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ReligionChristianityPages from the history of the Russian Church in Sofia (2)

Pages from the history of the Russian Church in Sofia (2)

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Gaston de Persigny
Gaston de Persigny
Gaston de Persigny - Reporter at The European Times News

In May 1944, the Bulgarian Synod granted the Russian community firstly the church “St. Great Martyr Ekaterina” at the cemetery in Kniazhevo, and after two months – the church “St. Petka Samardzhiyska” on “Maria Luiza” Blvd. in the center of Sofia. The deceased superior was replaced by Archpriest Georgii Golubtsov, well known to the parishioners. A common concern is the purchase of the necessary church utensils and liturgical books to replace the lost ones. From its Svetogorje brothers, the Russian parish received a priceless gift – a large enthroned Gospel and a set of silver Eucharistic vessels. In the small church on “Maria Luisa” Blvd., daily services and regular festive and solemn bishop’s services continue.

During the bombings in the spring of 1944, the “St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker” – the roof collapsed, the southern wing was completely destroyed, part of the frescoes was lost. Since, according to the Soviet-Bulgarian protocol of July 6, 1940, the Soviet side handed over the temple for free use to Bulgaria for 15 years, the costs of its restoration are borne by the Bulgarian government. BGN 8 million was allocated, then the amount increased to BGN 12 million. Repair work began as early as 1944. The damaged zography in the south nave was restored by the Russian émigré artist Mikhail Maletsky, who for the first time cleaned and strengthened all the frescoes. The famous Bulgarian artist Nikola Andonov also participated in the restoration, who 30 years before, as a student, contributed to the iconography of the temple under the guidance of Prof. Perminov.

The changed political conditions after the end of the Second World War lead to serious changes in the life of the Russian emigration in Bulgaria. The Russian clergy began to look for ways to reunite with the mother church in the homeland and to serve it with their experience and knowledge. In April 1945, Archbishop Seraphim appealed to the Russian Patriarch Alexy, declaring his readiness to accept the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. He asks that a patriarchal representative be left in Bulgaria, because he “was related to his flock, to his spiritual children, not only to the Russians, but also to the Bulgarians”. He also begs Moscow to accept under its omophorion all the Russian clergy that he rules in Bulgaria. The opinion of Pskov-Porhov Archbishop (later Lenigrad Metropolitan) Grigoriy, who in April 1945 came to Sofia to celebrate the restoration of full communion with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church after the overthrow of the schism, helped to resolve the issue positively. In his conclusions presented to the patriarch, he characterized Bishop Seraphim as an unconditionally spiritual person, enjoying great respect among the people. The Soviet Embassy also notes that Archbishop Seraphim is not compromised in his past and present activities and has authority among the Bulgarian clergy.

On October 30, 1945, the corresponding decree of the patriarch was issued, confirming the powers of Bishop Seraphim in the management of the seven Russian parishes in Bulgaria as a representative of the Moscow Patriarchate. In the spring of 1946, the Soviet government suspended the protocol granting Bulgaria temporary use of the Russian ambassador’s church and handed over the church to Archbishop Seraphim.

On June 4, 1946, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR issued a decree granting Soviet citizenship to subjects of the former Russian Empire living in Bulgaria. Bishop Seraphim accepted Soviet citizenship, they issued him certificate No. 1 for a Soviet subject living in Bulgaria. Some of the staunchest opponents of Soviet power condemned his decision. But as a true shepherd, Bishop Seraphim is guided above all by concern for the fate of his flock, for its physical survival and salvation from communist persecution, and shows true “meekness of a dove and wisdom of a serpent.” The fact is that all questions related to the fate of the Russian emigration passed at that time from the hands of the Bulgarian government under the control of the Soviet representatives in the Allied Control Commission, who decided them in accordance with class principles and declared all emigrants and non-returnees to be ” enemies of the people”. Those who accepted Soviet citizenship acquire a new status, from “White Guards” they become Soviet citizens, equal in their rights with the citizens of Bulgaria. This means that many restrictions related to the “reactionary” stigma are removed from them, they have equal opportunities to find a job, get housing, can count on social security.

