Two Words I learned from Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov

Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov (photo: Jim Forest)

By Jim Forst

My Russian vocabulary is quite small, I’m sorry to say. While I studied conversational Russian one summer at the University of Novosibirsk, my progress was not impressive. The only language I seem to have any talent for is English. Linguistically, I am a beggar. However, thanks to Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov, there are two Russian words that I have come to know quite well: miloserdiye and svoboda.

I first met Fr Sergei and Aliona in Moscow in June 1988. At the time I was in Russia writing a book about the rapid changes occurring in religious life in the USSR. On that occasion I was in the company of Fr Alexis Voogd, co-founder and the first priest of our young parish of St Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam, and also father of Aliona and father-in-law of Fr Sergei. To make the best use of available light, I recall sitting bird-like on a hotel window ledge while taking a photo of the recently married couple.

Fr Alexis and I were in Moscow to take part in a very special moment in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church: the thousand-year anniversary of the baptism of Rus’.

One of the events that stands out in my mind occurred in that same hotel room the night of June 20th. The four of us had turned on the television to see what coverage there was of the Church’s millennial celebration. We were not disappointed. Three items stand out in my memory. There was a very skillfully-made documentary film entitled “The Temple” [Xpam] – about Orthodox Church life. There was also a film drama that was inspired by the life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, since recognized as St Maria of Paris. And there was a long news report on the linkage that had just been established between Moscow’s Epiphany Cathedral and a nearby hospital. An agreement had been signed providing the opportunity for church members to offer volunteer service to patients.

The dean of the cathedral, Fr Matvei Stadniouk, was asked by the television interviewer what had led the Church to help in this way. “Our Orthodox people are part of society,” he answered, “and I’m very glad that now the opportunity has come to help people. It is perestroika and democratization at work. The time has come for common feeling. It means seeing what you can do today – tomorrow may be too late. This work is a moral reward for the people. The way people respond already shows that the conscience of our people has not been destroyed. We expect that many in our church will take part. The hospital is our neighbor. We hope to give help every day. After all, to have any success in healing you have to have love.”

“If you have a feeling of mercy in your heart,” said one of the church volunteers at the hospital, “you will do this.” A priest was shown making the sign of the cross over a woman too ill to raise her head. In another room a nurse was standing next to a frail patient. “Do you feel pushed aside by these volunteers coming from the church?” the nurse was asked. “Oh no,” said the nurse, crossing herself, “I am a believer myself!”

Fr Sergei, at that time a deacon, was very excited. “It is the first time,” he said, “that anything like this has happened since Lenin. In the past it has been said that the state provides social services and needs no help in doing it. But it’s far from true. At most hospitals the nursing staff is much too small.”

It was that evening that I first became aware, thanks to Fr Sergei, of the word miloserdiye – in English “works of mercy” or “works of a merciful heart.”

Some months later Fr Sergei sent me a text, co-signed by Aleksander Yablonsky and Georgi Krylov, addressed to Christians in the west. My Russian-speaking co-worker Joe Peacock translated it into English and we sent it far and wide. Here are some extracts:

“We are Christians living in Russia who seek to live in a truly Christian manner. Today for the first time [since Lenin] we are confronted by the question of Christian works of mercy [miloserdiye]….

“There was a time when we Christians were persecuted and believed that we would soon completely disappear. How did we live then? In fact, we [Russian Christians] lived more simply and more freely than we live today. We bore no great responsibility and we did not answer to the activities of the government’s machine of oppression.

“The period of the persecuted Church was in a sense the happiest of her historical experience. To be embroiled in combat with the state’s militant atheism was simpler than serving God and neighbor in the more banal lives we live today. To be a hero is simpler than to be a simple doer, a sower on divine soil. But the period of catacomb Christianity came to an end in Russia….”

But now, the letter continued, we are entering a new period of Russian history.

“We seemed to be like deep sea fish which can live only in the extreme conditions of external pressure and fear, but now we were coming close to the surface, where demands are placed on us for active service to our neighbor. In the west this is often called ‘social service’. In Russian there exists a word that is both precise and rich, though it resists definition – miloserdiye.”

