every week at Church. He is gentle; he is smiling; he is simple (which is not by any means to say ‘stupid’, but rather single in his eye, trained on Christ). Somehow he managed this simplicity and ‘here-hood’, despite having been schooled at seminary, despite having been evacuated multiple times from the ravages of war, despite having survived upheavals of Communist revolutions in two countries. He never responded nor requited these misfortunes of his life with bitterness, nor did he meet the questions of it with empty abstraction; he was simply here.

Again, I see this face upon the icon with all its patience and gentleness and warmth. That gentleness itself is a stinging rebuke to my own double-mindedness and preoccupation with worldly cares, but somehow the rebuke itself is not a hard one to bear. Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco was known for his foreknowledge of his parishioners’ needs without them even needing to ask. Is it the case that, even though I didn’t know what to ask or even that I needed to ask, he saw my need and answered it before I uttered a word? Holy Father John (Maksimovich), pray to God for us sinners.
Lo, Thy care for thy flock in its sojourn
Prefigured the supplication which thou dost ever offer up for the whole world.
Thus do we believe, having come to know thy love, O holy hierarch and wonderworker John.
Wholly sanctified by God through the ministry of the all-pure Mysteries
And thyself ever strengthened thereby,
Thou didst hasten to the suffering, O most gladsome Healer,
Hasten now also to the aid of us who honor thee with all our heart.

28 June 2018

Attacks on Romani and Jews in the Ukraine must end


This past week, a camp of Romani outside the city of L’vov was attacked by a gang of fascist hooligans. One Roma teenager was killed. Eight suspects – all local young men from L’vov – have been apprehended and claim membership in a radical-right ‘straight edge’ group, but higher authorities wasted no time blaming Russia for the attack. This attack is, however, the latest of a series of violent pogroms against Roma and Jews in the Ukraine, carried out by right-wing youths, and is part of a rising trend of violence against minorities by right-wing ‘angry youth’, often aided, abetted and ignored by Ukrainian police. Oftentimes, Romani are afraid to come forward because they know the police are on the side of their attackers. Strangely enough, this consistent uptick in right-wing violence against the marginalised dates back about four and a half years, and had not yet started when the Yanukovich government was overthrown.

Now, it is true that violence and discrimination against Romani (and Jews, and Rusins) is by no means unique to the Ukraine. It is also true that the Maidan is fundamentally a rightist-neoliberal project, and not one of the fascist far-right. However, whether knowingly or not, the neoliberal leaders of the Maidan enable and embolden the fascist far-right when they ignore it or when they attempt to dismiss it as solely a ‘Russian problem’. It is no longer credible (if indeed it ever was) to dismiss as ‘Russian propaganda’ the observation that the violence by the Ukrainian right wing has coincided with the rise of the Maidan movement.

Nationalism in the Ukraine is not benign; it has a long and sordid history of violence against minorities, particularly Jews. This is a legacy of the long mediæval Polish-Lithuanian influence (and later Austro-Hungarian and German influence) even on Orthodox spiritual life and political ethics in that country, and that history cannot simply be swept under the rug and ignored. Pointing to the linkages between that history and this modern crisis facing Carpathian Rusins, Ukrainian Jews, Romani and others is neither irrelevant nor ‘gaslighting’ as the partizans of present-day Kiev would like us to believe. Indeed, ignoring and downplaying these linkages presents us with the sordid face of yet another neo-colonialist ideology, the same which was presciently indicated several decades ago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

If police discrimination against Romani in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech and Slovak lands is unacceptable, so is this. These attacks against the Romani and the Jews by the far-right must end. State inaction and complicity in these attacks, now acknowledged by independent human rights groups, must end. The civil war – and yes, it is a civil war – in the Donetsk Basin must end. The linguistic discrimination against the Rusins must end. What is called for is repentance and moral renewal. What is called for is an actual return to the pluralism and radicalism of Kiev’s distant past – not merely a recitation of it for the sake of nationalist glory, pride and vengeance.