After the state decree of November 17, 1944 liquidated all organizations of Russian émigrés and prohibited any of their public activities, the Russian church is now the last and only place where they can freely profess their faith, communicate and help each other mutually. Archpriest Andrey Liven, who after the death of Archpriest Georgiy Golubtsov, became the head of the temple, has great credit for uniting the parishioners. He is characterized by true Russian hospitality, cordiality, kindness, he does a lot to attract young people to the church, organizes talks on spiritual topics, poetry evenings, at which he often reads his own spiritual poems and magnificent translations.

Courtyard of the Moscow Patriarchate

After the death of Bishop Seraphim, the management of the Russian church communities in Bulgaria was taken over by Archimandrite Panteleimon (Staritsky), who led them in the capacity of bishop’s deputy. In 1951, there were more than twenty priests on the territory of Bulgaria under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.

At the end of May 1952, the Moscow Patriarchate sent Archpriest Sergius Kazansky, a cleric from the Baku Diocese, to Bulgaria as the new episcopal vicar of the Russian Orthodox parishes. On July 3, 1952, in a report to Metropolitan Nikolay of Krutitsa-Kolomna about the state of the episcopal vicarage in Bulgaria, the archpriest reported that the community of the Russian temple in Sofia numbered 500 people, there were two priests, a deacon and a psaltery. According to the opinion of Fr. Sergius Kazansky, only this parish “can be considered normal”, while the rest of the Russian municipalities “do not meet even the most minimal signs of a normal parish”. The “Pokrov Bogorodichen” virgin monastery in Kniazhevo consisted at that time of an abbess, two mantled nuns, four Rasophorian nuns and three novices, three of whom had Soviet citizenship, and seven – Bulgarian.

In his report to Moscow, Archpriest Sergius Kazansky claims that the existence of Russian parishes and priests causes some dissatisfaction among the Bulgarian clergy and incites unnecessary tension. As a result of his talks with the chief secretary of the Bulgarian Synod, Bishop Iona, and with Metropolitan Kiril, the future Bulgarian patriarch, Father Sergiy concluded: “Most of the higher hierarchs of the Bulgarian Church have nothing against the existence of a Russian episcopal vicarage in Bulgaria, but they would very satisfied if the Russian Church handed over the Russian parishes under their rule and left only one court to represent it in Sofia, as is the situation in Moscow…”. Bishop Yona directly stated to him that if Patriarch Alexy found it necessary and expedient to transfer the Russian parishes under the jurisdiction of the Bulgarian Church, it would be “a great manifestation of love for the Bulgarian Church and the Bulgarian Church will record this act on the tablets of its church annals “.

On November 10, 1952, by decision of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, the existing Russian Orthodox parishes, monasteries, clergy and monks in Bulgaria were transferred to the jurisdiction of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The Holy Synod decreed “to fraternally ask the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to extend its love and care to the listed parishes, monasteries and clergy, and to preserve, after accepting it into its jurisdiction, the Russian spiritual order and way of life in the Kokalyansky Monastery, for which his monks are asking… From the moment of the signing of the act of handing over the mentioned parishes, monasteries and clergy under the jurisdiction of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the episcopal vicarage of the Russian Orthodox communities in Bulgaria should be considered liquidated, while Archpriest S. Kazanski would remain the head of the Russian Orthodox Church “St. Nicholas the Wonderworker” in Sofia, which from now on will be called the courtyard of the Moscow Patriarchate”.

After a long hiatus from the end of 1973, the Moscow Patriarchate again began to send from the USSR superiors of the courtyard temple. In 1973-1975, this position was held by the cleric of the Vladimir Diocese, Archpriest Arkady Tishchuk.

In 1975-1985, the priest of the temple-courtyard was the cleric from the Vilnius-Litovsk diocese, Archimandrite Nikita Yakerovich. During his time, from 1975 to 1977, with the blessing of the Russian Patriarch Pimen and with the assistance of the Bulgarian Patriarch Maxim, cleaning and restoration of the frescoes in the temple took place. The restoration activities are financed by the Bulgarian Synod, the Committee on the Affairs of the Bulgarian Church, the Sofia City Council, from the funds of the temple and are carried out by a team of the Bulgarian National Institute for Cultural Monuments under the leadership of the artist Baeva. Unlike the restoration in 1945-1946, when they were washed with solvents, this time a different technique was used – rubbing with special erasers, which led to a significant fading of the painting. Again, the painting layer was strengthened, using a technique close to the author’s; the wooden elements of the exterior decoration and tiled roofs have been preserved. As early as 1970, with funds from the Moscow Patriarchate, the domes and cornices of the temple were again gilded, and in 1982 the iconostasis was again gilded.