Side by side with that unfamiliar word came another word with special significance for Fr Seregi: svoboda – freedom. Again I quote from his letter:

“All of this we began to understand clearly about two years ago [1986]. We did not expect great political freedoms, and, in any case, politics does not determine Christian freedom – svoboda.”

Let me pause to make a comment. Often freedom is defined politically – freedom of expression, freedom of assembly – but for Fr Sergei, freedom – svoboda – is a word that describes entering into the paschal state. It is embracing a life that takes its shape around the risen Christ. Because I am no longer a prisoner of fear, no longer in the hell of fear, I can make choices that are shaped by mercy and love rather than avoidance of punishment and death, I am free to be fully alive. Fear is longer the mainspring of my life. I am free.

It was the experience of such freedom that, while he was in solitary confinement in a military prison several years earlier, led Fr Sergei to certainty that God exists. This in turn let him to read the Gospels. Here he learned that we can meet Christ in each other, especially in those who are in need, for he said, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you opened your door, I was sick and you cared for me, I was a prisoner and you came to visit me. I tell you solemnly, what you did to the least person, you did to me.”

In his letter, Fr Sergei and his friends wrote in detail about the thousands of people in Leningrad who were in so many ways abandoned by society: widows, orphans, the demented, the insane, the invalids, the chronically ill, the amputees and the prisoners.

The Christian Seminar he belonged to in Leningrad recognized one cannot just read the Gospels and be socially passive. As Fr Sergei wrote, “We realized that our secret prayer services and underground [Christian] seminars were insufficient for following Christ today.”

A Christian life without mercy is not a Christian life. The letter continued:

“It is hard to recall how the question of miloserdiye arose in our small Christian seminar, who first said, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.’ We are all co-authors with Christ. Like Christ, we must walk in the world in order to share in his pain and suffering. And in Russia to do this one does not have far to go.”

The letter reported that a social breakthrough had now occurred in Russia – it was no longer illegal for Christians as Christians to practice miloserdiye.

“The state’s monopoly on social care has been broken…. The state, living for the utopia of tomorrow – the eternal tomorrow – was in fact unable to be charitable…. The idea of miloserdiye is not an abstract concept but rather a living empathy which arises toward this particular person, at this moment, seen from these eyes which previously had always been averted from the pain. And so, as a beginning, those in our group began to visit hospitals and children’s homes. Six months after our first actual experiences offering such help there arose in our city an official society of miloserdiye…. We participated in the establishment of this society and went to its meetings, while our group still maintained a specifically Christian orientation of compassion. We studied how to be and to live as Christians.”

Let me finish by recalling a visit to our house by Fr Sergei last July during which Nancy and I recorded a conversation with him. Here are some extracts from what he said. The main themes of which were fear and freedom.

He recalled an insight that occurred during his first weeks in prison.

“I was with other people and we had good discussions. But when we walked to work together, we were followed by a soldier with a machine gun. Not so pleasant. It was at this time I realized that we are [whether in prison or not] always being followed by such a soldier, only usually he is invisible. In normal life you don’t see him. But somewhere inside of you he is controlling what you think and what you say, controlling your behavior. You had to become your own guard, your own censor. You must abide by the system.”

I commented that it’s all based on fear.

“Yes,’ Fr Sergei agreed. “In fact the prison was to create fear. At some moment I shared this thought with someone else, another prisoner. He told one of the jail administrators what I had said and this resulted in my being put in solitary confinement. I was there three months. This was hard. You can do nothing. You can’t really sleep – the floor is wet. You cannot read – there are no books. You cannot write – no paper, no pencil. You have four walls and that’s it…. Light comes in but the window is too high to look through it. So all you can do is think. It was in this situation that I realized I didn’t know how to think. I had thought that thinking is a very easy thing. I used to be a physicist so I thought about physics, laws of physics, formulas. But after a few days, perhaps a week, these topics were exhausted. Finished! Then you have to really think, but I didn’t know how. Then something happened. I began to think about freedom. What happened next is very difficult to describe. Maybe I can say there was a kind of light. I heard the words ‘freedom is in God.’ But – a big but – I knew nothing about God! I didn’t believe in God!”

Here Fr Sergei paused to laugh.