In 1972, 1975, 1977 and 1983, the Russian Patriarch Pimen visited the temple.

After the departure of Archimandrite Nikita on January 25, 1985, a new superior arrived, the cleric of the Simferopol-Crimean Diocese Archpriest Nikolay Dzichkovski, a fourth-generation priest. He, like his predecessors, took care of the improvement of the temple. In the summer of 1987, the tombstone of Bishop Seraphim was lined with multi-colored marble. In the following year, the crypt was completely restored, where rooms for holding parish meetings, choir rehearsals, an office for receiving visitors, and a library were equipped. The temple is painted on the outside. The Bulgarian artist Angel Radushev restored the icons from the iconostasis. Father Nikolay obeyed for 10 years, and it was he who was destined to witness and participate in a new cardinal change in the life of the “St. Nicholas the Wonderworker” in the early 1990s.

On November 8, 1992, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the courtyard, a solemn prayer service was held, which was attended by the Bulgarian Patriarch Maxim, the General Secretary of the Synod of the BOC, Bishop Neofitus of Levki, and also numerous employees of the Russian Embassy headed by Ambassador Avdeev. And this is not just compliance with the diplomatic protocol on the occasion of the round date, but a reflection of qualitative changes in Russian society. Father Nikolay Dzichkovski and Father Simeon Minchev then baptized many adults and children, married both newlyweds and married couples who had lived in a civil marriage for many years. All the great Lord’s and Virgin’s feasts are celebrated together; the temple is full of people. Numerous Russian diplomats, led by Ambassador Avdeev and his wife, gather at these services. People feel a special sense of unity when they gather together to offer prayers for their Fatherland and for all Orthodox Christians.

The number of admirers of Bishop Seraphim among the Russians and Bulgarians, who have known from personal experience the extraordinary power of prayer to him, is increasing significantly. For many, books with his sermons and articles become a real discovery. At the bishop’s grave with the inscription “FROM MY MOTHER YOU ARE MY PROTECTOR” (Ps. 70:6) people bring more and more letters. After consulting with the parishioners, Father Nicholas established a sort of “mail box” near the bishop’s grave.

Thanks to the renewed contacts with the “White Guard” emigrants, the diplomats from the Russian embassy finally paid attention to the Russians living in the disabled home in Knyazhevo, created in the 1920s, to all the lonely, sick, disabled people. Donations are collected at the embassy to buy gifts for Christmas and Easter.

On May 19, 1994, the church solemnly welcomed the Russian Patriarch Alexy II, who arrived in Bulgaria to visit the Bulgarian Patriarch Maxim. The First Hierarchs were accompanied by numerous hierarchs of the Bulgarian Church, who participated in the celebrations in the Russian temple more than once. A funeral litany was celebrated together at the grave of Bishop Seraphim, who loved the Bulgarians and the Bulgarian Church so much. With the blessing of the two patriarchs, it was decided to proceed with the restoration of the Russian church.

By order of the ambassadorial committee, nun artists from the icon-painting studio of the “Pokrov Bogorodichen” Princely Monastery painted the crypt of the temple. Under the guidance of the talented sister Magdalina (Nacheva), they create murals that are astonishing in their beauty and depth. Several plots are united by the topic “Archbishop Seraphim – Patron Saint of Sofia”. With iconographic means, the artists manage to tell about the righteous life of Bishop Seraphim, and about his struggle for the purity of Orthodoxy, and about his boundless love for him. Thanks to the magnificent frescoes, the name of the untimely martyred Sister Magdalene (may God rest her in His heavenly kingdom!) has been united forever with the name of Bishop Seraphim. The restoration of the legendary Samara flag was entrusted to the skilled craftsmen from the Princely Monastery – they breathed new life into the priceless relic, a symbol of the Russian-Bulgarian brotherhood.