“This was a problem – freedom is in God but I didn’t believe in God! But it seems God believed in me. I experienced joy. Only much later did I realize that it is comparable only to one thing, the joy you experience on the night of Pascha. Easter night. Finally I came to realize that the state you enter on Pascha night is intended to be the natural state of the human being. In fact many people experience this joy at the all-night Pascha service, but we lose it again and again, some after a few hours, some after a couple of months.”

We can say that the risen Christ visited Fr Sergei in prison. As he put it, “I was given this joy while in solitary confinement. This kind of joy is indescribable and unbelievable. I lost my fear. That was the most important thing. I realized if they sent me to a labor camp with a long sentence it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because I was free. Of course gradually I came to realize freedom is not just given – you have to take responsibility for it. You have to do something about it every moment of your life. Anyway it was a beginning. I understood that I had to know about God. I had to read the Gospel… They couldn’t take away my freedom. They could do what they liked to my body but I was not afraid anymore.”

“Sometimes,” he added, “people tease me for speaking so often about freedom. It’s such an important topic. It is what we lost in the Garden of Eden. It’s at the center of the story of Adam and Eve. That’s where the problem started. After eating the forbidden fruit they tried to hide from God. God said to Adam, ‘Where are you?’ And Adam responded, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid.’ This is the first time in the Bible we hear about fear. In place of freedom Adam and Eve got fear. Human nature was damaged. All of us are damaged. We are not born in freedom but there is the chance to find the way to freedom. We have to pass through the difficulties of life, but the chance is quite big. We have somehow to be born in freedom. Christ is awaiting our freedom. Christ wants only free people. Of course he accepts many other people too, but he wants free people….

“Christ is so often described as a physician. Perhaps the most important thing he does is heal the heart and open our eyes. One consequence is that we become capable of seeing beauty. One of the favorite sayings used by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom was ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that beauty is something we can manipulate. Yes, you must open your eyes, but not only your eyes. You must enlarge your heart. Otherwise we see beauty only partially or not at all. If the heart is too narrow, the beauty that we see will seem ugly. What you see depends on you – on you and your spiritual condition.”

Each person in this parish has unique memories of Fr Sergei – some special attention he gave us at a difficult time, some words of guidance, some loving gesture, his attentive face, a sermon of his that opened a window. We are rich in such memories.

But to all of us left us these two words: miloserdiye and svoboda, the works of mercy and freedom.

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A paper presented at a gathering of remembrance of Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov at St Nicholaks of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam 17 February 2018.

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About Fr Sergei

On the 6th of January, the eve of old calendar Christmas, Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov passed into eternal life. His death followed a prolonged struggle with pulmonary fibrosis made worse in his final weeks by pneumonia.

He was born in Leningrad on the 14th of August 1952. He is survived by his wife, Aliona [née Voogd], whom he married in 1986, and three children: Aleksey, Aglaya and Evdokia.

Fr Sergei was a spiritual child of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh, who ordained him priest in London in 1990, where he had been assigned in 1989 by the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1986 he was awarded a doctorate after defending a thesis on “Theological Schools in the Early Church”. At the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1989-1990 he did post-doctoral research in Bible sciences and church history at Oak Hill College in London. For thirteen years, beginning in 1991, he was a translation consultant for the United Bible Society, work which brought him to many parts of the former USSR. In the period 1993-1998, he was secretary of the New Testament Slavonic Scholarly Project. Earlier in his life, from 1969 through 1974, he studied physics at the State University in Leningrad. Between university and seminary studies, for two years (1971-1973) he was a conscript in the Soviet army. In that period, he was twice arrested and jailed.

Since 1991 he had served the parish of St Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam (www.orthodox.nl) and been its rector since 1999. During these years the steadily-expanding parish moved two times, on each occasion to a larger building. The parish has about 300 registered members, with more than 25 nationalities. Services are conducted in Church Slavonic, Russian, Dutch and English.

He was a founding member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (www.incommunion.org) and played a major role in guiding its work.

“A Book About Freedom” by Fr Sergei Ovsiannikov

In December 2017, with the publication in St Petersburg of A Book about Freedom, Fr Sergei became an author. The book is now in its second printing. An English-language translation by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear is underway. A Dutch translation is anticipated in the near future.

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