A great celebration for the whole parish is the solemn consecration of the Russian temple after the completion of the repair and restoration works. Ambassador Avdeev’s merits were marked with a high award – by decree of Patriarch Alexy II he was awarded the Order of “St. Righteous Prince Daniel of Moscow”.

Archpriest Nikolai was replaced by the energetic Archpriest Sergii Trukhachov, the father of a joint family with many children. During his time, the iconography of the crypt was completed, which, with this finished look, became a true decoration of the temple. The talented conductor Matushka Lyubov successfully leads the choir of the Russian Church, which is traditionally one of the best in Sofia. Father Sergius enjoys great love from the parishioners, he manages to create an amazingly benevolent and cordial atmosphere in the parish.

From 1998 to 2008, the head of the Russian temple was Archpriest Alexander Karyagin, a cleric from the Kostroma Diocese.

From April 2008 to March 2009, the abbot of the courtyard was Isidor (Minaev), a graduate of the Valaam Monastery. The short time of his ministry proved to be very fruitful. The life of the parish becomes both more active and more diverse. In connection with the 130th anniversary of the end of the Russian-Turkish war, the year 2008 has been declared the “year of Russia in Bulgaria”. Solemn religious services, festive events, concerts, artistic and literary exhibitions are organized throughout the country, including a photo exhibition dedicated to the 1020th anniversary of the Conversion of Russia, an exhibition “Temples of Moscow”, a week of Russian spiritual culture. In addition to the festive events, the traditional activities of the parish are not forgotten. A Sunday school is successfully operating, consisting of several classes for children of different ages. In addition to the catechism and church history lessons, there are also classes in church singing and arts and crafts. As part of the cycle “What do we know about Orthodoxy?”, the head of the courtyard gives monthly theological lectures at the Russian Cultural and Information Center.

The yard continues its many years of tradition in providing assistance to the elderly, the disabled and the needy. Constant work is also being done on the beautification and maintenance of the Russian cemeteries.

Since March 2009, Hieromonk Zotik (Gaevski) has been performing the duties of head of the courtyard. For Bulgaria, he is not a new and unknown person – he studied here and often served together with Father Isidore in the church “St. great martyr Panteleimon” at the Russian cemetery in Kniazhevo. The employees of the yard have serious tasks ahead: a new restoration of the Russian temple is ahead, and its centenary is not far away.

From the translator: Hieromonk Zotik managed the courtyard until May 2011, after which Archimandrite Philip (Vasiltsev) was appointed as the head. Archimandrite Philip is a man of extraordinary energy and determination. Despite some initial disagreements and ferments in the parish, Archimandrite Philip’s time will be remembered mostly for one of the most comprehensive restorations of the church “St. Nicholas the Wonderworker” throughout its existence, and also with the canonization of St. Seraphim, the Sofia Wonderworker, carried out in solidarity by the Russian and Bulgarian Orthodox Churches in 2016 – a unique event in church history. This canonization has been expected for many years by the faithful people, but only the will and energy of Archimandrite Philip, who organized the collection of numerous testimonies of miracles and prayer help, and put his heart and soul into this process, gave impetus to the canonization procedure.

From March 2018 until today, the head of the courtyard and representative of the Russian Patriarch in Sofia is Archimandrite Vasian (Zmeev). We wish His Eminence Fr. Vasian a successful and fruitful ministry, health, strength and help from above in his works, and may God continue to bless the importance of the Russian temple in Sofia as a unique living bridge and connection between the two brotherly countries and churches.

Will the temple “St. Nicholas the Wonderworker” is just a historical monument or it will continue to be a focus of the Russian Orthodox community in Sofia, called to serve the prayerful unity of the Orthodox people, Russians and Bulgarians, largely depends on us. Well, the church is not just a beautiful building with cubes and icons. It is a living organism, and it is made so by the believing people gathered together in the name of Christ; and that’s all of us.

Publication in Bulgarian: To remain human/History and religions by Olga Reshetnikova – In SVET, Issue 3/2022

Source: podvorie-sofia.bg

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